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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 9/30/19

Edward Snowden: Private Contractors Play Key Role in U.S. Intelligence's "Creeping Authoritarianism"

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As a whistleblower complaint against President Trump rocks Washington, Democrats begin an impeachment inquiry and Trump threatens "big consequences" for the person who came forward, we continue our conversation with one of the world's most famous whistleblowers: Edward Snowden, now in exile in Russia. Six years ago, he shocked the world when he leaked a trove of secret documents about how the United States had built a massive surveillance apparatus to collect every single phone call, text message and email, and pry into the private lives of every person on Earth. He has just published a memoir titled "Permanent Record." In Part 2 of our interview, he talks about how the government initially attempted to say that he was just an outside contractor and not a key figure, but he describes the central role contractors play in the intelligence community.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As the Democratic-led House moves swiftly towards impeachment,

Well, today, we bring you Part 2 of our conversation with one of the world's most famous whistleblowers: Edward Snowden. Six years ago, the 29-year-old Ed Snowden leaked a trove of secret documents about how the United States had built a massive surveillance apparatus to collect every single phone call, text message and email, and pry into the private lives of every person on Earth.

In May 2013, Ed Snowden quit his job as an National Security Administration contractor in Hawaii and flew to Hong Kong, where he met three reporters Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Ewen MacAskill who began publishing a series of articles exposing the NSA and the surveillance state.

Snowden was then charged in the United States with violating the Espionage Act and other laws. In order to avoid being extradited to the United States, he attempted to fly from Hong Kong to Latin America, transiting through Moscow. But Snowden became stranded in Russia after the U.S. revoked his passport. Russia then granted him political exile, and he's lived in Moscow ever since.

Ed Snowden has just published a memoir. It's called Permanent Record. It tells the story of what led him to risk his life to expose the U.S. government's system of mass surveillance.

Democracy Now!'s Juan Gonza'lez and I spoke to him from his home in Moscow last week. We talked about his book, his work as an intelligence contractor, the ongoing debate about privacy rights online, and the latest news from Washington. Juan asked Ed Snowden about the role contractors play in the intelligence community.

JUAN GONZÃ LEZ: Throughout the book, one of the themes that you hit on repeatedly is how the government initially attempted to say that you were just an outside contractor, that you really weren't a key figure. But the reality is, as you explain and document over and over again, the enormous reliance of our intelligence community and the federal government on outside contractors, to effectively bring them into government and give them enormous power and rely on them so dramatically. I'm wondering if you could expound on that.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: Congress has mandated the government have hard hiring caps, a specific headcount they can't exceed for certain executive agencies, like the CIA, like the NSA, no matter their particularized budget, right? If they have more dollars than people, they still can't get more people on the books without getting an act of Congress to sort of change that headcount.

And so, over the years, over the decades, that have really arisen out of the post-World War II era, we have, in the government, created a kind of new system, a runaround for this, where they go, "Well, all this extra money that we want to put in people but we can't bring on as formal government employees, what if we give that money to private companies, and the private companies lease us people, that, in all meaningful ways, are government employees?" They work in government facilities, as I did as a contractor. You're at an NSA desk, working on an NSA system. You're taking direction from an NSA government supervisor, working on government processes. But formally, legally, you work for Dell or Lockheed Martin or Booz Allen Hamilton or any one of these, really, thousands and thousands of private companies that have become, really, extensions of government. And this is one of the things that the book goes into detail and that people really aren't quite familiar with.

A significant amount, and potentially even a small majority, of the most important work in government, in intelligence, is today performed by contractors, not government employees. And this is because, in the actual contracting language, there are very, very few tasks that contractors are legally forbidden from doing. And it's basically, the only things contractors can't do is press the red button that fires a missile, right? The contractor is not supposed to actually commit a crime something that the government could do, and it wouldn't be a crime, but if a private company does, they could be sued by another state or whatever. But everything else building the system of mass surveillance, installing it, applying it, using it to gather or search through all this information that's already been collected to build perfect histories of private lives all of these things are fair game and are done routinely, every day, right now, by people who are not formally government employees. That's how the system works, and that's what a contractor is.

JUAN GONZÃ LEZ: Well, Ed, I want to get to that point when the realization of what you were participating in came to you. This was sometime after a report had come out on the unclassified report on the president's surveillance program in July of 2009. And it had been released by several inspector generals of the major defense agencies. And you were, by then, already what's known as a systems administrator, systems engineer. Most people don't realize that the most important person in any organization or business are the people who run the computer systems, because they have enormous access to communications, the email communications and all kinds of other documents.

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Democracy Now!  is a national, daily, independent, award-winning news program hosted by journalists Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez. Pioneering the largest public media collaboration in the U.S., Democracy Now! is broadcast on (more...)
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