Whistleblower Edward Snowden speaks about the history of abuses of US intelligence services, beginning with the COINTELPRO program of the FBI in the 1960s and 70s, which was directed against civil rights movements and its leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. Snowden also speaks about the influence of earlier whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and William Binney on his decision to publish the NSA papers in the way he did. Snowden stresses the moral necessity of civil disobedience against the abuse of state power and the responsibility of every citizen to save democracy. The interview, hosted by Zain Raza from AcTVism Munich, has been recorded at the Event "Freedom and Democracy" at Muffathalle, Munich, on January 15, 2017. Kontext TV is a cooperating partner.
Edward Snowden, whistleblower and civil rights activist, former CIA and NSA employee
Zain Raza: Edward Snowden, thank you for joining us at this late hour. I want to start with some history of intelligence agencies and well known operations that received less attention but nevertheless became scandals back in the days. CoIntelPro by the FBI, Chaos by the CIA, Operation Mockingbird, MK-Ultra and many others. In 1975, the Church Committee was established to investigate some of the abuses committed back then by the FBI, CIA and NSA. Could you give us some background on the surveillance state, these programs and some examples of where perhaps these agencies made some positive contributions?
Edward Snowden: Sure. The main thing that we are looking at when we look back at the Church Committee which is an event in the 1970s, as you mentioned that was actually born out of an act of extremely radical law-breaking. People forget this. Because the committee has a very strong reputation in the U.S. as being this congressional committee that lifted up the veil of secrecy off of the CIA and FBI and looked for the first time in a very substantive and adversarial way into what they were doing when "Is this lawful, is this constitutional, and even if it's both, is it right?" Unfortunately they found that many of those things weren't the case. Why I said this was born out of a radical act of law-breaking, that many people forget, is that we had the Media Pennsylvania burglaries in the U.S. in 1974, I believe, which many people have never heard of, even Americans have never heard of this.
They saw the President was acting in ways that they considered to be contrary to the national interest, perpetuating wars that were costing American lives, supporting the draft that was robbing people of their future, for conflicts that we, these individuals believed, never should have been involved in. So they formed a group called the Citizen's Committee to investigate the FBI. Do you know what they did? They broke into the FBI's office, they literally cased an FBI field office, waited until a holiday period when the FBI agents were out of the office, everybody was watching a big boxing event so nobody was going to be at work.
When this happened, they literally broke the lock, went in, broke open all the safes, stole all the documents, took them to a barn, and sorted them out. Started mailing them to newspapers, many newspapers sat on them, refused to publish them. So they mailed them to more until eventually the dam broke, somebody started printing the truth, and eventually investigation had to be had because what it revealed was not only things in the FBI world - what had happened there, they were focusing on the FBI - but that intelligence had gone out of control.
Whether it was our internal intelligence services, in the U.S. this is the FBI, the external intelligence services, that spy on people who are sitting in a room there with you, the CIA, the NSA, they were doing what they thought had political benefits even if it was contrary to our national identity. Now what do I mean by this? They argued that they were acting in the defense of national security as we always hear. That's kind of the code word we hear. Don't worry, I turned the screen off here. That’s not technical problems.
And this is the lead in. The FBI argued, look, they were monitoring radical clerics inside the U.S. who they suspected to be in contact with foreign agents. They did not have any proof of this but they said, look, maybe it's happening. The Attorney General saw this case and said “Alright, we want to do this, I’ll sign off on it personally, I’ll put my reputation at risk, such is the danger this individual presents“. Even though they are an American citizen, they authorise placing this individual citizen on a watch list In the event that there was some kind of national emergency, some kind of protest movement that really started to destabilize the government they will bundle this guy off into camps. And of everybody the FBI was tracking they said this man was the most dangerous, and this is quoting their words, from the standpoint of national security. For people in the audience who are not familiar with who that is That was the most famous civil rights leader in the history of the U.S., Martin Luther King Jr.
A civil rights advocate who sought to establish recognition of racial equality in the U.S. They wrote letters based on information they had gathered by monitoring him in hotel rooms. That he had affairs with other women, and they mailed one of these recordings to him along with a letter. This was when he was being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his activism. They said, If you don't kill yourself within a certain time period - I believe it was 36 days, it was somewhere under 40 days they will reveal the truth, destroy his reputation, so on and so forth. And again, this was routine. Why do I say this? Why do we think about things that were back under J. Edgar Hoover's FBI?
Because these things continue. This is not a radical departure from the operational intelligence agencies. This is what they do in the dark. This is what happens when you are not looking, when they get comfortable enough that they won't be held to the account of the public or the law when they go too far. And this here is something that you might go, ok, maybe that happened back then, but we had this Church Committee, we had these investigations. We saw they tried to assassinate Castro who knows how many times. We saw they were doing not just CoIntelPro, which was this kind of FBI program that was monitoring the domestic political opposition in the U.S., not just CIA programs like MK-Ultra where they were funding U.S. and Canadian universities to experiment on U.S. and Canadian citizens, college students to try develop sort of a method of crude brainwashing opinion changing through a combination of sleep deprivation and drugs like LSD.
These kind of things were extraordinary excesses, and yes, they ended them. But the same concern with racial activists never went away, it just changed its face. In 2015, we saw that the FBI was again monitoring civil rights groups protests in Baltimore when they marched for the Black Lives Matter movement. They got airplanes that they contracted that were secretly run by the FBI. They weren’t registered by the government, doing surveillance missions. It was uncovered by journalists because their flight path looked like this.
A citizen journalist saw planes that during the protest just constantly circled the city again and again. When they started looking at contracts, they went 'This is something the government will have to admit sooner or later'. And they did admit it. They said 'Look, we did it, but we were simply trying to maintain peace and national security'. This was the same thing as when they were monitoring Martin Luther King.
National security does not mean what it sounds like to you and me. National security is not about preventing foreign troops from landing on U.S. Shores. We have the largest military spending in the world. We outspend the next 10 nations combined. We could fight a war with the next ten nations combined and beat them handily. We are an extraordinarily advanced nuclear nation. Our national security is not in question, particularly from political movements. But national security from the perspective of an intelligence officer whether that is CIA, the NSA or the FBI means stability of the current political system.
Now, I don't mean democracy, here. Right? I don't mean the people who are voting. I mean the parties that are in power, the personalities that are in power cannot be threatened in a way that could sort of radically provoke, snap elections, new changes, changes in procedures, policies, that agencies would shut down, the government would be really restructured in new ways. That's what they mean by national security and that’s something that I think is not very well understood.
Zain Raza: So to continue the discussion of history, can you briefly list some whistleblowers who perhaps did not get as much reach as you did but did meaningful work and influence your views?
Edward Snowden: Yeah, absolutely. So when we start at the beginning the individual you would consider the father of American whistleblowing would be Daniel Ellsberg which in the same sort of period was protesting the Vietnam war, he was a very senior analyst for a corporation called RAND, he worked for the government in every way that matters, he was the kind of guy who would be briefing the Secretary of Defense, and he revealed a secret top study, a top secret study, that said look the US lied its way into the Vietnam war and they continued to lie to perpetuate the war, they had basically thrown the monkey wrench in every peace deal intentionally because they were worried about the political consequences of it, and this was despite the fact that it was a war they can't win.
But let's fast forward and leave what we would consider the ancient history, and get into more modern things, right? The post 911 era, and it took this long because the Church committee which was again extremely adversarial to the intelligence agencies, it was not their friend, it was not their defender, it was not their cheerleader. Those held for about two or three decades. But then we got the September 11 attacks and this intelligence community complex, all the spy agencies that had felt very sore for these 20 years, 20 plus years, had created a secret wish list of all of the changes to law that they would have wanted if they could have passed them, but they knew that they never would have passed with popular support in the United States, because they violated the fourth amendment of our Constitution, which is the prohibition against not just the unreasonable searching of your home, your electronic communications, where people are listening to your phone calls, where they are breaking into your house and placing cameras, but the seizing of your personal things or your communications in the first place. You couldn't just pull things off the line without a warrant from the court. Well, this was sort of a secret plan that was sitting with the Department of Justice and then negotiated with the intelligence agencies.
When September 11 happened it came off the shelf, they called it the "Patriot Act" and in that moment of national crisis where everybody had been terrorized quite successfully by an extraordinary attack, and in this moment of vulnerability, these agencies exploited that moment of national trauma to pass this.
There was almost no dissent, there was I think a single dissenting vote in the House, from an extraordinarily brave woman, but these things swept into power overnight. But there were individuals who were working in these agencies, who saw this happening from the other side, and although the government publically at the time saying look this isn't going to affect Americans, it's not going to affect your rights, it's not going to affect our allies, this is only about Al qaeda, this is only about terrorists, this is only about bad people, far away people, the enemy, don't worry about it, there's nothing to fear.
Individuals like Thomas Drake, Bill Binney, Kirk Wiebe, Ed Loomis, these individuals were sitting at the NSA, and they went, well if this is the case, why are we ordering huge amounts of electronic equipment and putting them inside the United States at telecommunications providers that aren't monitoring foreign communications, they are monitoring only domestic communications. And they went through proper channels, they went to the NSA's inspector general. This is sort of an internal watchdog, right, it's supposed to be a relic of this 1978-era reform of the Church Committee that says: "Look, when there's problems in classified areas, you go to this watchdog in the government, you tell them what's going on and they'll fix it, they'll investigate, they'll find are these activities unlawful, are they unconstitutional or are they contrary to the values of the nation? Are they waste, fraud or abuse of the government's authorities?"
And when they did this, when they went internally, this one individual particularly, Thomas Drake, is the one the government came after the hardest. The NSA's number 2 lawyer, they've got about 100 lawyers, this guy was the number 2, he talks to Thomas Drake personally, Thomas Drake said:
"Look, I understand the mission. I understand we're in a moment of national crisis, but what you're doing is a violation of the constitution", a fact which by the way was not affirmed by the courts in a meaningful way until more than ten years later, passed 2013, but the program was eventually amended because of the kind of things that he brought forward.
In 2006, there were some amendments to the program as well, but the NSA's internal process, this watchdog that was supposed to be protecting the constitution, that was supposed to be waiting for men like Thomas Drake to stand up and say "Whoa, somebody's breaking the rules here!" He responded like this: "If he came to me, someone who was not read into the programs and told me that we were running amoc, essentially, and violating the constitution, there's no doubt in my mind I would have told him, you know, go talk to the management, don't bother me with this. The minute he said, if he did say, you're using this to violate the constitution, I probably would have stopped the conversation at that point, quite frankly. If that's what he said he said, then anything after that I probably wasn't listening to anyway."
This new wave of whistleblowers, the Thomas Drakes, the Bill Binneys, the Kirk Wiebes, the Ed Loomises, even the John Kiriakous, the Chelsea Mannings. If it had not been for them and their examples, I might have replicated their mistakes. Thomas Drake, for going through these proper channels, was hounded by the US government. He was charged under the Espionage Act, the same laws they accuse me of violating. This is a law that does not provide a fair trial.
You're literally prohibited by law from presenting your defense to the jury. You can't tell them why you did what you did and have them decide if that was basically a relevant enough threat to the operation of the system that your acts made sense. The same way that in the United States even a murderer can say "Look, this person was threatening my life", and the jury can consider "maybe this was self defense" is denied to whistleblowers in the United States who reveal information to journalists.
Under US law it doesn't matter. These men did it anyway. They did everything right. They even went to Congress. Going to journalists was an act of last resort, and for that the US government destroyed their lives. None of them continued in their career. Many of their pensions were threatened. Thomas Drake was charged with multiple felonies. Bill Binney was pulled out of the shower at gunpoint. Chelsea Manning is currently serving 35 years in prison in the United States. And I say if it had not been for these individuals, what I did, my own actions and the public benefits that have derived from them would not have been possible.