After September 11, 2001, Americans were in a vulnerable state of mind—the threat of terrorists loomed in every large building and airports were no longer simply a place to say farewell to your relatives when everyone was looked at with some suspicion. During this tense atmosphere, laws such as the Patriot Act were passed. As the atmosphere of fear began to dissipate, Americans grew more and more concerned with their loss of privacy.
In 2002, President Bush expanded the National Security Agency’s powers so that the agency could wiretap some residents of the United States who were making international calls (1) . Traditionally viewed with suspicion already, the National Security Agency’s new powers would cause worries among even its staff.
Throughout the years, there has been disclosures regarding the NSA; William Binney, one of the best codebreakers in NSA history, has openly been speaking against the NSA for years. In 2012, William Binney was featured in the New York Times in “The Program” and in the cover article for Wired’s March edition. Binney explicitly stated that a new facility in Bluffsdale, Utah was meant to be a storage facility of terabytes of data of Americans’ communications with the rest of the world. Binney had helped the NSA create a surveillance program to be used in foreign countries. In this 2012 interview, Binney stated that the NSA collected data on everyone and created profiles of entire communities, via information given to the NSA by AT&T and Verizon(2) .
But Binney remains in the shadows compared to the latest “leaker” with regards to the NSA: Edward Snowden, who released thousands of classified documents in June 2013 and fled to Hong Kong months after William Binney spoke to the New York Times and Wired magazine. While Edward Snowden’s disclosures have made more impact on the international level, due to the NSA eavesdropping on the United States’ allies, arguably Americans have been most concerned with the disclosures about domestic spying. But why weren’t Americans more concerned about this in 2002, when President Bush signed an executive order, or in 2005 when the New York Times wrote an expose on the NSA’s ability to wiretap without a warrant, or in 2007 (3), when whistleblowers such as William Binney, Thomas Drake, and Diane Roark’s homes were raided by the FBI?
A simple Google search for Edward Snowden nets 160,000,000 results; the NSA itself only has 81,000,000 hits on Google. A search for William Binney only reveals 410,000 results. In contrast, the search terms “Edward Snowden girlfriend” has 14,500,000 results —and perhaps, therein lies the problem.
Edward Snowden revealed himself as the leaker soon after the Guardian published his initial reports, claiming that he didn’t “want public attention because I don’t want the story to be about me. I want it to be about what the US government is doing” (4). But the story became about Snowden, whether he wanted it to be or not.
Obviously an analysis of America’s psyche cannot be contained within a single blog entry. But I would like to point out the contrast between the coverage of Snowden, a twenty-nine-year old who got high-level clearance despite his young age and lack of formal education, who was living in Hawaii with his girlfriend, and the coverage of Binney, considered one of the best analysts in NSA history and someone who had been in the NSA for over three decades.
Snowden seemed to have learned from the experience of leakers such as William Binney, on how to evade the government from suppressing his plans to blow the whistle and how to maximize publicity (5). Snowden had downloaded millions of documents, but rather than releasing them all at once like Bradley Manning did through Wikileaks, Snowden held some back, so that the promise of more leaks would hang over the United States and its allies.
Additionally, Snowden simply has a more compelling personal life and story—the media obsessed over his house in Hawaii and his girlfriend. Major news outlets speculated over his eventual choice in asylum, and reporters got onto a plane because of rumors that Snowden would be on the plane.
Snowden may have left the country in order to ensure his own safety so that he could leak more documents. But his outlandish story ensured that he would eclipse, in the imaginations of most Americans and in the American media, other leakers such as William Binney, who has been speaking on the NSA’s massive surveillance for a decade, and Thomas Manning, who similarly released documents to the world but has not received the same amount of attention. But most importantly, his outlandish story has eclipsed
In looking in how Americans pit themselves against Big Brother, it is interesting to note who became the hero of a movement. Edward Snowden’s revelations were important—but it is the combination of the massive amount of documents as well as Snowden’s story that captured Americans’ interest in not the exposure of the greatest surveillance program in American history on US citizens, but in the story of a single 29-year-old trying to flee the US government. Psychologically, it is the same interest that causes tabloids to fly off the racks when they cover Miley Cyrus or Kate Middleton. In the end, that human interest can be only a distraction from greater policy issues.