Donald Trump has demanded to know the identity of the anonymous person who revealed the US president’s interactions with his Ukrainian counterpart. “I deserve to meet my accuser,” Trump tweeted, while at the same time making it clear why the person might be reluctant to come forward.
But there are other reasons besides personal safety for someone in this situation to remain anonymous. In 2003, when I disclosed top secret, classified information in the weeks before the invasion of Iraq, my intention was to remain anonymous in order to keep the focus on the information—American and British efforts to spy on members of the UN Security Council in order to influence the vote on going to war—rather than on me. Yet eventually my identity was revealed when I was charged with breaking the Official Secrets Act.
Most people are interested in the human angle on news stories, which is why, in Edward Snowden’s recently published memoir, Permanent Record, he recounts how he tried to get the information out about the National Security Agency’s bulk data collection and spying on US citizens before he became the story.
I completely sympathize with that intention. But as a reader, I couldn’t help being drawn to his personal story, finding it an extraordinary account of an “all-American kid.” A young boy who grew up in the heart of the civic and intelligence world of the United States in the 1980s, in a family within those circles. Reading about the time when, as a boy—presumably even before his voice broke—Snowden repeatedly tried to alert the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory to weaknesses in their online security, I was both amazed and amused at his youthful sense of righteousness and civic duty.
While Snowden was busy alerting the US government to gaping holes in its security, I was attending the local primary school on a university campus in Taiwan, where my parents were teachers. I was the only totally non-Taiwanese child in the school. I was also blond-haired, blue-eyed and British. During history lessons in fourth or fifth grade, we learned about the Opium Wars waged by the British Empire against the Qing Empire of China in the 1800s. We learned about how the British Crown aided and abetted the East India Company in its illegal smuggling and trafficking of opium into China, causing widespread addiction and destruction. The Chinese rebelled, setting fire to the crates of opium at one point, and the British declared war. The defeat of China and the signing of that first treaty were what gave the territories of Hong Kong to Britain. Of course, children know no better, but I was accused—or at least my ancestors were accused by my classmates—of being the instigators of so much harm and shame. That was my first lesson in the abuse of power, the sometimes lawless deeds of government and the wholesale destruction of one nation by another for profit.
Despite this, cynicism did not set in immediately. After all, those events were over 200 years ago. Surely, we had moved on, I thought. In 1997, like many youthful people in Britain, I voted for Tony Blair and the shiny new Labour Party in the UK. The promises of a fairer, more ethical foreign policy held such hope.
By January 2001, I had just started working at Government Communications HQ—the British equivalent of the NSA—as a Mandarin linguist and analyst. IT was never my strong suit; putting on headphones and clicking on links and audio files was about the extent of my capabilities or interest in the technical world. Snowden, on the other hand, lived and breathed all things technical and computer-related; he spent those months and years variously working for the CIA, contractors connected to NSA and NSA directly. As an all-American kid, he embraced the media and government messages after 9/11 that “you are either with us or against us” and worked to the best of his ability for his government. His growing concern and suspicions took months, perhaps even years to materialize, while mine was encapsulated in one single e-mail.
Both of us blew the whistle on government fraud and abuse of power. The difference is this: Like the celebrated and (once upon a time) “Most Dangerous Man in America” Daniel Ellsberg, Snowden believed the only way to explain the extraordinary lengths to which the US government had been lying to the public was by a complete and detailed disclosure. The amount of strain that Snowden must have felt when he decided to collect, copy, and then remove the classified information off-site, I can barely comprehend. Perhaps his nerves settled after one or two successful attempts. Nevertheless, he ingeniously problem-solved his way around multiple layers of security, and successfully transported and distributed the information while making a break for freedom. I applaud him, and I applaud the journalists, activists, and asylum seekers who supported and protected him.
Of course, there are those who think his actions were beyond the pale—that he had no business in alerting the world to what was going on at NSA, GCHQ, and the other members of the Five Eyes community. Likewise, there are people who think that I should have left well alone and kept quiet about NSA and GCHQ surveillance and influence of UN Security Council delegates in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.
I would counter with this question: “Is it a crime to expose crimes already committed?”
Last year, it was reported (not widely) that the Office of Inspector General in the United States conducted a six-month investigation into whistle-blower retaliation, which was abruptly terminated in April 2017. The report revealed that out of 190 cases brought to the attention of the inspector general of the intelligence community, only a third were investigated—and of those the IG judged only one case in favor of the whistle-blower, and that case took 742 days to complete! All this despite a presidential directive (PPD19) in 2012 designed to prevent whistle-blower retaliation. If the “lawful” means to public disclosure are so unreliable and fraught with negative backlash—as we’ve seen again just now with the Ukraine revelations—what other form can disclosures in the public interest take?
Snowden’s disclosures led the US government to rein in some of the unfettered surveillance powers of NSA and the rest of the intelligence community by passing the 2015 USA Freedom Act, specifically prohibiting the bulk collection of American residents’ phone records. However, in November 2016, the UK’s Investigatory Powers Act was established. It is the most intrusive surveillance law introduced in a democratic society, according to the human rights organization Liberty. With the proliferation of CCTV cameras and built-in facial recognition, the gradual rollout of the Internet of Things, along with SIGINT’s (signals intelligence) insatiable appetite for endless data, we may soon all be living in a Big Brother house.
For very many obvious reasons, our current era is a time unlike any other, but one stood out to me recently: the massive disparity between the defensive/offensive capabilities of the state versus that of the public. At no time in history has the state—and I include all states in this—amassed such a terror-inducing triumvirate of military, surveillance, and disruption technologies far beyond what the citizenry could ever possess.
We like to think that our elected representatives act on our behalf and in our interests; we like to think that the “horrible histories” only happened in the past. But is it not chilling to realize that if citizens ever felt a need to challenge a fascist government, or a brutal dictatorship, the power balance now is overwhelmingly in favor of the state? One of the few checks we still have on this power is whistle-blowers and their disclosures. It is with this thought in mind that I applaud and support Snowden’s actions, likewise those of Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, and all the others who sacrificed so much to expose illegality, fraud, abuse of power, and corruption. It is imperative that whistle-blowers are not harassed, prosecuted in closed courts, or silenced. Their cause is your cause. It is for the public’s sake that they risk their livelihoods—and sometimes their lives.
I wish Ed Snowden well. I am glad that he can lead a life with some semblance of normality with the love of his life. I hope that he continues to contribute to the ongoing debates about the balance of power, of personal privacy versus national security, and the role and responsibility of the intelligence community.