It was fairly amazing in the wake of the initial leaks on NSA surveillance efforts that we saw folks in DC -- including many in the press -- try to claim that it was (a) no big deal and (b) everyone knew it was going on anyway. Soon after this came out, Steve Worona pointed out that many of the arguments appeared to be the equivalent of alternative pleading
, in which people (normally) lawyers try to plead things that are clearly contradictory
. In this case, Worona noted the alternative pleading went this way, demonstrating the ridiculousness of the attempted "defense" of the program:
- There is no massive secret NSA surveillance program.
- And everyone has known all about it for years; it's no big deal.
- And revealing it would be a major threat to national security.
In fact, to this day, we still see plenty of people making these kinds of arguments -- a Rep. Mike Rogers' specialty
. However, as we've seen, while many people have suspected that this kind of extensive program was going on, they were often mocked or brushed aside as conspiracy theorists. However, as more and more evidence has come out, it's served to confirm that these programs do exist, that they go beyond what "everyone has known" and that they don't appear to reveal anything that is a major threat to national security.
Roger Cohen, at the NY Times, has a really good rundown of things we would not know about
if it weren't for these leaks:
We would not know how the N.S.A., through its Prism and other programs, has become, in the words of my colleagues James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, “the virtual landlord of the digital assets of Americans and foreigners alike.” We would not know how it has been able to access the e-mails or Facebook accounts or videos of citizens across the world; nor how it has secretly acquired the phone records of millions of Americans; nor how through requests to the compliant and secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (F.I.S.A.) it has been able to bend nine U.S. Internet companies to its demands for access to clients’ digital information.
We would not be debating whether the United States really should have turned surveillance into big business, offering data-mining contracts to the likes of Booz Allen and, in the process, high-level security clearance to myriad folk who probably should not have it. We would not have a serious debate at last between Europeans, with their more stringent views on privacy, and Americans about where the proper balance between freedom and security lies.
We would not have legislation to bolster privacy safeguards and require more oversight introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont and the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Nor would we have a letter from two Democrats to the N.S.A. director, Gen. Keith B. Alexander, saying that a government fact sheet about surveillance abroad “contains an inaccurate statement” (and where does that assertion leave Alexander’s claims of the effectiveness and necessity of Prism?).
Indeed, and that's really only scratching the surface, because more and more info keeps coming out, both directly from the leaks, but also from the responses to those leaks. Tim Lee, over at the Washington Post has tried to put together a list of everything we now know
about the surveillance efforts, which is already out of date, given additional leaks and additional statements, but it's a good starting point.
The clear point is that we're learning some very valuable things in terms of the level of government overreach with these programs, and how they've been used to expand the plain reading of the laws that are supposed to protect us, such that the government is basically making a total mockery of those laws. But one thing we cannot say is that these revelations are "nothing new" or that everyone knew about them all along.