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Juan Williams: NSA reforms are legacy of Snowden

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The conservative-led reform to the Patriot Act last week raises a difficult question: What about former CIA contractor-turned-leaker Edward Snowden?

There is no debating that Snowden broke his oath to protect government secrets. His leaks led terror groups to change their communications, making it harder to detect and prevent their murderous acts. 

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“This is a man who has done great damage to his country,” Secretary of State John Kerry said last year in calling for Snowden to “man up” and come back home to stand trial.

A very different view was advanced last month when a fiberglass and cement bust of Snowden was placed on top of a New York monument to heroes of the Revolutionary War. “The ideal that Snowden seemed to be fighting for with his actions [are]… in line with the ideals of the [American] revolutionaries," said Andrew Tider, one of two men who surreptitiously gave the sculpture a place of honor. Police soon removed it, but the point had been made.

Last week, Snowden's revelations prompted the House to finally seek to put in place some civil liberty limits that override the Patriot Act. The new USA Freedom Act, approved in a 338-88 vote, calls for an end to indiscriminate government collection of data in bulk from Americans with no evident ties to terrorism. 

Now the Republican Senate, previously on track to authorize yet another extension of the Patriot Act and in the process ignore concerns about civil liberty violations, finds itself under pressure to back the House reforms. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) “wants to put his head in the sand and go forward with…mass surveillance of Americans…against the will of the people, the Congress, the administration and the courts,” said Elizabeth Goitein of the Brennan Center for Justice.

The House vote came a week after a federal court made it clear that Congress never authorized a free-for-all in which spy agencies snatch up and comb through everyone’s private phone and data information.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the current spy program exceeded "the scope of what Congress has authorized," under the Patriot Act. The court also said Congress approved the Patriot Act even though knowledge of the actual extent of the program “was intentionally kept to a minimum, both within Congress and among the public.”

Judge Gerard Lynch wrote that the hidden reality is that the "sheer volume of the information sought [by the government] is staggering" because it extends to "every record that exists and indeed to records that do not yet exist." The judge called for a "full debate by Congress" to consider with full knowledge the incredible range of the program and seek to rein it in by providing "greater safeguards for privacy."

Last week, House conservatives did just as the judge urged.

This transformative moment in the politics of government surveillance is rooted in Snowden’s actions – and what critics see as his infuriating betrayal of trust.

Say what you will about him, but it is now clear that his actions forced Congress to take responsibility. The latest moves on Capitol Hill are a consequence of Snowden's decision to reveal the extent and method of American government spying on its own citizens. Before Snowden, the Congress used the Patriot Act to shield its eyes from any hint of civil liberties abuses by spy agencies so long as there was a claim that the surveillance was being done in pursuit of terrorists.

Consider, too, that before Snowden the Congress, especially politicians on the right, proudly advertised their support for the Patriot Act to win votes. They fed on fear of future terror attacks to gain political advantage, presenting themselves as tough-minded pragmatists, and contrasting themselves with the timorous liberals concerned about civil liberties.

But now, two years after Snowden's radical disclosure, conservatives concerned with the excesses of big government have changed their tune. Even the Justice Department and the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, are singing a new song. They applauded the new bill for greater “privacy and civil liberties and…requirements for increased transparency.” 

President Obama also gave his approval to the Snowden-inspired Freedom Act. In a statement, he said it "strikes an appropriate balance between significant reform and preservation of important national security tools." This is coming from a president who has condemned Snowden and refused to consider allowing him to come back to the U.S. without facing criminal charges.

There is still opposition to changing the Patriot Act on the far right. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the Freedom Act runs the risk of slowing efforts to stop a terror attack. The new law allows the government access to the data kept by telecommunications companies but only after specific, targeted court orders.

But given the support for the Freedom Act from House Republicans, the odds now favor victory for some civil liberty protections even in the fight against terror.

Is there any chance now that those House Republicans or the Obama White House can embrace Snowden, the man who started this revolution? Will he be allowed to return home? 

Now is the time for a serious conversation that made no political sense just a few weeks ago.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.