Why was it the responsibility of Edward Snowden, former National Security Agency contractor and whistleblower, to take information from the NSA and release to the public for the world to see what this NSA was actually doing in secret?
In his first interview since being stranded in Russia, where he currently has temporary asylum, Snowden argued this question put forward by critics and naysayers “inverts the model.” He added, “The overseers,” elected him.
From The Washington Post:
“Dianne Feinstein elected me when she asked softball questions” in committee hearings, he said. “Mike Rogers elected me when he kept these programs hidden. . . . The FISA court elected me when they decided to legislate from the bench on things that were far beyond the mandate of what that court was ever intended to do. The system failed comprehensively, and each level of oversight, each level of responsibility that should have addressed this, abdicated their responsibility.”
“It wasn’t that they put it on me as an individual — that I’m uniquely qualified, an angel descending from the heavens — as that they put it on someone, somewhere,” he said. “You have the capability, and you realize every other [person] sitting around the table has the same capability but they don’t do it. So somebody has to be the first.” [emphasis added]
The realization that one has the capability and must do it or the public may never know the truth is common among whistleblowers. Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, when he was forty years-old, realized in the midst of the Vietnam War that he had a duty to the Constitution and the country and had to take action.
As Ellsberg said in a prior interview I conducted, he was looking at documents of wrongful behavior that he no longer wanted to be a part of and chose to expose the information so people could resist. Only through exposing the information could anyone in the country resist. “If he didn’t do it, it was clear it wasn’t going to be done,” he stated.
Chelsea Manning, who is serving thirty-five years in a military prison after being convicted of multiple charges related to the disclosure of the “Collateral Murder” video and hundreds of thousands of US government documents that showed the truth about US diplomacy, the wars in Iraq Afghanistan, etc, came to a similar realization.
She was upset that the government was holding individuals at Guantanamo without due process, that the government had “inexplicably turned a blind eye to torture and executions by the Iraqi government and that the country “stomached countless other acts in the name of our war on terror.”
“I only wanted to help people,” Manning declared in a statement after being sentenced to prison. “When I chose to disclose classified information, I did so out of a love for my country and my sense of duty to others.”
Whistleblowers reach this point—this kind of epiphany—when they can see from within the corruption and deceit in which government is operating and how it is, in effect, conspiring against the freedoms of people.
It is not that whistleblowers elected or appointed themselves to decide what information should be kept secret and what information should not be kept secret. It is that individuals in government elected and appointed themselves to protect powerful agencies or institutions in government from scrutiny and transparency in which they deserved so that rights and liberty could be preserved. And the whistleblower acts engaged in by government officials, employees or military officers is in response to what they experienced when confronting this reality—the extent to which powerful people will go to shield themselves from accountability.
Additionally, there’s another section of the Post interview that is worth highlighting.
“As a system administrator,” Snowden “had full access to security and auditing controls,” when he was supporting operations at a listening post in Japan. “He said he saw serious flaws with information security,” according to Post journalist Barton Gellman.
“I actually recommended they move to two-man control for administrative access back in 2009,” he said, first to his supervisor in Japan and then to the directorate’s chief of operations in the Pacific. “Sure, a whistleblower could use these things, but so could a spy.”
That precaution, which requires a second set of credentials to perform risky operations such as copying files onto a removable drive, has been among the principal security responses to the Snowden affair.
Snowden was not the only former NSA employee to make this claim that he recommended the system be monitored, and the NSA did nothing to establish precautions.
William Binney, who worked in signals intelligence in the NSA, spoke to me last week about a program called ThinThread, which he and other NSA whistleblowers fought to have the NSA adopt. It would have made targeted information acquisition possible and established a process that was more efficient than bulk data collection. It also would have meant that the NSA was not violating the privacy of Americans by intercepting their personal data.
According to Binney, the program would have also made it possible to monitor the network log. Any time anybody was on a computer and started accessing data, “whether they were a system administrator or anybody else,” the action would be logged.
“If anybody wanted to download something, you could see it immediately,” Binney said.
NSA never developed and implemented technology in order to have the capabilities to track activities by employees on the agency’s systems. The reason was because of two groups of people: analyst and management.
The analysts “realized that what that would be doing is monitoring everything they did and assessing what they were doing. They objected. They didn’t want to be monitored.”
Management resisted because it meant one would be “able to assess returns on all the programs around the world.” It would be possible to “lay out all the programs in the world and map [them] against the spending and the return on investment.”
It meant the agency would be “exposed to Congress for auditing,” Binney added.” Management, those leading the NSA, did not want that.
I have written multiple posts on what happens to whistleblowers, who attempt to go through “proper channels,” since documents from Snowden began to be published in June. Does an agency with analysts who don’t want to be monitored and management which does not want to be audited by Congress seem like one that would have allowed Snowden to go through “proper channels” so he could have the same effect that he has had?
Going through “proper channels” would have allowed the government to maintain control of the disclosure of information related to what Snowden was seeking to expose. It would have greatly limited the extent to which Americans were able to see actual documents proving whatever he might have alleged. Doubt about whether the NSA could be trusted with its vast spying capabilities would not have developed because officials would have been able to control Snowden’s impact on the agency.
In contrast—and as Snowden notes in the Post interview—putting the information in the hands of journalists from Gellman to Glenn Greenwald to Laura Poitras to journalists at outlets in Brazil, Canada, France, Norway, Sweden, etc, made it possible to challenge the NSA. It achieved an erosion of trust that what the agency was doing was right, which was necessary to force those in the political class in Washington to allow a debate about imposing greater limits on the activities of a key component of the US national security state.
There would have been no NSA review group with a former deputy CIA director and a former counterterrorism adviser overseen by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. A report with 46 recommendations that could help the NSA win back support would never have been produced. If any review happened at all, it would have remained internal and he would have found out the details through self-serving leaks from anonymous US government officials.
“I believe the cost of frank public debate about the powers of our government is less than the danger posed by allowing these powers to continue growing in secret,” Snowden stated in the Post interview.
The same people who condemn him for not going through proper channels would have been calling into question what he believed because they did not have proof, the very documents which he has been criticized for taking. News media would have quickly lost interest in him in a few days because once he made his claims there would be no reason to remain engaged.
The constant release of NSA stories ensured that space was created to begin the change he wanted to see. It made success possible. That is why, as he sits in Russia, he can say today, with confidence, that his mission was accomplished.