It was not so long ago that a then-unknown Edward Snowden was getting ready for the first day of the rest of his life. After much deliberation, armed with the strength of conviction to abandon everything he had built — his home, his girlfriend, his comfortable and secure job —Snowden made one of the largest and most controversial leaks of classified information in the history of modern intelligence and hit the road. Having recently been granted asylum by the Russians, his life may not be filled with the immediate danger that he faced in the early uncertain days since blowing the whistle on the NSA. What happens to Snowden is at this point unknown. Certainly, no one (especially now) can underestimate the reach of American intelligence and Snowden himself he will never be truly safe. But, the risk he took in becoming a public figure and betting on the Russians to offer even the small assistance of asylum greatly enhance his chances of avoiding grave punishment. It was a calculated risk, no doubt, but one that could have led to his quick extradition and arrest if he hadn't played it so well. Clearly, Snowden believed that once he outed himself public sentiment would build around him and his actions, making it all the more difficult for him to be swiftly brought to 'justice'. What one wonders is whether Snowden possibly could have seen things going quite this well. Don't look now, but Edward Snowden may be on his way to being the most impactful whistleblower in American history.
Granted, the upshot of Snowden's actions may not themselves be possible to accurately gauge, ever. After all, even if changes to intelligence gathering are supposedly ushered in by legislation or the courts, we will never really be able to verify that these changes have taken place within the absurdly private walls of the modern military-intelligence complex. However, leaving that uncomfortable thought aside, let us take a moment to register the incredible impact that Snowden has had on the American body politic. While many libertarians and liberals are disappointed that this type of disclosure was needed for a debate to begin, there is no denying that it is a debate that was sorely needed and is now taking place. Better still, giving carte blanche to intelligence groups, something that occurred for the decade following 9/11, seems to have finally waned. Questions are being asked that would not dare have been uttered during the Bush presidency. Moreover, the talk doesn't appear to be simply rhetorical (although the twisting of language by Democrats and Obama-ites forced to defend these blatantly illegal practices still shows us that the language of politics and power are as revolting as ever) and action appears to actually be possible. That something may well get done in such a fractured political climate as America's is a testament to just how far the intelligence community and White House have overreached.
Perhaps most amazing of all is the strange coalition that has emerged in opposition to the programs that Snowden detailed. A bizarre combination of Tea Party pseudolibertarians, establishment Republicans looking to discredit Obama and liberal Democrats looking to save themselves from defeat in the coming midterm elections have cobbled together a substantial front to reel in one of the world's most powerful and abusive institutions. In a recent vote, the first bill to deal with the NSA's overreach was co-sponsored by Justin Amash (A Tea Party nut) and John Conyers (one of Congress's elder statesmen, a staunchly liberal Democrat with direct ties to the Civil Rights movement of the '60's). This bill was ambitious and was thought to have no chance of passage. And while that proved to be the case, the narrow nature of the bill's defeat was a warning shot. The coalition has an opportunity to introduce substantive changes to the process of intelligence gathering, a process that has run amok in post-Patriot Act America.
The greater impact of Snowden's whistle blow remains to be seen. But it is worth noting that public support for him is on the rise, that questions about surveillance are being asked more and more, and those who continue to cite the general threat of terrorism as a reason for any authoritarian action whatever are on the decline. It is some truly wonderful irony that when America itself overreached, barreling into Afghanistan and Iraq with no true plan (just a hell of a lot of anger), Bush and his cohorts assured us that the key in the war against terrorism is to win the hearts and minds of those in the occupied territories. And now, as the intelligence community continues to foster a domestic environment that looks more and more like an occupation, the institutions of America's political and intelligence structures appear to be losing the hearts and minds of those people whom they are meant to serve. There are cracks in the facade, always have been. But one Edward Snowden has certainly splintered it further. No one, not even Snowden, could have imagined the potential scope of his impact. V