NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden says fixing U.S. is his first duty
MANCHESTER — Edward Snowden told a supportive, enthusiastic crowd at the New Hampshire Liberty Forum Saturday that he would return to the United States if the government guarantees him a fair trial, “where I can make a public interest defense of why this was done and allow the jury to decide if it was right or wrong.”
A big cheer went up as Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who stole secret government documents that exposed mass surveillance programs, first appeared on a big screen via a video link from Russia, where he is living in exile.
More than 400 people, most of them members of the Free State Project, crowded into a meeting room at the Radisson Center of New Hampshire to hear Snowden, who has attained folk-hero status among libertarians. Another 100 watched in another room.
The 45-minute conversation, moderated by Nick Gillespie of Reason TV, began with audience members holding up masks bearing Snowden's likeness, eliciting a grin and a wave from the man himself.
Snowden said he originally volunteered to go to prison for stealing the government documents. “But I said I wouldn't allow myself to be held up as a deterrent to other people who are trying to do the right thing. And that was fundamentally contrary to what the government was trying to do.”
'Fixing my country'
Snowden told the audience that it wasn't his choice to stay in Russia. He wanted to go to Iceland, and later Latin America, after he fled prosecution in the U.S., but the state department cancelled his passport. “The United States criticizes me for being in Russia at the same time they won't let me leave,” he said.
Snowden answered his own question about whether it's hypocritical for him to be more critical of the U.S. than he is of Russia, where government surveillance of private citizens is ongoing and “clearly indefensible.” It's not, he said.
“I owe my first duty, my first allegiance ... to fixing my country before I try to solve the problems of the rest of the world,” he said. “We've got to get our own house in order first.”
Asked why he did what he did while others around him at the NSA did not, Snowden talked about bringing a copy of the Constitution to work and placing it on his desk.
When he started “raising the alarm” about some of the agency's surveillance programs, he said, some co-workers agreed with him but others argued that constitutional protections were no longer relevant given the nature of post-911 threats to national security.
Patriot or traitor?
James Ramsay is professor of security studies and director of the homeland security program at the University of New Hampshire. He thinks Snowden's public appearances are about seeking vindication for what he did.
“Nobody wants to go down as a villain,” he said in a recent interview.
Ramsay engages in an academic exercise with his students, asking them to debate whether Snowden is a patriot or a traitor. He teaches them to look at such issues from all sides.
On the one hand, he said, Snowden saw the government spying on citizens without a warrant and lying about it. However, he also committed a crime when he stole sensitive documents.
Ramsay calls Snowden a “digital vigilante.”
“And in his mind, the calculus must have been that ‘my evil is less than the greater evil and I need to commit that evil in order to shed light on the greater evil and thus rectify the system.'”
But from a national security perspective, there's no grey area, he said. “Snowden broke federal law and that put at risk national security operatives and activities and programs and technologies that we didn't want our adversaries to find out about,” he said.
As to whether Snowden ultimately is judged a patriot or a traitor, Ramsay said, “I think history will define that when we learn the consequences of where that information went and what it did to other people's lives.”
Apple and data collection
Snowden on Saturday talked at length about the legal action the FBI has taken against Apple to force the tech giant to create a way for authorities to access what's inside a smartphone owned by one of the San Bernadino attackers. As a technologist, he finds the case “deeply disturbing,” he said.
No other country in the world has asked a private company to do what the FBI is asking, he said. “It's a binary choice,” he said. “Either all of us have security or none of us have security.”
The U.S. is supposed to set the example for the rest of the world, he said. “We don't want Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, or France or Germany or Brazil, or any other country in the world, to hold us up as an example for why we are narrowing the boundaries of liberty rather than expanding them,” he said.
Protecting private communication dates back to the founding fathers, Snowden said.
Benjamin Franklin created his own encryption systems, he said, “because he recognized that when great power has intensely detailed private information about the political activities of groups that are acting in manners that they would find inconvenient or burdensome, it's going to be a very short revolution.”
“And we would have lost,” he added.
Snowden said collection of phone records is still happening on a “mass, indiscriminate scale” even after the reforms prompted by his revelations. “The government stopped holding these repositories of data, but they said the phone companies can still hold this information and we'll just ask them for it.”
The San Bernadino attack clearly was a crime, he said. But the nature of a free and open society is that life entails some measure of risk. “You're only going to be perfectly protected if you bury yourself under the ground.”
There's nothing wrong with law enforcement targeting someone's phone if they have evidence of criminal activity, he said. But since 9/11, the government has been engaged in what he called “pre-criminal” investigation, monitoring everyone to collect information that could become useful at some point in the future.
'Revoking a mandate'
Snowden interspersed his talk with video clips, in one instance showing top officials outright denying before Congress that the U.S. government was collecting phone records of American citizens.
The ideal balance between private citizens and public officials “is that we know everything about them and they know nothing about us,” Snowden said.
But more and more, the opposite has become true, he said. “They're excusing themselves from accountability from us at the same time they're trying to exert greater power over us,” he said.
Asked if he was going to be able to vote by absentee ballot in the upcoming election, Snowden replied, “This is still a topic of active research.”
But he also said, “I don't believe there's anyone in the race that represents my values.”
Not voting can send a message, he said. “You're revoking a mandate.”
But he went on to say that, just as the founding fathers once did, “Small groups of people who are politically passionate can light brush fires of liberty in the minds of men.”
And that prompted cheers and applause from the Liberty Forum crowd.