The public needs to know the kinds of things a government does in its name, or the "consent of the governed" is meaningless... The consent of the governed is not consent if it is not informed.
On July 8, 2013, the Sam A. Adams Association for Integrity in Intelligence, an organization made up of former American intelligence officials, announced that their annual Corner-Brightener Candlestick Award would go to a thirty-year-old man residing in the territory-neutral "transit zone" of Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport.
Thomas Drake, the 2011 recipient of the Candlestick and another former employee of the National Security Agency (NSA), had this to say about Edward Snowden, who continues to evade the U.S. authorities that have charged him under the Espionage Act with revealing intelligence secrets:
I consider Edward Snowden as a whistle-blower. I know some have called him a hero, some have called him a traitor. I focus on what he disclosed. I don't focus on him as a person. He had a belief that what he was exposed to—U.S. actions in secret—were violating human rights and privacy on a very, very large scale, far beyond anything that had been admitted to date by the government. In the public interest, he made that available…
The government is desperate to not deal with the actual exposures, the content of the disclosures. Because they do reveal a vast, systemic, institutionalized, industrial-scale Leviathan surveillance state that has clearly gone far beyond the original mandate to deal with terrorism—far beyond.
Snowden's carefully orchestrated security leak began in January 2013, when an independent journalist and documentary filmmaker named Laura Poitras received an anonymous email inviting her to an encrypted conversation. The emailer , using the codname Verax, meaning "truth teller", promised not to waste Poitras' time. In February, Glenn Greenwald, a journalist who works for the British newspaper, The Guardian, received a similar invitation.
The source offered internal NSA documents that described the degree to which both foreign and American electronic and telephone communications are monitored, captured, analyzed and stored for future reference.
On June 5 and 6, the first news stories based on the intelligence documents broke like a tsunami over the media world. Greenwald in The Guardian wrote, "The National Security Agency is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon, one of America's largest telecoms providers, under a top secret court order issued in April." In the The Washington Post, Laura Poitras and Barton Gellman reported on the complicity of more major corporations in the global surveillance of electronic communications: "The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track foreign targets, according to a top-secret document…" The Internet companies named in the document included Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and AOL.
Three days later, on June 9, the world got its first look at the leaker as he announced himself on video from an undisclosed hotel in Kowloon, Hong Kong: "My name is Ed Snowden, I'm 29 years old. I worked for Booz Allen Hamilton as an infrastructure analyst for NSA in Hawaii."
With Greenwald asking questions and Poitras filming the interview that would be seen by millions people around the world, Snowden went on to explain his choice to defy the US security apparatus. Boyish looking and calmly articulate Snowden said,
"I don't want to live in a world where everything that I say, everything I do, everyone I talk to, every expression of creativity or love or friendship is recorded. And that's not something I'm willing to support, it's not something I'm willing to build, and it's not something I'm willing to live under. So I think anyone who opposes that sort of world has an obligation to act in the way they can. Now I've watched and waited and tried to do my job in the most policy-driven way I could, which is to wait and allow other people, you know-- wait and allow our leadership, our figures, to sort of correct the excesses of government when we go too far. But as I've watched, I've seen that's not occurring. In fact, we're compounding the excesses of prior governments. And making it worse and more invasive, and no one is really standing to stop it."
Edward Snowden grew up in North Carolina. He never finished high school, taking the GED (General Educational Development) exam. He joined the US Army with the idea that he could help liberate the oppressed people of Iraq. He later worked for the C.I.A and then for the N.S.A. Over that time, his thinking evolved and he began to question what he saw as the opaque reach of government power based on a "secret court that has secret interpretations of secret laws." "What kind of democracy is that?" asks Snowden. By the time he accepted a position at the private security contractor, Booz Allen Hamilton, in March of 2013, he had decided to do what he could to expose what he believed to be warrantless, extra-legal invasion of Americans' privacy.
Snowden's hope is to inspire a national conversation about the degree to which we, as Americans, will allow the government to monitor our everyday conversations, private thoughts and the information we seek on the internet. Some have criticized his decision to leave the United States and not stay and face the legal consequences of his actions. Thomas Drake said, "I focus on what he disclosed. I don't focus on him as a person." And, Snowden's flight undoubtedly has captured the national attention and kept the media spotlight on his actions and his message. It is also interesting how his revelations have collapsed, for the moment, the calcified sense of red and blue, right and left. On what other issues can you find concurrence between progressives such as Cornel West, Michael Moore, and Chris Hedges and conservatives and libertarians such as Glen Beck, Matt Drudge and Rand Paul?
Wikipedia, an open source of information designed to be the people's encyclopedia, reveals the degree to which Snowden – and his flight – have engaged the public imagination. It has been only a month since Snowden's identity was revealed and yet his biography on Wikipedia has been cobbled together from 236 media references (this number will change constantly). By comparison, Bradley Manning's entry is made up of 80 references, and Thomas Drake's of 67.
Writing in The New Yorker, Amy Davidson who has been blogging about Snowden and what he represents, writes, "He is the reason our country has, in the last week, been having a conversation on privacy and the limits of domestic surveillance. That was overdue, and one wishes it had been prompted by self-examination on the part of the Obama Administration or real oversight by Congress. But both failed, and it came in the form of Snowden handing highly classified documents—a lot of them—to journalists."
Snowden worries that his act of conscience will be in vain: "The greatest fear that I have regarding the outcome for America of these disclosures is that nothing will change. People will see in the media all of these disclosures. They'll know the lengths that the government is going to grant themselves powers unilaterally to create greater control over American society and global society. But they won't be willing to take the risks necessary to stand up and fight to change things to force their representatives to actually take a stand in their interests."
Over the coming months we will see how brightly his candle will burn, and the how many more dark corners it might illuminate.
He claims to be standing up for all of us. "I am neither traitor nor hero," says Snowden. "I am an American." How will we respond to his message?