Over the weekend, a conference on surveillance was held by the Chicago chapter of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee (BORDC). 

The conference examined surveillance, traditional and high-tech, how it intersected amongst federal, state and local levels of government and what had been exposed by former National Security Agency contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden. Restore the Fourth had a representative there to talk about what groups are doing to respond to the surveillance that has been exposed by Snowden. Domestic drones and surveillance cameras in Chicago were addressed as well. 

Kade Crockford of ACLU Massachusetts, Amie Stepanovich of EPIC, Mike German of the ACLU, Adam Schwartz of the ACLU Illinois and others gave presentations. And I delivered a presentation on threats to press freedom posed by surveillance and also produced a video interview with NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake for the conference. 

Drake recently visited Russia with Justice Department whistleblower Jesselyn Radack, FBI whistleblower Coleen Rowley and former CIA officer Ray McGovern, who has been outspoken against the US intelligence community and served under seven US presidents.

We discussed what it was like to meet Snowden, what he considered to be the most glaring dangerous revelations on the surveillance state so far and whether he thought there would be more NSA whistleblowers that would come forward in the future. Some of what we discussed related to James Risen’s recent interview with Snowden.

Below is a video of the interview. There also is a transcript of our discussion.

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KEVIN GOSZTOLA, Firedoglake: What was it like to meet Edward Snowden?

THOMAS DRAKE, NSA Whistleblower:Well, meeting Edward Snowden was quite remarkable. It’s not every day that you get to meet a US whistleblower who has been granted political asylum in another country; in this case, Russia. We spent a number of hours with him talking about a whole range of subjects. He’s truly a remarkable person, very centered, very engaging, has a wicked sense of humor, very up on world events—following everything he can in the United States, the response to all the disclosures.

I think he was concerned early on that the disclosures would not cause much of a ripple let alone a discussion. We assured him based upon what has been going on that is certainly not the case, and he’s certainly quite gratified that we were there to award the Sam Adams Associates Integrity and Intelligence Award.

GOSZTOLA: Based off of what people are getting to read from him because of the excellent James Risen story put out in the past twenty-four hours detailing the way he’s been maligned, accused of being compromised by Russian agents and the sort of allegations made against him about being a bad person when he was at the CIA and violating his authority and then talking about some of what inspired him—Is there anything you would have to say about the content of that? That tracks pretty well with what he was possibly telling you?

DRAKE: No, it tracks with the wide-ranging conversations we had even on a quite personal level. The thing that I’m struck by in terms of those who would malign him is it’s the classic attack on the person. It’s the traditional on the character of a person, particularly a whistleblower, which avoids the substance of what they actually disclosed. But I recognize that’s a classic technique when you don’t want to have to deal with the substance of the disclosures and his are quite extraordinary.

He recognized what had been occurring over the past number of years. He saw what happened to me and others and he knew with what he was what he was witness to it was clearly in the public interest but, how do you get it out in a way that can actually be made available to the public so they can actually make up their own minds about what their government’s been doing in secret behind their backs without their consent? And in this particular case, with all that’s happened and transpired since 9/11, he had to escape the United States to have any hope ensuring that the material could actually get in the right hands for disclosure, through reporters and journalists—and that was in the persons of Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras—and also have any chance of securing or ensuring his own freedom, recognizing that the United States would throw everything to go after him and bring him back.

GOSZTOLA: And, do you have flashbacks? I guess, for people who aren’t terribly familiar with your story, I am not going to rehash it here. There are ways people can go online and read the full story, but, in meeting him, did you have flashbacks to aspects of what happened to you?

DRAKE: The first thing I was very present to is he’s standing on my shoulders and others and also extraordinarily grateful because it had been my hope for the last number of years that other people within the system would also come forward like I did and he certainly did so in rather dramatic fashion with the information and the evidence about how far the United States has gone in violating any number of statutes and laws, even those that are currently on their books and fundamentally as well in the Constitution, the Fourth Amendment—But not just the United States but also the rights of citizens in other countries as well.

One of the challenges that I thought I had seen was would we be able to have the real conversation, debate, that we had never had since 9/11. That certainly has been triggered and then some by his disclosures starting in June.

One of the unique things is he had the courage to actually—and it is unique—to actually disclose himself as the whistleblower. Historically, that’s usually not done. Usually the whistleblower remains anonymous, but I think given the circumstances—

Let me put it this way: I’ve relived the past twelve years as a result of the last four months and I was eye witness to the very beginning stages of the surveillance state as it metastasized shortly after 9/11. And that was during a period in which those secret surveillance programs were started and constructed in the deepest secrecy and then to see they grew from there in leaps and bounds. No one had any public knowledge about these secret surveillance programs and how far they had gone until the Risen/Lichtblau article in 2005 and so seeing James Risen’s name on the masthead underneath the title of his article—You know, I did smile when I read it. I mean, who better to have interviewed Edward Snowden than James Risen especially given his own circumstances in his own case involving Jeffrey Sterling in the Fourth Circuit but also going back to the blockbuster articles that the New York Times published in 2005?

So it’s been quite a period of time for me and yet here we are now having that debate and we’re really having a debate about what kind of country are we, who we are as people, and how do we allow the government to go without our consent in conducting the kind of activities that Edward Snowden has so courageously revealed.

GOSZTOLA: And so for audience members that have been following some of the disclosures, what sticks out to you as one of the most glaring dangerous aspects of the surveillance state that has been revealed?

DRAKE: The larger context is truly how vast its become and how far it’s been penetrated the very fabric of society in various ways and I believe there’s still a lot more to come out. As dramatic as many of the disclosures are, there’s still clearly—and even based on my own knowledge going back twelve years—there’s still more to be revealed.

What’s crucial and what’s so remarkable about Edward Snowden’s disclosures is that he brought actual documentation out, and he’s clearly learned the lessons from those who preceded him including myself. He saw what happened to me and how the government treated my whistleblowing with respect to using every avenue available within the system and then ultimately I did make the fateful decision to go to the press with what I knew about the secret surveillance programs as well as the massive fraud, waste and abuse.

In his case, he knew he would have to have prima facie evidence. The prima facie evidence that I had goes all the way to back to the 2001-2002 time period but that was given to official government investigators and tragically as it turns out was completely censored and suppressed. And the unclassified information I brought out that was removed by the FBI during their unceremonious raid of my residence and car and my office down at the National Defense University but mostly at my house—That was culpable evidence in terms of government conduct. They removed that off the streets so no one knew about it.

So here you have unassailable proof of how far the surveillance system has gone and I think there’s a couple things that stand out. One is probably the -80 order. The order requires Verizon—And of course it’s been renewed a couple of times since that was disclosed, although we don’t have absolute proof of that but certainly the DNI has publicly acknowledge the renewal of certain orders. Based on original disclosure of Snowden in June, you’re now seeing the actual evidence, something I had known for many, many years, both in the last couple of years before I left NSA but also the previous iteration of those programs, the bulk turnover of phone numbers to NSA in en masse.

Here you have the actual rather anti-septic quasi-extralegal text requiring Verizon to turn over the phone numbers of each and every subscriber, each and every day to NSA—no probable cause, no reasonable suspicion, no link or any relevance to terrorism or an ongoing investigation. It’s simply we need the phone numbers and the phone numbers make for a rather large haystack, to say it that way. That’s probably in my mind one of the big standouts.

The other one is PRISM because PRISM in some ways—It’s one thing to have phone numbers, and you get extraordinarily rich information from metadata as it aggregates over time. That alone was a fundamental violation of the Constitution because essentially it’s the equivalent of a general warrant. A general warrant is forbidden by the Constitution. You actually have to have particularized warrants. So that’s one thing.

The second thing is PRISM really is evidence of what I call the deep, dark side of the partnering between government and industry. And here you have very large companies who have vast amounts of data at their disposal, because of the subscribers to which they sell services, giving the government essentially a blanket or very open access to that information—not just metadata but also content.

The other one is probably just the partnerships NSA has overseas in which they are getting lots and lots of information about private citizens; completely unnecessary, no requirement that necessitates them gathering information except they can get to it just in case they need it later. And that’s a surveillance state. That’s a surveillance state that I lived under personally. It’s a surveillance state that I became aware of shortly after 9/11 to my horror, recognizing what I was seeing was completely upending the law, was setting aside the Constitution, bypassing all the mechanisms that exist to protect privacy, rights and liberties and just abandoning the Constitution.

As I’ve said publicly, and I will say it again for the purposes of the audience here with you, is the government unchained itself from the Constitution. Once you do that, the government is granting itself secret license to do anything it can get away with and, in this case, it became a hoarding complex and this compulsive, obsessive desire to simply acquire information wherever they could get it. It kind of gives new meaning to Hayden’s comment that I recall going back well over ten years ago where he told NSA in an executive session we need to own the net. I don’t think people fully appreciated what it meant to own the net.

I get there’s legitimate role for national security. The problem is we don’t have to violate and discard and set aside all our liberties and freedoms for the sake of security. Benjamin Franklin warned us a couple hundred plus years ago of what would happen. You would end up with neither.

GOSZTOLA: And then so going forward, your brief thoughts on what you’re seeing. I’ll highlight the efforts of Senator Ron Wyden because I think it is one of the more admirable efforts that are developing in the aftermath of Edward Snowden, that you’ve seen him come forward with some proposals. But then also Snowden saying that the dissent within the NSA is palpable to him. So, do you think that there are people inside that are breaking points and there might be other people like him in the not-so-distant future?

DRAKE: I believe that’s the case. I believe there will be others that will be inspired by Edward Snowden and the remarkable act of courage being convicted by the truth in terms of what he was exposed to.

One of the important things to note: he’s upholding the Constitution. The Constitution was an idea. The Constitution was promise of liberty and freedom and it is fundamentally centered on the individual. All the rest are the constraints that are imposed on government because for all the faults and contradictions in the Constitution they knew that you could not have an out-of-control executive in particular and that it needed to be constrained and what happened after 9/11 is the government unconstrained itself. And then it began this assault on the Fourth Amendment, which by assaulting the Fourth Amendment you ultimately end up taking the Fourth Amendment and turning it against the First. And that’s not the kind of future that I wish to live.

If the polls, for what polls are worth and I am always skeptical of polls—They certainly are trending in significant favor of Snowden and I think that’s also a reflection of the age we’re in; recognizing that in America in particular called fair play and I think people in America are realizing that government is exceeding its bounds. When you start seeing that it’s not just exceeding its bound but that it’s also gone beyond even the mandates that it was given where we actually gave the government rather wide berth to pursue the threat. And you’re finding out the threat, and you’re finding out, well, that threat’s gone far beyond it’s original mandate.

It’s like hey, everybody’s suspicious now and, as I have said publicly, we’re all foreigners now. That’s not the form of a governance that I took the oath to support and defend four times nor is it the one that even Edward Snowden took a oath to support and defend when he used to be a CIA employee. He’s an oath keeper, not an oath breaker. And unfortunately in today’s world, by exposing the truth, you end up having to escape the United States. He’s on his Latin America through Moscow and, of course, what did the US government do? They saw fit to revoke his passport making him stateless.

I became virtually stateless in the United States when my passport was confiscated as a result of my criminal case and I was severely restricted in terms of my ability to travel and any time I went outside the local area I had to get special permission. So, he does live in Russia now under political asylum, but is he truly free?

One of the conversations we did have with him is he is looking forward to a time when he can return to the United States but that is certainly not the case now. And the irony of all ironies is the one place he now finds himself in is the one place where he’s probably the most secure: outside of the United States.