Snowden Explains His Rationale for Whistleblowing

Snowden Explains His Rationale for Whistleblowing

Snowden blew the whistle because checks and balances had broken down

  • Posted on: 26 October 2014
  • By: stannenb

Edward Snowden decided to provide classified National Security Administration (NSA) documents to the press when he came to believe that the system of checks and balances envisioned in the US Constitution had irretrievably broken down, he told an audience at the Harvard Law School on Monday. Interviewed via video-conference by Lawrence Lessig, Professor of Law and Leadership at the Harvard Law School, Snowden pointed to two specific events that convinced him that whistleblowing, something he described as a last resort, was not only justified, but required. In early 2013, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in a case called Amnesty et al. v. Clapper which held that the plaintiffs, who included a variety of nonprofit organizations, individuals, and news organizations, had no standing to bring suit against warrantless wiretapping because they could not demonstrate that they had been spied on, let alone harmed, by a program whose details remained secret. In March of that same year, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was asked under oath by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) "[D]oes the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?" Clapper replied "No, sir", a remark he later described as the "least untruthful" response he could give under the circumstances.

Snowden, from his own work at the NSA, knew that to be untrue.

Having become convinced that neither the judicial nor legislative branches of government were exercising appropriate oversight over NSA mass surveillance, Snowden decided that he would gather documents and make them available to selected members of the press. Snowden said that, in his role as a civilian contractor to the NSA, he had clearance above top secret called "Privileged Access", something that he said would give him access to virtually every classified document including the names, addresses and social security numbers of virtually the entire US intelligence community. In order to limit any damage he might do, he took none of that data and only documents related to mass surveillance programs. Further, he decided that he would work through the press and not disclose any information on his own, allowing reporters and their editors to make their own independent judgements weighing the public interest against possible harms to the United States. He said that he asked reporters to avoid anything that would put any individual at risk.

Snowden said that he no specific outcome in mind when he chose to go to the press. He said that he felt that the public had lost its "seat at the table", and that the institutional culture of the NSA was "untethered from the public interest" because people like James Clapper weren't held accountable for untruthful statements to Congress. The decision to become a whistle blower was not easy, he said, as he comes from a "government family." His father and grandfather served in the military and sister and mother work for the government, as did Snowden himself when he was a CIA staff officer.

Snowden noted that, based on information released as part of reviews prompted by his revelations, no "imminent threat" had been discovered by mass surveillance. To the contrary, Snowden pointed to the Boston Marathon bombing as an example of how mass surveillance distracts from traditional intelligence and police methods. In the case of the accused marathon bombers, the intelligence community had been tipped to the radicalization of Tamerlan Tsarnaev by Russian secret police. If, instead of spending $10 billion per year on mass surveillance, our country used at least some of that money to pursue targeted investigations, perhaps the bombing could have been prevented, Snowden said.

Snowden, who has been charged by Federal prosecutors with conveying classified information to an unauthorized party, disclosing communications intelligence information, and theft of government property, resides in Russia where he was when his US passport was revoked.

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