The Conscience of Edward Snowden

As the revelations of mass NSA surveillance raised shock-waves around the globe, 29-year old Edward Snowden came forward to identify himself as the one behind the largest leak in NSA history. His video interview with the Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald went viral and the the world saw and heard the man who left his life behind to expose this insidious global spying program. Snowdenspoke of the motives behind his action:

“I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity…. My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.”

As Snowden himself expected, the calls for aggressive prosecution quickly rolled out from Washington. Republican speaker of the House John Boehner called him a “traitor”. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called for his prosecution. Diane Feinstein, head of the senate intelligence committee denounced him for what she called his ‘act of treason’.

The backdrop for this is incessant drumbeat of the war-on-whistleblowers that the Obama administration has engaged in constantly since he took office. This president has prosecuted more whistleblowers than all other administrations combined. The inevitable political and media backlash poured out from corporate media as they demonized him by painting him as narcissistic and grandiose. An article in the New Yorker characterized his deed as speaking more to his ego and depicted it as reckless dumping of necessary secrets, when in truth he had carefully examined what was to be released and shared that authority of judgment with responsible journalists. David Brooks of New York Times Op-Ed columnist described him as a “solitary naked individual and the gigantic and menacing state”. Distortion flows freely with character assassination just as it did with the personal attacks on Julian Assange and Bradley Manning.

Yet, the general public saw it differently. After the Guardian interview unmasked him, Snowden temporarily dropped out of sight. He then stepped out into the limelight in Hong Kong and spoke to a South China Morning Post reporter: “I’m neither traitor nor hero. I’m an American, …  “I believe in freedom of expression. I acted in good faith but it is only right that the public form its own opinion.”

According to Reuters/Ipsos poll, roughly one in three Americans sees this former security contractor behind the exposure of the NSA surveillance program as a patriot and feels he should not be prosecuted. Associate editor at Reason magazine reported a poll that shows more Americans approve of Snowden than approve of Congress.

The unprecedented and egregious erosion of civil liberties is ever more out in the open for all to see. More and more people are realizing how the stale government narrative of ‘national security’ is simply used to cover abuses of the Constitution and the right to privacy.

As of June 11, already over 30,000 people had signed a thank-you note to this young NSA whistleblower – a website set up by Right after Snowden emerged in public, protesters around the world rallied to show support for the whistleblower. In New York, people gathered in Union Square with the message “I stand with Edward Snowden”. In Hong Kong, hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets on Saturday to stand up against US surveillance policies and voice support for this former CIA employee.

Praises for this young man’s action came from older generations; those who remember a time when there were laws effectively protecting whistleblowers who revealed government crimes. Retired CIA analyst Ray McGovern noted Snowden’s “uncommon courage, uncommon devotion to the Constitution” and shared his hope for a future society:

“It’s very, very encouraging to see that young people like that have been able to do some of the things that have been very difficult for people of my generation to do because we have been so hidebound behind secrecy strictures.”

Daniel Ellsberg recently spoke at a panel discussion on Our Vanishing Civil Liberties” in Berkeley. This former military analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers during the Nixon administration, thus exposed the criminality of the Vietnam war spoke of how Snowden made him proud to be an American and that this NSA leak was worth risking one’s life, the same way Ellsberg felt when releasing the Pentagon papers 40 years ago.

In 2010, after the release of more than 91,000 classified military records on the war in Afghanistan, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange spoke about the inspiration behind his work:

“What keeps us going is our sources. These are the people, presumably who are inside these organizations, who want change. They are both heroic figures taking much greater risks than I ever do, and they are pushing and showing that they want change in, in fact, an extremely effective way”. (July 28, 2010)

The WikiLeaks motto, “Courage is contagious” is showing itself to be true. Behind the NSA leaks are those who are infected by courage. In an interview on DemocracyNow!, Glenn Greenwald spoke of how he was inspired by Snowden’s deed:

“….To watch what he did, because he knows … because he knows exactly how the government treats whistleblowers, and yet he went forward and did it anyway. And what I really hope is that his courage is contagious, that people get inspired by his example, as I have been, and decide that they ought to demand that their rights not be abridged and that they have the full authority to stand up to the United States government without being afraid.”

This exposure of NSA abuse of power would not have been possible without the integrity and bravery of one woman. Award-winning documentary filmmaker, Laura Poitras was the first media contact on the story. She was behind the camera for Snowden’s interview at hotel in Hong Kong. When asked by a Salon reporter about whether she was concerned about becoming a target of government investigation, Poitras said:

“It’s not OK that we have a secret court that has secret interpretations of secret laws; what kind of democracy is that? I felt like, this is a fight worth having. If there’s fallout, if there’s blow back, I would absolutely do it again, because I think this information should be public. Whatever part I had in helping to do that I think is a service. People take risks. And I’m not the one who’s taking the most in this case”.

One man’s brave action leads to another. Before Snowden, there were four former National Security Agency analysts who were alarmed by widespread government surveillance: Thomas Drake, William Binney, J. Kirk Wiebe and Edward Loomis. Thomas Drake criticized the court that authorized the surveillance. In speaking of Snowden, he observed:

“We are seeing an unprecedented campaign against whistleblowers and truth-tellers: it’s now criminal to expose the crimes of the state. Under this relentless assault by the Obama administration, I am the only person who has held them off and preserved his freedom. All the other whistleblowers I know have served time in jail, are facing jail or are already incarcerated or in prison. That has been my burden. I’ve dedicated the rest of my life to defending life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. I didn’t want surveillance to take away my soul, and I don’t want anyone else to have to live it. For that, I paid a very high price. And Edward Snowden will, too. But I have my freedom, and what is the price for freedom? What future do we want to keep?”

John Kiriakou became the first CIA officer to confirm the use of torture and to face jail time for any reason relating to the U.S. torture program. Before going to jail, he spoke of his decision:

“I took my oath seriously. My oath was to the Constitution. On my first day in the CIA, I put my right hand up, and I swore to uphold the Constitution. And to me, torture is unconstitutional, and it’s something that we should not be in the business of doing … If you see waste, fraud, abuse or illegality, shout it from the rooftops, whether it’s internally or to Congress.”

Jeremy Hammond is another young man sitting behind bars for more than a year for revealing that this insidious network of corporate and government surveillance has been used on activists. When he recently plead guilty to one count of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) for his role in Stratfor hack, he made a statement: “I did this because I believe people have a right to know what governments and corporations are doing behind closed doors. I did what I believe is right.”

On Monday, Edward Snowden appeared online to participate in a Q and A hosted by the Gurdian. Snowden spoke of how the Obama administration’s aggressive response to whistle-blowers will only encourage better whistle-blowers and how ones conscience is something that cannot be stopped:

“Binney, Drake, Kiriakou, and Manning are all examples of how overly-harsh responses to public-interest whistle-blowing only escalate the scale, scope, and skill involved in future disclosures. Citizens with a conscience are not going to ignore wrong-doing simply because they’ll be destroyed for it: the conscience forbids it. Instead, these draconian responses simply build better whistleblowers.”

These brave individuals were all driven by a common belief that the public always has a right to know about the wrongdoings of governments and corporations. These people stepped forward and sacrificed their safety to bring vital information into the light of day. This allegiance to ordinary people and their right to determine their future has motivated many whistleblowers to overcome fear and act out of conscience.

The only fear Snowden expressed in the aftermath of his disclosures was that he might fail to overcome public apathy and miss the chance to trigger a worldwide debate: “The great fear that I have regarding the outcome for America of these disclosures is that nothing will change.”

Snowden is not alone. This was also the primary wish expressed by another brave young whistleblower. Private Bradley Manning who is now being court marshaled, wrote in his chat log: “I want people to see the truth, because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public …  hopefully worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms…if not…than we’re doomed…as a species.”

In his speech to the military court in Ft. Meade about his motivations for leaking over 700,000 government documents to WikiLeaks, Manning made clear that he wanted to show the American public the true costs of war and spark a debate on the role of the military and foreign policies.

Glenn Greenwald’s follow-up article on June 14 on NSA story shared promising signs of how Snowden’s worst fears have so far not unfolded. It reports how Snowden’s revelations “are met with anything but the apathy he feared” as it sparked lively debate among the public, Congress and journalists.

Using documents evidencing the surveillance, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed suit over the NSA massive spying program. The revelations of the Obama administration transgression also sent an alarm internationally regarding this immediate global threat to freedom of speech and privacy. Concerns about possible US extradition of Snowden have caused countries to step forward to help the whistleblower. National Journal reports a variety of responses around the world to possible US retribution on Snowden. A Kremlin spokesman said Russia will consider asylum if he seeks it. The head of France’s far-right party, Marine Le Pen demanded France let Snowden immigrate into the country. The Iceland Pirate Party is also working to let him in. In regards to a possible asylum request for Snowden, Ecuadorian foreign minister Ricardo Patiño spoke of the possibility for a similar arrangement as they made with Assange and that the Ecuadorian government would certainly consider the request.

Protesters in Hong Kong handed over a letter criticizing the National Security Agency’s internet surveillance program and urged the Chinese government not to extradite the NSA whistleblower. The poll results that came after the protest in the Sunday Morning Postrevealed half of people in Hong Kong don’t want Snowden to be extradited to the US and that public sentiment in Hong Kong is growing against the US government.

Julian Assange warned in his book Cypherpunks of this ever increasing surveillance state. Hailing Snowden as a hero from the London Ecuadorian embassy, Assange noted that these waves of courage are changing the tide; “I think we are winning, and we are a part of a new international body politic that is developing, thanks to the internet,”.

Snowden’s noble deed was a clear-eyed attempt to uphold the Constitution. The highest law of the land that he followed is more than a rhetorical ideal. His conviction is based on the premise that the Constitution was written for the people. It starts out “We the People” -not We the Kings, or We the Presidents. It indicates that people are to be the authors of their own society. Snowden gave information to people in the world, especially to Americans to see what their own government is doing, because he believed people need to be informed. During the Guardian’s Q and A session, he noted how “the consent of the governed is not consent if it is not informed.”

After moving to Hong Kong, Snowden said in the interview with the South China Morning Post “I am not here to hide from justice; I am here to reveal criminality, … My intention is to ask the courts and people of Hong Kong to decide my fate.” His actions and words clearly speak of his faith in the people and that their conscience alone can determine justice and the direction of the future. Leaking the truth through courageous acts of these ordinary people is what stirs vital public debate.

We are standing at a truly significant moment in history. From Ellsberg to Manning to Snowden; whistleblowers that stand up for the public interest show how courage is contagious. We now have a great opportunity to open the court of public opinion. In the end, fear will never prevail.

Nozomi Hayase is a contributing writer to Culture Unplugged, and a global citizen blogger, at Journaling Between Worlds. She can be reached at: 

Nozomi Hayase, Ph.D., is a writer who has been covering issues of freedom of speech, transparency and decentralized movements.  Find her on twitter @nozomimagine