Monday, June 24, 2013

Edward Snowden and the Crackdown that Backfired

In 2009, while working as a contract linguist for the FBI, I discovered that the FBI was committing illegal acts. Frustrated that my superiors did not take any action on what I believed were blatantly unconstitutional activities of the FBI, I revealed these acts to a journalist/blogger. When the FBI discovered this, they pursued me with vengeance.  My disclosure revealing that the FBI was abusing the rights of US citizens was never explicitly published anywhere, but that didn't prevent the Department of Justice from pursuing me with vengeance.   

It wasn't, as reported by a New York Times article,  about monitoring the Israeli Embassy in DC. Contrary to what blogger Richard Silverstein told the NYT, my job never entailed listening to wiretaps of embassies, and that whole story was manufactured by Silverstein to promote his blog and his anti-Israel agenda. It's disgraceful that the NYT, eager to publish a sensational headline, accepted Silverstein's false claims lock, stock and barrel. Naturally, I cannot talk about my work at the FBI, but I can say that what really troubled me was the FBI's illegal practices, very similar to what Edward Snowden has reported about the NSA.

When the FBI confronted me, I admitted what I had done. I tried to negotiate with them for a reasonable resolution of my case. But the DOJ was adamant to charge me under the Espionage Act and  imprison me for a lengthy period of time. Eventually, they charged me with one count of Disclosure of Classified Information (18 USC 798). 

It was hard to accept going to prison for trying to inform the American public about the FBI's abuses of their powers. But faced with the threat of dozens of years in prison, I did what was best for my family, and accepted a sentence of 20 months.  

Snowden's Motivation

Edward Snowden, it seems, had similar convictions about what he was witnessing at the NSA. He watched for years how the military-industrial-intelligence complex turned our country into a massive surveillance state, and observed a "continuing litany of lies" from senior officials to Congress, until he eventually decided to speak out, because he could not - in good conscience - remain silent. 


Now, unfortunately, he is about to feel the pain that comes when the vindictive US authorities come at you full speed. Whether he succeeds to engineer another courageous maneuver and get to a country that will grant him asylum - we don't know, though it's highly unlikely. When you are being hunted down by world's superpower that has unlimited resources - politically, financially, and technologically - the odds are stacked against you. The bookies in Vegas, as they say, are predicting a win for the government. 

How About A Different Approach? 

Can the DOJ and national security establishment act with reasonableness? Or will they allow their fuming anger to consume them into making more irrational decisions? 

This ongoing manhunt, accompanied by a smear campaign and threats to throw the book at him, is a grave mistake. The government would do well to let this man go live his life in some other country, and apologize to the American public for lying to us, and turning the country into what Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg calls the United Stasi of America.

In my case, my family and I pleaded with the DOJ lawyers to avoid a prison term, agree to a lesser punishment and put this case to rest without any media attention. 

But the FBI and DOJ were hell-bent on imprisoning me and splashing it all over the media. The ink was not even dry on my plea agreement before they ran to the media with a press release, announcing to the whole world how the 20-month prison sentence will teach me - and any future whistle-blowers - a great lesson. But this punitive strategy, this desire to demonize and imprison people at all costs, is wrong and misguided.   

A Crackdown That Backfired

When Edward Snowden, hiding in Honk Kong, went on an online chat to explain his motives, he was asked whether the treatment of other whistle-blowers influenced him. He responded: 

[Previous whistle-blowers] are all examples of how overly-harsh responses to public-interest whistle-blowing only escalate the scale, scope, and skill involved in future disclosures. Citizens with a conscience are not going to ignore wrong-doing simply because they'll be destroyed for it: the conscience forbids it. Instead, these draconian responses simply build better whistleblowers.

So it seems that in their obsession to imprison me, to imprison John Kiriakou, to seek a monstrous punishment for Bradley Manning and detain him in cruel and inhumane conditions, to aggressively prosecute Thomas Drake and others -- they actually encouraged Snowden to reveal this important information. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.   

When will they understand that the policy of meting out harsh punishments across-the-board to create "deterrence" is bankrupt? It only creates unnecessary suffering, hurting people and families, and ultimately backfires. The Snowden saga is a great teaching moment for the Obama administration - they are reaping the fruit of their vindictive behavior. 

 Obviously, even in a democracy certain information needs to remain secret, and those with access to that information must honor their obligation to safeguard it. But Snowden and other whistle-blowers have not leaked secrets for their own benefit or enrichment; rather, they sacrificed the comfort of their lives to expose lies, fraud, human rights abuses, and unconstitutionality. Technically, they broke the law, but they felt, as many have done before, that the obligation to your conscience and to basic human values is stronger than your obligation to obey the law. As Martin Luther King pointed out, we should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was "legal" and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was "illegal." 

Of course, the abuses revealed by Snowden are a far cry from the atrocities of the Nazis, but the principle here is the same: Obedience to the law should not be absolute. 

A smart, democratic government facing disclosures of illegal, embarrassing would behave very differently. They would investigate the abuse, remedy the violations, and set new standards of transparency. Or, in a less Utopian scenario, deny the wrongdoing, and simply let these stories die a natural death, dismissing it as "no-news." The less you threaten and prosecute, the more the public will ignore the revelations, and go on with their everyday life. Are we really so surprised by what Snowden told us? Anyone who's been reading the news in the past several years should have realized long ago that, to paraphrase Murphy's Law, if the government can monitor - it will! 

But Obama and his cronies at the Justice Department fail to understand that the approach of maximum punishment will not work. 

Snowden's revelations prove that their crackdown on previous whistle-blowers didn't exactly work for them, did it? Why are they thinking it will work this time? 


  1. i was following the Snowden story and came across yours. Wiki does not have any updates beyond your 20 month sentence.
    very happy to stumble on your blog, and to see that you are doing ok - enough to post and speak your mind atleast.

  2. The one thing that observers of espionage and whistleblowing who don't have a political agenda think is that there are just too damned many classified documents in the world. Russia used to lead the world in the number per nation, but since NSA and the UKUSA espionage group have computerized their operations, that number of classified files and programs has grown to dwarf anything a totalitarian state could hope to achieve. Barack Obama promised us "unprecedented transparency in government." But from the beginning of his administration, Obamacare was negotiated behind closed doors and the people paying for it told "we have to pass it to find out what's in it" - and we NOW know what's in it is Obama picking the winners, so that the lower middle class will lose big on access to medical care (check out the price on the "Bronze" exchange policy) so one of Obama's big support blocs gets more access to it.

    And now Obama is fighting tooth and claw to imprison whistleblowers, actually throw them in jail rather than admit, "Yes, we do internal espionage and we ought to have told you that in the beginning. We owe Edward Snowden a great debt and hope he has a nice life in Russia."

  3. Absolutely. There is a website run by a serious researcher devoted to showing there is too much secrecy in government, and pointing out that Obama has breached his promise for less secrecy and more transparency.

  4. Dear Shamai, are you available for an interview on Snowden? Please drop a line if yes

    1. Dorogaya Katya, ask your FSB supervisor for permission to report on the Russian attempts to shut down vkontakte and other social networking sites, now under the guise of protecting Russians from NSA eavesdropping. And what ever happened to that Russian spy ring that was sent home without being interrogated? And don't tell me you have no conspiracy theory about Berezovsky's death. Or does Russia Today not report on Russia today? Don't you get bored spending all your time lying to Americans about America?
      At least the Snowden story has some Russian element to it, unlike RT's obsession with Assange. I'm sure Putin already pocketed Snowden's thumb drive, thinking it's a gift ;-)

  5. Shamai,

    "This policy of meting out harsh punishments across-the-board to create "deterrence" is bankrupt; it only creates unnecessary suffering, hurting people and families, ..." Yes. Thank you.

    Nice post. We have been wondering what you were thinking about all of this.


  6. I am putting together a piece on the media leakers who have been indicted under the Espionage Act. I would like to get an update from you on your situation, what you are doing, how your life is going and what you see in your future. Also, there seems to be confusion in the media on just what came down. I understand the limitations inposed by your settlement agreement. Please contact me at Thank you.

  7. I just read the NY Times article and figured I'd drop by your blog, call you a self-hating Jew, and ask why the FBI would hire you after you represented Palestinian terrorist Marwan Barghouti and compared him to Moses.

    But you say that the NY Times article was completely false, which is very plausible, so I'll suspend judgment. Are you at liberty to say how the FBI was violating the Constitution?

    1. It's always good to suspend judgment:)
      The hastiness of the NYT to publish this blatantly false story is mind-boggling. Just shows that the media - even the so-called "paper of record" is filled with lies. What I did as an FBI linguist had nothing to do with what the NYT wrote about me, but I cannot go into details. The FBI was abusing its powers and targeting innocent Americans.

  8. Glenn Greenwald said he would not have published some of the stories that ran in the South China Morning Post. “Whether I would have disclosed the specific IP addresses in China and Hong Kong the NSA is hacking, I don’t think I would have,” Greenwald said. “What motivated that leak though was a need to ingratiate himself to the people of Hong Kong and China.”

    And the South China Morning Post also revealed that "Edward Snowden secured a job with a US government contractor for one reason alone - to obtain evidence of Washington's cyberspying networks."

    You didn't do that, did you? Secure a job with the FBI just to spy on the U.S. and then leak info just to ingratiate yourself with China? Sounds more like a spy than a whistleblower.

    Oh, and here's what Snowden expressed about leaks in his 2009 chats on Ars Technica:
    "those people [anonymous sources] should be shot in the balls."
    "these are the same people [New York Times] who blew the whole 'we could listen to osama's cell phone' thing, the same people who screwed us on wiretapping over and over and over again. Thank god they're going out of business."

    1. Agreed. His original leaks amount to exposing what many smart people are calling the criminality of the NSA (see this op-ed by two law professors). But his later leaks - about which institutions in China the US government is monitoring, and today's revelations about the USG monitoring Germany and the EU offices - there's nothing illegal about that. It's all covered under FISA. It may be embarrassing, but it's perfectly legal. He's a bit delusional if he thinks that this series of leaks that have no purpose other than to embarrass the US is going to help him. He'll just lose whatever support he had until now.

    2. The Criminal N.S.A.

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