Were it not for Edward Snowden or someone like him, the N.S.A. would likely still be collecting the records of almost every phone call made in the United States, and no one outside of government would know it. A handful of civil-liberties-minded representatives and senators might drop hints in hearings and ask more pointed questions in classified settings. Members of the public would continue making phone calls, unaware that they were contributing to a massive government database that was supposedly intended to make their lives safer but had not prevented a single terrorist attack. And, on Monday June 1, 2015 the government’s Section 215 powers, used to acquire records from hundred of billions of phone calls, among other “tangible things,” would be quietly renewed.
Snowden shouldn’t have been necessary. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (or FISA Court), which evaluates Section 215 requests, is supposed to be interpreting the law to make sure that government surveillance doesn’t go outside of it. Congressional intelligence committees, which review the activities of the N.S.A., are supposed to be providing some oversight. The N.S.A. itself reports to the Department of Defense, which reports to the White House, all of which have dozens of lawyers, who are all supposed to apply the law. The government, in other words, is supposed to be watching itself…
The government enshrouds the details of its surveillance programs in a technical vocabulary (“reasonable articulable suspicion,” “seeds,” “queries,” “identifiers”) that renders them too dull and opaque for substantive discussion by civilians. …Little is known about how other authorities, including Executive Order 12333, which some consider the intelligence community’s most essential charter, are being interpreted to permit spying on Americans. And a redacted report, released last week by the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General, hints at how much we still don’t know about Section 215. Nearly two years into the congressional debate over the use and legality of Section 215, the report provides the first official confirmation that the “tangible things” obtained by the F.B.I. through Section 215 include not just phone metadata but “email transactional records” and two full lines of other uses, all of which the F.B.I. saw fit to redact.
Excerpts from MATTATHIAS SCHWARTZ, Who Needs Edward Snowden?, New Yorker, MAY 28, 2015