Mass Surveillance and the Snowden Revelations

June 29, 2014

As part of its ongoing collaboration with the National Security Archive (NSA), database publisher ProQuest invited NSA Executive Director Tom Blanton to keynote its customer luncheon at the 2014 ALA Annual Conference.

The NSA is a research institute, library, and publisher of declassified documentation based at George Washington University. Since 1985, it has uncovered through Freedom of Information Act requests hundreds of thousands of pages of US government documents related to history, politics, and international relations. ProQuest’s Digital National Security Archive makes this enormous trove of primary documents accessible through deep indexing and metadata curation.

An ALA member since 1987, Blanton said that the joint effort by the NSA and ProQuest to make these documents accessible “goes right to the heart of ALA’s mission to inform everyone about privacy issues. It should be our mantra: What happens in our users’ computers stays in our users’ computers.”

Blanton said that the revelations by whistleblower Edward Snowden were a “catalytic force” that created a race by US security agencies to declassify documents before Snowden’s own schedule of timed release caught up to them. Items that the NSA had been pursuing for years suddenly were cleared by the agencies themselves.

One document that has just been released on June 27 through a FOIA request was a 2013 report by the director of national intelligence on the actual numbers of wiretap orders, National Security Letters, FISA court proceedings, and other uses of the national security authority. The report, which under normal circumstances would not have been declassified until the end of 2039, “clearly shows the astounding breadth of surveillance and that the National Security Agency has been talking past the public and its oversight agencies, Congress and the Supreme Court.”

Blanton quoted Vietnam Era whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg as saying that the Snowden leaks were more important than the Pentagon Papers because the government has committed to end, or at least to modify, its mass surveillance techniques. “It’s a good thing for us,” Blanton said. “The Snowden revelations make the National Security Archive look centrist.”

He said the usual question he gets, especially from Fox News reporters, is: “Edward Snowden: hero or traitor?” “The real answer,” he quipped, “is Edward Snowden: Source.”

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