In one of South by Southwest Interactive's most high-profile sessions this year, NSA leaker Edward Snowden spoke via Google Hangout on Monday, March 10, 2014, about eroding online privacy and led a call to action to the SXSW audience to do more. (Ricardo Brazziell/Austin American-Statesman/MCT) ORG XMIT: 1150213
Ricardo Brazziell • Austin American-Statesman via MCT,
How to define a whistleblower
- Article by: Walter Pincus
- Washington Post
- June 3, 2014 - 11:05 AM
Edward Snowden may have created a paper trail that he could later use to say he brought his questioning of National Security Agency activities to higher authorities.
That at least appears to be the case from the April 5, 2013, short e-mail the former contractor sent to the NSA general counsel’s office inquiring about the hierarchy of legal authorities — executive orders vs. statutes — following a mandatory NSA training session.
Government officials released the e-mail Thursday.
Snowden’s missive offered no criticism. The general counsel’s answer, three days later, said that executive orders have the force of law but cannot override a statute. Snowden was invited to call if he wanted to discuss the issue further.
He didn’t, apparently. Weeks before April 18, 2013, he’d sent an e-mail to filmmaker Laura Poitras saying he would be providing documents to her within four to six weeks, according to Glenn Greenwald’s book, “No Place to Hide.”
Snowden claimed during last week’s NBC interview with Brian Williams that he’d tried to be a whistleblower and had complained through official channels before turning to journalists.
He said there were e-mails to the general counsel and oversight and compliance folks and added, “I reported that there were real problems with the way the NSA was interpreting its legal authorities. And the response more or less — in bureaucratic language — was you should stop asking questions.”
In response, the government released the April 5 e-mail.
By the time Snowden sent that e-mail, he was clandestinely collecting highly classified documents and had been working for months setting up what was to become his journalistic network.
Published reports say that Snowden, while working on an NSA contract with the Dell Corp. in Hawaii in 2012, spent “parts of 2012 downloading the documents he thought the world should see,” as Greenwald notes in his book.
Snowden also, according to Greenwald, took certain documents to show but not publish “so that journalists would be able to understand the context of the systems on which they were reporting.”
Snowden has told the Washington Post that beginning in October 2012 he brought his concerns about widespread agency surveillance to two superiors in the NSA’s Technology Directorate and two in the NSA Threat Operations Center’s regional base in Hawaii. He has not supplied material to back that up.
It was as early as Dec. 1, 2012, that Snowden — using an alias — first tried unsuccessfully to contact Greenwald, then a columnist for the Guardian.
Filmmaker Poitras told the Salon website that she first heard from Snowden — again anonymously — in January 2013 and that the person said she needed a secure channel because, “I have some information in the intelligence community, and it won’t be a waste of your time.”
In March 2013, Snowden took his last Hawaii-based NSA contract job at Booz Allen Hamilton. He took a pay cut from the Dell position because the Booz Allen job “granted me access to lists of machines all over the world the NSA hacked. … That is why I accepted that position about three months ago,” according to a June 24, 2013, article in the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post.
On April 18, 2013, Greenwald met with Poitras in New York, where she presented e-mails she had received in previous weeks from the anonymous source [Snowden]. Greenwald writes that in one of these e-mails Snowden wrote “that he was completing the final steps necessary to provide us with the documents” but he “needed another four to six weeks and we should wait to hear from him.”
Snowden should be asked, given all this activity, what was the purpose of his April 5 e-mail to the NSA general counsel’s office.
When asked by NBC’s Williams when he decided to start clandestinely collecting the documents, Snowden said that “given the ongoing [federal criminal] investigation, that’s something better not to get into in a news interview, but I’d be happy to discuss these things with the government.”
Another question: Why did Snowden leak tens of thousands of highly classified NSA documents? Could 50 or 100 documents been used to illustrate “programs that have never been shown to keep us safe but cost us liberties and freedoms that we don’t need to give up and our Constitution says we should not give up,” as he told NBC’s Brian Williams.
The first stories in the Guardian and the Post nearly a year ago covered documents involving two programs that appeared to illustrate Snowden’s point.
The Guardian on June 5, 2013, wrote about a then-secret court order authorizing the so-called Section 215 metadata program that permitted gathering and storage for five years of all U.S. telephone toll records — number calling, number called and length of call.
The Post on June 6, 2013, wrote about the so-called Section 702 or PRISM program, which permits collection on authorized foreign intelligence targets, including e-mails, photos and other data from Google, Facebook, Apple and others.
In his book, Greenwald says Snowden “was determined to expose the extremity of NSA spying revealed by the documents, so as to enable an enduring public debate with real consequences, rather than achieve a one-off scoop that would accomplish nothing beyond accolades for the reporters.”
Snowden could have gone through the documents, selected fewer than the tens of thousands he leaked in order to support his allegations, and made certain they would not cause harm to national security.
Instead, Snowden turned over classified material in bulk, saying, as he did on NBC, “the journalists have been required by their agreement with me as a source … to consult with the government to make sure that no individuals or specific harms could be caused by any of that reporting.”
A real whistleblower would have selected the documents to be published, made certain that they didn’t harm security and remained in the country to face the consequences of his actions.
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