Speaking to a live audience in San Francisco on Sunday, Edward Snowden, the former intelligence officer who released documents about the National Security Agency’s surveillance activities in 2013, said that the sole qualification for whistleblowing is to be a witness to injustice.
“You do not have to be the president to make a difference,” he said. “Whistleblowers are elected by circumstance. … Do what you can if you see injustice. Stand up and say something. It’s not enough to believe in something. If you want to see a better world, you must do something to achieve it.”
Snowden spoke through live-stream video from Russia at a City Arts & Lectures event in San Francisco. He was joined by Daniel Ellsberg, the former military analyst who leaked classified documents known as the Pentagon Papers. Efforts to discredit Ellsberg in a plan hatched by the White House figured into the impeachment proceedings of President Richard Nixon.
Snowden said he wouldn’t have done what he did if not for the precedent set by Ellsberg. Snowden now lives under asylum in Russia. Ellsberg remains in the United States after facing a trial that was dismissed in 1973 on grounds of governmental misconduct.
The two spoke with KQED’s Scott Shafer about whistleblowing and the state of privacy and truth under the Trump presidency.
“When you look at the situation of this White House, of this administration, their relationship to the press, their policy positions. … These are all callbacks to a time when domestically and internationally our lives were fraught with the insecurity and instability that we thought we left behind and should’ve left behind,” said Snowden.
When asked about recent memo leaks, including one that led to the resignation of Donald Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, Ellsberg expressed concern over the reaction from the administration.
Leaking, and even illegal classified leaking, has been a big problem in Washington for years. Failing @nytimes (and others) must apologize!
The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by “intelligence” like candy. Very un-American!
“It’ll be very interesting to see with these leak investigations that are going on now just exactly what Donald J. Trump’s people and Jeff Sessions do with the [security] capabilities they just inherited from Barack Obama,” Ellsberg said.
There was also a sense of optimism about the state of resistance by ordinary people post-election. Ellsberg referred to the recent airport protests denouncing President Trump’s ban on refugees worldwide and on travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries, calling the protests “encouraging.”
“It’s been awhile since I’ve seen anything like this,” he said.
Snowden also referred to post-election protests, the rise in donations to the American Civil Liberties Union and reported swells in newspaper subscriptions after Trump’s election.
“People are realizing afresh that democracy is not an inheritance,” said Snowden. “I see the seed being planted and the very first shoots … we will see dark days ahead but … we will learn again what it means to resist injustice and how to do so effectively.”
Edward Snowden on the silver linings of the Trump administration https://t.co/IGy60wOQgy
Snowden also spoke of living life in anonymity in Russia, and the possibility of getting snatched by the CIA.
“It’s always a possibility. Much earlier on, it was much more realistic.”
Snowden said he regularly rides the metro in Russia, and that it’s relatively easy to go unrecognized — except in computer stores.
“In my situation, I don’t want a lot of my day-to-day to be known,” he said. “I don’t want my persona to follow me home … One of the places I used to go very frequently is now much riskier for me, and that would be computer stores.”
Asked what he saw looking 20 years into the future, Snowden said “everyone wants a happy ending” to their life, adding that what happened to him wasn’t nearly as important as what happened to the country in terms of preserving liberty and freedom.
When asked if not being able to return to the United States was “worth it,” Snowden said this:
“I would do it again, and I would do it sooner.”