US wrestles with Snowden legacy

Sceptics would say surveillance changes are largely cosmetic and will scarcely inhibit state agencies, while offering some veneer of a response to civil rights critics


The US authorities have moved partially to undo the broad surveillance powers acquired in the wake of the 9/11 attack 14 years ago. The passage through the Senate of the USA Freedom Act on Tuesday, and signed yesterday by President Obama, marks a significant reappraisal of, and public uneasiness at, the wide powers of the National Security Agency (NSA) whose activities, specifically the bulk collection of phone records, were put under a spotlight in 2013 by former agency contractor, whistleblower Edward Snowden, now resident in Moscow.

The debate brought out complaints – notably from the majority leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell (Kentucky) – that the dilution of the Patriot Act would allow terrorism to flourish, while others warned that the government would use the new legislation to pry into medical records and spy on legitimate political groups. Repeated studies, according to the media, have however found no evidence of intentional abuse for personal or political gain, but also no evidence that the NSA programme had ever thwarted a terrorist attack. A federal appeals court recently ruled, however, that the NSA’s widespread phone record mining of “metadata” was unlawful.

The new measure will allow the NSA to restart surveillance operations after a brief hiatus – cause by a Senate filibuster by libertarian and Republican presidential hopeful, Rand Paul (also Kentucky) – but the storage of records now shifts to the private phone companies, and the security services must ask a special federal court for permission to search them for callers linked up to two steps from a terrorism suspect. The publication in redacted form of some of the court’s reasoning will also allow greater congressional scrutiny.

Sceptics would say the changes are largely cosmetic and will scarcely inhibit the state agencies, while offering some veneer of a response to civil rights critics. But the shadow of 9/11 still haunts US society and there is no way that more than a few mainstream politicians are going to be willing to lower the country’s guard.