NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and documentary filmmaker and journalist Laura Poitras were jointly awarded the 2014 Ridenhour prize for truth-telling in a ceremony Wednesday afternoon, April 30, at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, a little more than a block away from the White House.
Snowden and Poitras both appeared by video link from the countries where they are currently living in exile.
Many of the hundreds of attendees at the Press Club event had never heard them speak before.
In an emotional acceptance speech, Snowden described his intentions, what he observed while working for the NSA, and how he came to decide to go public with the explosive leak of documents revealing a massive U.S. government program to collect data on Americans.
Poitras described the impact U.S. efforts to prosecute whistleblowers have had on her, her family, and on the Snowden family, and said she felt safer in war zones she has covered than she does in the United States.
The award is named for the Vietnam veteran Ron Ridenhour, who helped expose the My Lai massacre and later became an investigative journalist. It "has always dealt with difficult issues," said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a strategic partner in the awards, along with the Government Accountability Project and the Fund for Constitutional Government, with funding from The Nation Institute and the Fertel Foundation.
The U.S. government sought to seize Ridenhour's notes and discover his sources for an investigative series he wrote on corruption in New Orleans. The case led to a landmark state supreme court decision in Louisiana affirming a reporter's "privilege" to protect First Amendment freedom of the press.
In her introduction, Brian said Americans' discomfort with the Snowden revelations of government spying stems from "what we do not know." "But what would you do," she asked the audience, "if you knew your government was secretly extracting information" on all Americans "despite claims to the contrary?" What if "there literally were no safe channels" to blow the whistle other than to go to the press?
James Bamford, author of The Puzzle Palace, the seminal book on the National Security Agency, introduced the prize winners.
Bamford began by noting that he had no reservations about being there to give the award to Poitras and Snowden.
Even before her reporting on Snowden's revelations, Bamford noted, Poitras was routinely pulled aside by TSA, questioned and interrogated and had her electronic equipment taken from her, but she had a powerful weapon. That "powerful weapon was a video camera." She directed the Academy Award nominated film about the experience of Iraqis in the midst of the U.S. war, "My Country, My Country." Poitras won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for public service journalism, and her documentary film The Oath won a cinematography prize at the Sundance Film Festival.
Bamford said he first met Poitras when she was headed to Utah to research the one million square foot facility the NSA was building there, which he suggested demonstrates the massive scope of the NSA's ambition.
In January 2013, Poitras received a note from Edward Snowden identifying himself as "a senior member of the intelligence community" and saying, "this won't be a waste of your time." That may have been the understatement of the century, Bamford remarked.
Snowden entered the military through the Special Reserves. He then went to work for the CIA, before working as a contractor at Dell and then at the mega military/intelligence contractor, Booz Allen.
Through his job at Booz Allen contracting for the NSA, Snowden tried to tell his bosses that nearly every piece of metadata of Americans was being picked up, and that every time an American turned on her phone or made a purchase, it was being recorded by the NSA, and that there were secret "back doors" in the Internet that enabled this massive electronic surveillance.
In Bamford's view, the NSA was a "runaway train, a runaway surveillance train," and Snowden knew there was no internal emergency brake. So he turned to the external break, the press. He knew that without the documents to prove his allegations, the NSA would continue to "just deny" what it was doing and lie to the American people. He saw what had happened to other whistleblowers.
Bamford revealed in his speech that he had seen one of the documents disclosed as part of the Snowden revelations before it was redacted for the public. He said that document was a bombshell memo from the Director of the NSA that noted the agency could find out embarrassing information about people, including Americans, and it could start using that information. The memo talked about how the government could use "these vulnerabilities against us," the American people, which could include prominent American leaders or those who dissent. Bamford said that as part of that document, he saw a list that included the names of Americans.
He said it was like former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's use of unconstitutional surveillance against the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., to try to undermine the leader of the civil rights movement, documented during the Church Committee's intensive investigations. (Those same investigations uncovered the news that there was even a government agency called the "NSA," which had jokingly been referred to by some of those few who knew it as "No Such Agency." Bamford noted that some NSA workers now call it "Not Secret Anymore," in the wake of Snowden's revelations).
Snowden's revelations bring America almost full circle to those dark days of J. Edgar Hoover, Bamford said, but with infinitely more powerful and intrusive technology. As Idaho Senator Frank Church noted so many years ago, back in the 1970s the NSA's powers of surveillance were so fearsome that if they were turned on the American people there would be no place to hide. It was a bridge America must never cross, Church said, so that the United States would not fall into that abyss where such totalitarian powers could be deployed against innocent Americans.
Laura Poitras, who with Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill co-founded The Intercept with the financial support of Pierre Omidyar, spoke via video link from an undisclosed location outside the United States. She has not returned to the U.S. since helping to break the story last summer.
Poitras began by noting that Snowden "strongly wanted me to return this information to the American people," the information he had that revealed the extent of the NSA's surveillance of Americans.
Her voice quivered, as she said "I have not experienced the kind of fear and intimidation in war zones I have felt from this Administration."
Poitras said she knew that she and Snowden would be attacked and she knew it would be difficult to protect Snowden and the reporters, but "that didn't change my calculus ... I knew what I had to do" for the American people and for the people in the agencies "who serve in silence" and try to do the right thing but cannot bear the price of being whistleblowers.
Edward Snowden then addressed the crowded room at the National Press Club, also by video link.
He began by noting that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper "took an oath to tell the truth and then lied to the American people" when he told Congress that U.S. intelligence agents do not collect data on Americans.
Snowden then stated "I swore an oath too. That was an oath to defend the Constitution...."
"What I saw was a violation of our Constitution on a massive scale."
On his computer, Snowden added, he could see a "heat map of NSA collection" across the globe and he asked others at Booz Allen "do you think it's right that the NSA is collecting more information on Americans in America than Russians in Russia?"
He said that the technological system of the NSA "ingests and collects ... when you pick up the phone and when you buy a book."
"I could sit at my desk and I could wiretap anyone in America," Snowden said, as long as he had an email address or a phone number.
Although James Clapper plainly lied to Congress and the American people, he has not been charged with any crime and no intelligence community official who has misled the American people has been charged with any wrongdoing over the past few years, Snowden pointed out. But within 24 hours of the Snowden revelations breaking in The Guardian, three criminal charges were levied against him. He asked, "if we can hold the lowest level employee to account, why can't we hold to account" the leaders of the Intelligence Community for violating our laws?
The NSA had embraced an extremely dangerous policy, Snowden said, which he described as a "collect it all" mentality. But America's founders, he said, sought to create "a republic, if you can keep it." Even though the world has changed, American values have not, Snowden added, and he believes the right of the people to debate over the scope of the NSA's power is "essential to our values, our Constitution and to freedom."
He also said he hoped the debate would include how "to protect the freedom of people everywhere" because the NSA's technology affects the human rights of all people. He expressed hope that "this is the way forward" and that "having a public debate" and bringing the conversation out from "behind closed doors" will ensure that "the public has a seat at the table" so that "together, we can restore our rights to what the Constitution promises and, in fact, guarantees."
Bamford moderated a question-and-answer session with Poitras and Snowden. He asked Snowden what advice he would give other whistleblowers, given the repercussions of his revelations.
Snowden said he hoped there would be reforms that would allow whistleblowers to be secure in the ability to seek legal advice and protection for telling the truth when public officials lie to the American people.
In response to a different question, Poitras said she "didn't have a lot of faith" that the intelligence committees in Congress would effectively regulate the NSA.
Then Poitras said she wanted to raise another issue for the audience: the impact on the families of whistleblowers of the climate the Obama Administration and prior Administrations have created for civil servants who feel morally obligated to blow the whistle.
Snowden's voice broke as he spoke directly to his family in the audience. "I know this is been hard for everyone, and I love you guys," he said. "Thank you."
Snowden's father stepped forward to accept the award for his son, and Jessica Radich accepted the award for Poitras. Both said they do not feel safe returning to the United States at this time.
Ruth Conniff contributed to this article.
Lisa Graves is Publisher and President of The Progressive Inc., home of The Progressive magazine, the Center for Media and Democracy, PRWatch.org, SourceWatch.org and our awarding-winning investigation, ALECexposed.org.