Authors: Edward Snowden
After receiving this letter, the Marine Committee investigated Commodore Hopkins. He reacted by dismissing his officers and crew, and in a fit of rage filed a criminal libel suit against Midshipman Samuel Shaw and Third Lieutenant Richard Marven, the two officers who admitted to having authored the petition. The suit was filed in the courts of Rhode Island, whose last colonial governor had been Stephen Hopkins, a signatory to the Declaration of Independence and the commodore’s brother.
The case was assigned to a judge appointed by Governor Hopkins, but before the trial commenced Shaw and Marven were saved by a fellow naval officer, John Grannis, who broke ranks and presented their case directly to the Continental Congress. The Continental Congress was so alarmed by the precedent being set by allowing military complaints regarding dereliction of duty to be subject to the criminal charge of libel that it intervened. On July 30, 1778, it terminated the command of Commodore Hopkins, ordered the Treasury Office to pay Shaw and Marven’s legal fees, and by unanimous consent enacted America’s first whistleblower
protection law. This law declared it “the duty of all persons in the service of the United States, as well as all other inhabitants thereof, to give the earliest information to Congress or any other proper authority of any misconduct, frauds, or misdemeanors committed by any officers or persons in the service of these states, which may come to their knowledge.”
The law gave me hope—and it still does. Even at the darkest hour of the Revolution, with the very existence of the country at stake, Congress didn’t just welcome an act of principled dissent, it enshrined such acts as duties. By the latter half of 2012, I was resolved to perform this duty myself, though I knew I’d be making my disclosures at a very different time—a time both more comfortable and more cynical. Few if any of my IC superiors would have sacrificed their careers for the same American principles for which military personnel regularly sacrifice their lives. And in my case, going up “the chain of command,” which the IC prefers to call “the proper channels,” wasn’t an option as it was for the ten men who crewed on the
. My superiors were not only aware of what the agency was doing, they were actively directing it—they were complicit.
In organizations like the NSA—in which malfeasance has become so structural as to be a matter not of any particular initiative, but of an ideology—proper channels can only become a trap, to catch the heretics and disfavorables. I’d already experienced the failure of command back in Warrenton, and then again in Geneva, where in the regular course of my duties I had discovered a security vulnerability in a critical program. I’d reported the vulnerability, and when nothing was done about it I reported that, too. My supervisors weren’t happy that I’d done so, because their supervisors weren’t happy, either. The chain of command is truly a chain that binds, and the lower links can only be lifted by the higher.
Coming from a Coast Guard family, I’ve always been fascinated by how much of the English language vocabulary of disclosure has a nautical undercurrent. Even before the days of the USS
, organizations, like ships, sprang leaks. When steam replaced wind
for propulsion, whistles were blown at sea to signal intentions and emergencies: one whistle to pass by port, two whistles to pass by starboard, five for a warning.
The same terms in European languages, meanwhile, often have fraught political valences conditioned by historical context. French used
throughout much of the twentieth century, until the word’s WWII-era association with being a “denouncer” or “informant” for the Germans led to a preference for
(“one who launches a warning”). German, a language that has struggled with its culture’s Nazi and Stasi past, evolved beyond its own
to settle on the unsatisfactory
(a “hint- or tip-giver”),
(“scandal-uncoverer”), and even the pointedly political
(“ethical dissident”). German uses few of these words online, however; with respect to today’s Internet-based disclosures, it has simply borrowed the noun
and the verb
. The languages of regimes like Russia and China, for their part, employ terms that bear the pejorative sense of “snitch” and “traitor.” It would take the existence of a strong free press in those societies to imbue those words with a more positive coloration, or to coin new ones that would frame disclosure not as a betrayal but as an honorable duty.
Ultimately, every language, including English, demonstrates its culture’s relationship to power by how it chooses to define the act of disclosure. Even the nautically derived English words that seem neutral and benign frame the act from the perspective of the institution that perceives itself wronged, not of the public that the institution has failed. When an institution decries “a leak,” it is implying that the “leaker” damaged or sabotaged something.
Today, “leaking” and “whistleblowing” are often treated as interchangeable. But to my mind, the term “leaking” should be used differently than it commonly is. It should be used to describe acts of disclosure done not out of public interest but out of self-interest, or in pursuit of institutional or political aims. To be more precise, I understand a leak as something closer to a “plant,” or an incidence
of “propaganda-seeding”: the selective release of protected information in order to sway popular opinion or affect the course of decision making. It is rare for even a day to go by in which some “unnamed” or “anonymous” senior government official does not leak, by way of a hint or tip to a journalist, some classified item that advances their own agenda or the efforts of their agency or party.
This dynamic is perhaps most brazenly exemplified by a 2013 incident in which IC officials, likely seeking to inflate the threat of terrorism and deflect criticism of mass surveillance, leaked to a few news websites extraordinarily detailed accounts of a conference call between al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and his global affiliates. In this so-called conference call of doom, al-Zawahiri purportedly discussed organizational cooperation with Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Yemen, and representatives of the Taliban and Boko Haram. By disclosing the ability to intercept this conference call—that is, if we’re to believe this leak, which consisted of a description of the call, not a recording—the IC irrevocably burned an extraordinary means of apprising itself of the plans and intentions of the highest ranks of terrorist leadership, purely for the sake of a momentary political advantage in the news cycle. Not a single person was prosecuted as a result of this stunt, though it was most certainly illegal, and cost America the ability to keep wiretapping the alleged al-Qaeda hotline.
Time and again, America’s political class has proven itself willing to tolerate, even generate leaks that serve its own ends. The IC often announces its “successes,” regardless of their classification and regardless of the consequences. Nowhere in recent memory has that been more apparent than in the leaks relating to the extrajudicial killing of the American-born extremist cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi in Yemen. By breathlessly publicizing its drone attack on al-Aulaqi to the
New York Times
, the Obama administration was tacitly admitting the existence of the CIA’s drone program and its “disposition matrix,” or kill list, both of which are officially top secret. Additionally, the govern
ment was implicitly confirming that it engaged not just in targeted assassinations, but in targeted assassinations of American citizens. These leaks, accomplished in the coordinated fashion of a media campaign, were shocking demonstrations of the state’s situational approach to secrecy: a seal that must be maintained for the government to act with impunity, but that can be broken whenever the government seeks to claim credit.
It’s only in this context that the US government’s latitudinal relationship to leaking can be fully understood. It has forgiven “unauthorized” leaks when they’ve resulted in unexpected benefits, and forgotten “authorized” leaks when they’ve caused harm. But if a leak’s harmfulness and lack of authorization, not to mention its essential illegality, make scant difference to the government’s reaction, what does? What makes one disclosure permissible, and another not?
The answer is power. The answer is control. A disclosure is deemed acceptable only if it doesn’t challenge the fundamental prerogatives of an institution. If all the disparate components of an organization, from its mailroom to its executive suite, can be assumed to have the same power to discuss internal matters, then its executives have surrendered their information control, and the organization’s continued functioning is put in jeopardy. Seizing this equality of voice, independent of an organization’s managerial or decision-making hierarchy, is what is properly meant by the term “whistleblowing”—an act that’s particularly threatening to the IC, which operates by strict compartmentalization under a legally codified veil of secrecy.
A “whistleblower,” in my definition, is a person who through hard experience has concluded that their life inside an institution has become incompatible with the principles developed in—and the loyalty owed to—the greater society outside it, to which that institution should be accountable. This person knows that they can’t remain inside the institution, and knows that the institution can’t or won’t be dismantled. Reforming the institution might be
possible, however, so they blow the whistle and disclose the information to bring public pressure to bear.
This is an adequate description of my situation, with one crucial addition: all the information I intended to disclose was classified top secret. To blow the whistle on secret programs, I’d also have to blow the whistle on the larger system of secrecy, to expose it not as the absolute prerogative of state that the IC claimed it was but rather as an occasional privilege that the IC abused to subvert democratic oversight. Without bringing to light the full scope of this systemic secrecy, there would be no hope of restoring a balance of power between citizens and their governance. This motive of restoration I take to be essential to whistleblowing: it marks the disclosure not as a radical act of dissent or resistance, but a conventional act of return—signaling the ship to return back to port, where it’ll be stripped, refitted, and patched of its leaks before being given the chance to start over.
A total exposure of the total apparatus of mass surveillance—not by me, but by the media, the de facto fourth branch of the US government, protected by the Bill of Rights: that was the only response appropriate to the scale of the crime. It wouldn’t be enough, after all, to merely reveal a particular abuse or set of abuses, which the agency could stop (or pretend to stop) while preserving the rest of the shadowy apparatus intact. Instead, I was resolved to bring to light a single, all-encompassing fact: that my government had developed and deployed a global system of mass surveillance without the knowledge or consent of its citizenry.
Whistleblowers can be elected by circumstance at any working level of an institution. But digital technology has brought us to an age in which, for the first time in recorded history, the most effective will come up from the bottom, from the ranks traditionally least incentivized to maintain the status quo. In the IC, as in virtually every other outsize decentralized institution that relies on computers, these lower ranks are rife with technologists like myself, whose legitimate access to vital infrastructure is grossly out of
proportion to their formal authority to influence institutional decisions. In other words, there is usually an imbalance that obtains between what people like me are intended to know and what we are able to know, and between the slight power we have to change the institutional culture and the vast power we have to address our concerns to the culture at large. Though such technological privileges can certainly be abused—after all, most systems-level technologists have access to everything—the highest exercise of that privilege is in cases involving the technology itself. Specialist abilities incur weightier responsibilities. Technologists seeking to report on the systemic misuse of technology must do more than just bring their findings to the public, if the significance of those findings is to be understood. They have a duty to contextualize and explain—to demystify.
A few dozen or so of the people best positioned to do this in the whole entire world were here—they were sitting all around me in the Tunnel. My fellow technologists came in every day and sat at their terminals and furthered the work of the state. They weren’t merely oblivious to its abuses, but incurious about them, and that lack of curiosity made them not evil but tragic. It didn’t matter whether they’d come to the IC out of patriotism or opportunism: once they’d gotten inside the machine, they became machines themselves.
Nothing is harder than living with a secret that can’t be spoken. Lying to strangers about a cover identity or concealing the fact that your office is under the world’s most top-secret pineapple field might sound like it qualifies, but at least you’re part of a team: though your work may be secret, it’s a shared secret, and therefore a shared burden. There is misery but also laughter.
When you have a real secret, though, that you can’t share with anyone, even the laughter is a lie. I could talk about my concerns, but never about where they were leading me. To the day I die I’ll remember explaining to my colleagues how our work was being applied to violate the oaths we had sworn to uphold and their verbal shrug in response: “What can you do about it?” I hated that question, its sense of resignation, its sense of defeat, but it still felt valid enough that I had to ask myself, “Well, what?”
When the answer presented itself, I decided to become a whistleblower. Yet to breathe to Lindsay, the love of my life, even a word about that decision would have put our relationship to an even crueler test than saying nothing. Not wishing to cause her any
more harm than I was already resigned to causing, I kept silent, and in my silence I was alone.
I thought that solitude and isolation would be easy for me, or at least easier than it had been for my predecessors in the whistleblowing world. Hadn’t each step of my life served as a kind of preparation? Hadn’t I gotten used to being alone, after all those years spent hushed and spellbound in front of a screen? I’d been the solo hacker, the night-shift harbormaster, the keeper of the keys in an empty office. But I was human, too, and the lack of companionship was hard. Each day was haunted by struggle, as I tried and failed to reconcile the moral and the legal, my duties and my desires. I had everything I’d ever wanted—love, family, and success far beyond what I ever deserved—and I lived in Eden amid plentiful trees, only one of which was forbidden to me. The easiest thing should have been to follow the rules.
And even if I was already reconciled to the dangers of my decision, I wasn’t yet adjusted to the role. After all, who was I to put this information in front of the American public? Who’d elected me the president of secrets?
The information I intended to disclose about my country’s secret regime of mass surveillance was so explosive, and yet so technical, that I was as scared of being doubted as I was of being misunderstood. That was why my first decision, after resolving to go public, was to go public with documentation. The way to reveal a secret program might have been merely to describe its existence, but the way to reveal programmatic secrecy was to describe its workings. This required documents, the agency’s actual files—as many as necessary to expose the scope of the abuse though I knew that disclosing even one PDF would be enough to earn me prison.
The threat of government retribution against any entity or platform to which I made the disclosure led me to briefly consider self-publishing. That would’ve been the most convenient and safest method: just collecting the documents that best communicated my concerns and posting them online, as they were, then circulating a link. Ultimately, one of my reasons for not pursuing
this course had to do with authentication. Scores of people post “classified secrets” to the Internet every day—many of them about time-travel technologies and aliens. I didn’t want my own revelations, which were fairly incredible already, to get lumped in with the outlandish and lost among the crazy.
It was clear to me then, from the earliest stage of the process, that I required, and that the public deserved, some person or institution to vouch for the veracity of the documents. I also wanted a partner to vet the potential hazards posed by the revelation of classified information, and to help explain that information by putting it in technological and legal context. I trusted myself to present the problems with surveillance, and even to analyze them, but I’d have to trust others to solve them. Regardless of how wary of institutions I might have been by this point, I was far warier of trying to act like one myself. Cooperating with some type of media organization would defend me against the worst accusations of rogue activity, and correct for whatever biases I had, whether they were conscious or unconscious, personal or professional. I didn’t want any political opinion of mine to prejudice anything with regard to the presentation, or reception, of the disclosures. After all, in a country in which everyone was being surveilled, no issue was less partisan than surveillance.
In retrospect, I have to credit at least some of my desire to find ideological filters to Lindsay’s improving influence. Lindsay had spent years patiently instilling in me the lesson that my interests and concerns weren’t always hers, and certainly weren’t always the world’s, and that just because I shared my knowledge didn’t mean that anyone had to share my opinion. Not everybody who was opposed to invasions of privacy might be ready to adopt 256-bit encryption standards or drop off the Internet entirely. An illegal act that disturbed one person as a violation of the Constitution might upset another person as a violation of their privacy, or of that of their spouse or children. Lindsay was my key to unlocking this truth—that diverse motives and approaches can only improve the chances of achieving common goals. She, without even know
ing it, gave me the confidence to conquer my qualms and reach out to other people.
But which people? Who? It might be hard to remember, or even to imagine, but at the time when I first considered coming forward, the whistleblower’s forum of choice was WikiLeaks. Back then, it operated in many respects like a traditional publisher, albeit one that was radically skeptical of state power. WikiLeaks regularly joined up with leading international publications like the
New York Times
to publish the documents provided by its sources. The work that these partner news organizations accomplished over the course of 2010 and 2011 suggested to me that WikiLeaks was most valuable as a go-between that connected sources with journalists, and as a firewall that preserved sources’ anonymity.
WikiLeaks’ practices changed following its publication of disclosures by US Army private Chelsea Manning—huge caches of US military field logs pertaining to the Iraq and Afghan wars, information about detainees at Guantanamo Bay, along with US diplomatic cables. Due to the governmental backlash and media controversy surrounding the site’s redaction of the Manning materials, WikiLeaks decided to change course and publish future leaks as they received them: pristine and unredacted. This switch to a policy of total transparency meant that publishing with WikiLeaks would not meet my needs. Effectually, it would have been the same for me as self-publishing, a route I’d already rejected as insufficient. I knew that the story the NSA documents told about a global system of mass surveillance deployed in the deepest secrecy was a difficult one to understand—a story so tangled and technical that I was increasingly convinced it could not be presented all at once in a “document dump,” but only by the patient and careful work of journalists, undertaken, in the best scenario I could conceive of, with the support of multiple independent press institutions.
Though I felt some relief once I’d resolved to disclose directly to journalists, I still had some lingering reservations. Most of them involved my country’s most prestigious publications—particularly
America’s newspaper of record, the
New York Times.
Whenever I thought about contacting the
, I found myself hesitating. While the paper had shown some willingness to displease the US government with its WikiLeaks reporting, I couldn’t stop reminding myself of its earlier conduct involving an important article on the government’s warrantless wiretapping program by Eric Lichtblau and James Risen.
Those two journalists, by combining information from Justice Department whistleblowers with their own reporting, had managed to uncover one aspect of STELLARWIND—the NSA’s original-recipe post-9/11 surveillance initiative—and had produced a fully written, edited, and fact-checked article about it, ready to go to press by mid-2004. It was at this point that the paper’s editor in chief, Bill Keller, ran the article past the government, as part of a courtesy process whose typical purpose is for a publication’s editorial staff to have a chance to assess the government’s arguments as to why the publication of certain information might endanger national security. In this case, as in most cases, the government refused to provide a specific reason, but implied that one existed and that it was classified, too. The Bush administration told Keller and the paper’s publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, without providing any evidence, that the
would be emboldening America’s enemies and enabling terror if it went public with the information that the government was wiretapping American citizens without a warrant. Unfortunately, the paper allowed itself to be convinced and spiked the article. Lichtblau and Risen’s reporting finally ran, but over a year later, in December 2005, and only after Risen pressured the paper by announcing that the material was included in a book of his that was about to be released. Had that article run when it was originally written, it might well have changed the course of the 2004 election.
, or any paper, did something similar to me—if it took my revelations, reported on them, submitted the reporting for review, and then suppressed its publication—I’d be sunk. Given the likelihood of my identification as the source, it would be
tantamount to turning me in before any revelations were brought to the public.
If I couldn’t trust a legacy newspaper, could I trust any institution? Why even bother? I hadn’t signed up for any of this. I had just wanted to screw around with computers and maybe do some good for my country along the way. I had a lease and a lover and my health was improved. Every
sign on my commute I took as advice to stop this voluntary madness. My head and heart were in conflict, with the only constant being the desperate hope that somebody else, somewhere else, would figure it out on their own. After all, wasn’t journalism about following the bread crumbs and connecting the dots? What else did reporters do all day, besides tweet?
I knew at least two things about the denizens of the Fourth Estate: they competed for scoops, and they knew very little about technology. It was this lack of expertise or even interest in tech that largely caused journalists to miss two events that stunned me during the course of my fact-gathering about mass surveillance.
The first was the NSA’s announcement of the construction of a vast new data facility in Bluffdale, Utah. The agency called it the Massive Data Repository, until somebody with a knack for PR realized the name might be tough to explain if it ever got out, so it was renamed the Mission Data Repository—because as long as you don’t change the acronym, you don’t have to change all the briefing slides. The MDR was projected to contain a total of four twenty-five-thousand-square-foot halls, filled with servers. It could hold an immense amount of data, basically a rolling history of the entire planet’s pattern of life, insofar as life can be understood through the connection of payments to people, people to phones, phones to calls, calls to networks, and the synoptic array of Internet activity moving along those networks’ lines.
The only prominent journalist who seemed to notice the announcement was James Bamford, who wrote about it for
in March 2012. There were a few follow-ups in the nontech press, but none of them furthered the reporting. No one asked what, to
me at least, were the most basic questions: Why does any government agency, let alone an intelligence agency, need that much space? What data, and how much of it, do they really intend to store there, and for how long? Because there was simply no reason to build something to those specs unless you were planning on storing absolutely everything, forever. Here was, to my mind, the corpus delicti—the plain-as-day corroboration of a crime, in a gigantic concrete bunker surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers, sucking up a city’s worth of electricity from its own power grid in the middle of the Utah desert. And no one was paying attention.
The second event happened one year later, in March 2013—one week after Clapper lied to Congress and Congress gave him a pass. A few periodicals had covered that testimony, though they merely regurgitated Clapper’s denial that the NSA collected bulk data on Americans. But no so-called mainstream publication at all covered a rare public appearance by Ira “Gus” Hunt, the chief technology officer of the CIA.
I’d known Gus slightly from my Dell stint with the CIA. He was one of our top customers, and every vendor loved his apparent inability to be discreet: he’d always tell you more than he was supposed to. For sales guys, he was like a bag of money with a mouth. Now he was appearing as a special guest speaker at a civilian tech event in New York called the GigaOM Structure: Data conference. Anyone with $40 could go to it. The major talks, such as Gus’s, were streamed for free live online.
The reason I’d made sure to catch his talk was that I’d just read, through internal NSA channels, that the CIA had finally decided on the disposition of its cloud contract. It had refused my old team at Dell, and turned down HP, too, instead signing a ten-year, $600 million cloud development and management deal with Amazon. I had no negative feelings about this—actually, at this juncture, I was pleased that my work wasn’t going to be used by the agency. I was just curious, from a professional standpoint, whether Gus might obliquely address this announcement and of
fer any insight into why Amazon had been chosen, since rumors were going around that the proposal process had been rigged in Amazon’s favor.
I got insight, certainly, but of an unexpected kind. I had the opportunity of witnessing the highest-ranking technical officer at the CIA stand onstage in a rumpled suit and brief a crowd of uncleared normies—and, via the Internet, the uncleared world—about the agency’s ambitions and capacities. As his presentation unfolded, and he alternated bad jokes with an even worse command of PowerPoint, I grew more and more incredulous.