Revenge of the nerd?

Should we rewrite whistleblower laws for Edward Snowden?
By Sarah Sidlow

“We can certainly argue about the way in which [Edward] Snowden did what he did, but I think that he actually performed a public service by raising the debate that we engaged in and by the changes that we made.” Would it surprise you to learn former Attorney General Eric Holder authored those words?

Maybe. But three years after Snowden’s infamous info leaks, we’ve had some time to reflect.

In case you missed it: Edward Snowden is a former CIA employee and former contractor for the U.S. government who became famous in 2013 when he copied and leaked classified information from the NSA (National Security Agency) about a lot of different global surveillance programs. That info started showing up in little-read places like The Guardian and The Washington Post, and later Der Spiegel and The New York Times. (DCP first reported on this in 2014.)

The U.S. Department of Justice called a party foul, charging him on two counts of violating the Espionage Act of 1917 and theft of government property. Snowden gave the Justice Department (and himself) a couple of cold shoulders and fled to Moscow, Russia, where he was eventually granted asylum.

Snowden has remained a controversial subject; called a hero, a whistleblower, a patriot and a traitor—among, surely, some more unprintable names. Yet, good or bad, his leaks have sparked debates over mass surveillance, government secrecy and the delicate dance shared by national security and information privacy in the digital age. That debate took flight again this year when Apple refused an FBI court order to access the phone of an alleged terrorist in San Bernardino, California.

Now, three years after Snowden’s media blitz, and in the aftermath of all that leaked data, we’ve been given the time to reconsider the Snowden story. Is he a national hero? A traitor? Is it time for him to come in from the cold and face his charges?

Holder, President Barack Obama and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper have all acknowledged that Snowden forced a very necessary debate to take place. They’re probably not readying the ticker tape for his return to U.S. soil—the massive leak of NSA documents did compromise U.S. security, and was also hella illegal. Yet, they can recognize Snowden’s act as a “public service,” and, on some level, can justify a mitigation of Snowden’s legal offenses.

And then there are those who argue that Snowden did more harm than good

Like Geoffrey Stone, a distinguished professor at the University of Chicago Law School, who was appointed to a special review group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies by President Obama after Snowden’s leaks.

Stone argues that the “public good” defense flies out the window once you uncover just how much information Snowden released—including information pertaining to foreign intelligence on individuals who aren’t American citizens (aka. not in our ballpark).

People like Stone argue that while free speech is great, it has limits, and government contractors with access to classified information should understand that their free speech can, and must, be restricted at times.

“[Snowden] wants a defense that doesn’t exist,” Stone said, “[that] you can violate law if you have good enough reason to do it. … But you can’t rob people because you have hungry kids. It doesn’t work that way.”

Reach Dayton City Paper editor Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com

Protecting a dissident

By Tim Walker

Let’s be clear about this: Edward Snowden is a hero, and should be treated as such. The man is not a traitor—a dissident, yes, but a hero nonetheless—and there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that Snowden deserves whistleblower status should he ever return to the United States to face the multiple charges of theft and espionage that have been filed by a government that despises him. Snowden is the very definition of a whistleblower, and should be afforded all the legal protections afforded similar whistleblowers.

There’s a quote posted on the wall behind my desk as I write these words, a line from George Bernard Shaw that reads, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” By all standards, Edward Snowden is an unreasonable man—whether progress has indeed been made since his actions, posterity will have to decide. The global debate on government surveillance that was spurred on by his actions continues to this day.

Snowden, a man who is certainly not on the White House’s Christmas card list, released thousands of classified NSA documents to journalists in June of 2013. He leaked top-secret documents revealing that the National Security Agency was spying on hundreds of millions of people across the world, collecting the phone calls and emails of virtually everyone on Earth who used a mobile phone or the Internet. The documents revealed details on those surveillance programs and also outlined secret court orders, which forced telephone service companies to share data on phone calls and text messages with government agencies. Snowden, a former CIA employee and government contractor, came to international attention after stories based on the documents he’d stolen and leaked appeared in The Guardian, The Washington Post and, later, The New York Times. Now, three years after those revelations became public, Edward Snowden is in Russia on the grounds of temporary asylum and faces federal felony charges should he ever set foot on American soil again.

The Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 is a United States federal law that protects federal whistleblowers who work for the government and report agency misconduct. A federal agency violates the Whistleblower Protection Act if agency authorities take (or threaten to take) retaliatory personnel action against any employee because of disclosure of information by that employee. Eric Holder, who served as United States Attorney General from 2009 to 2015, said during a recent interview, “We can certainly argue about the way in which Snowden did what he did, but I think that he actually performed a public service by raising the debate that we engaged in and by the changes that we made.” The Obama administration was quick to respond to that statement. A few days later, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, “The fact of the matter is there is a path for whistleblowers to take if they have legitimate concerns about what they are seeing, particularly when it comes to the handling of classified, sensitive information.”

But Earnest, unfortunately, was being less than truthful. Snowden was employed as a contractor, and, by law, he was not covered by any of the whistleblower protections that an employee of the NSA would have been eligible for. The White House is still repeating this lie, years after it was first pointed out in the press. On top of that, the whistleblower protections in place at the time wouldn’t have helped him anyway—journalist Mark Hertsgaard published a story a few weeks ago in The Guardian about a former NSA employee in charge of helping whistleblowers, who, in turn, had to become a whistleblower himself after the Pentagon attempted to destroy the life of one Thomas Drake, an employee who blew the whistle on NSA spying during the Bush administration.

“Name one whistleblower from the intelligence community whose disclosures led to real change—overturning laws, ending policies—who didn’t face retaliation as a result. The protections just aren’t there,” Snowden said from Russia in March of this year. “The sad reality of today’s policies is that going to the inspector general with evidence of truly serious wrongdoing is often a mistake. Going to the press involves serious risks, but at least you’ve got a chance.”

Common knowledge dictates that one messes with the government at their own peril. But right is right, and legal is legal, and when Edward Snowden related his concerns to his superiors about the information which concerned him, information about gross and illegal overreaching on the part of the NSA, he was encouraged to “keep quiet” and continue doing his job. In other words, be a good German. And Snowden, God bless him, wasn’t able to do that. Like the man with the groceries who blocked a line of Chinese tanks, Snowden was willing to risk his life in order to expose something our government was doing that simply wasn’t right.

For that, we owe him all the protection we can give, to protect him from the law-breakers and power brokers who can’t wait to destroy him.

Tim Walker is 50 and a writer, DJ and local musician. He lives with his wife and their two children in Dayton, where he enjoys pizza, jazz and black t-shirts. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Walker at TimWalker@DaytonCityPaper.com.

Snow-blown

By Ben Tomkins

I think everyone has had the experience of zoning out for a moment and then feeling like the second hand on a clock doesn’t tick for two or three seconds. This phenomenon is a psychological coping tool because our brains don’t like having our stream of consciousness interrupted. When there is a gap for whatever reason, it simply takes a freeze-frame of whatever is handy and crams it into our experience of reality like a little Dutch boy shoving his thumb into a leaking dike.

I had this experience about five times reading the first sentence of the Forum Center. It went something like this:

“‘We can certainly argue about the way in which [Edward] Snowd#man, f–k that guy#en did what he did, but I think that he actually performed a public ser#are you f–king serious?#vice by raising the debate that we eng#bulls—it did#aged in and by the changes that we made.’”

“Would it surprise you to learn former Attorney General Eric Hol#man, f–k that guy too…#der authored those words?

May#f–k no!#be.”

What I thought was a 10 second skim, took, like, a whole minute because of that. I don’t even like having to write this because every wasted electron that bleeds out of the power lines as I type into my computer reminds me that the only thing worth spending on Edward Snowden is a round to whatever part of the liver bleeds out the slowest.

Edward Snowden is not a whistleblower. He is a criminal and a sadist, and all one needs to do to make that determination is examine the difference between his flowery, idealistic language and actual behavior.

What were his assertions regarding the illegal data collection programs conducted by the United States and other European nations?

1. “Suspicionless surveillance does not become okay simply because it’s only victimizing 95 percent of the world instead of 100 percent.”

2. “I don’t care what happens to me. I don’t care if I end up in jail or Guantanamo or whatever, kicked out of a plane with two gunshots in the face. I did what I did because I believe it is the right thing to do.”

3. “I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things … [spies on its own people] I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded. That is not something I am willing to support or live under.”

Let’s handle these in order.

1. Agreed. What the government was doing was wrong, and it’s why democratic countries foster conspiracy theorists so easily. Democracy is a form of government whereby the citizens elect people specifically to keep secrets from them. For instance, we don’t want our government publishing the designs for thermonuclear weapons. I think we can all agree this is bad. However, the trade-off is that we are also trusting them not to violate that license by running broad-spectrum data surveillance against us. I don’t like that politicians—the individuals most likely to hide things for cynical personal gain—are the same people whose ethic we have to trust in this regard.

2. Fine. Then why did you leave Hong Kong—the place where you said you would be willing to let their courts decide your fate until they were prepared to extradite you—and run to China, one of the last countries on earth that would extradite a United States political exile just to give us the finger. And why were you so offended that your passport was revoked and you couldn’t get to Venezuela or Nicaragua for asylum, particularly in light of your quote: “If they really wanted to capture me, they would’ve allowed me to travel to Latin America because the CIA can operate with impunity down there. They did not want that; they chose to keep me in Russia.”

Look dude, Russia would dispose of you like a common dishrag in the grease hamper of a Golden Corral if you didn’t roll onto your back and show your soft underbelly so they could suck your cybersecurity teats dry…

3. This is why I said “f–k” so much when I read the Forum Center, and it’s why he’s a liar and traitor instead of a whistleblower. Snowden apparently hates the fact that his own country is spying on its people so much that he is willing to potentially sacrifice his life over it. One can only imagine this would drive him to some country where the government has an unimpeachable record of respecting the privacy of its citizens.

Like China? A country where people vanish in the middle of the night when the government radio transmitters implanted in their heads before they go to work in sweatshops to sell cheap sneakers to the U.S. are triggered by a single neuron of anti-government thought? How about Venezuela and Nicaragua, two countries where he’d only get off the plane if he brought a few hundred thousand dollars to bribe everyone from the head of state on down to the bellhop just to get to his room without being kidnapped?

Personally, I think the best choice was Russia…

So you see, Edward Snowden is a hypocrite, a liar and, worst of all, a traitor. And I say “traitor” knowing full well it’s the first time in my entire life I have agreed with Dick Cheney. F–k Edward Snowden.

Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colorado. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue. Reach Ben Tomkins at BenTomkins@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Reach DCP editor Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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