Euro Security Watch with Mathew J. Schwartz

Access Management , Governance & Risk Management , Government

Life After Snowden: US Still Lacks Whistleblowing Rules

Intelligence Community May Be Incubating Snowden 2.0, Former NSA Employee Warns
Life After Snowden: US Still Lacks Whistleblowing Rules

The U.S. intelligence community still has no whistleblower protection rules, so "there may be a Snowden 2.0 festering in the IC right now as a result," says Jake Williams, who formerly was a member of an elite U.S. National Security Agency hacking team known as the Tailored Access Operations unit.

See Also: Realities of Choosing a Response Provider

Williams' comments, issued Sunday via Twitter, come in the run up to the Tuesday publication of Edward Snowden's memoirs, titled "Permanent Record."

Snowden, a 36-year-old former CIA analyst and NSA contractor, is arguably the world's most famous whistleblower, thanks to his having leaked top secret documents to the news media showing that the post-9/11 U.S. intelligence establishment was running illegal domestic surveillance programs. His memoir is being billed in advance as a chronicling of his decision to bring "big data" U.S. surveillance programs to light, despite the likelihood that he would, as a result, end up serving a lengthy prison sentence.

Debate over the mass surveillance programs being run by the U.S. government and its Five Eyes partners continues. Snowden also revealed that the U.S. government - together with allied agencies, including Britain's GCHQ - was intercepting en masse worldwide data flowing to technology giants' data centers. Those revelations led Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft to begin encrypting user data by default as well as to design messaging services that are end-to-end encrypted (see: Crypto Wars Continue, as Feds Seek Messenger Backdoor).

Debate over Snowden and the actions he took also continues. But some of those with intelligence experience say that for someone who witnesses wrongdoing at the NSA or another intelligence agency, there is no way to bring such wrongdoing to the attention of someone with oversight without opening themselves up to prosecution.

"Did I break the law? Again, what's the question that's more important here? Was the law broken or was that the right thing to do?" Snowden tells CBS in a Monday interview.

Snowden also contends that the underlying issues that drove the creation of the U.S. mass surveillance apparatus are growing more acute. Snowden tells the Guardian that there's been "a litany of American destruction by way of American self-destruction, with the promulgation of secret policies, secret laws, secret courts and secret wars" in the 18 years since 9/11.

"The greatest danger still lies ahead, with the refinement of artificial intelligence capabilities, such as facial and pattern recognition," he tells the newspaper.

Debate Continues

Opinions on Snowden and what he did vary widely. Some, for example, see his actions as a betrayal of his oath to uphold the Constitution. They argue that no one should be above the law and that he should be tried for treason - defined in the Constitution as "giving ... aid and comfort" to an enemy. "Snowden is a spy who has caused great damage to the U.S. A spy in the old days, when our country was respected and strong, would be executed," Donald Trump tweeted in 2014, nearly three years before he became president.

"Why are you giving this traitor a platform?" author Greg Olear tweeted to CBS this week after it published an interview with Snowden.

But some intelligence and security experts say Snowden's story isn't black and white, nor is it just about him.

"With Snowden's book forthcoming, my hope - against hope - is that critiques of Snowden's actions not overshadow critiques of the programs he exposed," tweets Matt Blaze, a computer science and law professor at Georgetown University. "Compelling and difficult questions about both, but they're different things."

Few Whistleblowing Options?

Some individuals with intelligence experience say Snowden had few options for attempting to bring wrongdoing to light. "It's worth noting that I don't endorse Snowden's actions, but I do have a better understanding than most what his options really were," says Williams, who served in the U.S. intelligence community for 18 years, and who now runs Rendition Infosec, an Atlanta-based cybersecurity consultancy.

Williams has said he left government employment when he saw something that he believes was illegal, but which was continuing, and yet which also likely improved national security. He has declined to offer any further details.

Snowden, obviously, chose a different path. "We do know that Snowden uncovered programs that effectively turned the Constitution into a 'Choose Your Own Adventure' book. He watched [Director of National Intelligence James] Clapper and [Gen. Keith Alexander, former NSA director] lie about these programs, under oath, to oversight committees," Williams says.

Seeking Asylum

Snowden remains in Moscow, having fled first to Hong Kong after he left the U.S. in 2013. This has led many of his critics to denounce him as being a collaborator of President Vladimir Putin. But Snowden says when he fled the U.S., he didn't know how long he might remain free. Furthermore, he had been traveling from Hong Kong - planning to travel via Russia and then Cuba - to what he hoped would be asylum in Ecuador, when the U.S. revoked his passport, stranding him in Russia. Other countries to which he appealed for asylum, including Germany, rejected his requests, apparently under pressure from the U.S.

In a Monday interview, Snowden tells France Inter Radio that he applied for asylum in France in 2013 and hopes that President Emmanuel Macron might still grant it to him. Speaking from Moscow, Snowden tells the station: "The saddest thing of this whole story is that the only place an American whistleblower has the chance to be heard is not in Europe but here."

Should he return to the U.S., Snowden could face a lengthy prison sentence. He's offered to return, but only if he is guaranteed that a jury would be allowed to see the material that he disclosed and decide if his choices were valid.

"Of course I would like to return to the United States," Snowden tells CBS. "That is the ultimate goal. But if I'm gonna spend the rest of my life in prison, the one bottom line demand that we all have to agree to, is that at least I get a fair trial."

About the Author

Mathew J. Schwartz

Mathew J. Schwartz

Executive Editor, DataBreachToday & Europe, ISMG

Schwartz is an award-winning journalist with two decades of experience in magazines, newspapers and electronic media. He has covered the information security and privacy sector throughout his career. Before joining Information Security Media Group in 2014, where he now serves as the executive editor, DataBreachToday and for European news coverage, Schwartz was the information security beat reporter for InformationWeek and a frequent contributor to DarkReading, among other publications. He lives in Scotland.

Around the Network

Our website uses cookies. Cookies enable us to provide the best experience possible and help us understand how visitors use our website. By browsing, you agree to our use of cookies.