MIDDLEBURY — Edward Snowden, the onetime spy agency employee who leaked a trove of documents showing that the U.S. government watches American citizens, told a Middlebury College audience Thursday that his whistleblowing has resulted in changes to laws and policies for the good.
“This conversation made us stronger as a nation,” Snowden said in his address via a video hookup from Russia, where he lives in asylum. “It changed laws, and we live in a fairer and freer world because of it.”
Snowden was a National Security Agency contractor and Central Intelligence Agency employee in June 2013 when he leaked classified information to journalists. The information revealed massive NSA surveillance of U.S. citizens and of others abroad using cell phone and Internet data (see sidebar on this page).
Some view him as a patriot and have given him awards for encouraging transparency and free speech. Others consider him a traitor. Facing prosecution by American authorities, Snowden has lived in Russia since then; in January Russia extended Snowden’s permitted stay in that country through 2020.
Thursday’s live conversation, called “Democracy and Dictatorship in the Age of Surveillance and Leaks,” attracted 300 to Wilson Hall.
“You all know who he is and perhaps formed an opinion of his life choices,” said political science professor Allison Stanger when she introduced Snowden. “Give him the benefit of the doubt.”
Stanger has written extensively on surveillance and whistleblowing. Her forthcoming book on whistleblowing includes a discussion of Snowden. Indeed, Stanger told the audience that an earlier version of her book had been about to go to press when Snowden’s 2013 revelations forced her back to square one.
In her research Stanger has interviewed all NSA whistleblowers as well as senior NSA leaders.
“My aim is to weave the truth out of those opposing tales,” she said. “And to understand a complicated issue in its full complexity.”
Partway through Stanger’s introductory remarks, the 33-year-old Snowden suddenly appeared on the giant screen at the front of the auditorium, saying, “Well hello there.”
From his opening remarks, Snowden assumed a kind of generational kinship with the students who have grown up in the very kind of technology-intensive, cell phone-connected environment that makes possible the very kind of surveillance he says he is fighting.
Just a generation ago, said Snowden, government surveillance of individuals was an expensive, manpower-intensive proposition. But now, the ubiquity of cell phones and other personal electronics has changed all that.
“Today that dynamic is reversed. One guy sitting in front of a monitor can track an unimaginably large number of people.
“That was me. That was my last position at the NSA.
“For the first time in human history it’s possible for the government to track and store records of almost all of our lives.”
Snowden explained that while content is protected with various measures, what he saw and ultimately objected to was the mass collection of “metadata,” which was not protected. Because every cell phone must ring to a unique number, governments can now track ordinary citizens throughout the day by storing that data in a kind of “bucket” that can be accessed later.
“It’s the story of your life. You get up, check your email or check the weather and it generates ‘metadata.’ Now they know you’re awake.”
Snowden listed the kinds of ordinary activities that are tracked, from driving through a tollbooth to swiping a debit card at a cafe.
“Now they don’t need anyone to follow you because your devices are following you and throwing off evidence — what you read, who you call the most, who you call at 2 a.m.”
Snowden emphasized that while many might feel they aren’t personally threatened by these practices so long as they’re doing nothing wrong, for him these practices threaten the very basis of democracy.
“Privacy is the foundation to all other rights. Rights to self, to a free mind, to your own ideas that you can test and share to the world.
“If we lose that, we’re losing ourselves.”
He ultimately took the step to leak the NSA documents, he said, because the he saw the mass surveillance as a violation of the Constitution and because of “the failure in intended measures of constitutional oversight,” when the courts, Congress and other federal authorities seemed unwilling or unable to operate in transparency with the American people.
Snowden played a video clip to illustrate this point, showing former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testifying before Congress under oath that the NSA did not “wittingly” collect data on millions of Americans.
Within months, Snowden leaked the documents that showed just the opposite — the NSA did conduct mass surveillance.
Snowden detailed how the program began as a response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks but said that to date the government has yet to show that mass surveillance has been effective against terrorism.
Instead, Snowden said he believes that surveillance can be used and has been used to discredit those who try to challenge the system, in the same way that the FBI tried to silence Martin Luther King Jr. by tracking his personal life.
Snowden gave examples of how many ideas now central to our values — votes for women, ending slavery — were first fringe ideas rejected by the majority.
“Throughout history we took for granted slavery, the disenfranchisement of women. They were all legal and had the support of the majority,” he said.
“They ended thanks to radicals who were different, who said this is wrong. They changed things by building a critical mass mind by mind, heart by heart. They formed a chain that changed history. Until suddenly an idea like slavery was no longer popular and people were willing to fight to change it.”
Asked by an audience member whether he had help from foreign governments (specifically Russia or China), he asserted that he acted as an individual. He played a video clip of former NSA Deputy Director Chris Inglis saying there was no evidence Snowden was or had been a Russian or Chinese spy.
Snowden pointed to the public record showing that he had intended to seek asylum in Latin America and had ended up stranded in Russia by circumstances but not by design.
“I planned quite carefully how I’d get in contact with the journalists and give the documents to them,” he said. “But I didn’t have a plan for the day after tomorrow. I didn’t expect to make it that far. I didn’t expect to make it out of Hawaii.”
Snowden also distinguished himself from leaker Julian Assange by explaining that whereas WikiLeaks has an anonymous “dropbox,” he was careful to contact reputable investigative journalists from leading publications and to hold them accountable for verifying that the information was worthy of publication.
“I charged them to only publish what served the public and required them to agree to the additional condition that their judgment and mine were not enough that in advance of publication they would go to the U.S. government,” Snowden said. “And in all of these cases they went to the government and said, ‘Can you show that we should not publish? That it would cause harm?’ In every case that process was followed.
“Today, in 2017, the U.S. government has never shown any evidence that anyone has come to any harm as a result of these disclosures.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected]