National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden has been accused of treason by a handful of lawmakers and media pundits for making public the Federal government’s habit of collecting Americans’ electronic communications data.
But Snowden didn’t reveal anything that many Americans were not already aware of or, at least, were suspicious about. The young insider simply blew the whistle in a way that disallowed what is America’s truest equivalent to Oceania’s Ministry of Truth to drown him out.
While George Orwell’s 1984 mind molders worked in a sinister centralized location where they manipulated all mass-produced information to fit the government agenda, the reality of America’s information manipulation apparatus is far less centralized, if only slightly less sinister.
Further compounding his likelihood of being vilified as a seditious terror-enabler has been Snowden’s decision to head for Hong Kong in an attempt to elude government prosecution for as long as possible after he provided NSA information to The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald for publication.
Over the weekend, three previous NSA whistle-blowers, who have spent years informing Americans of the spy agency’s massive collection of citizen data, sat down for a roundtable discussion at the request of USA Today.
Thomas Drake, William Binney and J. Kirk Wiebe are likely three men whom Snowden spent time thinking about before making the decision to make public NSA documents. But his whistle-blowing predecessors largely failed to create a mainstream buzz with complaints of the NSA’s Constitutional abuse. The trio’s failure to garner attention was not because they were failing to present shocking information of totalitarian surveillance; rather, they failed because they — for the most part — followed rules put in place by the system to avoid being snuffed out by the bureaucratic machine.
Each action they took gave government a chance to counteract in the interest of quieting public outrage; and when the power structure tired of attempts to reveal NSA’s actions, the marked men were easily bound and gagged with red tape.
Binney explains why no one within government will ever recognize a problem and enact change by following the structured patch of revealing problems to the chain of command or other government agencies before putting the information directly in the public square.
“We tried to stay for the better part of seven years inside the government trying to get the government to recognize the unconstitutional, illegal activity that they were doing and openly admit that and devise certain ways that would be constitutionally and legally acceptable to achieve the ends they were really after,” Binney said. “And that just failed totally because no one in Congress or — we couldn’t get anybody in the courts, and certainly the Department of Justice and inspector general’s office didn’t pay any attention to it. And all of the efforts we made just produced no change whatsoever. All it did was continue to get worse and expand.”
Of the three men, Drake is probably most familiar with the dangers of trying to reveal problems with government by going through the “proper” channels.
For his efforts of trying to reveal problems stemming from certain NSA data-collection efforts to his superiors and Congressional investigators, NSA management cut funding to programs under his control at the agency, marginalized him and increasingly scrutinized his every action. Having earned himself a scarlet letter within the intelligence community, Drake attempted a different approach and began communicating with a Baltimore Sun reporter with the condition that he would provide the journalist with no classified information.
The Sun story, lacking revelations of classified information, simply documented the NSA’s continuance of a costly, ineffectual intelligence-gathering program — a $1.2 billion failure that reeked of agency fraud, waste and abuse.
Resultant increased public awareness over how American intelligence officials are using taxpayer money served as a catalyst for a separate major story about the NSA in The New York Times, for which Drake was not a source. The story documented wiretapping and all manner of disregard for American privacy from the highest ranks in the NSA. It also sparked a “leak” investigation that gave government prosecutors a reason to go after Drake — who had done nothing but point out matters of unclassified public interest — for making bureaucrats look bad with the original Sun story.
Drake’s house was raided by FBI agents, and he was forced out of his job at the NSA. The former intelligence official took work at a local Apple computer store and dealt with more than two and a half years’ of harassment by government investigators before the government decided to levy 10 separate charges against him. Five of the charges brought against him were justified under the Espionage Act — a 1917 piece of legislation intended to be used against spies.
Eventually, with help from the Government Accountability Project, Drake was cleared of all charges related to the government’s goal of putting him in jail for “the rest of his natural life.” He pleaded guilty to a simple misdemeanor of “exceeding authorized use of a computer” and was sentenced to one year of probation and community service. While, perhaps, the justice system didn’t completely fail Drake in the end, the government he angered effectively dismantled his career and disrupted his life in terrible ways.
But when Drake spoke about Snowden’s actions on Sunday, he made clear why he is a whistle-blower and why he respects his young colleague’s actions. In his view, revelations like those recently made are likely the only way to get the public to realize just how much privacy has eroded with respect to the Founders’ original intentions.
“He’s an American who has been exposed to some incredible information regarding the deepest secrets of the United States government,” he said. “And we are seeing the initial outlines and contours of a very systemic, very broad, a Leviathan surveillance state and much of it is in violation of the fundamental basis for our own country — in fact, the very reason we even had our own American Revolution. And the Fourth Amendment for all intents and purposes was revoked after 9/11.”
Drake continued with regard to how Snowden should be perceived from a legal prospective: “He is by all definitions a classic whistle-blower and by all definitions he exposed information in the public interest. We’re now finally having the debate that we’ve never had since 9/11.”
The three men see torture, incarceration and probable execution at the hands of the Federal government in Snowden’s future — but say it’s a reality that lawmakers have a responsibility to challenge.
“Now there is another possibility, that a few of the good people on Capitol Hill — the ones who say the threat is much greater than what we thought it was — will step forward and say give this man an honest day’s hearing,” Wiebe said. “You know what I mean. Let’s get him up here. Ask him to verify, because if he is right — and all pointers are that he was — all he did was point to law-breaking. What is the crime of that?”