Monday afternoon inside the Ames Courtroom at Harvard Law School, Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig interviewed the American intelligence contractor and NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden via satellite, or, more specifically, via Google Hangout.
Snowden, called a traitor by a number of senior government officials, leaked secret NSA documents about its global surveillance program to journalists from the U.S. version of British media outlet The Guardian and The Washington Post. He is in Russia evading charges of theft of government property and for violating the Espionage Act.
The discussion, dubbed “Institutional corruption and the NSA,” covered many topics related to politics and policy, privacy, and the public’s right to knowledge deemed secret by government agencies.
Snowden started by saying there are many “difficult questions that don’t really have a proper answers,” but that he will do his best to give clarity to the major issues revolving around his decision to become a government whistle-blower. Lessig asked Snowden to explain, from his perspective, the entirety of his current situation, and then stated that, “I’ve been struck by the number of people who have no clear sense of who you are and what your values are as you came to work for the NSA, and the work you did by exposing the NSA.”
Snowden said that he comes from a government family, who believed that “fundamentally the government had noble aims and that it did good things.”
“But what I was not aware of and have grown aware of, while the people in government largely are there for the right reasons, there is a culture that pervades the upper levels, the senior levels that has become less accountable to the public they serve,” Snowden said. “Because of that, we see that politics and policies, irrevocably and irresistibly, gravitate towards the prerogatives of individuals, and officials…an elected and unelected class.”
This realization, Snowden said, led him to uncover that massive amounts of surveillance that was going on, that he said should have never happened.
“They were happening beyond any possible statute for recording, based on the Constitution,” he said.
He added that there were no reasons for much of the surveillance to exist, and that very few people, including members of Congress and many of his co-workers, knew about the program.
In terms of the surveillance going on, Snowden said it’s important to be aware that mass surveillance illustrated that there are government agencies, “working on their own, without oversight, that are changing the boundaries of our rights.”
“This led me to stand up and say something about it. I worked with American journalists and some American news outlets to make sure that the public had the ability to make the decisions about the issue.”
“I was witness to violations of the Constitution that were happening in secret.”
Journalism and whistleblowing
Snowden said whistle-blowers are people who are standing up for something, in this case democratic right of free speech and privacy. But he emphasized that they should not dictate how the information is dispersed to the public. Which is why he said he didn’t write about what he found himself, and instead went to the press.
“It comes down to not dictating outcomes,” he said, “but allowing the public a chance to participate in democratic processes.”
“I didn’t try to push my agenda,” Snowden said, “that’s why I went to the press, the press is a critical part of American society, part of our constitutional systems.” He said that it is not his role to dictate what the public should and shouldn’t know, but by working with the press, it allows institutions, who can present arguments from a position detached from the issue, to figure out what the public should be made aware of.
“The work of journalism, the work of the press, is challenging the government,” Snowden said. “The public still does recognize that this type of reporting is important to the public.”
“Journalists see themselves, right or wrong, as champions of the public,” he said, “and because of that they have a motivation, a self-image which makes them try to safeguard the public interest, even against the government itself.”
“Make sure no one gets hurt…”
Throughout the entire process of passing secret information to the press, Snowden said that the only stipulation he had was to make sure that no one was compromised and that no one could be hurt from the leaks.
“I had access to the personal records of everyone who worked in intelligence…I had a level of access that was higher than “top secret,” I had privileged access,” he said.
“If I had wanted to cause harm, that was possible, but when you think about public interest, about what should be out there versus legitimate secrets, there is a line to be drawn I made sure that only the information that would be necessary was made available to the journalists was for the public interest.”
Snowden said that he required all the journalists he leaked the information to agree not put any individuals and or programs to unnecessary risks, and to only publish stories that had a clear public interest.
A change in how we use surveillance is causing the system to fail
One point Snowden emphasized was that the U.S. has changed from focusing on the traditional way it did surveillance to mass surveillance, and that it hasn’t made the process any more effective, even arguing that it has made spying less successful. He said that even when target had unprecedented security, encryption, etc., the system worked when it focused on suspected bad players.
“This is the real challenge between what happened before and what’s happening now in surveillance,” Snowden said. “It’s not necessary to collect information on everyone, and it’s never been necessary,” he said. “I would would argue that we misuse it, and that investigations fail, because…we are not seeing things in specificity.”
Boston Marathon bombers
Snowden used the Boston Marathon bombings as an example of what he said shows how potential dangers can be missed by the system of massive surveillance.
“The Tsarnaev brothers were pointed out to us by Russian intelligence sources,” Snowden said. The FBI only did a cursory investigation into the Tsarnaevs because of “resource constraints,” he added.
“The reality is that we knew who these guys were and who they were associating with, extremism in advance of the attacks, but we didn’t follow up or watch these guys…Why?”
Snowden said that the resources are being mismanaged.
“Should we be spending $10 billion a year on mass surveillance programs at the NSA to the extent that we no longer have effective means of target surveillance?” he asked. “We are watching everyone that we have no reason to be watching simply because the may do something, at the expense of watching specific people who we have a specific cause for investigating.”
Opening the door that can’t be closed
Finally, Snowden said the approach of massive surveillance, of listening to phone networks and hacking into Internet sites is actually making the U.S. more vulnerable to attacks from adversaries.
“Once you make a backdoor into something,” Snowden said, “you can’t control who walks in through it.” He added that once the government figures out how to watch people on Facebook or Twitter, then they are setting up the roadmap for other, more dangerous parties, to do the same.
“By enabling this sort of surveillance, we are compromising the safety of society for the benefit of an agency,” he said.