Two years ago this month, a 29-year-old government contractor named Edward Snowden became the Daniel Ellsberg of his generation, delivering to journalists a tranche of secret documents shedding light on the government’s national security apparatus. But while Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers detailing one specific military conflict in Southeast Asia, Snowden released details of the U.S. government’s sprawling surveillance machine that operates around the globe.
In the years since Snowden’s historic act of civil disobedience, the politics of surveillance have evolved. For much of the early 2000s, politicians of both parties competed to show who could be a bigger booster of the National Security Agency’s operations, fearing that any focus on civil liberties might make them look soft on terrorism. Since Snowden, though, the political paradigm has shifted.
The most persuasive proof of that came a few weeks ago, when the U.S. Senate failed to muster enough votes to reauthorize the law that would allow the NSA to engage in mass surveillance. Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul’s prominent role in that episode underscored the political shift: A decade after the GOP mastered the art of crafting 9/11-based arguments about terrorism to win elections, one of the party’s top presidential candidates proudly led the fight against a key legislative initiative of the so-called war on terror.
There has also been a shift in public opinion, demonstrated in a new ACLU-sponsored poll showing that almost two-thirds of American voters want Congress to curtail the NSA’s mass surveillance powers. The survey showed that majorities in both parties oppose renewing the old Patriot Act.