It was 5 a.m. in Moscow when former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden began his conversation with the more than 2,000 people who gathered at the University of Colorado’s Macky Auditorium to hear him speak on Tuesday night, Feb. 16. Snowden spoke to the audience from Russia by way of the Internet via Google Hangouts, which allowed him to make a rather Orwellian impression as a 10-foot-high talking head on a giant screen dangling above the main stage. Sharing the stage in person and in actual size was Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Ron Suskind, who moderated the event though it really needed no such intervention.
Snowden knows what he needs and wants to say and does so eloquently with seemingly great conviction and humility.
If he is not an American hero, he most certainly plays the role convincingly. But I suspect and believe the evidence shows he isn’t acting.
Most of us know Snowden’s story by now. He was recruited by the CIA right out of high school even before he could graduate. He did a number of jobs for the CIA and NSA which utilized his abundant computer skills and which ultimately led to his having top-secret clearance. He was living the good life with his girlfriend in Hawaii, making six figures a year as a contractor for the NSA in what he called “paradise” when the wheels began to come off his life as the result of a crisis of conscience.
As he began to watch the congressional testimony of his bosses — the directors and managers of the U.S. intelligence agencies — he became concerned because he knew from his own work they were lying to Congress, which happens to be a crime. But more importantly, because they were lying and withholding the true scope of their unauthorized and, subsequently declared, illegal mass surveillance of the American people, Snowden realized our democracy was being threatened at its very foundation.
“Consent is only consent if it is informed,” he said. And he knew Americans were not informed. But he also said he knew something else: “The only way terrorism can win is if we abandon our free and open society in fear of it.”
Yet, that’s exactly what we did following 9/11 and continue to do to this day. And that is why we are losing the war despite our unparalleled military and intelligence capabilities.
In a very telling moment on Tuesday night, Snowden showed documents to back up his description of a meeting between then President George Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and NSA Director Michael Hayden. The authorization that had supposedly made it possible to collect the phone calls and Internet records of all Americans had expired. The U.S. Attorney General was refusing to reauthorize such surveillance activity, noting that it was clearly unconstitutional. So Cheney and Bush asked Hayden if he would continue to spy on all of us despite lacking any authority to do so and despite knowing it was therefore illegal. He agreed.
One could argue that American democracy died in that room at that moment. An optimist might say it was only anesthetized and will one day awaken, like maybe in November 2016. We’ll see.
For Snowden, whose top-secret security clearance allowed him to know that the American public was being unknowingly spied upon by our own government in illegal ways, the time for truth had come.
“We all have this line inside where we can brush it off… there’s a level of instability or inhumanity or injustice that we can accept,” he said. But for Snowden, his ability to simply accept what the government was doing had reached its end.
And so he carefully began to leak information to journalists so that Americans would finally know what was really being done to them. He said he never wanted to draw attention to himself or be the story. “I set out to let the public have the information they always should have had,” he said.
In the end, he had to flee to Hong Kong to escape arrest and likely imprisonment. From there, he had to escape to Russia, where he was stranded in an airport on his way to South America when the U.S. government canceled his passport. He now lives in an apartment near Moscow while he waits to return to the U.S., the country he says he loves, and the country for which he has clearly sacrificed nearly everything.
Was it worth it?
“Progress, great change, change that gives us a better world in a distinct way, often happens through the transgression of the law,” he said. “Doing nothing at no cost to me is so much worse than doing something that costs me everything. … I don’t regret it.”
Snowden was given the opportunity on Tuesday to politicize his predicament. He was asked to comment about the current presidential elections. He spoke briefly about the fact that both parties are basically the same, divided by only a few wedge social issues, and noted that many of our government’s more unsavory intelligence gathering practices actually increased under the Obama administration. But all in all, he went out of his way to not point fingers at candidates.
While it’s understandable why he likely did so — his ability to return home in the future and restart his life with friends and family will surely depend on the grace of some future president — it left a rather large elephant in the room.
In many ways, this election is a referendum on the Washington establishment, the very establishment that has and continues to invade our right to privacy despite our constitutional protections to the contrary. Snowden’s revelations and personal sacrifice are at the very heart of this election cycle.
Like Edward Snowden says, we all have a line inside of us, a point of how much instability or inhumanity or injustice we can take before we snap and have to take proper action to make it right. I think if we look hard at the current state of our democracy, our elected leaders and our corrupt campaign finance system, we will find that we all should have crossed the line to action some time ago.