Evan Greer, deputy director of digital rights group Fight for the Future, highlighted the provision on Twitter shortly after House Democrats released the continuing resolution, which would temporarily avert a looming government shutdown by providing funding for federal agencies through December 20. A House vote on the measure is expected as early as Tuesday. “Wow,” said Greer. “House Democrats are ignoring civil liberties and including a three month straight re-authorization of the Patriot Act (with
Edward Snowden, by his own account, grew up as a “shape-shifter.” His father worked for the Coast Guard, his mother for the Maryland state courts. But his parents’ appearances in Snowden’s new memoir, Permanent Record, are fleeting and superficial. The more enduring influences on his life—his sociocultural parental units, as it were—were the civil service and the internet. He seems not to have aspired to anything besides working at the intersection of the two.
The book’s title refers to both Snowden’s purpose and his fears. He hopes to tell the definitive story of how he became a whistleblower and to highlight what he sees as a great danger: that the U.S. government has a permanent record of everybody’s life online. He wants to memorialize his odyssey as a warning against overweening government power.
As part of the first generation to grow up on the internet, Snowden’s personality sometimes seems more digital than analog. He did not have a crowd, a best buddy, a mentor. He was more comfortable in the virtual communities of gaming. He doesn’t recall much about high school, except for sleeping in class after staying up all night online. His parents divorced, and he had to deal with the resulting “silence and lies.”
“I reacted by turning inward,” he writes. “I buckled down and willed myself into becoming another person, a shape-shifter putting on the mask of whoever the people I cared about the needed at the time. Among family, I was dependable and sincere. Among friends, mirthful and unconcerned.”
His realities are virtual, not vivid. He takes software engineering training and gets certified as a techie. When he becomes a systems administrator on contract at the National Security Agency and then the CIA, he finds the workplace culture congenial, at least initially.
“The Intelligence Community tries to inculcate in its workers a baseline anonymity, a sort of blank-page personality upon which to inscribe secrecy and the art of imposture.” He calls it “human encryption,” and admits his life was coded.
“[M]y earliest hacking attempts were directed toward allaying my neuroses,” he admits. “The more I came to know about the fragility of computer security, the more I worried over the consequences of trusting the wrong machine.”
The life of the encrypted techie was disrupted by the 9/11 attacks. At first he supported the U.S. going to war against Al Qaeda. “The greatest regret of my life is my reflexive, unquestioning support for that decision,” he says. He just wanted to be praised for something besides his computer skills. “I wanted to show that I wasn’t just a brain in a jar,” he writes. “I was also heart and muscle.” He enlists in the Army, but during basic training, his weak legs betray him. He is given a medical discharge.
How to be more than a brain in a jar? Snowden’s personal struggle is to find meaning beyond the limits of his online upbringing. He’s loyal to his internet self, even as he admits it’s pathetic. When he first applied for a security clearance, he decides not to erase his “supremely moronic” postings in various chat groups. (He recalls advocating the bombing of countries that taxed video games.)
Then he meets a 19-year-old art student named Lindsay—where else?—via an online dating service. She was, he says, “absolutely volcanic.” He rates her “hot,” although he now recognizes she was “gawky, awkward, and endearingly shy.” When they meet in person, they mesh. She listens to him and critiques his lousy wardrobe. She’s the only person in the book, besides Snowden himself, who comes alive in any way.
He’s an everyman of the digital age. With a girlfriend and a security clearance, he is “on the top of the world.” He had no coherent politics, only “a mash-up of the values I was raised with”—i.e., the civil service—“and the ideals I encountered online,” which were vaguely libertarian.
But the very lack of higher education that makes him naïve also makes him idealistic about the workings of the national security agencies. Without pretensions, he lacks cynicism. Without ideology, he doesn’t do rationalizations. While his colleagues help run the NSA’s global surveillance machine without questions or qualms, he wonders about that thing called the Constitution. He takes to perusing a copy at his desk. When colleagues realize what he is reading, he recalls, “they’d make a face and back away slowly.”
Snowden has trenchant observations about the foibles of the U.S. intelligence community (IC).
About the widespread use of contractors: “It’s unimaginable that a major bank or even a social media outfit would hire outsiders for systems-level work. In the context of the U.S. government, however, restructuring your intelligence agencies so that your most sensitive systems were being run by somebody who didn’t really work for you was what passed for innovation.”
About the lack of self-reflection among technologists: “Nothing inspires arrogance like a lifetime spent controlling machines that are incapable of criticism.”
And about his complacent colleagues. “It didn’t matter whether they’d come to the IC out of patriotism or opportunism: once they’d gotten inside the machine, they became machines themselves.”
Whistleblowing becomes Snowden’s path to getting a life. He embraces the Fourth Amendment. His work makes him worry about “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” He is surprised and puzzled that no one else seems to care that their employer is seizing the digital equivalent of “papers” of hundreds of millions of people every day without any evidence of wrongdoing. When director James Clapper denies in a Senate hearing that the NSA is collecting the metadata of hundreds of millions of people, Snowden, with his far-reaching sysadmin access, knows Clapper is lying. He decides to act.
Snowden becomes a thief of secrets, which is why some accuse him of espionage. As he roams the NSA’s networks in search of documentation of the surveillance regime, he knows how to cover his digital tracks. He accumulates a huge body of secrets: powerful surveillance programs with names like TURBINE, TURMOIL, PRISM, and XKEYSCORE, secret orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court, and internal NSA memoranda.
Snowden’s memoir flags a little at the end. He takes his trove and flees to Hong Kong, a story told with more urgency and flair in Laura Poitras’ documentary, Citizenfour. He turns over all decisions about the publication of the NSA files to Poitras and Glenn Greenwald (who would go on to found the Intercept), Ewen MacAskill of the Guardian, and Bart Gellman of the Washington Post.
Snowden’s self-effacing account effectively rebuts the conspiracy theories about him—that he vanished for a time in Hong Kong, that he gave documents to the Russians, that lives were lost because of his actions. It also skims over a development that would have disturbed a more self-involved whistleblower (e.g., Julian Assange). Ironically, the most permanent record of Snowden’s accomplishment—the complete collection of NSA records that he filched—is now inaccessible.
Earlier this year, the Intercept fired the staff who managed the Snowden Archive, prompting Poitras to say she was “sickened.” While the Intercept has done thousands of Snowden documents and scores of articles about them, sometimes in collaboration with leading news organizations in Germany,Australia and elsewhere, most of the Snowden Archive has never been written about.
Now it’s not clear when or how other reporters and historians can get access to it. I’ve asked First Look Media, the Intercept’s parent organization for more information I will post their comment if and when I receive it.
No academic institution can take over the archive because of the threat of government legal action. Like Snowden and wife Lindsay in Moscow, the most complete body of records about NSA mass surveillance lives in limbo. It’s not secret, but it’s not public either. Snowden has shared his tale, but the larger story of mass surveillance in America has yet to be told
This archive collects all documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that have subsequently been published by The Intercept and other news media. This is only a small portion of the NSA documents that Snowden stole from the NSA.
The Snowden Archive is the result of a research collaboration between Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) and the Politics of Surveillance Project at the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto.
An open letter from more than 100 former national security officials applauds the “responsible whistleblower” who came forward with information about President Trump’s Ukraine dealings.
While the identity of the whistleblower is unknown, “we do know that he or she is an employee of the U.S. Government,” the signatories say. “As such, he or she has by law the right—and indeed the responsibility—to make known, through appropriate channels, indications of serious wrongdoing.” In other words, the obligation to disclose wrongdoing in official channels justifies protection from the law—and from the media.
“Whatever one’s view of the matters discussed in the whistleblower’s complaint,” the former officials say, “all Americans should be united in demanding that all branches of our government and all outlets of our media protect this whistleblower and his or her identity. Simply put, he or she has done what our law demands; now he or she deserves our protection.”
The idea of “responsible” whistleblowers implicitly contrasts them with other whistleblowers who don’t use those official channels, such as CIA officer John Kiriakou, NSA employee Reality Winner, U.S. Army private Chelsea Manning, and NSA systems administrator Edward Snowden. They bypassed in-house channels in favor of taking their information straight to news outlets.
So while “whistleblowing”—calling attention to hidden offenses—is generally seen as a good thing, it actually refers to two fairly different actions. In the words of Tom Devine, legal director of the non-partisan Government Accountability Project (GAP) in Washington, there are “legal” whistleblowers and “civil disobedience” whistleblowers. “We respect both,” he said in a phone interview.
Legal whistleblowers work within the system seeking to make the government work better. Civil disobedience whistleblowers go outside the system (and the law) seeking to change or disrupt government policy. With their very different perspectives on power, the two tribes of whistleblowers aren’t necessarily all that friendly.
Kiriakou, who spent 30 months in jail for talking to a reporter about the CIA torture regime, told Tucker Carlson he doesn’t think the White House whistleblower merits the name. “Actual whistleblowers go on to have their whole lives upended,” he said, and Trump promptly quoted him in a tweet.
In return, the defenders of legal whistleblowing are often outspoken in their belief that civil disobedience whistleblowers do not deserve legal protection. Mark Zaid, attorney for the White House whistleblower, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in 2017 that, “As a matter of law, no one who leaks classified information to the media (instead of to an appropriate governmental authority) is a whistleblower entitled to legal protection. That applies to Winner, Snowden and Chelsea Manning, no matter what one thinks of their actions. The law appropriately protects only those who follow it. Anyone who acts contrary does so at their own peril.”
The limitation of legal whistleblowing, says Devine, “is that the rules are rigged to contain accountability,” not foster it. Multibillion-dollar federal agencies, including the CIA, have established mechanisms for reporting questionable activities. This process, by its very nature, seeks to co-opt the moral glamor of truth-telling in service of institutional self-protection. “It’s a steam valve, so that people won’t feel the need to do what Snowden did,” one former CIA official told me.
The Trump whistleblower—a CIA employee according to the New York Times—is working under the ill-named Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act. Despite its name, the law doesn’t offer much protection to those who seek to expose institutional wrongdoing.
The whistleblower must identify him- or herself to the agency whose wrongdoing he or she wishes to expose. Any whistleblower must turn over all relevant evidence to the agency. And, if he or she wants to talk to Congress, he or she must obtain the agency’s permission. These sorts of rules insure that agencies can deflect, muffle or kill most whistleblowers’ complaints. According to Devine, U.S. government statistics show only about 5 percent of legal whistleblowers actually prevail on the merits of the case.
But the rigged nature of the system doesn’t discredit the whistleblowers who seek to use it. Some of the allegations in the CIA whistleblower’s complaint have already been corroborated by the White House. The indictment of two Trump associates involved in pressuring Ukraine on Trump’s behalf suggests that corrupt dealings were the norm.
Nor is the law entirely a sham. Thomas Drake was indicted by the Obama Justice Department in 2010 on the Espionage Act charges. He had talked to a reporter about a billion-dollar NSA software program that he thought was an overpriced violation of civil liberties. Even though Drake’s complaints were justified, he lost his job and security clearance. He famously wound up working at an Apple store in suburban Maryland. But because Drake had first complained in official channels, the government eventually dropped the charges. Drake, a reluctant civil disobedience whistleblower, told Slate he wholly supports the legal CIA whistleblower who denounced Trump’s dealings.
With the president openly asserting that the law does not apply to him, now is not the best time to delegitimize legal whistleblowing. Rather, it’s a good time to strengthen it. On the same day that Democrats in Washington worried about the safety of the CIA whistleblower, the European Union adopted a directive to its 28 member states enhancing protections for whistleblowers in both the public and private sectors. Whistleblowers are “encouraged to use internal channels… first” within their organizations, but “will not lose the protection they receive if they decide to use external channels in the first place,” the EU said in a statement on Monday.
According to Devine, the new rule allows whistleblowers to amount a “public interest” defense of their actions if they are charged with breaking the law. That would help Snowden, who chose not to use the NSA’s internal whistleblowing process because he saw how it was used to punish Drake. In his recent memoir, Snowden wrote he would voluntarily return to the United States to face criminal charges, if he were allowed to mount a public interest defense. Right now, he does not have that option. When it comes to whistleblower protections, “the U.S. is falling behind the rest of the world,” Devine says.
Maybe the specter of a lawless president and the example of an insider legal whistleblower who called him out will prod Congress to start creating more protections for those who want to speak truth to power. We need more of those protections now more than ever.
I thought I was the only one bothered by the fact that the CIA has a Twitter account, which effectively serves as a domestic propaganda channel, and that the agency plans to add an Instagram account soon.
I have company: Edward Snowden. In a podcast with the tech site Motherboard, the NSA whisteblower explained why he thinks the CIA is taking to social media: to solve its image problems.
“What’s happened here is the intelligence agencies have drawn the wrong conclusions, at least from the public’s perspective, from the backlash of 2013,” he said in the latest episode of Motherboard podcast CYBER. Snowden thinks while the revelations of bulk data collection turned public sentiment against American intelligence activities, the agencies themselves took away the wrong lesson.
“And in the wake of doing that, right, this sort of damage control, they went: ‘Maybe the real story of 2013 isn’t that we got caught breaking the law,” he said. “Instead, what we’re gonna do is we’re going to try to change the laws and be more flexible, more accommodating, so we can do what we want. And at the same time, what we really have here is a PR issue.”
“They get Twitter accounts. Instagram accounts (with) puppies and everything like that, because they want to be friendly. They want to be on your side,” he said.