US whistleblowers Daniel Ellsberg and Thomas Drake weigh in on the NSA surveillance reforms, the USA Freedom Act and Edward Snowden.
Prominent US whistleblowers applaud Snowden’s Patriot Act revelation for inciting Congress to take action, though they doubt he can ever return to the US
NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden should be thanked for sparking the debate that forced Congress to change US surveillance law, Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers, said Monday.
Other prominent US whistleblowers also gave Snowden credit and argued that the curbs in the NSA’s surveillance powers by Congress – combined with a federal court ruling last month that bulk phone record collection is illegal – should open the way for him to be allowed to return to the US, although they conceded this was unlikely.
Ellsberg, the former US military analyst who risked jail in 1971 by leaking Pentagon papers showing the White House lied about the Vietnam war, welcomed the concessions made by the Senate, limited as they are.
Sweeping US surveillance powers used by the NSA expired at midnight after a dramatic showdown in the Senate. Some are likely to be replaced with those in new legislation, the USA Freedom Act.
“It is just one step on the road to regaining our rights. It is a promising beginning and we have Snowden to thank for that,” Ellsberg told the Guardian.
He described the Patriot Act, which was used by the NSA as authorisation for the bulk phone data collection, as a monstrosity.
Ellsberg was, like Snowden many years later, accused under the Espionage Act over the 1971 leaks, but the case against him was dismissed.
He was in London at the start of a weeklong speaking tour with other American whistleblowers, including Thomas Drake, a former NSA member who revealed widespread abuses and violations; Jesselyn Radack, a former justice department official; and Coleen Rowley, a former FBI special agent who challenged supposed evidence used to justify the Iraq invasion.
Their tour takes in Oslo, Stockholm and Berlin and is aimed at encouraging “a culture of openness and truth as well as security for those who take the risk of disclosing information that authorities want to keep hidden”.
Ellsberg has been nominated for this year’s Nobel peace prize.
Asked about the importance of the recent events in Congress, Ellsberg said: “This is the first time, thanks to Snowden, that the Senate really stood up and realised they have been complicit in the violation of our rights all along – unconstitutional action. The Senate and the House have been passive up until now and derelict in their responsibilities. At last there was opposition.”
What should happen to Snowden? “He should get the Nobel peace prize and he should get asylum in a west European country,” Ellsberg said.
“I do not think he will ever be able to come back to the United States no matter how popular he might come to be, and I think there is much more support for him month by month as people come to realise how little substance in the charges that he caused harm to us. They realise he is responsible for the debate going on.
“But that does not mean the intelligence community will ever forgive him for having exposed what they were doing. I don’t think any president will find it politic to confront the intelligence community by pardoning him or allowing him to come back.”
Others have been less forthright. Asked whether the rejection of bulk collection by Congress and the courts meant it was now time to review official US attitudes to Snowden, Rand Paul, the Republican presidential candidate who played a key role in ensuring the Patriot Act provisions expired on Sunday night, declined to comment.
“I don’t have any control over that,” he told the Guardian. “That, I think, is going to be up to the president, and that’s a president who used to be against the Patriot Act, so someone should ask him why he changed his mind,” he added.
Republican senator Dean Heller gave Snowden some credit for kickstarting the debate. “No doubt it played a role,” he told the Guardian. “I think it played the same role for me as it did for most of the American people, who were surprised and stunned that the government had this sort of access to this kind of data.”
Radack described the events in the Senate on Sunday as “a hugely symbolic moment”, noting that it was the first time that the powers in the Patriot Act had not been automatically re-authorised annually.
Drake challenged the need for mass surveillance rather than targeted surveillance. “Are there legitimate threats? Yes. But you do not have to suck the ocean dry to find a few drops.”