Op-Ed: Thank You, Edward Snowden

Louis Clark, the President of the Government Accountability Project, explains why we should be grateful for the NSA whistleblower.

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden: Guardian Interview

In this handout photo provided by ‘The Guardian,’ NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden speaks during an interview in Hong Kong. Snowden revealed details of top-secret surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency. (Photo by The Guardian via Getty Images)

Louis Clark is President of the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.

Edward Snowden was employed by an intelligence firm working for the National Security Agency (NSA) and disclosed documents about a secret program that he reasonably believed violated the law. His revelations are performing a vital public service. As a nation, we are now entering into a more informed national debate about what sacrifices Americans are willing to make to enhance their actual security. Clearly, Snowden is a NSA whistleblower.

Secret programs, enforced by the threat of criminal investigations and Espionage Act prosecutions, have ensured that no such debate was previously possible. The Government Accountability Project (GAP) has represented seven NSA whistleblowers who are facing or have endured such threats. In addition, all of us as Americans have seen the unprecedented leak investigation conducted by the Department of Justice to obtain the phone records of scores of journalists from the Associated Press and Fox News. 

Three NSA whistleblowers, whom we represent, confidentially filed and cooperated with a Department of Defense Inspector General Office (IG) investigation into waste and illegal surveillance at the agency. After first going up the chain of command, they went to the IG, which validated their concerns. Unfortunately, the IG also turned their names over to the FBI, which then raided their homes, launched numerous criminal investigations and indicted one of them, Thomas Drake, for espionage. Eventually the prosecution fell completely apart, and the federal judge admonished the Department of Justice for even bringing the case.

Simultaneously, Congress considered, but ultimately rejected, protections for NSA whistleblowers. Contractors for intelligence agencies were likewise excluded from protections.   

These intelligence measures taken together are clearly designed to dissuade potential whistleblowers from raising concerns and provide no protections if they do. The reason is simple: If the public knew the extent of domestic surveillance and about other intelligence activities, the political fallout could be great. Soon we will find out how upset Americans are about NSA’s massive surveillance campaign. The first Pew poll about the impact of blanket surveillance of all Internet users indicates that by a 52-45 percent margin, Americans reject this program as an acceptable method to protect national security.  

Obviously, those who, for whatever reason, are now defending this unprecedented surveillance of Americans—not to mention the citizens of all other countries—have decided that the best defense for these policies is an offense against Snowden. Our view is that it would serve both the fight against terrorism and the need to preserve our liberties as a people to have the debate that secrecy and the abuse of power against whistleblowers and the press have not allowed us to have. Since the supreme motive to quash whistleblowers is usually to eliminate embarrassment and cover-up wrongdoing, it behooves all of us to question the motives of those trying to kill the messenger.

Since contractor costs now consume 70 percent of the intelligence budget while only encompassing one-quarter of the personnel, taxpayers need to also examine what has happened to our national security. The Washington Post has reported that Snowden’s employer, Booz Allen Hamilton, has seen its profits rise nine-fold over the past three years. Since nearly 99 percent of its revenue comes from government contracting and much of that for its intelligence-related services, it is clear that national security has largely been privatized. In fact, several of the company’s top executives receive five to eight times the salary of President Obama himself.

The Snowden episode will hopefully allow us to examine exactly what our tax dollars are buying. For this opportunity, we can thank Edward Snowden.

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