How To Become A Citizen-Expert On NSA Surveillance: A Guide For Debaters

One of the most intriguing things about the surveillance topic is that there are a relatively small number of experts on this subject area. Because the Snowden revelations are only a few years old and new information about NSA programs continues to surface, diligent (and ongoing) research is required to stay up-to-date and well-informed. To understand these complicated issues also requires competency in a wide range of disciplines—including a background in information technology and the Internet, constitutional law, and security policy.

While preparing for this topic, debaters have the opportunity to become true subject area experts with wide-ranging and thorough knowledge of the NSA’s surveillance programs, the legal challenges being mounted against them, and the breadth of policy and legal arguments marshaled for and against them in Congress and the courts. To fully participate in an informed democratic debate about surveillance policy, citizens need deep content knowledge about the issues involved. Thankfully, the opportunity to become a citizen-expert in NSA surveillance policies is open to any debater willing to invest the time and effort to do so.

But how? Where should one start? Below the fold, a five-step guide is offered to help students dive in to the NSA surveillance debate. Working through this material won’t be easy, of course. But for the dedicated student, following this blueprint will provide the deep background knowledge needed to fully delve into the intimidatingly broad and complex surveillance policy literature base.

1. Read Glenn Greenwald’s No Place To Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State. Published in mid-2014, this book is the definitive account of Snowden’s disclosures about NSA surveillance. The first two chapters read more like a spy thriller than an anti-surveillance polemic as Greenwald chronicles his interactions with Snowden; it is a genuinely fascinating story that is as illuminating as it is entertaining. The rest of the book proceeds with an explanation of what Snowden’s document archive revealed as well as the moral and legal consequences of the NSA’s surveillance regime. Because material from Snowden’s archive is peppered throughout the book, readers are offered an insightful look at the NSA’s operations as well as their institutional culture (which seems to include a cliched obsession with Powerpoint). For ease of reference, these documents are also neatly packaged for download from Greenwald’s site. Reading this book will give debaters an outstanding foundation for their NSA research (as well as quite a few good cards).

2. Watch Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour documentary. This is something of a film companion to Greenwald’s No Place To Hide; Greenwald and Poitras worked closely with Snowden (and with one another) and Greenwald is a main character in the film. The winner of the 2015 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, Citizenfour is considered the third entry in a trilogy of acclaimed documentary films by Poitras that also includes My Country, My Country (about the U.S. occupation of Iraq) and The Oath (about the U.S. war on terror). It is both a riveting thriller and an informative complement to Greenwald’s reporting. Debaters will benefit greatly from watching Citizenfour, a film that should be “required viewing” for anyone researching surveillance.

3. Read the Electronic Frontier Foundation‘s “NSA Spying on Americans” site. One of the groups (along with the ACLU) at the forefront of legal challenges to NSA spying, the EFF has created an exhaustive resource that includes FAQs, an overview of how NSA surveillance works, profiles of key officials, a repository of NSA primary sources, an explanation of the state secrets privilege, a timeline of events related to NSA surveillance, and a “word games” glossary of contested terms. The EFF site also includes comprehensive information about important legal challenges to NSA surveillance including ACLU v. Clapper, First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles v. NSA, Jewel v. NSA, Klayman v. Obama, Shubert v. Obama, and Smith v. Obama. A debater that thoroughly studied the material on the EFF site would develop a strong working knowledge of the factual and legal issues involved with NSA surveillance.

4. Review ProPublica‘s summaries of NSA programs and legal challenges to them. A non-profit and independent investigative news organization, ProPublica has done extensive reporting on NSA surveillance. Their summary of the NSA’s programs is presented in a single “matrix” that divides programs into quadrants: foreign-bulk, foreign-targeted, domestic-bulk, and domestic-targeted. The chart is accompanied by a sortable, text-based listing (including links to articles from various publications detailing each program), an FAQ article, a podcast, and an online quiz. Another FAQ about NSA surveillance (from 2013) is also helpful. In addition, ProPublica‘s summary of legal challenges to the NSA’s programs is authoritative. As of this writing, it aggregates information about 39 cases and includes the date of filing, the case name, where the case was filed, what is being challenged, a summary of the case, and the current status of the case. When available, the page includes links to the complaints as well as any decisions that have been issued. This is more useful than one might initially think because these resources are located on a variety of sites that would otherwise be relatively difficult (or at least time-consuming) to compile. Thanks to ProPublica, all of this information is already easily-accessible for debaters willing to read and learn it.

5. Read the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board‘s oversight reports about NSA surveillance. Formed by Congress in 2004 as an independent federal agency within the executive branch and tasked with reviewing counter-terrorism laws to ensure that they respect individual privacy and civil liberties, the PCLOB has issued three reports: Report on the Telephone Records Program Conducted under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act and on the Operations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (January 23, 2014), Report on the Surveillance Program Operated Pursuant to Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (July 2, 2014), and a Recommendations Assessment Report (January 29, 2015), a follow-up to the previous reports. The PCLOB reports contain thorough explanations of the NSA programs and the legal and policy issues they raise. Debaters that have already read No Place To Hide, watched Citizenfour, and scoured the EFF and ProPublica sites will be well-prepared to digest (and critically analyze) this material.

Why go through the trouble of learning so much about NSA surveillance? Setting aside that it is an incredibly important issue about which citizens need to be informed and engaged so that government policies are held accountable to public scrutiny, debates about the NSA will be ubiquitous at next year’s tournaments. For those that debated recent topics, NSA surveillance will be the Cuba Embargo or Offshore Drilling affirmative of the surveillance topic. While there are important debates to have about other federal surveillance programs, the NSA is definitely the “core of the topic.” And by becoming an expert in NSA surveillance, students will have the background knowledge needed to dive into other parts of the surveillance policy literature.

Will the materials outlined by this blueprint teach a student all there is to learn about NSA surveillance? Of course not. But it will go a long way toward transforming debaters into informed citizen-experts capable of participating in—and winning—high-level debates about surveillance policy.