America’s first real debate about the 21st century surveillance state began one year ago. There had, of course, been no previous shortage of hearings, op-eds, and panels mulling the appropriate “balance between privacy and security” in the post-9/11 era. But for the masses who lacked a security clearance, these had the character of a middle school playground conversation about sex—a largely speculative discussion among participants who’d learned a few of the key terms, but with only the vaguest sense of the reality they described. Secrecy meant abstraction, and in a conflict between abstract fears and the all-too-visible horror of a burning skyscraper, there could be little question which would prevail. The panoptic infrastructure of surveillance developed well out of public view.
A more meaningfully informed public debate finally became possible via a series of unprecedented disclosures about the global surveillance apparatus operated by the National Security Agency—disclosures for which the word “leak” seems almost preposterously inadequate. It was a torrent of information, and it gave even the most dedicated newshounds a glimmer of what intelligence officials mean when they complain about “drinking from the fire hose” of planet-spanning communications networks….