Snowden lawyer: Bill of Rights was meant to make government’s job “more difficult”

DAVIS, Calif.—Ben Wizner, a top attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, is probably best known for being one of the lawyers representing Ed Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor.

On Tuesday, he told Ars that representing the world's most famous whistleblower has consumed a substantial portion of his professional life over the last 2.5 years. But he framed his passion for civil liberties and fighting surveillance as part of a larger struggle that continues to play out as to the proper balance between not only surveillance and privacy but also between surveillance and democracy itself.

Wizner was in this college town outside Sacramento to speak at the University of California, Davis law school as part of an ongoing public lecture series on surveillance. (Full disclosure: yours truly spoke as part of the same series last year.) In a 30-minute talk followed by questions from an audience primarily made up of law students, Wizner outlined a history of surveillance in America, going back to the 1971 Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI and extending through to the Snowden-era NSA.

"This, to me, is what's so frustrating about the current debate between civil liberties and state security," Wizner said during the lecture. "It's become standard to approach the debate as if our challenge is to set the dial at precisely the right place that most efficiently maximizes both values. But that ignores that the framers of the Constitution already put their thumbs on the scale. And for good reason. There's a good reason why, in the 4th Amendment, suspicion of wrongdoing comes before search. And it's not only because of the presumption that we should generally be left alone—but because of the danger that a government, with enough data about any of us, can find some basis for being suspicious. 'Show me the man, and I will show you the crime,' said Stalin's secret police chief."

Ars had a chance to sit down with him prior to the talk and touch on a range of surveillance-related topics, including the ongoing case in San Bernardino, Snowden, and the best way to think about future dystopias. What follows is the transcript of our conversation that has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity...


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