2014-05-01 Snowden statement on receiving 2014 Ridenhour Prize

Originally published at Mother Jones 30 April 2014.

A year ago there was no way I could have imagined being here, being honored in this room. When I began this, I never expected to receive the level of support that I did from the public. Having seen what happened to the people that came before, specifically Thomas Drake, it was an intimidating thing. I'd realized that the highest likelihood, the most likely outcome of returning this information to public hands would be that I would spend the rest of my life in prison. I did it because I thought it was the right thing to do.

What's important about this is that I'm not the only one who felt this way. There were people throughout the NSA that I worked with, that I had private conversations with - that I've had conversations with since in public federal agencies - who had the same concerns I did. But they were afraid to take action because they knew what would happen.

I particularly remember a conversation in the wake of James Clapper's famous lie to Senator Wyden, where I asked by coworker, you know, why doesn't anyone say anything about this? He said - do you know what they do to people who do? And at that time I said yes - he didn't understand why. By that time I had read the laws, I knew what would happen. I knew that there were no whistleblower protections that would protect me from prosecution as a private contractor as opposed to a direct government employee.

But that didn't change my calculus of what needed to be done. And the fact that I knew so many others who had the same concerns, who knew that what we were doing had gone too far, had departed from what we were supposed to be doing, had departed from the fundamental principles of what our US intelligence community is all about - serving the public good - meant that I was confident that I could do it. And the fact that it would cost me so much, it would give so much back to others that were struggling with the same problems, it would be worth it.

And because of this, although I have to say I am honoured to be in the company of so many distinguished Ridenhour awardees, this prize is not just for me, this prize is for a cohort: a cohort of so many people. Whistleblowers who came before me - the Binneys, the Drakes, the Wiebes - and the other intelligence officers throughout the intelligence community who remember that the first principle of any American intelligence official is not an oath to secrecy but a duty to the public. A commitment to speak truth to power, to prevent the sort of intelligence failures that lead us to wars, that don't protect our country that don't keep anybody safe and in fact put us all at risk.

This is the same principle underlying the actions of our free press that's brought us here and given so much back to the global community, as well as the American community, over the past year. It's critical that we remember as a democracy people who do so much and people who serve in silence and try to do the right thing and who may not be in a position themselves to change things directly but are still trying. Because they know that they don't serve officials, they don't serve power - they serve the public.

There's been a lot said about oaths and the oath that I remember is James Clapper, raising his hand, swearing to tell the truth and then lying to the American public. I also swore an oath but that oath was not to secrecy: that oath was to protect and defend our constitution.

But what I saw was that the constitution was being violated on a massive scale. And I did report this internally, I told all of my co-workers, I told my superiors. I showed them Boundless Informant, which is a global heat map, an internal heat map that any NSA employee could see, anyone with an internal net account. It shows the precedence, the level of incidence of NSA interception, collection, storage and analysis events around the world. And I asked these people - because this is what the tool showed - do you think it's right that the NSA is collecting more information about Americans in America than it is about Russians in Russia? Because that's what our systems do.

We watch our own people more closely than we watch any other population in the world, despite the protections that are policy-based. Our technical systems ingest and collect everyone in this room's communication. When you pick up the phone, when you make a call, when you make a purchase, when you buy a book - all of that is collected and I could see that at my desk, crossing my screen.

People had questions about whether or not it was true, whether or not it was really possible or whether I was exaggerating when I said that at my desk I could be wiretapping anyone in America, from a federal judge to the President of the United States. And I am telling you: that is not hyperbole. So long as I had an email address, or some other digital network selector - it's true. And what is truly frightening, but has not been reported at all since these disclosures is that it's happened before.

In 2009 the New York Times reported that an NSA analyst inappropriately accessed Bill Clinton's email. We also saw the stories about disclosures to Congress about LOVEINT - that's sort of an internal name - where NSA analysts and military analysts were abusing these tools to monitor their girlfriends, their wives, their lovers.

The question we have to ask ourselves is: when they committed these crimes, when James Clapper committed a crime by lying under oath to the American people, were they actually held accountable? Was anyone tried? Were charges brought? It's been years since these events occurred whereas, within 24 hours of the time I went public, three counts of charges were laid against me personally.

We have to ask ourselves: if we can hold the lowest, most junior members of our community to these high standards of behaviour, why can't we ask the same of our most senior officials?

Since that time, thanks to the work of our free press, thanks to the work of our elected representatives, thanks to the work of our civil society - these policies, this abuses, the collect-it-all mentality, these systems that have been aggregating the haystack of our human lives are changing. And though we're not finished yet, we haven't won the day, we have to continue to press for reforms, we will get there so long as we try. Our republic, if we can keep it - as they say.

The world is changed, the way we live is changed: our values have not changed. And though we need reforms from the courts and the Congress - we'll get Supreme Court decisions, we'll get laws passed - hopefully we'll see the USA Freedom Act, which is the only act that really starts to address these concerns, get passed - we'll also see contributions, we'll see changes made by principled, skilled technologists throughout the US academic community and around the world, working to enshrine our values of privacy and the commitment to freedom and to liberty, into the very fabric of our global infrastructure around the world.

And not only do we protect American citizens, but we protect the freedoms of citizens everywhere, whether they're in Russia, whether they're in China. So it doesn't matter whether somewhere some government passes terrible laws. Our technology can enforce our rights, even where governments fail to do so.

This is the way forward, it's cooperation, it's working together, it's thinking and having a public dialogue. It's getting government out from behind closed doors and restoring the public's seat at the table of government. And together, we can restore the balance of our rights to what our constitution promises and in fact guarantees. Thank you.

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