A popular graphic making the rounds on the Internet shows Boston Marathon bombing terrorist brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev with the caption: "Apparently Not Verizon Customers." It refers to news reports that under a secret court order in April, the National Security Agency was collecting the telephone records of tens of millions of American customers of Verizon. P.S. That revelation was quickly topped.
Next came a series of leaks -- or rather a blast in a dam, releasing revelations about Prism, a NASA program that collects and mines data from Microsoft Corp., Facebook, Google Inc., Facebook Inc. and other companies. The blast came via the Guardian's story on Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former CIA technical assistant and NSA contractor who works for defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. He proclaimed he was releasing the info due to his conscience -- let the personal chips fall here they may.
His release of what some say is one of the biggest intelligence leaks in American history changed the dynamics of the earlier intelligence revelation, sharpened dilemmas, and raised serious questions about how the United States can and will proceed in future anti-terrorism intelligence gathering. Add the IRS scandal, the Fox News-GOP-fanned Benghazi scandal, and CBS News reporting allegations about cover ups at the State Department, and the Obama administration now has binders full of scandals. But Snowden' s revelations are the most serious.
Bloomberg's View editorial board noted the complexities: "If everything Edward Snowden says is true, he is a criminal whose actions may have endangered American lives. He is also a conscientious citizen, risking career and liberty to expose what he believes to be grave wrongdoing. This is the paradox underlying government surveillance programs in general, and in particular the shaky foundations of the U.S. national security apparatus."
Some Democratic liberals and some Republican libertarians hailed Snowden as a hero, but others agree with the view of California's Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein: "I don't look at this as being a whistle-blower. I think it's an act of treason," she told The Hill.
Writes the New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin: "These were legally authorized programs; in the case of Verizon Business's phone records, Snowden certainly knew this, because he leaked the very court order that approved the continuation of the project. So he wasn't blowing the whistle on anything illegal; he was exposing something that failed to meet his own standards of propriety. The question, of course, is whether the government can function when all of its employees (and contractors) can take it upon themselves to sabotage the programs they don't like."
Greatest generation journalist-blogger Robert Stein was blunt: "After a lifetime in journalism, I cherish the First Amendment but it does not come with the right to what Oliver Wendell Holmes long ago called yelling fire in a crowded theater. Especially when the theater is full of those trying to prevent a fire."
The bottom line? Americans often have a short memory. And perhaps memory has slightly dimmed of the mood in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, which ended in the brutal obliteration of 2996 innocent American lives.
The media was crammed with stories about fears of where terrorists could strike next: Water supplies? Malls? Dirty bombs in cities? The anthrax scare and Beltway sniper shootings heightened fears. Both political parties basically agreed to pull out all stops in American military response -- and via the Patriot Act, a very-few-holds-barred use of the intelligence apparatus to do everything possible try to prevent future terrorist murders. The Patriot Act was later renewed by Congress with (presumably) its eyes open.
So now that all of this information is being revealed about how American intelligence works -- with a lot more we are almost gleefully told about to come out -- precisely how will Americans react if there is another major terrorist act that takes the lives of thousands of American citizens?
How will Americans react if it's then determined that some intelligence gathering methods were compromised by Snowden's revelations which impaired or even halted the prevention of that attack?
I hate to use the phrase, and pray it doesn't prove prophetic, but: stay tuned.
Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He has appeared on cable news show political panels and is Editor-in-Chief of The Moderate Voice, an Internet hub for independents, centrists and moderates. CNN's John Avlon named him as one of the top 25 Centrists Columnists and Commentators. He can be reached at email@example.com.