Edward Snowden Defends His Actions Live From Russia To Tulane Students

"Sometimes the only moral choice is to break the law.”

NEW ORLEANS – Edward Snowden, the highly-publicized whistleblower who leaked confidential government documents about a US surveillance system to journalists, spoke via teleconference at Tulane University on Jan. 29. 

Snowden spoke in real time from an undisclosed location in Moscow about why he leaked the documents, how he ended up in Russia and what "morality" means to him.

Wearing glasses and a black shirt, Snowden, 34, sheepishly looked down and smiled several times as students clapped and cheered when his face appeared on the large screen at McAllister Auditorium. 

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The sold-out lecture series, presented by Tulane University Campus Programming, was moderated by Ron Suskind, a Pulitzer-prize winning author and director of the Investigative Journalism Project at Harvard Law School.

Snowden presented himself as a former patriot who signed up for the Iraq war at age 21 to defend his country, and who at the time had nothing but faith in the United States government.

“I firmly believed that the U.S. government wouldn’t lie to us – or certainly wouldn’t lie to us for a bad purpose,” said Snowden.

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He said the tide turned when he was stationed in Hawaii as a government contractor for the Central Intelligence Agency. He was earning six figures and living a comfortable life. 

“I discovered a secret—that the U.S government had been violating the rights of everyone – every man, woman and child in the U.S. with this surveillance system,” said Snowden. He added that it was “painful” questioning, and then losing, his trust in his government.

In 2013, Snowden released classified documents outlining the program to Britain's Guardian newspaper and The Washington Post. That act resulted in an espionage-related prison sentence of more than 30 years if, and when, the U.S. can get custody of him.

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Snowden showed the Tulane crowd a color-coded picture of the world broken down into a “heat map” of where he said the National Security Agency (NSA) was collecting vast amounts of data from major internet companies, potentially affecting 330 million American citizens.

Snowden said the only way he felt he could make a difference and stop the program was if he told journalists, thereby becoming a whistleblower of the program.

“It is unethical to spy on Americans,” he said. “There were no consequences for (the government) for violating the law; the government would have to put itself on trial, and that wasn’t going to happen.” 

He noted that during the high-profile case, NSA chief James Clapper said under oath before congress that the program does not target Americans. Snowden said that testimony was a lie.

“I learned the lesson that the basic principals over our rights are not guaranteed,” said Snowden. “I had not just a right to tell the press, but a duty to do so. Sometimes the only moral choice is to break the law.” 

That statement resulted in loud applause from the attendees at Tulane.

Snowden stood firmly behind his claim of the illegality of the surveillance program. The program, which was stuck down in 2013 in court as being illegal, is viewed as a violation of the fourth amendment, which concerns unreasonable searches and seizures. 

“It had been in operation since the (George W.) Bush administration,” said Snowden. “The program has been illegal the entire time of its existence.” 

He painted both the Barack Obama and George W. Bush administration as violating the U.S. constitution for continuing the program, and in actions surrounding his exile.

He said he applied to 23 countries seeking asylum. He said U.S. leaders strong-armed other countries into not accepting him and into closing off airspace. He named former Secretary of State John Kerry and former Vice-President Joe Biden as doing this directly.

Snowden said he is in Moscow because Kerry canceled his passport as he was in the air on a flight destined for South America in order to seek asylum. When his passport was canceled in mid-air, he was grounded in Russia. With no passport, he said he was in a Russian airport for 40 days.

“No one would let me leave,” he said.

Snowden said the closest he got was being exiled to Bolivia, when the president Evo Morales allowed him to travel on his presidential airplane from Russia. The exile plan was stopped, however, when he said a U.S.-backed search of the plane was allowed and put into place.

Snowden said he would return to the United States if given the opportunity to get a jury trial.

He said U.S. espionage law does not distinguish between motivations for leaking confidential documents in order to stop what one considers to be illegal government activities and disseminating information for personal or financial gain. 

Snowden said he currently would legally not be entitled to a trial if extradited to the United States. He added he has repeatedly asked for a jury trial for his crimes.

“That is my sole requirement for coming back to the U.S.,” he said.

Snowden is living a quiet life in Moscow, in an apartment where he pays rent with a girlfriend. He has even gone on small vacations.

He said he is not a pawn to Russian President Vladimir Putin, as was rumored online. Snowden even showed the crowd at Tulane one of his recent tweets criticizing Putin for policies that he said violates human rights. 

“If (Putin) is listening to me, I hope he learns something about constitutional rights,” said Snowden.

He prodded the Tulane community to continue to question and criticize those in government and power.

He noted that a recent passing of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) allows the NSA to track and collect communications of foreigners overseas without a warrant, even if the communications of Americans are picked up along the way. 

He said that is an expansion of the program he revealed, and that it is also illegal.

“I’m not perfect; I’m not a hero,” he said. “I want you to question me. I want you to put one-tenth of your skepticism toward people who hold real power.”

“Whistleblowers are democracy’s means of last resort,” he said. “I played my part, and there is no un-ringing that bell. I am willing to go to any length to stand up for what I believed in.” 

-By Jenny Peterson, Associate News Editor, Biz New Orleans

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