In the last hours before key provisions of the Patriot Act were expected to expire, there were few senators who could deny the role that one man—Edward Snowden—had played in the law's demise.
For security-minded Republicans, many of whom heaped scorn on Sen. Rand Paul on Sunday night, Snowden was the original catalyst for a change they resisted. Many of the party's more senior members continue to call Snowden a traitor, a liar, someone who deceived the American people and created unnecessary uproar over a program they believe is essential to American security. For a host of senior Republicans, Snowden's initial revelation—not their leader Sen. Mitch McConnell's risky management of the clock—is the reason the country is facing an expiration of what they claim is a vital national security program.
"The Senate is here tonight because of a lot of misunderstandings and miscalculations and outright falsehoods that have been told about the program," said Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Republican from Georgia. "I think the fact that he escaped with data had a role in striking fear in the hearts of people, but it is a misunderstanding of what he did and what he had and a misunderstanding of what you can do."
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker said that in the days after the Snowden revelations, it was undeniable that the court of public opinion had quickly shifted and lawmakers split into two distinct camps—although he still believes much of the concern was grossly unwarranted.
"In fairness, it is why we are here," Corker said. "That was the genesis of this, of course, and then people began creating a myth around it. That did occur."
Even before 2013, when Snowden turned over thousands of classified documents to reporters that exposed shocking details of the National Security Agency's bulk collection of phone data, Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden and Martin Heinrich joined a handful of critics in raising the alarm that something was amiss behind the scenes. Wyden even publicly confronted James Clapper, the director of the national intelligence, in 2012 and asked point-blank if the United States collected any data on millions of its citizens.
"I tried to get it corrected and we still couldn't get it corrected and of course, then Mr. Snowden spoke out publicly, pointed that out," Wyden said on the Senate floor Sunday night.
Many senators who support reforms to the NSA's spying program are reticent to acknowledge the irony that Snowden's unlawful disclosures brought them closer to reforming a program they feared was overstepping legal boundaries.
When asked if Snowden should have any credit in helping the Senate overcome a procedural hurdle for the USA Freedom Act on Sunday night, Heinrich denied it.
"I wouldn't give any credit to Edward Snowden. What he did was wrong and what he did was illegal," Heinrich said. "This is a time to really get back to a balance that we're all seeking."
Some senators would like to believe that even without Snowden, lawmakers would have been emboldened enough on their own to push through reforms. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia said that May's federal court ruling, which declared that the bulk collection of phone metadata was unlawful, would have been enough to prompt reforms. Others on the intelligence Committee like Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, said senators were working long before Snowden spoke out.
But others acknowledged that without Snowden, it is hard to believe that as many lawmakers would have had as much knowledge of the classified programs that they now are working to change.
Republican Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, a civil liberties advocate in the House, said plainly, "we wouldn't be here. There is no doubt about that."
Dustin Volz contributed to this article
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