‘Nation’ Exclusive: Edward Snowden and Laura Poitras Take on America’s Runaway Surveillance State
On April 30, in a ceremony at the National Press Club in Washington, the Nation Institute and the Fertel Foundation awarded their annual Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and filmmaker Laura Poitras. The bestselling author and journalist James Bamford, one of the world’s foremost authorities on the US intelligence community, presented the award to Snowden and Poitras, who were present by live video link. Here are excerpts from their remarks.
James Bamford: I’m very honored to be here to introduce two extraordinary people, Laura Poitras and Edward Snowden.
Many years ago when my first book about the NSA, The Puzzle Palace, was published, the joke was that “NSA” stood for “No Such Agency” or, for those on the inside, “Never Say Anything.” Recently I’ve heard from some of my deep-cover sources up at Fort Meade that the old joke has changed. “NSA,” they say, now stands for “Not Secret Anymore.” Having warned of the dangers of the NSA for the past three decades, I very much prefer the latest definition. And no one is more responsible for that than Edward Snowden and Laura Poitras.
I first met Laura several years ago in London. I had just returned to England after working on the defense team for Thomas Drake, an NSA whistleblower and a previous Ridenhour award winner. Laura told me the extraordinary story of how nearly every time she flew into or out of the United States—dozens and dozens of times—she was pulled aside by Homeland Security, searched, interrogated for hours and often had her electronic equipment seized.
Treated like a suspected terrorist, she was an even greater threat to the Bush and Obama administrations. Instead of a bomb, she carried a video camera and was producing an explosive trilogy of feature-length films documenting the country’s tragic post-9/11 descent into bloody wars, civil liberties abuses and mass surveillance. She had completed the first two—My Country, My Country, a compelling and courageous story about life for Iraqis under US occupation, which was nominated for an Academy Award, and The Oath, a moving account of two Yemeni men caught up in America’s “war on terror,” which won at Sundance. Now, she told me, she wanted to turn her focus to the third film, the one on NSA surveillance.
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.” Sent by Edward Snowden, it would be the understatement of the century.
Years earlier, Ed Snowden enlisted in the Army Reserve as a Special Forces recruit, broke both legs in a training accident, and later joined the CIA and then became a contractor at Dell and Booz Allen for the NSA. Soon the documents crossing his computer screen began to greatly trouble him. Rather than hunting for terrorists, the agency was hunting for virtually everyone, everywhere, all the time, and conducting dragnet surveillance, often with little regard for the law or the Constitution.
The NSA had become a runaway surveillance train. Without an emergency brake on the inside, Ed Snowden hoped to stop it the only way he could, on the outside, and thus passed the evidence to Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald. He knew that without the documents, the agency would simply make every effort to discredit the information, as they tried to do with previous NSA whistleblowers, including Bill Binney, Kirk Wiebe and Tom Drake.
While I was in Rio, Glenn showed me a document that indicated just how close that train had come to what Frank Church had warned was “the abyss from which there is no return.” In a memorandum, Gen. Keith Alexander suggested going after not terrorists or criminals but “radicalizers,” including innocent Americans, by searching the Internet for their vulnerabilities, such as visits to porn sites. Then, by secretly leaking this information, the NSA could discredit them in the eyes of their followers. Nearly half a century earlier, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had the same idea. He used the same tactic against a radical of the day, Martin Luther King Jr., by secretly leaking to the press details of King’s sex life.
As someone who has watched that train heading for the abyss for a long time, I’m very thankful for Ed Snowden’s great courage and Laura Poitras’s great wisdom.
Laura Poitras: Thank you all so much. I’m deeply honored to receive this award by a man who exposed war crimes. 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 e-mail 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 e-mail, 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 e-mail a year ago today, I never imagined I’d be speaking here in this room. I have spent many years in war zones, and I have not experienced the kind of fear and intimidation that I have during my reporting on the NSA. So it’s wonderful to be here—although I can’t be there in person, given some of the experiences I’ve had with the US government in response to my reporting.
It’s wonderful to see the amount of support and encouragement for the reporting and the international response to the information that Ed has brought forward. At this point, the responsibility lies in the hands of citizens to move forward with this information.
Edward Snowden: I have to agree with Laura about at least one thing, which is that a year ago there was no way I could have imagined that I would end up 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 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—and 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 co-worker, “You know, why doesn’t anybody say anything about this?” And he said, “Do you know what they do to people who do?”
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 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 the fundamental principles of what our US 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 giving 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 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 the 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.
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—[from] all enemies, foreign and domestic.
But what I saw was that our Constitution is being violated on a massive scale. And I did report this internally. I told all of my co-workers; I told my superiors. I showed them “Boundless Informant,” which is a special kind of map that any NSA employee could see that showed the level of incidents of NSA interception, collection, storage and analysis of events around the world. And I asked these people, “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 collect more information about our own people than about any other population in the world. 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 e-mail address or some other digital network selector, 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 e-mail. We also saw the stories of the disclosures to Congress about a program 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 days of the time I went public, three criminal 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, 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, and the way we live has changed, but our values have not changed. Hopefully, we’ll see the USA Freedom Act, which is the only act that really starts to address these concerns, get passed, and we’ll see changes made by principled, skilled technologists throughout the US academic community and around the world working to enshrine our values of privacy and the commitment to freedom into the very fabric of our global infrastructure. 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.
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.
Bamford: Since we’re here at the Truth Telling Prize, 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 the NSA today and seeing something going across their desk that is very questionable or illegal?
Snowden: This is always a difficult question, because I think every case is unique. It depends on what you see, how do you see it, what is involved. What I would say is that Thomas Drake and Bill Binney showed us that even if you reveal classic waste, fraud and abuse, 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 gunpoint in front of your family and ruin your life. Tom Drake was a senior executive at the National Security Agency, and now he works at an Apple store. 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.
Poitras: Recently, Betty Medsger published an extraordinary book that documented the activists in Media, Pennsylvania, who broke into an FBI office [in 1971] 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?
Snowden: 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 periods when things were legal but they weren’t ethical, when they weren’t moral. And I think today when we see similar policies, every citizen has a duty to resist those and to try to build a better, more fair society.
Watch Next: Edward Snowden and Laura Poitras accept their Ridenhour Prizes