Courage our network

Edward Snowden speaks at French Amnesty International event

On 10 December 2014 – human rights day – Edward Snowden appeared by video link at an event organised by Amnesty International, le Monde, Mediaparte and Arte in Paris. The event, which was simultaneously translated, marks the first time Edward Snowden has spoken live to an audience in France.

Reacting to the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report into CIA torture programmes, Edward Snowden told his audience that:

The things that we did as a result of this programme are inexcusable crimes. And what we see which is I think quite dangerous in the United States debate which is happening right now is that proponents of the torture programme are saying that even though there are international obligations to prosecute these – because they are serious crimes – torture cannot be justified under international law. It simply cannot be justified on the basis of emergency circumstances or the orders of higher government officials. That does not excuse you of liability for a crime.

And yet we see this being argued as precisely that case, which threatens to overturn the standards we set at the Nuremberg trials at the end of World War II. This is deeply corrosive, not just to the moral authority of the United States and the west more broadly, but the standard rule of law that is applied around the world. If the United States can allow its officials to torture and not hold them to account, what does this mean for governments of much more authoritarian states? What does this mean for governments in Asia, in Africa and elswhere around the world?

A video and full transcript follows below

How is your security situation?

My security’s great. I live a fairly normal life, I ride the Moscow underground when I go about day to day. The only difference between then and now is that I’m not living in my home and I spend a lot more time working than I did previously.

I spend a lot of time working with the research communities and particularly the technical side of internet standards, to talk about how we can improve security for everyone around the world, regardless of what national laws they live under. Beyond that I also do a lot of work with activism and advocacy, which is quite new to me because before I was part of the structure of government, and now to be on the outside trying to reform government is a very different change of perspective. But it’s very fulfilling and I enjoy this work very much.

What has changed since you blew the whistle?

What I have seen has changed in the time time since I came forward is that public opinion and public awareness has changed dramatically across the world. Every country, every climate, in every time zone.

And this is significant because I didn’t want to change the world, I didn’t want to change the policies of my government, I simply believed that within a representative democracy our officials are elected to represent the people, not a particular institution and not a particular class, but the public broadly. And they can only do so on the basis of our votes, on the basis of what we believe our values as a society are. When programmes and institutions of government begin to happen increasingly in secret, we begin to divorce ourselves from the operations of government, we begin to be shut out of understanding our society and being able to cast informed votes.

Ultimately in a democracy the power of government depends on the consent of the governed. Its legitimacy is drawn from the idea that we the people direct its operations and cast our votes. If we don’t understand the broad policies and powers and programmes that they claim to be within their domain and the directions they take in their relations with the world, that which they do against us and that which they do in our name, we are no longer partners to government, we’ve become subjects of government and I think that that’s something the public deserves to know about.

We’ve begun to understand this and I think there’s been a fairly broad change. If we see a study done recently in Canada that broadly looked at internet users around the world. In a representative sample, they found that 60% of internet users around the world have heard about the revelations of last year and, of those 40% have taken changes around the world to make their lives more secure. That’s roughly 702 million people – individual citizens, different nationalities – who are now more secure and better protected in their communications, in their political expressions, in their personal reading habits and their associations with friends around the world.

Does awareness really translate into action?

The beginning is the change in mindset. The idea is that when people begin to understand things, things start to change slowly, politically, over time. Nothing changes over the course of a month, nothing changes over the course of a year, but we see increasingly within the European Union, the United States and other places that courts are also beginning to question these programmes.

We have, in the European Union, the European Court of Justice struck down the data retention directive. In the United States, the President appointed two panels to look at these programmes and say are they necessary, are they proportionate and are they effective – do they work? Every time this programmes have been reviewed, we have learned that they have never stopped an imminent terrorist attack.

What this provides is a platform, a foundation for us to credibly review the value of these programmes and the costs they impose on society, and to decide do we really want to scarifice this great measure of our privacy, of our liberty – to look at books, to associate with friends – without having it intercepted, recorded and analysed in secret and held for longer and longer periods of time.

What I can say is that while we’re still living through this today, and while in fact it’s grown and gotten worse in many countries in the western world, including the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom in particular, we’ve also seen it beginning to be challenged. And I very strongly believe that once this challenge begins, over the span of history, over the span of the next decade, we will win.

Because people will not accept a world in which everything we do is judged, regardless of the rightfulness or the wrongfulness of that action.

The problem is not that government is investigating terrorists. The problem is not that we are concerned for national security and we want to monitor some foreign militant group. The problem is when we invent and put into place technological systems that watch whole populations instead of individual suspects. Today that is the nature of those programmes, they cannot operate today, as they are employed, without intercepting everyone’s communications. They do not have a selective interception capability, as of today – and this is also the case within France.

Is it the fact of surveillance which is a problem, or just its scale?

The departure of the last decade in the way that intelligence agencies within the United States and outside have applied their surveillance authorities is that they have moved from a targeted basis, which is when I as an intelligence analyst have some reasonable suspicion that this individual is involved in wrongdoing because they’re a computer hacker targeting nuclear power plants or they’re an agent of a foreign government trying to break into an embassy’s email accounts or they’re a terrorist trying to cause violence.

I would go out and use this as the seed of an investigation; I would go out and compromise their systems of communication, the ones that are used exclusively by them – their cellular phone, their computer. This has changed over the last decade, in the wake of 9/11 in the United States, to what is an untargeted “bulk collection” programme, as the government calls it.

Civil society calls this “mass surveillance” instead of “bulk collection”, but even if we accept the term bulk collection on its face, what it implies is that rather than intercepting only the communications of those who are suspected of wrongdoing, we are now collecting in bulk the entirety of everyone in society’s communications and applying algorithms, we are applying “selectors” to what they call the haystack of an entire population’s communications.

Which is making decisions about who they are, what they’re doing and how the government feels about their population. We’ve seen instances in the past year, in for example the Huffington Post, where the National Security Agency in the United States has monitored the pornography viewing habits of people whose political views they consider extreme or radical but who were known to be unassociated with actual violence.

They were treating these individuals as terrorists, as people who had to be discredited and using their private lives, their sexual activities, their associations to discredit them in public on the basis of the political views that they hold.

We’ve seen increasingly over the past year – including just yesterday with the release of the torture report – that when we begin changing our values, in secret, when we begin changing the nature of the activities of state security organisations without any public accountability, it leads to a slippery slope where even if the intent is to put good purposes to what they call necessary ends, over the space of a very few years you find that ordinary and innocent individuals hav been treated in a terrible way as a result.

What is your reaction to the Torture Report?

I worked at the CIA as an actual officer of the government during the closing years of the torture and rendition programme. I was not personally involved with it but many in the agency, they talk about the concerns they had about these programmes.

So I had my own suspicions and of course I was aware of what had been released in the press but the Senate investigation and the report they have released is extraordinary for a number of reasons. I could not help but be deeply saddened and, to a great extent, angered, by what I read.

The things that we did as a result of this programme are inexcusable crimes. And what we see which is I think quite dangerous in the United States debate which is happening right now is that proponents of the torture programme are saying that even though there are international obligations to prosecute these – because they are serious crimes – torture cannot be justified under international law. It simply cannot be justified on the basis of emergency circumstances or the orders of higher government officials. That does not excuse you of liability for a crime.

And yet we see this being argued as precisely that case, which threatens to overturn the standards we set at the Nuremberg trials at the end of World War II. This is deeply corrosive, not just to the moral authority of the United States and the west more broadly, but the standard rule of law that is applied around the world. If the United States can allow its officials to torture and not hold them to account, what does this mean for governments of much more authoritarian states? What does this mean for governments in Asia, in Africa and elswhere around the world?

If we can run a rendition – a kidnapping and detention programme, a torture programme – keep it secret for years and when it is revealed hold no-one to account, what does this mean for the future direction of our society? For the rule of law? For the accountability of senior officials?

How can we hold the smallest officials in government to account of the law if we are willing to make broad exceptions for the most senior officials? And when we talk about what we saw with these programmes – we saw individuals who actually lost their lives as a result of detention, as a result of the treatment they received under the torture programme. The fact that individuals actually lost their lives, they died after being chained to a concrete floor in an unheated room half naked and that rather than the officials responsible for this behaviour being prosecuted, he actually received a monetary bonus from the Central Intelligence Agency of $2500.

These are things that leave a stain on the moral authority of the United States government and if we do not prosecute them, if we do not investigate and hold them to account, we cannot move forward as a society.

Is the publication of the report a good sign for American democracy?

I would argue that it’s actually quite sad news. Because within the report, which I understand is quite long so the media has not fully read and digested all of it, there actually were whistleblowers who sought to come forward and reveal this behaviour – and they failed.

We see medical doctors who said that these were extraordinary procedures that were not medically necessary, yet they did forced feedings through men’s rectums. We saw obviously the application of torture techniques such as waterboarding, applied hypothermia, sleep deprivation for 180 hours.

Individuals who viewed the torture were demoralised by it, they thought it was wrong and they shared these views with their colleagues. There were even people who were moved to the point of tears. There were people who indicated they would leave these sites and would not serve there because they were opposed to these programmes.

We saw people who, when seeing videos, lost faith in the very mission that they had. But ultimately you are right, the programme did not end despite these protests and you have to ask why.

Why, despite the knowledge of all of these indiviuduals who disapproved of the programmes, who resisted the programmes did they not stop? The report actually provides an answer to that. We see that the leadership of the Central Intelligence Agency was contacted by these individuals, these officers, who protested, who broke down in tears, who said that these programmes probably were not legal. And they questioned not only the legality of these programmes but the effectivenes of them.

The highest official in the CIA’s counterterrorism apparatus, Jose Rodriguez, sent in official reports – they put this in writing, which is what the Senate reported on – saying that these questions, these concerns, these protests from officers of the government who said this is not legal, this is wrong, this will come back to cause problems for us in the future. He said that “such language is not helpful” and demanded that they stop placing [complaints] in official channels.

The reason this programme did not stop is not because officers in the Central Intelligence Agency were not aware it was wrong. They knew. It was because the public were not aware it was wrong. This programme ended not when CIA officers protested within the agency, this programme stopped when newspapers told the public of what we had done in secret without their knowledge.

Is the United States in a moral crisis?

I think so. The Senate’s report is a strong step forward in terms of acknowledging the reality of what we had done. But this does nothing in terms of holding the officials who ordered this behaviour and the officers who directly engaged in torture themselves to account for what is criminal behaviour. If we can argue that torture is justified, that these serious crimes are justified in this circumstance or that circumstance because they have a positive effect, if we can say torture helped here so it’s ok, what could we not justify?

I mean, how different is torture, in regards to the horror of the crime, compared to assault or rape? A government could say that rape has a positive effect because we have a declining demographic crisis in a country, therefore it helps us. Efficiency is not an argument for criminal behaviour. Efficiency has no place in the debate about right and wrong and torture. And we must not accept efficiency as a defence of the criminal activities that occured within the last decade.

What can you tell us about surveillance in France?

I don’t have access to any classified information anymore, I destroyed my own access – everything had already been provided to the journalists to work from. So I can’t break news; that’s the role of the press not the role of myself. However, what I can say is what’s already been reported, which is that mass surveillance is happening in every country that can afford a modern signals intelligence agency.

Within France we have seen reporting, I believe by le Monde that revealed that Orange Telecom was providing the communications of French citizens and of course those around the world whose communications transit France to the DGSE. When this is happening without the knowledge of the public as to what the authorities are, the policies are, how they’re being applied and what the protections are in place, this is incredibly dangerous.

And even if they say that this is good or this is helpful in this way or that way, we have to question quite seriously, even if it has some value, even if it could help us in one case, is it right? Is it morally allowable to violate the rights of an entire population or even an individual for some small moderate good? I think this is a serious question that has not been properly debated in France.

Is Europe finding its own way ahead?

I think we are seeing the beginnings of a framework, the broad outlines of a way we can look at investigations, intelligence gathering and the protection of individual rights in future, beginning in Europe with concerns about data protection, transfer and how we handle this.

The most important point is we need international standards that say what is and is not allowable. For example, it was reported last year that the United Kingdom’s GCHQ hacked the Belgian telecommunications provider Belgacom and they provided themselves access in contravention of not only Belgian national law but international law, to all of the communications that were being handled by this provider.

This is a very dangerous thing because suddenly you have EU member states performing cyber attacks, exploitation, against other EU member states. When this is happening and there is no way of managing it, no recourse, no legal challenges, all of the other member states within the EU will suddenly be doing the same thing because they will perceive a national advantage. Eventually, when you have enough people attacking the same infrastructure, something will go wrong and that infrastructure will fail. The telecommunications provider will go dark, it will go off the air – a hospital system that is being scanned for patient information will experience failure and they won’t be able to figure out what a patient is allergic to. These thing will have real life costs: they’ve happened in the past and they’ll happen again in future.

By forcing the courts to scrutinise these programmes and go, is this something we can allow in a stable society, is this something that governments can even claim – powers of total war but applied in times of relative peace – we see a way in which civil society can take back the reins and say yes it is possible to imagine where mass surveillance can be helpful, but there is no evidence that this is the case despite ten years of operation. It did not stop, despite its operation, the bombings in Madrid. It did not stop the bombings in London. It did not stop the Boston Marathon bombings in the United States despite the expenditure of billions of dollars and untold manhours at all of these agencies.

What could we better apply these resources to that would not only not cost us parts of our rights, parts of our privacy, parts of our liberty and so on, but would actually benefit us and provide us with safer societies, with scientific research, with economic gain?

If rather than applying wartime powers to an arms industry the size of ours, could we instead deploy these resources in a more socially responsible and beneficial way? And I think we’re seeing the beginning.

Where would you most like to live?

It would have to be my home. I would love to go back to the United States, that’s always my goal. However, I would love to come to Western Europe as well and I would say this is a critical point that we touched upon earlier.

We talked about the torture report that was released yesterday and has inflamed passions around the world because we see that a government that should know better, a liberal society that should never authorise these programmes has done so. And we did not know what had happened, we had no proof what had happened and now we do have proof what happened the Justice Department of this country has said that it will not seek to prosecute or hold accountable those who committed these crimes.

But the report also tells us that individuals did believe that these programmes were wrong. They did know that they had a moral responsibility to resist and they tried to do so within the system but they failed.

It is critical that we provide whistleblower protections either within our country, meaning the United States, or in countries like France that recognise and protect the value of human rights, who can say that regardless of what country you hail from, regardless of whether it was China or Russia or even the United States: if you reveal evidence of serious wrongdoing, we will help you correct these problems and we will protect you against unjustified retaliation.