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Edward Snowden: Private Contractors Play Key Role in U.S. Intelligence’s “Creeping Authoritarianism”

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As a whistleblower complaint against President Trump rocks Washington, Democrats begin an impeachment inquiry and Trump threatens “big consequences” for the person who came forward, we continue our conversation with one of the world’s most famous whistleblowers: Edward Snowden, now in exile in Russia. Six years ago, he shocked the world when he leaked a trove of secret documents about how the United States had built a massive surveillance apparatus to collect every single phone call, text message and email, and pry into the private lives of every person on Earth. He has just published a memoir titled “Permanent Record.” In Part 2 of our interview, he talks about how the government initially attempted to say that he was just an outside contractor and not a key figure, but he describes the central role contractors play in the intelligence community.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As the Democratic-led House moves swiftly towards impeachment, President Trump took to Twitter Sunday night to attack the whistleblower whose complaint first exposed his dealings with Ukraine. In a series of tweets, including one threatening civil war if impeachment proceedings move forward, President Trump accused the unnamed whistleblower of spying on the president, promising, quote, “big consequences.”

Well, today, we bring you Part 2 of our conversation with one of the world’s most famous whistleblowers: Edward Snowden. Six years ago, the 29-year-old Ed Snowden leaked a trove of secret documents about how the United States had built a massive surveillance apparatus to collect every single phone call, text message and email, and pry into the private lives of every person on Earth.

In May 2013, Ed Snowden quit his job as an National Security Administration contractor in Hawaii and flew to Hong Kong, where he met three reporters — Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Ewen MacAskill — who began publishing a series of articles exposing the NSA and the surveillance state.

Snowden was then charged in the United States with violating the Espionage Act and other laws. In order to avoid being extradited to the United States, he attempted to fly from Hong Kong to Latin America, transiting through Moscow. But Snowden became stranded in Russia after the U.S. revoked his passport. Russia then granted him political exile, and he’s lived in Moscow ever since.

Ed Snowden has just published a memoir. It’s called Permanent Record. It tells the story of what led him to risk his life to expose the U.S. government’s system of mass surveillance.

Democracy Now!’s Juan González and I spoke to him from his home in Moscow last week. We talked about his book, his work as an intelligence contractor, the ongoing debate about privacy rights online, and the latest news from Washington. Juan asked Ed Snowden about the role contractors play in the intelligence community.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Throughout the book, one of the themes that you hit on repeatedly is how the government initially attempted to say that you were just an outside contractor, that you really weren’t a key figure. But the reality is, as you explain and document over and over again, the enormous reliance of our intelligence community and the federal government on outside contractors, to effectively bring them into government and give them enormous power and rely on them so dramatically. I’m wondering if you could expound on that.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: Congress has mandated the government have hard hiring caps, a specific headcount they can’t exceed for certain executive agencies, like the CIA, like the NSA, no matter their particularized budget, right? If they have more dollars than people, they still can’t get more people on the books without getting an act of Congress to sort of change that headcount.

And so, over the years, over the decades, that have really arisen out of the post-World War II era, we have, in the government, created a kind of new system, a runaround for this, where they go, “Well, all this extra money that we want to put in people but we can’t bring on as formal government employees, what if we give that money to private companies, and the private companies lease us people, that, in all meaningful ways, are government employees?” They work in government facilities, as I did as a contractor. You’re at an NSA desk, working on an NSA system. You’re taking direction from an NSA government supervisor, working on government processes. But formally, legally, you work for Dell or Lockheed Martin or Booz Allen Hamilton or any one of these, really, thousands and thousands of private companies that have become, really, extensions of government. And this is one of the things that the book goes into detail and that people really aren’t quite familiar with.

A significant amount, and potentially even a small majority, of the most important work in government, in intelligence, is today performed by contractors, not government employees. And this is because, in the actual contracting language, there are very, very few tasks that contractors are legally forbidden from doing. And it’s basically, the only things contractors can’t do is press the red button that fires a missile, right? The contractor is not supposed to actually commit a crime — something that the government could do, and it wouldn’t be a crime, but if a private company does, they could be sued by another state or whatever. But everything else — building the system of mass surveillance, installing it, applying it, using it to gather or search through all this information that’s already been collected to build perfect histories of private lives — all of these things are fair game and are done routinely, every day, right now, by people who are not formally government employees. That’s how the system works, and that’s what a contractor is.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Ed, I want to get to that point when the realization of what you were participating in came to you. This was sometime after a report had come out on the — the unclassified report on the president’s surveillance program in July of 2009. And it had been released by several inspector generals of the major defense agencies. And you were, by then, already what’s known as a systems administrator, systems engineer. Most people don’t realize that the most important person in any organization or business are the people who run the computer systems, because they have enormous access to communications, the email communications and all kinds of other documents.

So, you were operating, and a report comes across your desk that is actually the unclassified version of that same report. And you discover that it is completely different from what the unclassified version was. And you say in the book — and this was about the Stellar Wind, the Stellar Wind project. And you say that the program’s very existence was an indication that the agency’s mission had been transformed from using technology to defend America to using technology to control it, by redefining citizens’ private internet communications as signals intelligence. Could you talk about that some more?

EDWARD SNOWDEN: Yeah, that’s correct. So, for people who are interested in getting the bare facts on this, this is, I think, an especially useful example and a big part of the book. Because it’s been published, the classified report, the very classified report, the inspector general’s report, into what is effectively the Bush-era warrantless wiretapping program and internet surveillance program, which was not known to the public at the time, even in the wake of the initial reporting — has been published in The Washington Post. If you search for “Stellarwind” — “stellar” like stars, and “wind” like we all know — as one word and ”Washington Post,” you can find the classified inspector general’s report and read it yourself.

And this showed an incredibly detailed, tick-tock history of how it was that, at the direction of the president of the United States, and with the knowledge and awareness of only a few key members in Congress, the work of the United States government and the intelligence agencies was intentionally and knowingly violating the Constitution of the United States on a daily basis. This was a systemic effort that was not a one-off.

What I saw was, this inspector general — or, actually, all of the inspector generals of the intelligence community had produced a report on the Bush-era warrantless wiretapping program in the wake of the scandal, when the story first broke in December of 2005, and it led to reforms of law, it led to a ton of panicked congressmen and, of course, the president, who were all implicated in this wrongdoing. And what they were actually doing was trying to paper over all of the laws they had broken, by passing new laws that retroactively made what they did OK. And so, at the very end of this process, they put out an unclassified report.

Now, as almost everyone knows now, thanks to things like the Mueller report and so on, the government will routinely provide classified documents to the public by redacting them. It’s the same document, but it’s got these blacked-out sections where you can’t see this name or this detail or this program, whatever. What struck me so much about the division between the unclassified report and the classified report was they were entirely different documents. And I encourage the audience to query these for yourselves.

And what this meant was the actual truth of what the government was doing was so problematic, that they could not declassify, they could not summarize, they could not redact, without indicating that basically every level of government had been in on the violation of our constitutional rights, and so they created an entirely different document that basically said, “Oh, don’t worry about it. Nothing to see here.”

And this is the challenge, when we talk about proper channels, when we talk about inspectors generals, when we talk about congressional oversight. These processes only work when the harm that you are reporting, the people who are responsible for it are willing to correct. So, if it’s a little bad, maybe it will work. If it involves one person, who the rest of the elite section are willing to sacrifice or, in fact, very much want to get rid of, then, yes, these kind of oversight processes can work. But if what you are reporting is that all of the different branches of government are working in concert to violate the rights of the American people, what do you think they’re going to do when that report comes across their desk? They’re going to get rid of you. They’re going to bury what you have reported. And very possibly, they’re going to put you in prison.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Ed, you mentioned earlier the cloud and that you were helping to get some — many of the documents of, I think it was, the CIA into a cloud, where any CIA agent anywhere could access those records. But cloud computing is not really in the clouds. It’s usually a farm, a data farm, a huge data farm, somewhere in an obscure part of the country. And you mentioned a point in which, I think it was, Amazon got a huge contract from the NSA to build one of these cloud farms. And you note that this is not only a question of creating a permanent record that these government spy agencies are doing, but they’re also trying to create a permanent record of everything—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — and not just in the U.S., but around the world. Talk about that.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: Right. So, when people hear the word “cloud” today, if they’re not technical, we sort of generally have an understanding maybe of what it means, but, as you say, it’s sort of abstract. “Cloud” simply means other people’s computers. And the Amazon cloud contract that you’re talking about, I actually describe in the book. I was directly competing at Dell against Amazon’s bid to build a private cloud for the CIA and the U.S. intelligence community.

And this is this new method of handling data, where all of our records, of our lives — your pictures, your emails — are typically no longer actually held by you. They’re held by Google. And you log into your account, to your Gmail or whatever, and Google says, “Oh, here’s your emails. You want to look at these?” And then, when you log off, they keep them. The benefit of this is you can log in from another device and see the same emails.

But it also means they can give these emails to anyone that they want. And they have and did and continue to give these to governments, not just our government, but other governments, and, of course, to corporations and advertisers, through different ways. They’ll say they don’t, and legally, in some ways, they’re correct in the strictest sense. But the reality is, the memories that we love the most, the connections that make us who we are, that comprise our families, that form our communities, are controlled by people who do not even see us as customers, because we are not paying them. Governments, advertisers, other groups, those are their customers. We are the product.

And so, yeah, what we saw in this context is the whole internet was moving from this 1990s model of the internet, where everybody had their own computer, we had our own data, we connected things, and we shared things, one to one. We sent a link to this person. We pushed a file to this person. We put something on a floppy disk — remember floppy disks? — and we gave it to a friend. Instead, now, all of our terminals became phones, right? They became client devices that were dependent on these larger central servers — right? — data centers. And the only people who ran these data centers, who could control and understand these data centers, were almost a sort of new priesthood, right? These are the only ones who could speak the language of technology, who can control these systems. They became more complex. And we, average people, increasingly became disempowered and dependent on these companies, to the point where we didn’t really have an alternative.

This shift in the way our systems work is what is creating, I think, fundamentally, the creeping authoritarianism that we see today. People have all of these arguments about the left and the right. But what we see, sadly, in many parts of government, and not just in the United States, but around the world, in places like the U.K., Poland, Hungary, we see a growing authoritarianism, where the left and the right have sharp disagreements on a few particular points, typically about social policy, but, broadly, they’re actually gravitating on the north-south part of the political axis, not left or right, but towards authoritarianism rather than the libertarianism from which this country was born. Rather than a government of enumerated powers, that has very strict limits on what it can and can’t do, instead we have governments where they go, “We need to do this for X justification,” and so long as the justification is persuasive enough, the public will permit it or, in many cases, support it.

But you have to remember that in this country, there have always been limits on what the government can do, even if they want to, even if there is public support. The reason we have the Constitution is not to protect the majority; it’s to protect the minority from the majority. And that is beginning to change. And corporations are very much beginning to act as deputies of government, as they influence — or, they hold more influence in society and begin to occupy quasigovernmental roles, such as regulating the things that can and cannot be said on the internet.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re spending the hour with National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden. His new memoir, Permanent Record. Back with him in a minute.

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