A civil liberties committee in the European Parliament heard testimony from national security whistleblowers from both the United States and United Kingdom. The testimony was part of a committee inquiry into alleged spying by the US and European Union countries that was exposed by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The committee, chaired by Sophie in ‘T Veld, heard a statement from Snowden, where he said, “When I began my work, it was with the sole intention of making possible the debate we see occurring here in this body and in many other bodies around the world.” (The statement was read by Justice Department whistleblower and director of the national security and human rights division of the Government Accountability Project (GAP), Jesselyn Radack, and can be read here.)
Two former NSA whistleblowers, Thomas Drake and Kirk Wiebe, who both exposed fraud, waste, abuse and illegality at the NSA, delivered remarks and answered questions.
Wiebe told the committee the NSA, under its former director, Michael Hayden, changed the meaning of the words “probable cause” in the Fourth Amendment. They decided the operative language was “reasonable suspicion,” not “probable cause.” This was done to “free the NSA from stringent prohibitions so that it could have a freer hand in judging what might be of intelligence interest in the wake of the tragic events of September 11, 2001.
It was “later revealed that the NSA was collecting information on Americans,” Wiebe added. “NSA claimed the violation was accidental,” and “we now know, thanks to Edward Snowden, that this assertion was patently false.” [Full statement here.]
“The NSA has inverted the heart of the democratic paradigm in which the government acts in public and our personal lives are private,” Drake stated. “Now everyone’s personal and private lives and associated transaction and data history becomes the equivalent of secret government property, held for years as pre-crime data just in case it is needed in the future—secret dossiers of the State—while attempts to expose the government are met with the heavy hand of criminal prosecution.” [Full statement here.]
As Drake recounted, “I was subsequently placed under intense physical and electronic surveillance, raided by the FBI in 2007 and two and a half years later, under the Obama Administration, criminally charged under a 10 felony count indictment including five under the Espionage Act.” He faced thirty-five years in prison.
“The extraordinary charges that were leveled against me by the US Department of Justice [were] symptomatic of the rising power of the national security state since 9/11 and a direct assault on freedom of speech, though, invasion and privacy,” Drake further declared.
Neither Drake nor Wiebe had testified before an official government body, not even a committee in the US Congress, primarily because the leadership of US intelligence committees in Congress have committed themselves to helping NSA suppress the debate Snowden has ignited.
Annie Machon, an MI5 whistleblower, said, “We need whistleblowers now. With this encroaching surveillance state, with this global surveillance dystopia that is gradually emerging from the Snowden revelations and also with the spread of other questionable activities around the world—things like CIA kill lists, the assassination of terrorist suspects without due process by the use of drones, the invasion of sovereign countries on dubious evidence,” like the invasion of Iraq, which was proven to be based on lies—Each “cry out for the need for greater accountability and greater transparency.”
In 1996, she left MI5 with her partner at the time, David Shayler, to expose spying crimes by the agency. They included: how the agency had started files on government ministers, illegal phone taps of leftwing journalists, how innocent people were being imprisoned on secret evidence, how IRA bombs were going off on streets that could have been prevented and how MI6 had funded and been involved in a terrorist operation to assassinate Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 1996.
Machon and Shayler had to go on the run and live in hiding in France, while MI5 fought to have them prosecuted. Shayler ended up doing time in prison. They both gave their jobs, career prospects and their way of life. Family and friends were arrested. Journalists were threatened with arrest for reporting and writing about what they tried to expose.
“Why on earth are the criminals in the intelligence agencies not the ones on trial?” Machon asked. “The people who were involved in MI6 funding al Qaeda associates in 1996 were never even questioned by the police. They were certainly not charged with conspiracy to murder. They were certainly not convicted or imprisoned, but the whistleblower was for exposing that crime.”
What Machon described in the UK mirrored what is ongoing in the US. There are no proper channels national security whistleblowers can go through. They can easily be prosecuted by laws, which do not allow whistleblowers to defend what they did by arguing what they exposed was in the public interest. The bodies that are supposed to provide oversight of national security or intelligence agencies are toothless or inhibited through laws from keeping those agencies in check, which allows corruption to become rampant.
She highlighted the Official Secrets Act and how it contains a “clear bright line against disclosure, which means if you are a former or serving intelligence officer, you automatically break the law if you talk to anyone outside the agency for which you work.”
Also, “There is a raft of legislation that can be used to threaten the media and is indeed being used at the moment to stifle media debate about the Edward Snowden case. These include injunctions [and] superinjunctions, where you can’t even discuss there is an injunction. There are public interest immunity certificates, which the government can use that are like injunctions. They use the Terrorism Act to threaten journalists. They also have a voluntary system called the D-Notice Committee and a D-Notice has been issued to stifle legitimate debate within our media about Edward Snowden.”
Drake was asked if the NSA is using information being collected and stored to engage in industrial or political espionage. He responded, “The disclosures that you are seeing in the press are significant evidence pointing to the use of intelligence or repurposing intelligence based on secret accesses for other reasons.” He said it could easily be used for political purposes
He informed the committee he had been aware of the “beginning foundation of the PRISM program,” which was setup to collect data from major Internet companies. The program was intended to “put what had been disclosed in the previous two years” back under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and then “secretly interpret it to continue to have unfettered access” to the data, “as they had been doing for the past 4 or 5 years.”
Asked about Congress, Drake suggested, “What we have are undersight committees in the US legislature. They’re completely compromised. There’s only a few senators and representatives, who are willing to standup.” There are “staggering amounts of money being made by private corporations in league with the government.” And, “Surveillance, frankly, is a huge growth industry.”
Machon reasoned that, “Intelligence agencies have been well aware of the tensions building between digital natives, the spread of the Internet, spread of free speech and ideas, and their power to control us.” She said she would call it an arms race. They are “trying to get more and vaster ways of taking away our privacy” to work out “what we’re thinking, who we’re meeting, what were reading and what are strategies are.”
This may be the “last chance for the European community to make a stand and say let’s not go down this path. Let’s not be taken over by these technologies,” she said.
When Radack testified, she told the committee, “Without courageous whistleblowers like Mr. Snowden, the world would not know the enormity of the National Security Agency’s surveillance activities in my country or in member states. Instead, the public would rely on half-truths and outright lies from US government officials. Mr. Snowden’s disclosures have brought to the forefront a much-needed public debate about the US government’s exorbitant, expensive and often ineffective surveillance apparatus.”
“The US, however, has tried in myriad ways to criminalize whistleblowing and reporters associated with it in order to send a chilling message to anyone even thinking of speaking truth to power,” she declared. “What the US government calls espionage I call having moral courage to express and expose some of the most egregious, tightly-held illegalities of the past decade, including torture, war crimes and mass surveillance on an unprecedented scale.”
Eloquently, Machon seized upon an opportunity to confront those who would call whistleblowers traitors.
“I signed up and I signed the Official Secrets Act,” Machon stated. “I was motivated to have a job that could potentially save lives and that motivation is what carried me through into blowing the whistle to potentially save future lives from spy crimes. And I signed the Official Secrets Act to protect official secrets, which is what I have done and what I will continue to do with all the successful operations I was involved in. However, I did not sign up to protect unofficial secrets and spy crimes.”
The whistleblowers who came before the committee gave its members an ample amount of testimony about the need to press for reform of laws in the European Union so intelligence agency whistleblowers could have an avenue to come forward under some level of legal protection. They also passionately spoke out against the growing surveillance state and pleaded with members to ensure this inquiry produces bold recommendations, which confront the dark authoritarian reality the NSA has been creating for countries around the world.