One of the arguments being used against Edward Snowden is that instead of going public, he should have informed his superiors or Congress and taken it through the proper channels. But USA Today had interviews with four whistleblowers (three of whom Thomas Drake, William Binney and J. Kirk Wiebe used to work the NSA, and the fourth Jesselyn Radack who used to work for the Justice Department and now serves as their lawyer) explain that when they tried to do just that, not only were they stonewalled, their efforts were actually used against them.
Unlike the lowly Snowden, these people worked at the upper levels of the NSA but even that elevated status did not result in their complaints being taken seriously.
For years, the three whistle-blowers had told anyone who would listen that the NSA collects huge swaths of communications data from U.S. citizens. They had spent decades in the top ranks of the agency, designing and managing the very data-collection systems they say have been turned against Americans. When they became convinced that fundamental constitutional rights were being violated, they complained first to their superiors, then to federal investigators, congressional oversight committees and, finally, to the news media.
They feel that Snowden learned from observing their experience in deciding on his choice of action and that he did the right thing in going public and leaving the country to do so, although Binney warns him not to give too much information that is helpful to the Chinese.
William Binney: We tried to stay for the better part of seven years inside the government trying to get the government to recognize the unconstitutional, illegal activity that they were doing and openly admit that and devise certain ways that would be constitutionally and legally acceptable to achieve the ends they were really after. And that just failed totally because no one in Congress or — we couldn’t get anybody in the courts, and certainly the Department of Justice and inspector general’s office didn’t pay any attention to it. And all of the efforts we made just produced no change whatsoever. All it did was continue to get worse and expand.
Jesselyn Radack: Not only did they go through multiple and all the proper internal channels and they failed, but more than that, it was turned against them. … The inspector general was the one who gave their names to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution under the Espionage Act. And they were all targets of a federal criminal investigation, and Tom ended up being prosecuted — and it was for blowing the whistle.
They say that the reason that a young person like Snowden had access to all this information is that system administrators, even lowly ones, need to have access to all corners of the system just to keep it running. I am sure that in my own university, a low-level systems technician can probably read my emails while the president of the university cannot.
Binney: Part of his job as the system administrator, he was to maintain the system. Keep the databases running. Keep the communications working. Keep the programs that were interrogating them operating. So that meant he was like a super-user. He could go on the network or go into any file or any system and change it or add to it or whatever, just to make sure — because he would be responsible to get it back up and running if, in fact, it failed.
So that meant he had access to go in and put anything. That’s why he said, I think, “I can even target the president or a judge.” If he knew their phone numbers or attributes, he could insert them into the target list which would be distributed worldwide. And then it would be collected, yeah, that’s right. As a super-user, he could do that.
They feel that he is in personal danger should he fall into the hands of the US government.
Binney: Well, first of all, I think he should expect to be treated just like Bradley Manning (an Army private now being court-martialed for leaking documents to WikiLeaks). The U.S. government gets ahold of him, that’s exactly the way he will be treated.
Q: He’ll be prosecuted?
Binney: First tortured, then maybe even rendered and tortured and then incarcerated and then tried and incarcerated or even executed.
Thomas Drake: You know, I was charged with 10 felony counts. I was facing 35 years in prison. This is how far the state will go to punish you out of retaliation and reprisal and retribution…Believe me, they are going to put everything they have got to get him. I think there really is a risk. There is a risk he will eventually be pulled off the street.
Q: What do you mean?
Drake: Well, fear of rendition. There is going to be a team sent in.
It is extraordinary how they speak of the US government ignoring international laws and kidnapping people in other countries, torturing them, or sending them to other countries to be tortured as if that is now the standard procedure. People have come to think of this lawless behavior by their own government as the new normal.
The full interview is quite revealing about how others who were deeply knowledgeable about the surveillance programs feel about this turn of events.