The American public has long been intrigued by whistleblowers, not just because of the information they provide, but also because Americans usually root for the under-dog and have a fundamental, if sometimes naïve, belief in fairness. In the past, the public was typically shocked and dismayed at what its government did in the dark. However, as we enter into a more digitalized world where people like Wikileaks’ Julian Assange can post classified documents in an open forum, Americans have more or less become used to the fact that our government does things that we don’t know about. And, so did Snowden really surprise us?
In June, The Guardian and The Washington Post acquired a 41-page PowerPoint file detailing a top-secret massive surveillance system run by the National Security Agency (NSA) called Prism. These two newspapers received the NSA documents from a former employee of defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, Edward Snowden, who fled to Hong Kong in late May in preparation to go public with classified information regarding his employer. After working with Snowden for several weeks, The Guardian printed an article on June 5th detailing the government’s use of the telecommunications company Verizon to collect massive amounts of call data from U.S. citizens. The following day both The Washington Post and The Guardian published articles revealing the government’s access to the servers of major Internet companies, and its ability to collect and monitor any and all users of those providers, domestic or abroad. According to the PowerPoint and two top-secret directives signed by Attorney General Eric Holder that detailed policies on how to conduct domestic and international surveillance, NSA analysts can monitor calls and emails of U.S. citizens without any approval from an oversight committee, judge, or Congress.
When The Guardian and The Post broke this story, two things happened. First, it sparked a national conversation on whether this type of surveillance system was needed to keep the United States secure, or whether it infringed upon citizens’ constitutional rights. The debate played out like any other controversy affecting the current administration—the Democrats, for the most part, defended their party’s captain, and the Republicans condemned the overreach of power that Obama is allowing the executive branch and federal bureaucracies. Curiously, only eight years ago, the Democrats expressed outrage at the tyrannical wiretapping administered by George Bush while the GOP vehemently defended the surveillance as an important national security provision. To be fair, both parties have very short memories.
The second thing that happened was an outpouring of how surprised, or not surprised, each media pundit and Washington official was after learning of the NSA’s actions. The pundits’ supposed outrage ranged from “I can’t believe this is happening” to “Yeah, what else is new?” However, the American people seem unperturbed. Rather, they had already expected that something like this was taking place within the intelligence community. Indeed, after the media had completely juiced the made-for-T.V. Snowden international spy drama, the conversation dimmed and a wave of silent acceptance swept throughout the country. After a closed door meeting between congress and the NSA on June 12th intended to inform Washington of some of the more secret aspects of NSA tactics, house Democrat Loretta Sanchez said that the NSAs surveillance is “just broader than most people even realize, and I think that’s, in one way, what astounded most of us, too.” Perhaps lawmakers were “astounded,” but I doubt that astonishment would be shared by the public—never underestimate the lack of surprise that the American people have in regards to what their government does in the dark.