Edward Snowden, the person who disclosed top-secret documents on the U.S. government’s massive surveillance programs, is reportedly in Hong Kong and seeking asylum from countries that value openness and freedom, conditions seen as slipping away at home.
Before the U.S. government and the mainstream media engage in the customary character assassination of truth-teller Edward Snowden – a fate endured by Pfc. Bradley Manning and others – let’s get on the record the motives he gave for releasing the trove of information on intrusive eavesdropping by the National Security Agency.
Edward Snowden, who revealed himself as the leaker of top-secret documents related to the National Security Agency’s electronic surveillance. (Photo/UK Guardian)
Why would someone like Snowden, a 29-year-old employee of national-security contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, jeopardize what he calls “a very comfortable life” in order to blow the whistle on the U.S. government’s abuse of power?
If what he did sounds weird, this is only because there are so precious few like him who will stand on principle and risk everything. Snowden explained that if the public does not know about these intrusive programs, there is no room for citizen input regarding how they square with our constitutional rights.
Snowden, who was living in Hawaii with a promising career and a salary said to be about $200,000 a year, told the London Guardian: “I’m willing to sacrifice all of that because I can’t in good conscience allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, Internet freedom, and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re now building.”
He added that he wanted to reveal the “federation of secret law, unequal pardon, and irresistible executive powers that rule the world I love. … What they’re doing poses an existential threat to democracy.”
Snowden enlisted in the Army in 2003 and began training to join the Special Forces. He told the Guardian: “I wanted to fight in the Iraq war because I felt like I had an obligation as a human being to help free people from oppression.” He quickly found, though, that, in his words, “Most of the people training us seemed pumped up about killing Arabs, not helping anyone.” Snowden broke both legs in a training accident and was discharged.
In several key respects, the experiences of Snowden resemble those of Bradley Manning. Both took the enlisted person’s oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” As a condition of employment, both signed a promise not to disclose classified information; and both witnessed at close hand flagrant abuses that their consciences told them they needed to expose.
All this required them to go back on their secrecy promise, in order to achieve a greater good. What they were able to understand, and act on, is what ethicists call a “supervening value.” [See Daniel C. Maguire’s The Manning Trial’s Real Defendant” regarding the moral balancing act between democracy’s need for information and government insistence on secrecy.]
It didn’t require a law degree for Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden to understand how the Bush and Obama administrations were playing fast and loose with key provisions of the Constitution of the United States.
‘Safety’ Before Constitution
As for the current President, he seems to have been editing the oath he took to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Few caught it when he preached on national security on May 23, but Greg Sargent noted in the Washington Post that Obama defined his commander-in-chief role as requiring him to tilt toward national security and away from civil liberties – clearly prioritizing the latter out of a warped zero-sum mindset.
Obama said “constitutional issues” must be “weighed” against “my responsibility to protect the American people.” Got that? He was even more explicit last Friday about how he sees these choices. “You can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience,” Obama said. “We’re going to have to make some choices as a society. … There are trade-offs involved.”
Regarding his priorities, he said: “When I came into this office I made two commitments … Number one, to keep the American people safe; and Number two, to uphold the Constitution. And that includes what I consider to be a constitutional right to privacy and an observance of civil liberties.”
Thanks for tacking on that last sentence, Mr. President, but your defense of the incredibly wide and intrusive programs – alien to Fourth Amendment protections – strain credulity well beyond the breaking point. You lost me when you described the recently revealed eavesdropping programs that suck up data on billions of our communications daily as “very narrowly circumscribed” and “very focused.”
In July 2008, when Congress passed and President Bush signed a law making government eavesdropping easier and granting immunity to telecommunications companies, which had already violated, together with the Bush administration, our Fourth Amendment rights, this seemed to me a watershed. What possible incentive would the telecoms now have for abiding by the Constitution, I asked myself.
When I heard that then-Sen. Barack Obama had flip-flopped on this vote – as he was burnishing his national security “cred” for his White House run – I wrote him an open letter. He had said he would vote against the bill, before he decided to vote for this major revision of the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978.
I gave my open letter the title “It’s a Deal Breaker for This Intelligence Officer.” Here’s the main part:
“July 3, 2008
“Dear Senator Obama,
“I speak from 30 years of experience in intelligence work. I don’t know who actually briefed you on the eavesdropping legislation, but the bill is unnecessary for intelligence collection and POISON for our civil liberties — not even to mention the unconscionable retroactive immunity provision.
“You have made a big mistake, Senator, in indicating you intend to vote for it. There is still time to change your mind. That’s what big people do. Your ‘explanation’ was unworthy of one who has sworn to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States (including the Fourth Amendment).”
The consequences of this law are what Snowden ended up warning us against in the video arranged by the Guardian, after he reviewed some of what he had seen from his vantage point. His window into the National Security Agency and its management no doubt provided unflattering insight into the behavior of its leaders and their nodding, dismissive acquaintance with any limitations in existing law.
Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden who saluted smartly when ordered by President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to discard what had been known as NSA’s “First Commandment – Thou shalt not eavesdrop on Americans without a warrant.” The rubric-justification was: “After 9/11, everything changed” – including any need to pay much attention to the law. Like the telecom corporations, Hayden was not only held harmless and forgiven but lauded for his patriotism
And if you think his successor, Army General Keith Alexander, feels constrained by his own oath of office, think again. It is a felony to lie to Congress. He did. In olden days it would have been an embarrassing, career-ending story. Not for Alexander. The “mainstream media” has lionized him rather than holding him accountable. And he now sports four stars and not only directs NSA but also is Commander of the U.S. Cyber Command.
It’s a long but instructive story: In December 2005, top New York Times executives belatedly decided to let the rest of us in on the fact that the George W. Bush administration had been eavesdropping on American citizens without the court warrants required by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978.
The Times had learned of this several months before the presidential election of 2004 but acquiesced to White House entreaties to suppress the damaging information. However, in late fall 2005, Times correspondent James Risen prepared to publish a book, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration,” revealing the warrantless eavesdropping anyway. Times publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., recognized that he could procrastinate no longer.
It would simply be too embarrassing to have Risen’s book on the street with Sulzberger and his associates pretending that this explosive eavesdropping story did not fit Adolph Ochs’s trademark criterion: All The News That’s Fit To Print. (The Times’ own ombudsman, Public Editor Byron Calame, later branded the newspaper’s explanation for the long delay in publishing this story “woefully inadequate.”)
When Sulzberger told his friends in the White House that he could no longer hold off on publishing in the newspaper, he was summoned to the Oval Office for a counseling session with President Bush on Dec. 5, 2005. Bush tried in vain to talk him out of putting the story in the Times. The truth would out; part of it, at least – in 11 days.
Gen. Alexander Out of the Loop
Unfortunately for National Security Agency Director Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander, the White House neglected to tell him that the cat would soon be out of the bag. So on Dec. 6, Alexander spoke from the old dishonest talking points in assuring visiting House Intelligence Committee member Rush Holt, D-New Jersey, that the NSA did not eavesdrop on Americans without a court order.
Still possessed of the quaint notion that generals and other senior officials are not supposed to lie brazenly to congressional oversight committees, Holt wrote a blistering letter to Gen. Alexander after the Times, on Dec. 16, front-paged a feature by Risen and Eric Lichtblau, “Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts.”
But House Intelligence Committee chair Pete Hoekstra, R-Michigan, apparently found Holt’s scruples benighted; Hoekstra did nothing to hold Alexander accountable for misleading Holt, his most experienced committee member, who had served as an intelligence analyst at the State Department.
What followed struck me as bizarre. The day after the Dec. 16 Times feature article, the President of the United States publicly admitted to a demonstrably impeachable offense. Authorizing illegal electronic surveillance was a key provision of the second article of impeachment against President Richard Nixon. On July 27, 1974, this and two other articles of impeachment were approved by bipartisan votes in the House Judiciary Committee and likely would have passed the House if Nixon had not chosen to resign on Aug. 9, 1974.
Yet, far from expressing remorse or regret about his warrantless wiretaps, President Bush bragged about having authorized the surveillance “more than 30 times since the September the 11th attacks,” and said he would continue to do so. The President also said: “Leaders in Congress have been briefed more than a dozen times on this authorization and the activities conducted under it.”
On Dec. 19, 2005, then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and then-NSA Director Michael Hayden held a press conference to answer questions about the surveillance program. Gonzales was asked why the White House decided to flout FISA rather than attempt to amend it, choosing instead a “backdoor approach.” He answered:
“We have had discussions with Congress … as to whether or not FISA could be amended to allow us to adequately deal with this kind of threat, and we were advised that that would be difficult, if not impossible.” Impossible? Regarding that time, James Risen quipped: “In October 2001, you could have set up guillotines on the public streets of America.”
It was not difficult to infer that the surveillance program, soon to be given the respectable label of the “Terrorist Surveillance Program,” was of such scope and intrusiveness that, even amid highly stoked fear, it would have elicited public outrage.
Almost All the News Fit to Print
Like the giant telecoms, the New York Times never had to issue a mea culpa for hiding the crass violations of our Fourth Amendment rights until after the 2004 election and another year for good measure.
The issue arose again in a curious way on Sept. 13, 2010, at a large event at the New York Times hosted by then-Managing Editor Jill Abramson in honor of Daniel Ellsberg for his release of the Pentagon Papers, which the Times and others published in June 1971. (Dan invited me to come along; better late than never, we thought.)
Abramson alluded in a matter-of-fact way to a particularly egregious episode in which theTimes did not cover itself in glory. But one would not have gleaned the latter from Abramson’s casual mention of how the Times had published “the story about the NSA’s eavesdropping program.”
Abramson: The issue [of government pressure] became salient once again after 9/11, when the Times and other publications were the recipients of requests from the Bush White House to occasionally withhold publication of stories that involved secrets and national security issues. Probably the most famous one involved our publication of the story about the NSA’s eavesdropping program.
Ellsberg: By the way, as the only non-Times person up here, I shouldn’t refrain from saying, I’ve been very publicly very critical of the Times’ decision to withhold the NSA wiretap story — not only, for a whole year, but very critically, past the election of 2004. I think it’s quite possible that the revelation that the president had, for three years, been blatantly violating the law …
Abramson (interrupting): Although in truth, it wasn’t known in real time at the election, the gravity of the legal issue was not.
Ellsberg: The legal issue, perhaps. …
Abramson: So —
Ellsberg: The — a whole year. I think that did make a difference.
Abramson: The thing is when the government says — you know, by publishing a story you’re harming the national security, you’re helping the terrorists. I mean there are still people today who argue that the NSA program was the crown jewel, the most valuable anti-terrorism program that the Bush administration had going, and that it was terribly wrong of the Times to —
Ellsberg: And the Times went ahead.
Abramson: — publish.
Ellsberg: In the end, that’s what I’m saying.
Abramson: In the end, we did go ahead. But I’m saying these are not cavalier decisions.
Anyone want to guess why Ed Snowden chose the Guardian of London (and also theWashington Post) over the “paper of record” for his disclosures?
The Need for Truth-Tellers
In September 2004 Daniel Ellsberg and I drafted an appeal to those who might have been thinking of what Bradley Manning and now Ed Snowden have had the courage to do. It is included below as a reminder that blowing the whistle on war crimes and on gross violations of the U.S. Constitution is a laudable form of patriotism. The last time I checked the professional help promised in 2004 was reaffirmed.
September 9, 2004
APPEAL TO: Current Government Officials
FROM: The Truth-Telling Coalition
It is time for unauthorized truth telling.
Citizens cannot make informed choices if they do not have the facts—for example, the facts that have been wrongly concealed about the ongoing war in Iraq: the real reasons behind it, the prospective costs in blood and treasure, and the setback it has dealt to efforts to stem terrorism. Administration deception and cover-up on these vital matters has so far been all too successful in misleading the public.
Many Americans are too young to remember Vietnam. Then, as now, senior government officials did not tell the American people the truth. Now, as then, insiders who know better have kept their silence, as the country was misled into the most serious foreign policy disaster since Vietnam.
Some of you have documentation of wrongly concealed facts and analyses that—if brought to light—would impact heavily on public debate regarding crucial matters of national security, both foreign and domestic. We urge you to provide that information now, both to Congress and, through the media, to the public. …
There is a growing network of support for whistleblowers. In particular, for anyone who wishes to know the legal implications of disclosures they may be contemplating, the ACLU stands ready to provide pro bono legal counsel, with lawyer-client privilege. The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) will offer advice on whistle blowing, dissemination and relations with the media.
Needless to say, any unauthorized disclosure that exposes your superiors to embarrassment entails personal risk. Should you be identified as the source, the price could be considerable, including loss of career and possibly even prosecution. Some of us know from experience how difficult it is to countenance such costs. But continued silence brings an even more terrible cost, as our leaders persist in a disastrous course and young Americans come home in coffins or with missing limbs. …
We know how misplaced loyalty to bosses, agencies, and careers can obscure the higher allegiance all government officials owe the Constitution, the sovereign public, and the young men and women put in harm’s way. We urge you to act on those higher loyalties. … Truth telling is a patriotic and effective way to serve the nation. The time for speaking out is now.
Appeal from the Truth-Telling Coalition
Edward Costello, Former Special Agent (Counterintelligence), Federal Bureau of Investigation
Sibel Edmonds, Former Language Specialist, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Daniel Ellsberg, Former official, U.S. Departments of Defense and State
John D. Heinberg, Former Economist, Employment and Training Administration, U.S. Department of Labor
Larry C. Johnson, Former Deputy Director for Anti-Terrorism Assistance, Transportation Security, and Special Operations, Department of State, Office of the Coordinator for Counter Terrorism
Lt. Col Karen Kwiatowski, USAF (ret.), who served in the Pentagon’s Office of Near East Planning
John Brady Kiesling, Former Political Counselor, U.S. Embassy, Athens, Department of State
David MacMichael, Former Senior Estimates Officer, National Intelligence Council, Central Intelligence Agency
Ray McGovern, Former Analyst, Central Intelligence Agency
Philip G. Vargas, Ph.D., J.D., Dir. Privacy & Confidentiality Study, Commission on Federal Paperwork (Author/Director: “The Vargas Report on Government Secrecy” — CENSORED)
Ann Wright, Retired U.S. Army Reserve Colonel and U.S. Foreign Service Officer
An earlier version of this article first appeared at Consortiumnews.com
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC. During his career as a CIA analyst, he prepared and briefed the President’s Daily Brief and chaired National Intelligence Estimates. He is a member of the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS)