Amid Extradition and Prosecution Efforts, NSA Leaker Fears They’ll Come for His Family

Imagine your employer asked you to do something shocking; something you felt threatened the public.  Now imagine that you tried to question the program to your friends, your supervisors, only to see your concerns fall on deaf ears.  Now imagine the reward if you kept quiet — a comfortable life via a six-figure salary from your employer.

I. Edward Snowden — The Leaker Behind the NSA Spying Revelations

That’s the dilemma that faced Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old information specialist.  For several years, Mr. Snowden worked as a technical specialist at thee U.S. National Security Agency (NSA).  After leaving the NSA, he spent the last four years at various NSA contractors including Dell, Inc. (DELL) and Booz Allen Hamilton (Holding Corp. (BAH)).  During his time at these employers, he was ordered to work on various programs that repurposed the NSA — originally an agency purposed with spying on foreign communications — into an agency that spied on American citizens, sometimes on a massive scale.

Mr. Snowden saw how these efforts could be turned on innocent Americans and it sickened him.  So he decided to blow the whistle.  

But unlike some other leakers — like accused leaker and former Army private Bradley Manning — he put in the effort to leak his privileged information to a source he knew would handle it responsibly.  Mr. Manning gave up after initially receiving no response from a handful of news agencies (including The Washington Post), and hence turned to the less scrupulous Wikileaks. By contrast Mr. Snowden also took a while to develop contacts at Britain’s Guardian and The Washington Post, but he persisted until he achieve the means to blow the whistle responsibly, much like Daniel Ellsberg did in 1969 with the leak of the Pentagon Papers.

Mr. Snowden leaked information on two major programs to the two publications.  First he revealed an unnamed order by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) to allow the NSA to indiscriminately seize “metadata”, including location-tracking data, from America’s largest carrier, Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ) and Vodafone Group Plc.’s (LON:VOD) Verizon Wireless.  That seizure provided information that could be used to track on a “daily basis” the location of over a third of Americans who had never committed a crime.

The second leak revealed a more specific, but more aggressive effort dubbed “PRISM”, which allowed the NSA to seize internet records from firms like Google, Inc. (GOOG), Apple, Inc. (AAPL), and Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) under FISA gag order.  These record grabs revealed much more information, including private communication logs, but ostensibly were only to be used against individuals suspected of committing crimes such as the funding of or participation in terrorism.

After leaking details of the programs, Mr. Snowden came forward, insisting on outing himself and refusing to hide in the shadows.

The young technical wizard turned leaker insists he’s no hero for revealing details of these programs.  He comments:

I don’t see myself as a hero, because what I’m doing is self-interested. I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no privacy, and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity.  I’m willing to sacrifice [my income and career success] because I can’t in good conscience allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, Internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.
The whistleblower is currently giving interviews in Hong Kong, China, awaiting the inevitable response from the U.S. government.

II. Mr. Snowden Called a “Defector”, Faces Pending Charges

The response from the U.S. looks to be fast coming. Mr. Snowden faces serious repercussions for blowing the whistle on the U.S. government, who under President Barack Obama’s (D) leadership has been ruthless in hounding the press in the hunt for leakers.

Eager to silence future would-be leakers, the Obama administration is looking to push harsh punishments for Mr. Snowden as is receiving support from some Republicans in Congress.

Program supporters are defending both PRISM and the broader phone records grab.  They say the information helped them capture Najibullah Zazi (Colo.), who in Sept. 2009 plotted to bomb New York City’s subway system.  They also say they helped track David Headley, an American who participated in the Mumbai, India terrorist attacks of 2009, according to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

Unfortunately your browser does not support IFrames.   While the U.S. did not act on other information it obtained without Orwellian surveillance — such as the information from Russian intelligence that the Boston bombing suspects were working with terrorists — Sen. Feinstein and others insist the surveillance of Americans (both warrantless and with warrant) is necessary — regardless of what the Constitution says — to catch criminals or fight “terror”.

U.S. Rep. Peter T. King (R-New York) called Mr. Snowden a “defector”, remarking: This person is dangerous to the country.  If Edward Snowden did in fact leak the NSA data as he claims, the United States government must prosecute him to the fullest extent of the law and begin extradition proceedings at the earliest date.  The United States must make it clear that no country should be granting this individual asylum. This is a matter of extraordinary consequence to American intelligence.

Rep. King is known as a supporter of “big government”, enthusiastically endorsing both the Wall Street bailout and the Oct. 2001 USA PATRIOT (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) Act which allows the warrantless surveillance of Americans.

Now he and his like-minded Republican and Democrat colleagues are pushing to extradite Mr. Snowden.

III. Leaker Fears for His Family, Girlfriend

Mr. Snowden is reportedly living in hotels off of credit cards.  He is fearful that the U.S. government may either seek to kill him, seek to extradite him, or seek to capture him in a covert operation.  Alternatively, he fears the Chinese government could capture and torture him looking to extract secrets from his time at the NSA.  

Edward Snowden, NSA whistleblower [Image Source: Reuters]
He comments:
All my options are bad. 

Yes, I could be rendered by the CIA. I could have people come after me. Or any of the third-party partners. They work closely with a number of other nations. Or they could pay off the Triads. Any of their agents or assets.

We have got a CIA station just up the road – the consulate here in Hong Kong – and I am sure they are going to be busy for the next week. And that is a concern I will live with for the rest of my life, however long that happens to be.
Mr. Snowden is considering fleeing to Iceland, which is known for offering leniency to leakers.  But getting asylum from Iceland may be trick as he would have to get there — Kristin Arnadottir, Iceland’s ambassador to China, explains that asylum requests require an individual to be in her country.

And he is perhaps most afraid that the U.S. government will look to harass and punish his family members or girlfriend (who lives in Hawaii), as that has been a popular technique used by other totalitarian nationalist regimes in the past.

He remarks, “I do not expect to see home again, though that is what I want.”

IV. The Formation of a Whistleblower

The dramatic outing culminates what was a strange and secretive journey for Mr. Snowden.  Originally a struggling high school student with a talent at hacking, he enlisted in the Army in 2003, training to be part of a Special Forces unit.  He recalls the training being disillusioning to his young idealism, commenting to Guardian, “I wanted to fight in the Iraq war because I felt like I had an obligation as a human being to help free people from oppression.  Most of the people training us seemed pumped up about killing Arabs, not helping anyone.”

He broke both of his legs during a training exercise and received a discharge.  From there he decided to try to stick it out with the government employment route, becoming a security guard at a secret NSA facility at the University of Maryland.  But his talent with computers soon drove him into information technology positions, despite his lack of formal education.

In 2007 he went to work for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and was stationed as an IT security specialist in Geneva, Switzerland.  His time at the CIA, during which he had access to seas of classified documents and program details, he cites as being responsible for solidifying his opinion that the U.S. government was losing sight of its ideals.

Mr. Snowden worked for the CIA for a couple of years. [Image Source: AP Photo]
He recalls an alleged incident in which U.S. agents were rebuffed by a Swiss banker, and thus turned to entrapping him, encouraging him to get drunk and drive home.  When the banker was arrested for drunk driving, they used that as leverage to extract the information they wanted.  He comments, “Much of what I saw in Geneva really disillusioned me about how my government functions and what its impact is in the world.  I realized that I was part of something that was doing far more harm than good.”

Still, Mr. Snowden’s decision to leak was not yet made up.  He left the CIA in 2009 and went to work for a private contractor at an NSA facility in Japan.  Like many he was optimistic when President Obama took office in 2008 preaching a message of “hope” and “change”.

He thought perhaps Obama would end the spying programs, which he felt represented “an existential threat to democracy.”

But that was not the case.  He recalls, “[I] watched as Obama advanced the very policies that I thought would be reined in.  I got hardened.”

The disappointing outcome with President Obama taught him a valuable lesson — “You can’t wait around for someone else to act. I had been looking for leaders, but I realised that leadership is about being the first to act.”

So last year, after much deliberation he walked away from a $200,000 USD salary at an NSA contractor in Hawaii, and a comfortable life with his girlfriend.  Now he’s confident to face his destiny, though he is understandably afraid for his family’s safety as well as his own.

V. President Obama Defends Spying Program, Some Details Get Declassified

In the wake of the leaks the Director of Nation Intelligence (DNI) has released a statement condemning the leak and has declassified some details of PRISM, and is claiming no Americans were spied upon in the program.  Disclosed last Thursday by The Washington Post and Guardian it was clear that the program was used to spy only on a limited, finite number of individuals, however it remained unclear whether any of those individuals were citizens of the United States.

U.S. President Barack Obama (D) defended the spying program. [Image Source: AP]
President Obama himself addressed the concerns, commenting in an interview:
Nobody is listening to your phone calls…. [The] court authorizes the initial gathering of data, but I want to repeat, if anybody in government wanted to go further than just that top-line data [e.g. location of citizens] and wanted to, for example, listen to Jackie Calmes’s phone call, they’d have to go back to a federal judge and — and — and indicate why, in fact, they were doing further — further probing.

Internet monitoring is only for those outside United States; we have to balance keeping America safe with privacy concerns.
And in a statement by the DNI Director James Clapper entitled “Facts on Collection of Information Pursuant to Section 702” his office writes:
It is an internal government computer system used to facilitate the government’s statutorily authorized collection of foreign intelligence information from electronic communication service providers under court supervision…This authority was created by the Congress and has been widely known and publicly discussed since its inception in 2008.

In short, Section 702 facilitates the targeted acquisition of foreign intelligence information concerning foreign targets located outside the United States under court oversight. Service providers supply information to the Government when they are lawfully required to do so.
According to the U.S. government, PRISM’s efforts were not targeted at Americans and while eye-opening, were much more limited than the unnamed “metadata” court grabs under FISA court order (or other more sweeping state surveillance programs by the Bush and Obama administrations).

VI. Supporters of Snowden Rally

Amidst the efforts to charge and extradite Mr. Snowden he is receiving some support.

Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers leaker, comments to CNN:
I think he’s done an enormous service.  It gives us a chance, I think, from drawing back from the total surveillance state that we could say we’re in process of becoming, I’m afraid we have become.
Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), labeled by many experts as a prominent opponent of big oppressive government and defender of the Constitution, comments:

The reaction of some in Congress and the Administration to last week’s leak was predictable. Knee-jerk defenders of the police state such as Senator Lindsey Graham declared that he was “glad” the government was collecting Verizon phone records—including his own—because the government needs to know what the enemy is up to. Those who take an oath to defend the Constitution from its enemies both foreign and domestic should worry about such statements.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers tells us of the tremendous benefits of this Big Brother-like program. He promises us that domestic terrorism plots were thwarted, but he cannot tell us about them because they are classified. I am a bit skeptical, however. In April, the New York Times reported that most of these domestic plots were actually elaborate sting operations developed and pushed by the FBI. According to the Times report, “of the 22 most frightening plans for attacks since 9/11 on American soil, 14 were developed in sting operations.”

The government does not need to know more about what we are doing. We need to know more about what the government is doing. We need to turn the cameras on the police and on the government, not the other way around. We should be thankful for writers like Glenn Greenwald, who broke last week’s story, for taking risks to let us know what the government is doing. There are calls for the persecution of Greenwald and the other whistle-blowers and reporters. They should be defended, as their work defends our freedom.
Other civil liberty organizations also released statements of supports for the young leaker and his decision to disclose to a responsible source.