Introduced by an emcee acknowledging that “some in the audience may not be comfortable” honoring him, ex-National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden received a standing ovation on Thursday when he weighed in via video link from an undisclosed location and accepted an award for “truth-telling.”
“A year ago there’s no way I could have imagined I’d be being honored in this room, never imagined this level of support,” Snowden told a packed National Press Club ballroom at the 11th annual Ridenhour Prizes sponsored by the Nation Institute and the Fertel Foundation.
“I thought the most likely outcome would be spending the rest of my life in prison,” said Snowden in explaining his decision last spring to leak thousands of classified NSA documents exposing domestic surveillance of Americans’ telecommunications metadata. “I did it because it was the right thing to do, and now I see I’m not the only one who felt that way.”
Appearing tieless and in a coat on a shaky feed projected on a screen, Snowden blasted James Clapper, director of the Office of National Intelligence, for “his famous lie,” a reference to Clapper’s March 2013 testimony—later modified—before the Senate Intelligence Committee denying suggestions that the NSA was collecting data on Americans’ phone calls.
“When Clapper raised his hand and lied to the American public, was anyone tried? Were any charges brought?” Snowden asked. “Within 24 hours of going public, I had three charges against me.”
The former Booz Allen Hamilton technologist whom some call a traitor repeated his assertion that “as a contractor, I had no whistleblower protections.” He said he had expressed his concerns about the domestic surveillance activities to supervisors but said he knew from the fate of other whistleblowers that disclosure was his only option.
Describing a global mapping tool showing how the agency could collect emails from foreign leaders, Snowden asked colleagues, “Is it right to collect more data on Americans than on Russians in Russia?” He said his earlier claims that from his desktop he could wiretap any president or judge “are not hyperbole.” His decision to go public “was for the public good, and I was confident I should do it and even though it cost me so much, it would be worth it.”
The event’s host, Danielle Brian, executive director of the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, told the luncheon crowd that “there was no meaningful or safe channel Snowden could have used, certainly not with the same impact.” Overall, she said, “he is a positive influence.”
Author James Bamford, who has specialized on the NSA for decades, said, “I’m not one of those who’s uncomfortable” honoring Snowden. He said that NSA, which used to jokingly stand for “no such agency,” now stands for “not secret anymore.” Bamford said the surveillance program “became a runaway train that Snowden tried to put a brake on.”
After the story broke, Bamford said, it was clear to him that there was danger in the NSA’s tracking of Internet use –“that’s basically getting into people’s thoughts.” Bamford said he was “shocked” to see an email from NSA chief Keith Alexander praising the surveillance program for its ability to see what websites, including porn, that people were visiting, and “not terrorists, but radicals inside the United States. That hearkens back to the days of J. Edgar Hoover” in the 1960s.
The government’s domestic abuses exposed in the mid- 1970s were recalled by another Ridenhour award winner, Frederick A. O. Schwarz Jr., an attorney who was chief counsel to the Church Committee investigating post-Watergate surveillance. He criticized the George W. Bush and Obama administrations for “failure to have a democratic dialogue” on a project that “was kept secret not to fool al Qaeda but to fool the American people.”
Snowden, who shared the Ridenhour prize for truth-telling with filmmaker Laura Poitras, who also spoke via video, said, “The prize is not just for me but for a whole cohort of whistleblowers who came before me.” He said the first priority of “any American is not an oath to secrecy but a duty to the public to speak truth to power.” Praising the free press, he added, “We haven’t won the day yet, but we will get there. The world has changed, but technology can protect our rights. We have to get government out from behind closed doors. “