The Washington Post reports: From the moment the government’s massive database of citizens’ call records was exposed this year, U.S. officials have clung to two main lines of defense: The secret surveillance program was constitutional and critical to keeping the nation safe.
But six months into the controversy triggered by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the viability of those claims is no longer clear.
In a three-day span, those rationales were upended by a federal judge who declared that the program was probably unconstitutional and the release of a report by a White House panel utterly unconvinced that stockpiling such data had played any meaningful role in preventing terrorist attacks.
Either of those developments would have been enough to ratchet up the pressure on President Obama, who must decide whether to stand behind the sweeping collection or dismantle it and risk blame if there is a terrorist attack.
Beyond that dilemma for the president, the decision by U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon and the recommendations from the review panel shifted the footing of almost every major player in the surveillance debate.
NSA officials, who rarely miss a chance to cite Snowden’s status as a fugitive from the law, now stand accused of presiding over a program whose capabilities were deemed by the judge to be “Orwellian” and likely illegal. Snowden’s defenders, on the other hand, have new ammunition to argue that he is more whistleblower than traitor.
Similarly, U.S. officials who have dismissed NSA critics as naive about the true nature of the terrorist threat now face the findings of a panel handpicked by Obama and with access to classified files. Among its members were former deputy CIA director Michael J. Morrell and former White House counterterrorism adviser Richard A. Clarke, both of whom spent years immersed in intelligence reports on al-Qaeda. [Continue reading…]