In this exclusive interview with AJ+, Edward Snowden reflects on NSA mass surveillance and how he was influenced by previous agency whistleblower Thomas Drake:
The case of Thomas Drake represented a turning point in the relationship between the executive branch of government that stands over the intelligence agencies and the actual ordinary Americans who comprise the workers of those agencies.
From day 1, when you enter on duty at any of these places, it’s beaten into you again and again in policy training and in repeated training requirements that if you see something that’s illegal, you see something that’s unconstitutional, waste, fraud and abuse, you have to stand up and say something.
You have not just the right but the obligation to try to correct those improper activities.
And despite that, here we had a guy who did absolutely everything right. He placed his faith in the system, he saw, you know, the warrantless wiretapping of hundreds of millions of Americans, he saw corruption in procurement processes and standards adoptions and things like that.
He brought it to the IG, he brought it to the Congress, and rather than protecting him against retaliation from some low-level manager or whatever, they actively retaliated against him, in the most public and aggressive way, to send a message to everybody in the workforce that things are different now.
What matters less is what’s right and wrong, and what matters more is who ordered it.
We no longer had a system in the intelligence agencies that was based on righting wrongs at the lowest level, and instead transitioned to a system where when you see something wrong, you know the advice that you get is, “That’s above your pay grade. You need to not worry about that.”
It doesn’t matter whether or not it looks unconstitutional or unlawful to you, because somebody somewhere said this is OK and you simply have to accept that.
And that lesson that the system is broken is something that everybody at every desk in every agency internalized immediately. We all understood the shift, you know, we could feel the wind changing, and that included myself.
It’s fair to say that if there hadn’t been a Thomas Drake, there couldn’t have been an Edward Snowden.
And I think as we move into the future, until this changes, until these structures are reformed, the next whistleblower, you know, the next person to stand up to real illegal activity is probably going to have learned the same lessons.
When I realized what was going on with mass surveillance, and in my own experience tried to bring it forward and get somebody to address these concerns, I encountered a very, very different world from what was taught to us in training.
Every colleague that I discussed this with, everybody in my supervisory chain, everybody in leadership who saw these things said, “Wow, you know, that is a problem. That doesn’t seem right. Seems like we’ve sort of gone too far here.”
And then immediately follow up with, “But look, you really don’t want to get involved in this, you know that’s not your job, let this be somebody else’s problem. If you put your name on this, they’re gonna destroy you.”
And I think there’s a tragedy in that, particularly by how systemic it became that in the wake of Thomas Drake, how this became a part of the institutional culture. In 2014, a year after sort of I went public, and the debate about the operation of mass surveillance domestically in the United States began, the inspector general of the NSA at the time, George Ellard, did an interview with the press where he said, you know, he really wished I had come to him because what he would have done was he would have made sure that none of this saw daylight.
He would have told me that I just didn’t understand the programs, that these were completely lawful, they were completely constitutional, and that you know, we could, we could tamp this down, we could make sure that nobody hears about this and all move on and continue with business as usual, and I would have a very successful career, you know, as long as I sat in place and kept my mouth shut.
But in 2015, those cases had finally been litigated in the court, and the court said that George Ellard was completely wrong. The inspector general who said these programs were constitutional and nobody should say anything about them, said that not only were they likely unconstitutional, they were Orwellian in scope, they were comprehensively unlawful, they had to be stopped, and Congress, which is the biggest cheerleader for the NSA in the country, agreed.
They actually shut down the program and prohibited the NSA from collecting Americans’ communications in this way.
The questions that linger most powerfully for me about the Tom Drake case, and the comments of, you know, the NSA inspector general and the DOJ and everybody who’s institutionalized this, this war on whistleblowers, is that if the institutions that are meant to curtail the unlawful or unconstitutional operations of government instead become complicit in suppressing them, what does that mean for the future? Where do we go?