This was startling news to the American public — for a while. Once it became clear that actual recordings of phone calls weren't being captured, the story lost its momentum. It needed something more.
Argument No. 2: The U.S. government could have all of Americans' digital records
Once outside the United States, Snowden had time to deliberately plan his next several steps of exposing his identity, meeting his journalist contacts and planting backup copies of his files. What he revealed next is still causing reverberations.
Prism and Silicon Valley. From June 6 through July 10, The Washington Post published a series of slides from an internal NSA PowerPoint presentation that it had obtained from Snowden. The slides described two programs, called Prism and Upstream, designed to harvest user data from Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, AOL and Apple, beginning as early as September 2007. The point Snowden was trying to make was clear: The foreign-intelligence apparatus was spying not just on foreigners, but on Americans, and just about everything was fair game.
NSA encryption cracking. On Sept. 5, The New York Times and The Guardian newspapers and the civil-liberties group ProPublica published a joint story based on files provided by Snowden detailing a decade-long NSA anti-encryption program. Code-named Bullrun, the program reportedly bullied American security companies for their encryption keys, or otherwise cracked them, and influenced standards-setting bodies to build into their encryption standards vulnerabilities the NSA could later exploit. The revelations painted a picture of the NSA being able to crack any encrypted email, file, smartphone or Web session and gain access to encrypted databases at home and abroad.
If Snowden's case ended here, the political blowback would result in a few NSA programs being curtailed, but not the kind of changes worth risking the death penalty for. Snowden was after bigger game.
Argument No. 3: There are few checks and balances protecting Americans' privacy from the U.S. government
It wasn't enough for Snowden to prove that the U.S. government collects more information on Americans than they thought. Reporters would know that congressional intelligence-oversight committees and a special court are charged with making sure this type of collection is used for legitimate national-security purposes. So Snowden's next round of leaks sought to challenge that premise.
FISA court as paper tiger. On June 9, The Guardian published a video of Snowden making general statements that the NSA collects and stores all communications it can for later analysis. In a subsequent Q&A with the paper, Snowden alleged that NSA analysts routinely used Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to justify human reviews of Americans' records with limited oversight. The revelations compelled NSA Director James Clapper on July 2 to publicly apologize for misleading Congress in March, when he had categorically stated that the NSA does not wittingly capture data about Americans. In addition, on Aug. 23, the NSA released a statement admitting that overzealous employees and contractors had unintentionally violated Americans' privacy over the years, but never in contradiction to FISA or the Patriot Act.
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