My guest today is Marcy Wheeler, independent journalist, author and blogger. Wheeler writes widely about the legal aspects of the "war on terror" and its effects on civil liberties. She blogs at emptywheel.net.
Joan Brunwasser: Welcome back to OpEdNews, Marcy. She just co-wrote the piece "Exclusive: Snowden Tried to Tell NSA About Surveillance Concerns, Documents Reveal" that appeared at Vice News. I'm hoping you can help us untangle the complex web that surrounds Snowden, his revelations, and the blowback that followed. Where would you like to begin?
Marcy Wheeler: First, the simple stuff: Snowden revealed to Americans and people around the world just how extensive America and its "FiveEyes" allies' (the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) spying really is. Even people who followed this stuff really closely -- as I had since 2005 -- had only guessed at some of these things. In the wake of those disclosures, some of the programs have been reined in, some have been enshrined in law, and others continue unchecked.
The more complex question has to do with accountability. Snowden has said (credibly, given the examples of even NSA-employee whistleblowers who went before; Snowden was a contractor) he had no means to raise concerns about these issues except to leak. The government would like to argue he could have gone through formal whistleblower channels, rather than leaking troves of information (but even some people insisting he could have done so admit the effect would not have been the same).
JB: Snowden had wanted to publicize the spying for a long time. And he was initially encouraged by President Obama's election. Then, everything went south. What happened?
MW: Snowden served as a Sysadmin at the NSA (though our story shows he moved into a more analytical role in the month before he left), which meant he had ready access to massive troves of documents. A lot of what he took falls into several categories: programs that affect Americans (like domestic and foreign bulk collection, and the "back door searches" of data collected from domestic Internet providers), programs that affect the security of the Internet (like efforts to weaken encryption), and programs targeting civilian foreign targets.
The most famous of these programs was the bulk domestic phone program, in which NSA aspired to collect all the phone records in American. That's what got significantly constrained by the USA Freedom Act last year, though equivalent bulk collection continues undiminished overseas, and that still sucks up a lot of Americans' data.
Snowden never tried to use formal whistleblower approaches. But he did, our story shows, discuss with colleagues concerns about privacy and constitutionality of all this.
JB: Speaking of whistleblower protection, many federal whistleblowers nevertheless suffer on various fronts for blowing the whistle. All the more so for those who have no protection. On that count, I read that as of now, most of our intelligence functions have been outsourced and privatized. That was astounding to me. It also has implications going forward for government contractors who would not be protected, should they leak information. What do you think about that?
MW: Right: more and more of our intelligence functions are being outsourced to contractors. And whereas government personnel are not supposed to be retaliated against (though that often if not usually happens anyway), contractors have no protection against their employers retaliating against them. The Office of Director of National Intelligence's General Counsel Bob Litt told me in an interview for this story that that's because the IC can't get contractors to change their contracts with employees. That's not a very compelling argument.
The House version of the Intelligence Authorization for next year proposes asking the Intelligence Community Inspector General to do a study to quantify how often contractors get retaliated against.
Until some kind of protection is put in place, though, the IC can continue to contract out some of its most sensitive programs and ensure that the people doing them can't complain about problems, including legal problems.
JB: That's indeed problematic. Let's cut to the chase. Who is Snowden? Why did he do what he did? And is it good for our country or bad that he did it?