This Day In History: June 6

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On June 6, 2013, Americans learned that their government was spying broadly on its own people.

That’s when The Guardian and The Washington Post published the first of a series of reports put together from documents leaked by an anonymous source. The material exposed a government-run surveillance program that monitored the communications records of not just criminals or potential terrorists, but law-abiding citizens as well.

Three days later the source unmasked himself as Edward Snowden, a National Security Agency contractor. But the question remained: Was he a whistleblower or a traitor?

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the perceived need for heightened national security, the U.S. government relaxed its rules around surveillance. The first story published in The Guardian revealed that the NSA was collecting and monitoring the telephone records and the texts of citizens. Days later, The Washington Post and The Guardian reported that the U.S. government was tapping into the servers of nine Internet companies, including Apple, Facebook and Google, to spy on people’s audio and video chats, photographs, emails, documents and connection logs, as part of a surveillance program called Prism. Later articles revealed that the government was even spying on leaders of other countries, including Germany’s Angela Merkel.

In the same month, Snowden was charged with theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence. Facing up to 30 years in prison, Snowden left the country, originally traveling to Hong Kong and then to Russia, to avoid being extradited to the U.S.

In the wake of the leak, President Obama assigned two five-person teams to investigate the nation’s surveillance policy. The result: several new laws and regulations were enacted to limit things like how long U.S. citizens’ data could be held or how data accidentally collected on Americans through the surveillance of foreigners could be used. While the changes resulted in greater transparency, many experts say the regulations improved the surveillance practices only slightly and did not address the question of invasion of privacy.

“From a big-picture analysis, there’s been a lot of developments without a whole lot of movement… These reforms just feel like gestures,” Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s program on liberty and national security, told PBS’ Frontline.

Since the first leak from Mr. Snowden, journalists have released more than 7,000 top-secret documents, but some think that’s only a fraction of the entire archive. It’s unclear exactly how many he downloaded, but intelligence officials testified in 2014 that he accessed 1.7 million files.

In July 2013, a petition was started to have Snowden pardoned, but the government rejected it in 2015. Lisa Monaco, then-President Obama’s Advisor on Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, said Snowden should return home to be “judged by a jury of his peers—not hide behind the cover of an authoritarian regime,” and stop “running away from the consequences of his actions.”

In 2017, Moscow extended Snowden’s right to asylum until 2020; he was then given Russian citizenship in 2022. He released a memoir, Permanent Record, in 2019.