MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor whose revelations of government overreach ignited a huge debate on privacy rights, spoke via Skype to an audience at Wilson Hall on March 16.
Snowden, whose now-famous visage filled a large projection screen, has been charged with espionage in the U.S. and has lived in exile in Russia since June 2013. Although President Obama declined to pardon him, Snowden is viewed as a hero to many for revealing the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ domestic phone records – an activity U.S. courts later ruled illegal.
Allison Stanger, the Russell Leng ’60 Professor of International Politics and Economics, introduced Snowden, whose appearance was sponsored by the Middlebury College Activities Board. Stanger said her forthcoming book Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Leaks: The Story of Whistle Blowing in America, was near completion when the Snowden story broke four years ago.
“He forced me, more or less, back to square one,” said Stanger. “But it will be a better book, I hope, for that extra effort.”
Stanger said that since Snowden’s revelation, she has interviewed the entire senior leadership of the NSA at the time of Snowden’s flight. She also interviewed other NSA whistle blowers.
“Their stories don’t intersect much,” said Stanger. “My aim is to weave truth out of those opposing tales, without being unduly influenced by partisan politics.” She said that interviewing Snowden in person offered an opportunity to fill in missing puzzle pieces of a complex issue.
In his introductory remarks, Snowden said it was important to realize that the real problem is much bigger than any specific illegal activity by a government agency. He said that mass surveillance has become easy for anyone with enough resources.
“Increasingly we’re seeing that surveillance technologies outpace democratic controls,” said Snowden. Until recently, he said, governments had to spend huge sums, using multiple agents to track one individual’s location. Today, that dynamic is reversed, with one person able to “track with precision an unimaginably large number of people.” Snowden said that’s the kind of work he did in his last position with the NSA.
“For the first time in human history, it’s both technically and financially feasible for governments to track and store nearly complete records of all of our lives. This is not science fiction; this is something that’s happening now,” said Snowden.
Snowden says the country has reached this point due to a massive failure of checks and balances. Hard-hitting journalism and a vigilant, active citizenry are the best way to bring about reform, he said.
Snowden emphasized that, unlike WikiLeaks, he has not actually published anything himself. Rather, he delivered material to professional journalists at news organizations, including The New York Times, Washington Post, and Guardian. He said he made it a requirement of access that the news organizations make an editorial judgment that the story was in the public interest before publishing anything.
As an extra precaution, he also required the newspapers to bring the stories to government officials prior to publication to check whether any demonstrable harm would come to any individual or program as a result of the story. He said that four years later, the government has not produced any evidence of harm.
Throughout his nearly two-hour talk, Snowden interspersed his remarks with news clippings, video clips, and documents supporting his push for government transparency. He said that, despite the government’s continued hard line, he feels vindicated by the results of his leaks.
“This journalism changed our laws, changed our policies, it changed the thinking of the president, which he publicly stated. I believe we live in a freer and fairer world because of it.”
Reporting by Stephen Diehl; Photos by Todd Balfour