It's quite simple: without a warrant, a technique can be applied in bulk. There's no such thing (technically) as a "general warrant", so when a method of surveillance requires one, then it can only be used as tool once an investigation is underway.
On the other hand, something that is "warrantless" can be applied to everyone, all the time.
My general rule of thumb when I see a method of surveillance that does not require a warrant is to assume that it is already being used on everyone, all the time. That assumption has proven to be conclusively true many times in the last six months or so.
Ed Felten is a "policy wonk" by his own words. He is exactly the guy that needs to be there.
He's also (or was a few years ago) the administrators of the wireless network in Princeton's main comp sci building. I met him in 2007 when there talking to an expert witness about the Glider case. I had to get on the wifi because my crappy first-gen iPhone couldn't get any of T-Mobile's crappy EDGE in the building.
He said, "Did you do the GeoHot hack on that where you have to jumper the pins on the memory controller while running a program?"
Keep in mind, I wasn't calling for outright refusal, but I still believe it must be done when the time is right.
We don't know what the Lavabit founder got in terms of the NSL. If it is something that the government can reasonably ask for (turn over these records, answer these interrogatories) with a gag order, then I agree it would be stupid and counterproductive to post it. It seems fairly likely that there may possibly be situations where that kind of gag order might be necessary for imminent threats against the country.
But if the NSL contains orders that a normal citizen does not believe is allowed under the Constitution, then someone must fight. I'm thinking "install this device on your network between these two servers, and don't consult an attorney, and don't talk about it" kind of level. If that is being sent to people, as we suspect it might, then it must come out.
Maybe they are never that evil. But if they are, the only way we'll find out is when someone risks life and livelihood to protect our freedom. We'll definitely never get to the bottom of those letters from the other end of the gun through Clapper and the rest of the liars.
Mike: what about the money that the NSA itself is actually spending? It's easy to get caught up in the privacy issues and the financial impact on American business. Those are real and very serious.
But what's being overlooked, probably because it's classified, is how much the program is costing US taxpayers directly. Data centers don't build themselves. Huge checks to telcos to turn over a shitload of data don't appear from thin air. Litigating the hell out of all these indefensible positions takes a lot of effort.
So we're all paying quite possibly a substantial amount for this nothing.