It was shortly after 7 p.m. in New Orleans on Jan. 29 (and 4 a.m. in Moscow) when exiled National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden’s face appeared on-screen via Google Hangouts at Tulane University’s McAlister Auditorium for a sold-out virtual panel discussion moderated by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Ron Suskind.
Although Snowden is a deeply controversial global figure who has been labeled as both a traitor and a hero after releasing thousands of documents that revealed widespread surveillance on American citizens, he was greeted by cheers from the mostly-student audience and frequently interrupted by applause.
Suskind, known for questioning the Bush administration and the policies implemented following 9/11, introduced Snowden as the most principled risk-taker he’d encountered during his own illustrious career as a political journalist.
Snowden has been living in a “modest” apartment in Russia’s capital city for the past four years. He spoke about mass surveillance, secrecy, security dilemmas and examining cyber defenses. Against the stark backdrop of a plain white wall, the 34-year-old delivered commentary for more than an hour and even cracked a few dry jokes.
He began by filling the audience in about his own background. Growing up in a “federal family” in North Carolina, he says he had always trusted the government and that many of his family members held government jobs.
As a young adult in 2004, he said: “I was the age of many people who are in the room. I turned 21 in basic training at Fort Benning, Ga. … While everyone else was protesting the Iraq war, I volunteered…Why? Because I was a true believer. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, despite all the controversy, I was in the unit at the time, and I believed that the United States government would not lie to us.”
Snowden was discharged within a few months after breaking both legs in a training accident. Over the next several years, he continued to work for the government as a CIA employee and then as a government contractor for the NSA with the companies Dell, followed by Booz Allen Hamilton. During this time, while living in Hawaii, he learned of its widespread surveillance techniques, which included collecting citizens’ data through phone calls, email and other online activity – with cooperation from telecommunications companies and foreign governments. He noted that this violates the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure.
These techniques, he said, started during the George W. Bush administration and continued into Barack Obama’s presidency.
“In secret, the government had begun violating the rights of every man, woman and child in the United States,” he said, noting that he had taken an “oath of service” — not, he clarified, “an oath of silence.” He began to strategically make contact with journalists starting in 2012.
In May 2013, Snowden left his job at an NSA facility in Hawaii and flew to Hong Kong shortly after revealing thousands of classified documents to The Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald; documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras; and Washington, D.C., bureau chief Ewen MacAskill, also of The Guardian. The first article was published in June 5, 2013, followed by several more over the next several months. Revelations were also published in the Washington Post.
“Dispossessing a minority of basic liberties — or perhaps entire populations — does not become legal simply because it’s popular,” he said. “The power of rights aren’t guaranteed. Our rights are only those we can assert and defend…
“The support of a majority does not transform a wrong into a right. This is what motivated me to come forward. I did not just have the right to tell the press, but I had a duty… Sometimes the only moral choice is to break the law.”
Snowden’s fate remains unknown — he hopes to return to the United States and obtain a trial by jury, which has been denied due to the nature of his charges.
He was charged by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act of 1917 for “unauthorized communication of national defense information” and “willful communication of classified intelligence with an unauthorized person,” along with government theft. He potentially faces life in prison if not a lifetime of asylum overseas.
His appearance at Tulane wasn’t the first virtual seminar in which he’s participated remotely. Nor does he hesitate to criticize the Russian government that has granted him temporary asylum, and he joked that if Russian President Vladimir Putin is, in fact, spying on him, he hopes he’ll “learn a thing or two about constitutional rights.”
Snowden maintains hope for democracy – and said his actions were patriotic.
“If I go home and I’m sentenced to life in prison, what does that say about the next guy?” he said, urging for citizens to continue to hold the government accountable as well as maintain skepticism for anyone in a position of power. “The people should be given the benefit of the doubt,” he said, “not the president.”
“Whistleblowers are the last resort of democracy,” he concluded. “Repression is starting to fail.”
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