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One of the most divisive figures of the digital age hearkened back to the days of quill and ink when addressing students at the College of William and Mary Tuesday.
The notorious whistleblower-in-exile Edward Snowden spoke via satellite about the founding of America and the role of whistleblowers to a capacity crowd of roughly 500 in the Sadler Center’s Commonwealth Auditorium. “Democracy Under Surveillance: A Conversation with Edward Snowden” was hosted by the Institute for Humane Studies and William and Mary’s Media Council in an attempt to foster dialogue about privacy and government security.
At opening remarks, moderator Col. Larry Wilkerson- currently a professor at William and Mary- reminded Snowden and the crowd that the United States’ founding fathers swore their lives, fortune and names to the nation in declaring independence. As a result, they were called traitors and treasonous — insults not unfamiliar to Snowden.
“What so many people forget is that we are a nation born of criminality, born of an act of treason,” Snowden replied. “What many people have said about me is that I’m a traitor, that I have committed an act of treason…but the truth is I have not been charged with treason.”
In 2013, Snowden copied and leaked classified information from the National Security Agency while working as a contractor for the United States government. He came to international attention after stories based on the leaked material appeared in The Guardian and The Washington Post.
The leaks revealed multiple government-sponsored surveillance programs, many operating with cooperation from telecommunication companies, which tapped into nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, emails, documents and connection logs. Snowden has since resettled in Russia after being granted asylum.
The whistleblower spoke for more than an hour about his own experience leaking information about the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance of American citizens, as well as the current state of national and international politics. He ended the lecture with question-and-answer segment with students.
One student, senior and Army Ranger veteran Tim Beck, probed Snowden on his decision to leak documents that could have placed servicemen and women at risk.
Beck said he had been deployed to Afghanistan while in the military and was part of the Joint Special Operations Command, which was implicated in WikiLeaks.
“What obligations do leakers have as to the safety and lives of our troops?” he asked.
Snowden said he believes leakers do have an obligation to those on the front lines, and said he was careful to leak his information in a way that replicated the checks and balances outlined in the United States Constitution.
Wilkerson, who served as Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, agreed Snowden’s actions were careful and put no one in danger.
“My professional colleagues tell me that the finesse and the skill with which he released the information almost guarantees that nothing but embarrassment results from it,” Wilkerson said following the lecture.
For freshman Danielle Grae, the line between government security and public interest is personal. She is from McLean, Va., where the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency is located. In high school, Grae worked for the school paper.
As recently as this semester, Grae is still working to reconcile the need for government secrets and the public’s right to be informed. In a philosophy class, she was assigned to argue against government infringement of privacy.
“I think that whether you think he’s a traitor and endangered people’s lives or whether you think he’s a hero..it’s important that we start evaluating these questions about what do we consent to as citizens of this government,” Grae said. “What are our rights to privacy? Is all this data collection an intrusion of our privacy?”
When it comes to the decision of what information should be made public and what should be kept private, Snowden said it was up to the students in the room, the next generation, to determine the future role of government.
“Ultimately, whistleblowers are elected by circumstance…If you see something wrong that you think could be changed by speaking out, you need to think very seriously about it,” Snowden said.
“I would not encourage anybody to come forward if it wouldn’t make a difference, but there are cases when it can…You have a voice ladies and gentlemen and that voice makes a difference. Don’t believe in something, stand for something. Use your voice and good luck.”