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23rd Feb 2020

Snowden to EU: Whistleblowers need protection

  • MEPs were told that Obama has indicted more people under the Espionage Act than all previous US presidents combined (Photo: Luc Mercelis)

Surveillance of whole populations is one of the greatest challenges facing human rights, former NSA agent Edward Snowden told the European Parliament’s civil liberties committee at a hearing on whistleblowers.

In a statement, read out to the committee on Monday (30 September) by former whistleblower Jesseyln Radack, Snowden said public debate on mass surveillance should not have to rely on the persecution and exile of people willing to leak information to the public.

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“If we are to enjoy such debates in the future, we cannot rely on individual sacrifice, we must create better channels for people of conscience to better inform not only trusted agents of government but independent representatives of the public outside of government,” he said.

He noted that a culture of secrecy has denied society the opportunity to determine the appropriate balance between the fundamental right to privacy and government-led probes into suspected terrorists and their activities.

Snowden, who was granted temporary asylum in Russia, said he leaked the US' National Security Agency (NSA) files to the Guardian and Washington Post newspapers over the summer in order to expose the scale of the surveillance and to launch a debate about change.

His actions are seen as partly successful in the US, where privacy rights advocates say moral outrage is pushing lawmakers to reconsider the power and scope of a government which has spent some $500 billion on surveillance since 9-11.

Marc Rotenberg, the head of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Centre (EPIC), told the committee: “It gives me hope, at least with the conduct in the US, that there are going to be changes."

Rotenberg warned MEPs the possible changes to limit NSA snooping would only extend to US citizens and US territory, however.

He said US-led surveillance on EU citizens would continue since there is no real debate or pressure in the US on the scope of NSA activities outside its national borders.

He suggested the EU suspends ongoing free trade negotiations in an effort to pressure the Americans into taking EU data privacy concerns more seriously.

Also present at the hearing was Thomas Drake, a former senior executive at the NSA until 2008.

Drake was a whistleblower at two 9-11 congressional investigations in 2002.

He also exposed fraud and abuse at the NSA during an agency audit from 2003 to 2005 on the so-called Trailblazer collection data programme which was then under development.

He went to the press in 2006 and was later raided by the FBI.

“Rather than address the illegality and wrongdoing, the government made me a target of a huge federal criminal leak investigation into the exposure of secret surveillance programmes and subjected me to severe retaliation, reprisal and retribution,” he said.

Drake was forced out of his job and blacklisted. Unemployed, his attorney fees forced him to take out a second mortgage on his house and spend all his personal savings.

“What I experienced as a whistleblower, sends the most chilling of messages about what the government can and will do, when one speaks truth to a power - a direct form of political repression and censorship,” he said.

Drake flew sorties as a crypto-linguist on reconnaissance aircrafts over Europe during the latter years of the Cold War. His primary target was East Germany, where the secret police, the Stasi, used surveillance to seek out possible dissidents and defectors.

“I never imagined the US would use the Stasi-playbook as a template for its own state-sponsored surveillance regime,” he told MEPs.

He said national security services which deliberately compromise information technologies and protocols undermine the sovereignty of the state and its citizens.

“The US government has routinely violated, on a vast industrial scale, the constitutional protections afforded to its own citizens while also disregarding the internal integrity of other states and the fundamental rights of non-US citizens,” he noted.

Drake was indicted in 2010 under US President Barack Obama’s administration on criminal charges for leaking information on NSA operations. He faced 35 years in jail before all charges were dropped in 2011.

The government’s prosecution against Drake collapsed, but it continued to indict national security and intelligence community whistleblowers for espionage.

“Employers in these communities have no whistleblower protections,” said Jesseyln Radack, who leads the US-based Government Accountability Project to protect whistleblowers.

“In less than a year, President Obama indicted more people under the Espionage Act, most of whom are whistleblowers, than all previous Presidents combined,” she said.

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