How One Journalist Sent the NSA's House Of Cards Tumbling


Update: This piece discusses a planned congressional testimony concerning Glenn Greenwald. That testimony has been cancelled.

In the midst of an administration waging a war on whistleblowers and legislation that permits the indefinite detention of American citizens without trial, the political process provides very few silver linings. But thanks to the brave voices of those willing to speak out against these abuses despite the odds and consequences, the status quo that defines and dominates debate in this country may be quickly changing.

Last week, an amendment sponsored by Congressman Justin Amash (R-Mich.) that would have stopped all funding for the NSA's warrantless wiretapping and spying program was narrowly defeated in the House by just 12 votes. The NSA will unfortunately still be running a program that would make East Germany's secret police jealous, but as Julie Borowski points out in The Daily Caller, "There is absolutely no way that the amendment would have received that many votes just a few short years ago. Most likely, the amendment would never have even made it to the House floor."

The bipartisan authoritarians in Washington sense this lack of unconditional subservience from Americans that they have grown used to. This is why President Obama issued an emergency statement against Amash's amendment, Republicans were being strong-armed into opposing it, and NSA chief Keith Alexander lobbied on Capitol Hill pleading with Congress to ignore the Fourth Amendment. Even New Jersey Governor Chris Christie joined the chorus, warning of "dangerous"  libertarians, and invoking — what else? — 9/11.

And yet even with these desperate measures, Amash's amendment nearly passed. This is why Borowski called the vote, despite its failure to pass, a "victory" for civil liberties. But how can one possibly call a failed bill a victory?

This is because effective, principled movements are not won through political deals and congressional votes. They are fought by tireless minorities that shout from whatever rooftop or soapbox they have to create a paradigm shift in how we view an issue — in this case, what the proper role of government is in a free society and why civil liberties must be protected at all costs.

There is even more evidence that this strategy of social network and grassroots activism is working. After Edward Snowden's revelations went public, the pro-NSA talking points were quickly dispatched around Washington and the Beltway media. National security! Terrorism! And did you know Snowden didn't graduate high school?

Yet despite the overwhelming power that this government-media-complex wields in reinforcing the status quo and rationalizing unconstitutional and illegal activity, the pushback was stronger than they expected. So much so that on Wednesday, for the first time critics of the NSA program, most notably Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, will be invited to testify in front of Congress.

Sponsored by Congressman Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), along with Amash, one of the few good representatives we have, the testimony is meant to counter the "constant misleading information" Grayson says is strangling public debate. "We have put together an ad hoc, bipartisan hearing on domestic surveillance," Grayson continued. "We plan to have critics of the program come in and give their view — from the left and the right.”

How else could an event like this possibly take place without grassroots activism and the bravery of those like Greenwald, Snowden, and other whistleblowers and the rare public official? 

The bravery of this activism should not be understated. Just ask Bradley Manning. While thankfully he was found not guilty of "aiding the enemy," his cruel and inhumane treatment for nearly three years, and the multiple decades in prison he still faces, is undoubtedly meant to be an example for future whisteblowers.

But against the odds, perhaps the times are indeed changing in our favor. I have little to no faith in the political process to achieve a freer society and constitutional government — after all, is it any coincidence that those who voted in favor of the NSA received twice as much money from the defense-surveillance lobby than those who voted against it?

No, the battle against the NSA and for civil liberties is one that will be waged with ideas, in the trenches of the grassroots and with the courage to speak out even when the odds seem grim. The state rules from the top down, and we rule from the bottom-up. An intellectual revolution is how we change the debate in our favor, preserve the Bill of Rights, a free economy, and establish real limits on state power. 

And just like the Grayson-Greenwald hearings Wednesday, the principled and frustrated left and right need to see that neither of their interests are served by the national-security state.

Note: The headline on this piece has been updated.