2014 / Edward Snowden
Former intelligence officer and whistleblower Edward Joseph Snowden, whose actions exposed the extent of warrantless surveillance of millions of people living in the US by the National Security Agency, is the 2014 co-recipient, with Laura Poitras, of The Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling.
In early 2013, Snowden released classified documents about top-secret government surveillance programs to filmmaker Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald. The documents revealed that the US government had created programs to systematically collect millions of phone and internet records.
“I don’t want to live in a world where everything that I say, everything I do, everyone I talk to, every expression of creativity or love or friendship is recorded. And that’s not something I’m willing to support, it’s not something I’m willing to build, and it’s not something I’m willing to live under. So I think anyone who opposes that sort of world has an obligation to act in the way they can,” Snowden told Greenwald, Poitras, and Guardian journalist Ewen MacAskill in an interview for the Guardian in June 2013.
Snowden spent his early years in North Carolina before moving to Maryland, where he grew up just miles from the government agency that would eventually dominate his life. Snowden signed up for the US army after high school, moved by a desire to “help free people from oppression” during the Iraq war. But his army career was short-lived; he was discharged after breaking both legs in a training accident.
His military experience and technical expertise soon helped him to secure his first job with the NSA in 2005, at a covert facility at the University of Maryland. From there, he moved on to the Central Intelligence Agency, taking up a position as an undercover intelligence officer, someone who officially worked around Europe as a US diplomat, but secretly served as the CIA’s elite in-country technical expert. In 2009, he joined the NSA as a contractor employed by Dell, stationed first in Japan and later in Hawaii.
By the time he reached Hawaii in 2012, Snowden was already greatly disillusioned with government intelligence activities. He had previously considered revealing documents outlining the extent of government privacy abuses, but held back in the hope that President Obama would put an end to Bush-era surveillance programs; he didn’t.
It was during his time with Dell that Snowden read a 2009 report by the Inspector General of the NSA describing STELLAR WIND, a program that involved the warrantless collection of phone records of millions of Americans. The New York Times had broken the story on STELLAR WIND in 2005, but the 2009 report filled in crucial gaps, providing unequivocal evidence that senior US officials were breaking the law, accessing private data without warrant. The discovery of the report was a critical turning point for Snowden, confirming his decision to release news of the government’s surveillance programs to the public.
Snowden worked to mitigate national security fears by emphasizing the consideration he gave to the way the documents would be released. He knew that he wanted to release documents exposing illegal NSA activity to specific journalists, and chose his contacts with great care. Snowden turned to Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald for their fearless reporting in the post-9/11 era. In January 2013, he anonymously contacted Poitras, who had been working for almost two years on a documentary about domestic surveillance in the US. “We came to a point in the verification and vetting process where I discovered Laura was more suspicious of me than I was of her, and I’m famously paranoid,” Snowden said in an interview with Peter Maass for the New York Times Magazine. Poitras was frequently detained at US borders, thanks to her work as a documentary filmmaker and investigative reporter; her professional dedication sent a signal to Snowden that she was the right person for the job. “I bet you don’t like this system. Only you can tell this story,” he told her.
Poitras reached out to Greenwald at Snowden’s request. Then in May 2013, Snowden gave up his family, a home in Hawaii, and a six-figure salary at NSA contractor Booz Allen Hamilton to fly to Hong Kong, where he intended to reveal himself to Greenwald and Poitras.
Since leaving the US, Snowden has made no attempt to keep his identity secret and takes full responsibility for the disclosures. When Greenwald asked him why he revealed himself as the whistleblower, Snowden replied: “I think that the public is owed an explanation of the motivations behind the people who make these disclosures that are outside of the democratic model…. And I’m willing to go on the record to defend the authenticity of them and say, ‘I didn’t change these, I didn’t modify the story.'”
Among the earliest documents Snowden released, Greenwald found a four-page top secret court order requiring that Verizon hand over detailed records of customer phone calls. This revelation would form the basis of Greenwald’s first story on the NSA leak, published by the Guardian on June 5, 2013 — the first the public would hear about the NSA files. The story was revelatory: Government officials had repeatedly denied that this type of data collection was taking place. The document also provided damning evidence that director of national intelligence James Clapper had lied at a March 2013 Senate intelligence committee hearing, claiming that the NSA does “not wittingly” collect data on millions of Americans.
A day later, the Guardian broke a second story, this time about PRISM, a program giving the NSA direct access to servers of internet giants like Google, Apple, and Facebook. Details about the program were described in a 41-slide PowerPoint presentation released by Snowden. On June 8 came news of Boundless Informant, a tool for cataloguing and mapping the source and volume of intelligence information from computer and telephone networks on a global scale.
Snowden was not the first to raise concerns about the extent of government surveillance post-9/11. Whistleblower and 2011 Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling recipient Thomas Drake also exposed surveillance activities at the NSA. Snowden followed Drake’s case closely and saw what had happened to a whistleblower who used formal channels to raise concerns before taking his story to the press. Despite these actions, Drake had to resign from the NSA, was investigated by the FBI, faced charges under the Espionage Act, and was brought to the brink of bankruptcy by legal fees. Drake’s fate profoundly influenced Snowden’s decisions to leak the documents through the press and to do so from a location outside the United States, largely because, as a contractor, he was not eligible for the same whistleblower protections as Drake.
Snowden’s actions have opened up an unprecedented debate on mass surveillance, but they have come at great personal cost. Unable to return to his life in the United States, he left Hong Kong on June 23, 2013. He spent more than a month in Sheremetyevo airport’s transit area applying for asylum to more than twenty countries before Russia granted him temporary asylum for one year. He currently lives in Moscow while he is unable to travel, from where he continues to advocate for press freedom and measures to protect personal privacy.
If he returns to the United States, Snowden faces at least three felony counts, including two charges under the Espionage Act: “Unauthorized communication of national defense information” and “willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person” which could land him in jail for decades. Federal prosecutors filed the complaint outlining the charges in June 2013.
In reflecting upon its decision, the awards committee said, “We have selected Edward Snowden and Laura Poitras for their efforts to expose the NSA’s illegal and unconstitutional bulk collection of the communications of millions of people living in the United States. Their act of courage was undertaken at great personal risk and has sparked a critical and transformative debate about mass surveillance in a country where privacy is considered a constitutionally-protected right.”
“I didn’t want to change society. I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself,” he told Washington Post journalist Barton Gellman in December 2013. “All I wanted was for the public to be able to have a say in how they are governed.”
2014 Prize for Truth-Telling Speeches
JAMES BAMFORD: Thank you very much. I’m certainly not one of those who are uncomfortable. I’m very happy to be here, very honored to be here, to make this introduction to two extraordinary people, Laura Poitras and Edward Snowden. Matter of fact, since Danielle mentioned when my first book was published, 1982, that was a year before Edward Snowden was even born. So I’ve been doing this a while.
Matter of fact, when The Puzzle Palace first came out, the old joke going around Washington was NSA stood for No Such Agency. There was even a time when I was on a TV show with Bill Bradley, the senator from New Jersey, when I was doing publicity for my book. And on the way to the studio he said, “What’s your book about?” And I said, “It’s about NSA, the National Security Agency.” And he said, “What’s that?” So when we got on the show I said, “Even Senator Bradley didn’t know what NSA was.” And he took a separate car back to the hotel that night. [laughter]
More recently, some of my deep cover contacts at NSA have told me that the new joke is that NSA now stands for Not Secret Anymore. [applause] And no one is more responsible for that than Edward Snowden and Laura Poitras. I first met Laura back in 2011 when I was living in London. And we met at the Arts Club, and she told me this extraordinary story about every time she’s flown in or out of the United States, some 40 times, I think it was, she’d be pulled aside, she’d be interrogated. She’d be frisked. She’d often have her electronic equipment taken from her. And I thought this was extraordinary since obviously she’s not a terrorist. And the entire time she was doing this, nobody would explain to her why this was happening. And the only weapon that she ever carried was a video camera, but it was a very powerful weapon because she was doing documentaries on what the United States was turning to after 9/11. We were a country that was going through, as has been spoken here many times, torture, we were doing all kinds of things. And so she decided to do a trilogy of documentaries on that topic.
Her first one, “My Country, My Country,” was a really compelling story about life for Iraqis under U.S. occupation and was nominated for an Academy Award. And the second one was called “The Oath.” It was a very moving account of two Yemeni men caught up in America’s war on terror and it won the award at Sundance.
So at that luncheon, at the Arts Club in London, she told me she was turning her attention to a new topic, a third documentary, and that was going to be on surveillance, particularly focusing on NSA. So, she said she was on her way to Utah. I had written about the NSA’s huge data center in Utah. And that Utah data center was a million square feet. It really was a sort of symbol of where NSA had gone. So she was focusing her new documentary on NSA. And as I said, she was on her way to Utah and I said, “You know, it’s extremely difficult getting NSA sources, so don’t get your hopes up.” [laughter] And then in January, 2013, she received an anonymous message. “I am a senior member of the intelligence community,” it said. “This won’t be a waste of your time.” It was sent by Edward Snowden and will probably be the understatement of the century.
Years earlier, Ed Snowden enlisted in the Army Reserve as a Special Forces recruit. He broke both his legs in a training accident, later joined the CIA and then became a contractor at Dell and Booz Allen for NSA. Soon, documents began crossing his computers. And to say the least, he was very troubled by what he was seeing. Very few people having written about NSA for a long time do anything about when they see something troubling them on a computer. Well, Ed Snowden wasn’t everybody.
Rather than go through the bureaucracy of the NSA, he tried as best he could to tell this story inside, what was going on. And it wasn’t working very well. And what he was seeing was extraordinary. He was seeing that everyone’s meta data was being picked up. Everybody who’s old enough to pick up a phone, every time that phone would be picked up and turned on, there would be a record of it. And it would be kept for years and years and years, going back at least five years.
There were back door being planted into the internet. FISA court orders were being disregarded or ignored. Encryption, the last resort for privacy, was undermined by covert deals and weakened by algorithms. Pleased with themselves, employees of NSA drew top secret smiley faces on their slides. The NSA had basically become a runaway train, a runaway surveillance train. And without an emergency brake on the inside, Ed Snowden hoped to stop the train the only way he could, on the outside. And thus he passed the evidence of all this wrongdoing that was being done by the NSA to Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald. He knew without the documents that the agency would simply deny this is happening, say he’s a disgruntled employee and disregard what he was saying. And most of the press would probably pick up on that.
But he saw what happened to Bill Binney, Kirk Wiebe, Tom Drake, when they tried to tell what was going on. And they tried to tell it verbally. They tried to tell what was going on verbally. And again, the NSA would come after them and say that’s not true. General Alexander would say this is nonsense. We’re completely obeying the law. And so the only solution is to actually show the documents. And that’s what Ed did. He came out with the documents. And so there was no question about what NSA was doing, or no question of what NSA is up to.
Basically, what Ed did was show us all what the government has been doing to us behind our backs for all these years. And that is a tremendous, I think it’s just a tremendous advantage that the American public now knows, finally, that their calls every time they pick up a phone is being picked up, that their digital interactions on internet is being monitored by NSA. And that is extremely dangerous when you’re getting into monitoring people’s interactions on the internet. If you’re just monitoring their phone calls, there’s communication between two people. When you’re monitoring their interaction on the internet with Google searches and so forth, you’re basically getting into people’s thoughts because people sit before their computer and they’re exchanging ideas that they might not exchange with another person on Earth. So finding out what the government was doing on this is extremely important. Just to conclude here, I was in Rio visiting Glenn Greenwald and he showed me one of the documents that was probably the most shocking one I’ve seen.
What it was was a document that came basically from the director of NSA, his name was at the top of it. And it said look, basically, we can get into people’s accounts. We can find out when they’re getting onto porn sites, and so forth. We can start using these vulnerabilities against people. And he wasn’t talking about terrorists, he wasn’t talking about criminals. He was talking about radicals and he was including American citizens in there. I saw the list. I mean, when the document came out, the actual names were redacted, but there were American names in there. And what it hearkened back to is what we were discussing here earlier, what Fritz was talking about, this whole idea of J. Edgar Hoover using the vulnerabilities of radical, of that time, Martin Luther King, to discredit him in front of his followers. I mean, if they couldn’t arrest him for something, they could at least discredit him.
And so the circle was coming almost full back at that point. And I realized that when I saw that document. So, I’m very grateful that we were able to find out what was happening at this time because as someone who has watched that train heading to that abyss, and that’s what Frank Church called it, an abyss, for a very long time, I’m very grateful to Ed Snowden and Laura Poitras for bringing this all to our attention. So I’m very happy to introduce them to you for a discussion, hopefully the electronics will work here. [applause]
EDWARD SNOWDEN: Hi.
LAURA POITRAS: Thank you all so much. I’m deeply honored to receive this award by a man who exposed war crimes. In response to the introduction, I just want to say that I feel very confident that both Ron Ridenhour and then history will celebrate the decision to award this to Edward Snowden. Many of my personal heroes in the room, and I’d like to acknowledge them. Tom Drake and William Binney, NSA whistleblowers who I started filming with in 2011; Jim Bamford, a great hero of mine and who I’ve had the privilege of spending a lot of time with this last years and I hope to continue to work with.
Betty Medsger and Fritz Schwarz who brought to light COINTELPRO and we are all very grateful to their work. I’d like to share this award with my beloved friend and colleague, Glenn Greenwald. Without Glenn’s courage and focus, I would not have been able to do this reporting. Nor would I’ve had as much fun in the past months, or been able to handle the amount of stress that we’ve been placed under. So this is also for Glenn.
I’m especially honored to receive this award with Ed Snowden. One year ago, last April, I received an anonymous email from the source I’d been corresponding with for several months. And he wrote something that sent my heart racing and my head spinning. Until that day, I assumed that the source claiming to have evidence of massive NSA illegal surveillance intended to remain anonymous and that it would be my responsibility to protect his identity and to report on these disclosures.
In his email, he patiently explained that I needed to change my expectations. He told me that I could not protect his identity and that he did not want me to. He said he intended to claim responsibility for his actions and that he would outline his motivations that led him to come forward and the dangers that he saw inside the agency. He simply asked one thing of me, which was to safely return this information to the American public so they could decide the kind of government that they wanted to live under.
Reading this email a year ago today, I never imagined I’d be speaking here in this room. I have spent many years in war zones documenting and I have not experienced the kind of fear and intimidation that I have during the reporting on the NSA and so it’s wonderful to be here, although I can’t be there in person because I don’t feel that I can do the reporting right now in the United States given some of the experience I’ve had with the U.S. government in response to my reporting.
So, it’s wonderful to be here today and to speak to you a year after a time that I wasn’t sure, there was a lot of uncertainty, and to see the amount of support and encouragement for the reporting and the international response to the information that Ed has brought forward. And I at this point, the responsibility lies in the hands of citizens how to move forward with this information. And with that, I’m going to turn it over to Ed. [applause]
EDWARD SNOWDEN: Thanks, Laura. Well, I have to agree with Laura about at least one thing, which is that, you know, a yeah ago there was no way I could have imagined that I would end up here being honored in this room. When I began this I never expected to receive the level of support that I did from the public. Having seen what had happened to people who came before, specifically Thomas Drake, it was an intimidating thing and I realized that the highest likelihood, the most likely outcome of returning this information to public hands, would be that I would spend the rest of my life in prison. I did it because I thought it was the right thing to do.
Now, what’s important about this is that I’m not the only one who felt this way. There were people throughout the NSA that I worked with that I had private conversations with, that I’ve had conversations since in other federal agencies, who had the same concerns I did, but they were afraid to take action because they knew what would happen. I can specifically remember a conversation in the wake of James Clapper’s famous lie to Senator Wyden where I asked my coworker, “You know, why doesn’t anybody say anything about this?” And he said, “Do you know what they do to people who do?” And at that time I said yes. He didn’t understand why. By that time, I had read the laws. I knew what would happen, I knew that there were no whistleblower protections that would protect me from prosecution as a private contractor as opposed to a government civilian, a direct government employee.
But that didn’t change my calculus of what needed to be done. And the fact that I knew there were so many others who had the same concerns, who knew that what we were doing had gone too far, had departed from what we were supposed to be doing, had departed from the fundamental principles of what our U.S. intelligence community is all about, serving the public good, that I was confident that I could do it knowing that even if it cost me so much, it would be given back so much to so many others who were struggling with the same problems that it would be worth it.
And so because of this, I have to say that although I am honored to be in the company of so many distinguished Ridenhour awardees, this prize is not just for me. This prize is for a cohort, a cohort of so many people, whistleblowers who came before me, the Binneys, the Drakes, the Wiebes. And the other intelligence officers throughout the intelligence community who remember that the first principle of any American intelligence official is not an oath to secrecy, but a duty to the public, a commitment to speak truth to power, to prevent this sort of intelligence failures that lead us to wars, that don’t protect our country, that don’t keep anybody safe. And, in fact, put us all at risk.
This is the same principle underlying the actions of our free press that’s brought us and given back so much to the global community, not just the American community, over the last year. And it’s critical that we remember as a democracy these people who give so much and these people who serve in silence who try to do the right thing, and who may not be in a position to change things themselves directly are still trying. Because they know that they don’t serve officials, they don’t serve power, they serve the public.
And there’s been a lot said about oaths and the oath that I remember is James Clapper raising his hand swearing to tell the truth and then lying to the American public. I also swore an oath but that oath was not to secrecy. That oath was to protect and defend our constitution and the policies of this nation; that’s all enemies, foreign and domestic. [applause]
But what I saw was that our constitution being violated on a massive scale. And I did report this internally. I told all of my coworkers, I told my superiors. I showed them boundless informant, which is a global heat map, an internal heat map that any NSA employee could see, anyone with an internal LAN account, could see that showed the precedence, the level of incidence of NSA interception, collection, storage and analysis of events around the world. And I asked these people, because this is what the tool showed, do you think it’s right that the NSA is collecting more information about Americans in America than it is about Russians in Russia? Because that’s what our systems do. We watch our own people more closely than we watch any other population in the world. Despite the protections, they are policy based, the technical systems ingest and collect everyone in this room’s communication. When you pick up the phone and when you make a call, when you make a purchase, when you buy a book, all of that is collected. And I could see it at my desk crossing my screen.
People had questions about whether or not it was true, whether or not it was really possible, whether or not I was exaggerating when I said I sitting at my desk could wiretap anyone in America from a federal judge to the President of the United States. And I’m telling you, that is not hyperbole. So long as I had a private email address or some other digital network intelliselector [?] it’s true. And what is truly frightening but has not been reported at all since these disclosures, is that it’s happened before. In 2009, the New York Times reported that an NSA analyst inappropriately accessed Bill Clinton’s email. We also saw the stories of the disclosures to Congress about the Lovent [?] so-called program, a sort of internal banter name, where NSA analysts, military analysts, were abusing these tools to monitor their wives, their girlfriends, their lovers.
The question we have to ask ourselves is when they committed these crimes, when James Clapper committed a crime by lying under oath to the American people, were they actually held accountable? Was anyone tried? Were charges brought? It’s been years since these events occurred, whereas within 24 hours of the time I went public, three counts of charges were filed against me personally.
We have to ask ourselves if we can hold the lowest, most junior members of our community to this high standard of behavior, why can’t we ask the same of our most senior officials? James Clapper is the most senior intelligence official in the United States of America and I think he has a duty to tell the truth to the public. Since that time, thanks to the work of our free press, thanks to the work of our elected representatives, thanks to the work of our civil society, these policies, these abuses, the collective all mentality these systems that are gathering and aggregating the haystack of our human lives, are changing. And though they’re not finished yet and we haven’t won the day, we have to continue to press for reforms, we will get there so long as we try. A republic, if you can keep it, as they say.
And we have to remember that the world has changed. The way we live has changed. Our values have not changed. And though we need reforms from the courts and the Congress, we’ll get Supreme Court decisions, will get lost, passed, hopefully we’ll see the USA Freedom Act, which is the only act that really starts to address these concerns, get passed, we’ll also see contributions, we’ll see changes made by principled, skittled technologists throughout the U.S. academic community and around the world working to enshrine our values of privacy and the commitment to freedom, the commitment to liberty, into the very fabric of our global infrastructure around the world. So not only do we protect American citizens’ freedoms, but we protect the freedoms of citizens everywhere, whether they’re in Russia, whether they’re in China. So it doesn’t matter if some government somewhere passes these terrible laws. Our technology can enforce our rights even where governments fail to do so. [applause]
Sorry, this is all sort of off the cuff. I’m not a statesman, I’m not a speaker, I don’t have great prepared remarks. But I would say this is the way forward. It’s cooperation, it’s working together, it’s thinking and having a public dialogue. It’s getting government out from behind closed doors and restoring the public to its seat at the table of government. And together, we can restore the balance of our rights to what our constitution promises and in fact guarantees. Thank you. [applause]
JAMES BAMFORD: Thank you, Ed and Laura, that was terrific. I was told that we have a few minutes for about 10 or 15 minutes, for questions and answers and a dialogue, basically. I’d like to just start off with maybe a question for Ed and then Ed and Laura can maybe have a bit of a back and forth, which would be really interesting to hear. The question, since we’re here at the Truth Telling Award, the question I’d ask Ed is what advice, if any, would you give to somebody else that was in your position, somebody else that may be sitting at NSA today and seeing something going across their desk that is very questionable or legal? Having gone through what you’ve gone through, what would you tell them? How would you advise them or what is the role that they could play at this point?
EDWARD SNOWDEN: So this is always a difficult question because I think every case is very unique. It depends on what you see, how do you see it, what is involved. What I would say is that Thomas Drake showed us that even if you reveal classic waste, fraud and abuse from a program that’s simply based on wasting money, frivolous spending, things like that, and you take it to Congress, there’s a very good chance the FBI will kick in your door, pull you out of the shower naked at gun point in front of your family and ruin your life. He was the senior executive at the National Security Agency and now he works at an Apple store. And actually, our own Inspector Generals in the DOD and the NSA are the ones who reported him to the DOJ.
So, you have to be careful about the system as it is. I would say ideally, work with Congress in advance to try to make sure that we have reformed laws, that we have better protections, that all these shortcomings and failures in our oversight infrastructure are addressed so that the next time we have an American whistleblower who has something the public needs to know, they can go to their lawyer’s office instead of the airport. Right now, I’m not sure that they have a real alternative. But, if they’re going to do something, they better use encryption and they better do it from an IP address that’s not at their home.
JAMES BAMFORD: Well, that brings up a question for Laura that I was going to ask. Because of everything that’s happened in the past year, it appears that encryption now is really a key. And you were really a pioneer in this entire– really a pioneer in terms of encryption. Before you came along and had your discussions with Ed, there were very few reporters that I ever talked to that knew anything about encryption. Now I’m talking to more and more people that do have encryption. Could you just tell me a little bit about your experience in dealing with encryption and how that put you in touch with Ed and how important that is in the future?
LAURA POITRAS: Sure, of course. I actually don’t consider myself a pioneer in encryption, but I am a journalist who knows how to use it. And I know how to use it because I feel it’s essential the work that I do and to protect my sources. And so when Ed reached out to me in January 2013, I had a public key [?], I had used encryption for the, I guess, two years prior or maybe three. So it was somewhat common to me to be able to use that. But as soon as I got a sense of what Ed was talking about the extent of evidence that he had, I knew that actually what I was using on the system that I had wasn’t going to be enough and there was a series of ramping up the kind of security and protection that I felt we needed to communicate and he also guided me and taught me some things about how to do that.
So in terms of journalists and using encryption, I think it’s essential. I think if anyone inside the government now, particularly with the recent directive that even contact with a reporter is something that can subject you to repercussions from the government, just basic contact, not revealing any information, can [01:34:32] you, then– I mean, journalists simply have to learn it if they want to be talking to sources inside the government. I mean, it’s essential.
And I guess I would say in terms of learning curve or difficulty, it’s not that complicated. You might need some help or something setting it up, but it’s simply an essential tool because unless you’re in the same room and somebody can share this information with you, you’re not going to be able to communicate securely. And so, I guess it has been one of the lessons of this particular story, because I when Ed reached out to me, I was absolutely familiar with what needed to happen.
JAMES BAMFORD: And would it be possible just to have a– I hear it’s technically possible, if we could just maybe have a couple of questions back and forth between Laura and Ed? Would you like to ask Ed something that we can listen in on? [laughter]
LAURA POITRAS: Sure, I’ll ask a question. So recently, Betty Medsger published an extraordinary book that documented the activists in Media, Pennsylvania, who broke into an FBI office and ultimately revealed COINTELPRO. And I’m just curious if that’s a case you had known about before and any thoughts you might have on that?
EDWARD SNOWDEN: So, I think that everyone in the intelligence community was familiar with COINTELPRO. But the actual act of how it became public for me was a surprise. I hadn’t known the story and the pathology behind it. And it is incredible, the courage that they had. It takes a lot of chutzpah to actually break into the FBI office to steal from them and then send it to the press. But it’s important to realize that even though they broke the law to do that, they revealed some of the most important government abuses of the last century.
And I think that’s really something that we all have to remember, is that there are cases, and there have been throughout history, and there will continue to be throughout time, where what is lawful is not necessarily right or necessarily moral. It doesn’t take long for an American to think back to a time– [applause] It doesn’t take long for an American to think back to periods when things were legal but they weren’t ethical, when they weren’t moral. And I think today when we see similar policies beginning, every citizen has a duty to resist those and to try to build a better, more fair society.
DANIELLE BRIAN: I’m sorry to interrupt just for a second. I want to make it clear that no one can be recording. There had been an understanding with the media but others in the room who have iPhones need to also understand you’re not permitted to be recording this right now. Thank you.
JAMES BAMFORD: That goes for all the NSA people here, too. [laughter] So Ed, would you like to just have a question for Laura?
EDWARD SNOWDEN: So, there’s always questions about reporting, but I guess I shouldn’t get into them here. Recently there’s been a big controversy with encryption bugs online where it was discovered that there were these phenomenal weaknesses in internet encryption standards, in vulnerability, some of which the NSA knew about and had been actively exploiting under, for example, the Full Run [?] program in last year’s reporting. And the newly reported bugs like the SSL heartbleed bug in the open SSL encryption suite. And it’s a little bit technical, but the general idea is that the NSA has two branches of the house. They’ve got the attack side and the defense side. The defense side, as you’ve seen in the documents, never gets any love. The attack side gets all the money and all the interest from Congress because it’s sexy and interesting.
But what that has resulted in is sort of a paradigm where U.S. government policy, directed by the National Security Agency, which was intentionally designed to protect America’s communications, is now making a choice, a binary choice, between security of our communications and the vulnerability of global communications to allow us to listen in. Sometimes they’re intentionally back-dooring things, sometimes they’re not patching weaknesses to make it easier. And in general, the soul of the agency is in conflict between attacking and defense.
Why do you think it is that they keep the agency together under one roof, based on what you’ve seen, as opposed to actually splitting it out into a purely defensive role that serves the public interests and America’s interests more broadly, as well as our allies, and then an offensive role that goes against specific targets that goes in the traditional intelligence gathering role that we’ve had for decades? How do you feel about that?
LAURA POITRAS: You know, one question or one thing that comes up when looking at the documents is how– I mean, there are those things that the NSA claims that they’re regulating, and then there are things that seem to fall outside of that. And I’m not sure that if we were to separate those things, then what kind of oversight there would ever be if we were to branch out to the exploitation part of what NSA does. Because it seems to be already acting with free rein as it is. So I think it’s more of an oversight.
But I do think that there are serious concerns about restructuring. I mean, I wonder, their combining of USCYBERCOM with NSA and militarizing the internet, which I think is an absolute threat to free speech and democracies internationally. So all of this needs to be understood and discussed and policies need to be made that protect free speech, democracy, the internet, the future of the internet.
EDWARD SNOWDEN: What’s your level of confidence that the intelligence committees in Congress, in the Senate and the House, Mike Rogers and Dianne Feinstein chairing them, are going to be the most likely bodies to reform the NSA as opposed to the broader body of Congress, perhaps the judiciary committees?
LAURA POITRAS: Yeah, I mean I think we need a new Frank Church, right? I don’t have a lot of faith in our elected leaders. I mean, they have immunity. They could go and speak about what they know in Congress and they have immunity and they choose not to. So right now, I don’t have a lot of faith.
JAMES BAMFORD: I’m told that our time is just running out for the discussion, but that was terrific and I really appreciate you two carrying on a discussion in front of us. It’s really an honor here.
LAURA POITRAS: Jim, can I say one thing?
JAMES BAMFORD: Oh, sure.
LAURA POITRAS: Today, a lot of people have talked about the risks that whistleblowers have taken and I just would actually like to acknowledge the impact on their families and how difficult that is. And I believe that some people in Ed’s family are here today and I just want to acknowledge the sacrifice that they’ve made. [applause]
EDWARD SNOWDEN: I actually can see my father sitting in the front row there. But I didn’t want to call him out because I didn’t know. Thank you for coming, I really appreciate your support. I know this has been hard for everyone and I love you guys, thank you. [applause]
JAMES BAMFORD: And that’s a perfect note to announce that the award for Ed is being accepted by Ed’s father, Lon Snowden. And Jesselyn Radack who’s the attorney with the Government Accountability Project and was Ed’s lawyer and his staunch advocate. Jesselyn also worked with me on the Tom Drake case and was a tremendous help for us to get Tom from going to jail. So I really appreciate it. [applause]
Now it’s a really great privilege to introduce Bill Binney, who is accepting the award for Laura. And Bill is a fantastic person. He was a whistleblower par excellence. He was a senior official at NSA, saw what was happening with the warrantless eavesdropping and decided that after 40 years of work at NSA, rising to the most senior levels, he’d become a whistleblower. And he told a great deal about what NSA was doing and I think that’s just a tremendous amount of courage. So I’m really glad that you’re accepting accepting for Laura.
BILL BINNEY: Thanks. [applause]