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.