On 19 July 2014 Edward Snowden appeared at the HOPE X convention in New York, in conversation with Pentagon Papers whistleblower – and Courage Advisory Board member – Daniel Ellsberg. The Freedom of the Press Foundation’s Trevor Timm put questions, many of them gathered online, to the two discussants.
Empowering individuals with documents
In a wide-ranging discussion, Edward Snowden explained how technology has helped empower individuals and whistleblowers in particular:
A copy machine might not seem like a killer app to a lot of people, but it enabled you [Daniel Ellsberg] to bring information to the public. The same xerox machine that gave you that gave us samizdat in the former Soviet bloc.
He also mentioned an opinion piece in the Washington Post, written by an former employee of the US State Department, which sheds light on the NSA’s reliance on a Reagan-era Executive Order.
… it basically said Executive Order 12333, which is one of the signals intelligence authorities which allows the United States to intercept communications that are coming from overseas, is being used to collect incredible amounts of data, not just from people around the world, not just innocents everywhere, but specifically on Americans. Which is precisely what the United States government has said they are not doing.
This, said Snowden, “was explosive, it should be on the front page of every newspaper”, but that it was difficult to make that kind of impact without documents – a point with which Daniel Ellsberg concurred:
My interest [in releasing the Pentagon Papers] was not in setting the record straight, my interest was in helping to end an ongoing war. For that, I would have much rather put out current documents, which I at that moment didn’t have access to – very few people did in government, even in the White House, it was a big secret what Nixon was up to, including nuclear threats.
I hoped that my documents would show a pattern that extended into the present – and that failed. Hardly anyone was willing to extrapolate and say four presidents lied in the same way, escalated in the same way, made the same kind of secret threats … I thought maybe they’d figure out that the current president is doing the same. No, it took documents and I didn’t have that. So for years I’ve been saying to people, it’s got to be with documents, even though it increases the risk.
Metadata and fighting back against mass surveillance
A second theme in the discussion was the impact of the mass collection of metadata. Edward Snowden described the cumulative impact of US metadata programmes since 2001:
everything you do is being analysed, it’s being weighted, it’s being measured and that’s without regard to whether you’ve done anything wrong… [creating] a massively robust data set that allows us to make connections, actually programmatically of everybody, in every place at any time
The impact of surveillance in restricting association, argued Snowden, is as important as the effect on privacy at the individual level. He added that making communications resistant to metadata analysis was one of the more significant tasks facing the technological community. Appealing to the HOPE X audience to help him in “encoding our rights into the programmes and protocols on which we rely every day”, Snowden added: “that’s what a lot of my future work is going to be involved in.”
Daniel Ellsberg added that the ability to analyse traffic presented especially significant problems for journalists and their sources. The direction of travel in the US, he predicted, meant that prosecution of journalists was likely in the future.
It’s my opinion that that lies next, on the grounds that a supposed journalist called Michael Kinsley accused Glenn Greenwald, and Peter King has done the same… and that is you guys, you journalists, are aiding and abetting a criminal, with the assumption from the beginning being that the leaking is criminal, which I question.
On the importance of civil courage
Daniel Ellsberg remarked that, while much of the technical work that was being discussed centred on lowering risks for potential whistleblowers and others (“and that’s undoubtledly essential”), it was something that could never be made risk free and a healthy degree of courage remains essential.
You said that there comes a time when you – meaning you generally – cross that line and tell the truth even at cost to your relationships, to your boss to your friends, to everyone else. Most people, I have to say, never do reach that line when they’re ready to take a hit to their own status and their own relationships and their own job… One thing that I do hope from your example, Ed, is that more people will be inspired to take even significant risks.
He also noted that the other significant example of such civil courage in recent years, Chelsea Manning, did not receive the attention for her disclosures that she deserved because her revelations came into conflict with established news values; she “showed what we were doing to other people in the Third World – foreigners, others, not us.”
Ellsberg reiterated that individual standards needed to be raised, just as much as technical ones, and moral courage was still harder to find than physical courage in public service:
We all took the same oath to uphold nad support the constitution. I’ve already said that people violate it all the time and some are against it, like [former Vice President] Cheney and some others. When it comes to upholding that oath, noone in the US military services up to the Commander in Chief has fulfilled her oath to defend and support the constitution like Chelsea Manning and no one in the US executive branch has fulfilled your oath to uphold and support the constitution as well as you, so thank you.