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On the same day that a government oversight panel questioned the effectiveness and legality of bulk collections of phone and Internet data of American citizens, and Attorney General Eric Holder suggested the administration might consider a plea agreement with former NSA contractor-turned-leaker Edward Snowden, the fugitive whistle-blower set his own bargaining terms. In a live Internet Q&A, he demanded stronger protections for national security whistle-blowers, urged the government to reconsider the balance between liberty and security in its social contract with the American public, and reaffirmed that he would remain abroad until sufficient safeguards for whistle-blowers are implemented.
The session was hosted by the Courage Foundation, a U.K.-based organization established in part to aid his legal defense.
Snowden used the forum to defend his actions amid accusations of treason and requests by the U.S. to extradite him from Russia where has been granted temporary asylum, as well as to urge reforms that would create legal channels for future national security whistle-blowers to report government abuses.
“If we had had a real process in place, and reports of wrongdoing could be taken to real, independent arbiters rather than captured officials, I might not have had to sacrifice so much to do what at this point even the president seems to agree needed to be done.”
Perils of bulk data gathering
Snowden’s remarks came as the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an independent government agency within the executive branch that advises the government on balancing counterterrorism operations with individual privacy concerns, said that the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records provided only minimal counterterrorism benefits, is illegal and should end.
"The Section 215 bulk telephone records program (referring to the section of the Patriot Act that defines it) lacks a viable legal foundation under Section 215, implicates constitutional concerns under the First and Fourth Amendments, raises serious threats to privacy and civil liberties as a policy matter, and has shown only limited value," the board said in a report.
While he said that surveillance and spying in and of itself was not bad – and indeed a clear and necessary role for the government – he questioned the sheer ease with which bulk data collection operates, irrespective of specific targets or plots to be uncovered or thwarted.
The “seizing (of) billions and billions and billions of innocents’ communication every single day” is not undertaken out of necessity, he said, “but because new technologies make it easy and cheap.”
Beyond the domestic contours of the program, Snowden said that he is particularly concerned with the global ramifications of what he believes is unchecked surveillance.
“We’re setting a precedent that immunizes the government of every two-bit dictator to perform the same kind of indiscriminate, dragnet surveillance of entire populations that the NSA is doing.”
No country for bold men
For now, the U.S. government has shown little interest in granting clemency to Snowden, saying it would only consider a plea deal with him if he returned to accept a guilty verdict for his actions.
“If Mr. Snowden wanted to come back to the United States and enter a plea, we would engage with his lawyers,” Attorney General Eric Holder said at an event at the University of Virginia on Thursday.
“We would do the same with any defendant who wanted to enter a plea of guilty.”
The U.S. government is currently charging Snowden with three felonies, one of theft of government property and two of leaking intelligence under the 1917 Espionage Act, legislation that was passed to prevent the aid of enemies during wartime. The act has been used to prosecute leakers of state secrets including Daniel Ellsberg and Chelsea Manning.