What Edward Snowden has done is an amazingly brave and courageous act of civil disobedience.
Like me, he became discomforted by what he was exposed to and what he saw: the industrial-scale systematic surveillance that is scooping up vast amounts of information not only around the world but in the United States, in direct violation of the fourth amendment of the US constitution.
The NSA programs that Snowden has revealed are nothing new: they date back to the days and weeks after 9/11. I had direct exposure to similar programs, such as Stellar Wind, in 2001. In the first week of October, I had an extraordinary conversation with NSA’s lead attorney. When I pressed hard about the unconstitutionality of Stellar Wind, he said:
“The White House has approved the program; it’s all legal. NSA is the executive agent.”
It was made clear to me that the original intent of government was to gain access to all the information it could without regard for constitutional safeguards. “You don’t understand,” I was told. “We just need the data.”
In the first week of October 2001, President Bush had signed an extraordinary order authorizing blanket dragnet electronic surveillance: Stellar Wind was a highly secret program that, without warrant or any approval from the Fisa court, gave the NSA access to all phone records from the major telephone companies, including US-to-US calls. It correlates precisely with the Verizon order revealed by Snowden; and based on what we know, you have to assume that there are standing orders for the other major telephone companies.
It is technically true that the order applies only to meta-data. The problem is that in the digital space, metadata becomes the index for content. And content is gold for determining intent.
This executive fiat of 2001 violated not just the fourth amendment, but also Fisa rules at the time, which made it a felony – carrying a penalty of $10,000 and five years in prison for each and every instance. The supposed oversight, combined with enabling legislation – the Fisa court, the congressional committees – is all a kabuki dance, predicated on the national security claim that we need to find a threat. The reality is, they just want it all, period.
So I was there at the very nascent stages, when the government – wilfully and in deepest secrecy – subverted the constitution. All you need to know about so-called oversight is that the NSA was already in violation of the Patriot Act by the time it was signed into law.