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Shouting ‘9/11’ in a Crowded Internet

Author: Micah Zenko, Douglas Dillon Fellow
November 5, 2013
ForeignPolicy.com

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When National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden first revealed himself in a video interview five months ago as the source of leaked documents exposing the NSA's collection of phone and data records of U.S. citizens, he noted: "The greatest fear that I have regarding the outcome for America of these disclosures is that nothing will change."

Despite the rapid pace of the NSA revelations, the subsequent claims and counterclaims of U.S. officials (and the fact that nobody possesses the policy, technical, operational, and legal background required to accurately characterize these stories and place them within a proper historical and global context), there's still one thing that can no longer be denied: The Snowden-supplied documents have instigated a global conversation about U.S. surveillance that will undoubtedly result in changes to the scope and conduct of certain NSA programs. And in fact, it's happening already.

Within the last week alone we have learned that the Obama administration authorized an internal review that brought to light the existence of a program used to spy on numerous world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. (This investigation complements an independent review of U.S. surveillance efforts conducted by former officials and experts, which will present its findings by year's end.) Even the staunch defender of the NSA, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein, announced: "the committee will initiate a major review into all intelligence collection programs." Secretary of State John Kerry admitted that U.S. electronic surveillance was "on an automatic pilot because the technology is there," and "in some cases, it has reached too far inappropriately." And for the first time since the Snowden leaks, White House spokesperson Jay Carney acknowledged the agency's overreach saying, "We recognize that there need to be additional constraints on how we gather and use intelligence."

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