Responding to news of a whistleblower’s complaint at the center of an impeachment inquiry filed against President Trump this week, famed whistleblower Edward Snowden speaks about his own decision to leak classified documents in 2013. The House Intelligence Committee has released the declassified whistleblower complaint, which details a July phone call between President Trump and the Ukrainian president. The White House is trying “to make the conversation not about the allegations,” Snowden told Democracy Now! “They want to talk about the whistleblower rather than the government’s own wrongdoing.”
AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, the HuffPost ran an article headlined “The Trump whistleblower Scandal Is Proving Edward Snowden Right.” In the piece, Nick Baumann writes, quote, “Now, a whistleblower inside the intelligence community is trying to do what Snowden claimed he couldn’t. So far, that person has been effectively silenced by the Trump administration’s refusal to provide the complaint to Congress as required by law. It’s possible that the administration will eventually comply with its legal obligations. But the political system has already sent a clear signal: Even intelligence community whistleblowers who follow the law can’t be confident their concerns will be heard.” Can you respond to this, and the decision you made to go a very different route, Ed?
EDWARD SNOWDEN: How best do we inform the public, whether we are government employees, whether we are contractors working in the intelligence community, whether we are ordinary citizens who witness serious wrongdoing? What can we do? And particularly, what happens when we start being burdened by all of these nondisclosure agreements?
This case that we see before us today is, I think, actually quite clear-cut. It’s one of the simplest cases and simplest controversies we’ve seen in a while, because we’re talking about what appears to be, at least as alleged in the press so far, is a single exchange, a single complaint, about a particularized thing, and it doesn’t threaten the institutions of power broadly. This is about the activities of an individual.
And what we see in the system that’s been built today for whistleblowing is you’re told there are proper channels that you go through, and you’ll be safe if you do this. You will be heard, and your complaints will be investigated, and any improprieties that are borne out by the facts will be corrected.
We know historically this is not the case. There have been academic articles published for years — and there was actually one just published today — looking back through previous cases of, for example, NSA whistleblowers who did go through this process, and they had their lives destroyed. They lost their careers, they lost their homes, in some cases they lost their families, because of the stress and retaliation and consequences they face. Some of them lost their freedom. Chelsea Manning right now is sitting in prison. We have had so much mistreatment of whistleblowers here.
And the question that we have to ask is: Why? Don’t we need, as a public, to understand what the government is doing? And does not the press require access to sources and evidence of what the government is actually doing behind closed doors, which it might not think is comfortable for the public to know, but certainly it serves the public interest for the people to know?
And so, in this context — right? — we now have someone who’s coming forward. And the reason I say this is so clean-cut is, more than any other factor, what academics find when they look at what’s wrong with the whistleblowing process in the United States today is your outcome is entirely determined by the centers of power and how they respond to it.
Now, we have three branches in our government, as everyone knows: You’ve got the White House, you’ve got the Congress, and then you’ve got the judiciary. Well, in my case, in the case of most of the consequential whistleblowers of the last decades, even going as far back, actually, as Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers in the 1970s, they have been reporting failures that cross the branches. It’s not about an individual; it’s about policy, broadly, that was put forward by the executive, it was backstopped or ignored by Congress, and the courts refused to evaluate the legality of it.
In this case, it’s quite different. And this is the reason I think, although this whistleblower is absolutely being mistreated by this White House, and this White House is doing absolutely everything it can to stop this person from communicating what the public needs to know to the public in a meaningful way, so that we can evaluate it — I do not think they will succeed, because in this case the White House is in isolation and, in a meaningful way, in opposition to the Congress that feels their prerogatives are being stepped on by this. And that’s quite unusual in the context of whistleblowing. Typically, we see all three branches of government aligned against the whistleblower. In this case, because the at least alleged bad behavior is so bright-line clear, and because the White House is trying to deny Congress access to the complaint, more so than the public itself, I think there are enough people who will go to bat for whoever this person is, that they will end up all right. And that’s actually a wonderful thing. It’s not enough, and whistleblowers are today and will remain, unfortunately, a vulnerable class, until we fix the broader system.
But the most alarming part of what we see in the treatment of this person today by the White House is what every White House does. They try to make the conversation not about the allegations. They try to make the conversation about the source of the allegations. They want to talk about the whistleblower rather than the government’s own wrongdoing. And we need to have access to the facts, and we need to hear this person out, because it doesn’t matter the provenance of an allegation. What matters is the proof of it. Is what this person is alleging to be true in fact true? And if it is, what are we going to do about it? Who they are does not matter. Whether or not the allegations they are leveling are true matters absolutely.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What’s your perspective on the raging debate in Europe over the right to be forgotten, the privacy — greater privacy protections that the European Union is attempting to institute?
EDWARD SNOWDEN: So, these — it’s called the GDPR, the General Data Protection Regulation, in Europe, that is a major step forward in that we now have advanced democracies that are trying to recognize, essentially, a kind of ownership right in records about us. Now, it’s crude, it’s simplistic, it’s too parochial. It doesn’t work in a meaningful way yet. But, theoretically, it holds the potential for enormous fines for the internet giants in the world if they misbehave and abuse the public as a class.
As you say, one of the primary sort of ideas behind this is a right to be forgotten, which is, you can demand from a company, basically, an understanding of all the records they have on you, and you can demand that they delete them, in some cases. And this actually is a tremendously beneficial thing.
The problem is, and where the hard — the sharp end of this conflict comes into view is: Well, what about public figures? What if this is someone who is engaged in corruption? What if this is a politician who is trying to bury a scandal? Can they go to a newspaper and go, “You have to remove this article about me”? Of course, they cannot and they must not be able to do that. That is still a legal struggle in Europe today, to figure out where to find that line.
But I think we, as average people, understand quite well the difference between a private citizen and a public official. These terms mean something to us. We are supposed to know everything about the people who wield the most power in society. And they are supposed to know very little about us, who have very little influence over the direction of the future, because privacy is about power. It’s about influence.
And this is what we have been robbed of over these last decades. The government increasingly has tried to change this paradigm, and this is the ultimate result of systems of mass surveillance, by which I mean sort of this dragnet interception of everyone’s communications, regardless of whether you’re actually suspected of any wrongdoing or you’re simply getting caught up with everyone else. And this is that governments are increasingly aggressive in asserting different kinds of secrecy privileges, whether it’s the actual state secrets doctrine, which they use to defend classified information, or what we see in this case of the whistleblower who’s the talk of the town this week, which is, the government actually does not seem to be especially concerned about classified information here. Of course, they nod toward that. But if you look at the analysis, they’re actually arguing — they’re more concerned about executive privilege. This is where internal White House deliberative processes don’t need to be shared externally. They can say, “We can guard these from public view.”
But the bottom line of this is, increasingly, we’re living in a time where, whether we’re talking about governments or whether we’re talking about Google and Facebook, the institutions of greatest power in the world today are increasingly able to shelter their behaviors from our view, at the same time they know more about us, our families, our communities and our societies than any government has in any previous time.
AMY GOODMAN: NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, speaking from his home in Moscow, Russia. His memoir, Permanent Record, is out. We’ll be back with him in a minute.