Mika Brzezinski is half right and half very, very wrong in this debate with Glenn Greenwald. On the one hand, she is almost certainly right: everything the NSA has done is likely ‘legal’, as in, authorized by congress and judges and all that. It’s actually rather surprising that a sensitive leak such as this one didn’t include anything blatantly illegal. But far from making the revelation less shocking, that should be what horrifies us the most. We’ve dealt before with a Federal government that snoops on us, that tracks US citizens as subversives, etc. The difference is that our elected officials are allowing this to happen, and when they voted to allow it they almost certainly had the opinion of most voters on their side.
Are we overreacting? Are we okay as long as we don’t get phone calls from terrorists? In theory, yes, but the NSA will obviously push the boundaries of legality on this as on everything, and the current law certainly makes it far too easy for them and other intelligence agencies to commit truly grave invasions of privacy if they find it in their interest. Calling this a fascist or totalitarian state is an enormous exaggeration, made only by those who do not understand how 20th century totalitarian states operated, but the PATRIOT ACT is nonetheless as odious as it was when first passed, even more so now that it doesn’t have the excuse of panicked ratification.
What needs to be done? The solution is fairly obvious – the PATRIOT ACT in its entirety ought to be repealed. What parts as may be necessary may be passed again as different legislation, but the thing itself must go. It was passed in a hurry in circumstances that did not lend themselves to wise lawmaking. Both parties need to ensure during their primary contests that the candidates they nominate clearly support overturning the laws that allow these sorts of infringements.
This cannot guarantee success. After all, polls show Americans are not firmly opposed to these powers, and most members of congress seem content to shift blame to Snowden and defend their own over-lax oversight. But there is a cycle here already starting – Jon Tester’s legislative actions are a good start, even if they likely won’t get off the ground. However, he is bringing attention to the matter. Moreover, and more importantly, when people like Jon Tester, who are firmly non-hippies, non-libertarians, not even really liberals, come out and say the leaks like this do not harm our security, it makes it harder for the rest of the National Security Spin Machine to demonize Edward Snowden and deflect from the implication of the these programs. As more ‘serious’ people call out these unneeded violations of our privacy, it will grow harder and harder to marginalize those voices, and voters will look closer at the balance between security and liberty. And once voters do that, you can be sure that more politicians will be joining Senator Tester and his current allies in getting back to something resembling our pre-2001 rights.