Representing Edward Snowden is ‘no ordinary legal representation’
It’s like something from a James Bond film.
Computer engineer, Edward Snowden, formerly with the CIA, is assigned to help the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA) defend themselves from Chinese hackers.
He is quickly promoted to being an expert in "cyber counterintelligence" and a "cyberstrategist."
During this time, Snowden stumbles across unconstitutional misconducts and abuse of power in the intelligence community regarding privacy and surveillance.
After fleeing to Hong Kong and revealing documents to the press, Snowden is charged with two counts of violating the Espionage Act and theft of government property. So he flees to Russia, which has granted him three years of temporary asylum.
Park City will get the opportunity to hear from Snowden when the Park City Institute kicks off its 2015-16 Main Stage Season with "Live from Russia: Edward Snowden" at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday, Dec. 5.
Snowden will appear via a video messaging service and will be interviewed by KUER’s Doug Frabrizio, according to his lawyer, Ben Wizner of the American Civil Liberties Union.
"You should expect the conversation to be very substantive about the issues and not about himself," Wizner told The Park Record during a telephone interview last week. "No one sends us questions in advance, but I’m sure we’ll have audience asking questions as well."
During the program, Snowden will explain how his concerns about the NSA’s actions pushed him to risk his life and freedom.
"He’ll talk not only surveillance, but also democratic participation," Wizner said. "He’s been doing a fair amount of public speaking around the world and he receives invitations every week, but he can’t possibly accommodate them all. But he’s excited for this one."
Wizner, who will be in Park City for the presentation on Saturday, said because this is a public discussion there is no need for heightened security.
"It won’t matter if the FBI has a feed into this type of presentation, because he’s speaking to a room full of strangers," Wizner said.
Wizner came into the picture nearly two months after Snowden leaked the NSA information to documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald.
"I have a long-standing relationship with the journalists that Mr. Snowden reached out to, in particular Laura and Glenn," Wizner said. "So, when Laura received the first anonymous email from someone who identified himself as Citizen 4 in January 2013, I was one of the people with whom she consulted."
At that time, Poitras didn’t know if the email was on the level.
"She didn’t know if it was from a crank, a paranoid crazy person or if she was being set up," Wizner said. "She also wondered if this was, indeed, communication from an important whistleblower, but there was no way to know at that time. But I was in touch with her before she and Glenn faithfully got on a plane to Hong Kong, not knowing who they were going to meet in late May 2013."
Snowden, of course, knew about the ACLU and about Wizner before he met with the two journalists.
"He had been watching the ACLU’s litigation and had seen that our efforts to use the courts to challenge the legality and constitutionality of [government] surveillance had been turned away," Wizner said.
In March 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in a five-to-four decision that (the ACLU) had no right to be in court to challenge an NSA surveillance program, Wizner explained.
"They didn’t say the program was legal," he said. "They said that because we had no evidence that our plaintiffs had been subjected to it, we had no right to be in court and that we couldn’t get that evidence because it was a state secret.
"So, they effectively held that nobody could go to court to challenge this NSA program, which we now know as PRISM," Wizner said. "Ed saw that congress had failed to do anything about it and that the courts had failed to do anything about it. So, the only option left was for him to communicate directly to the people through the media. That was part of what motivated and necessitated his act. You see, the ordinary, systemic oversight had failed."
During the past three years, Wizner’s views about privacy and surveillance have changed because of his involvement with the case.
"I’m in regular communication with perhaps one of the most surveyed person on the planet and by that I mean that multiple governments are doing everything they can to target his communications," he said. "So, it’s been a crash course for me in information security. While I’ve had one of the best teachers, I’ve had to be more mindful than before about my own digital security and communications through hearing from him just what capabilities governments have and how they have been using them."
Many of Snowden’s critics call him a traitor and said he should have brought up his concerns through the system and shouldn’t have circumvented it.
"This is one of the things that makes it satisfying to help him, because I had spent the previous dozen years going through that system to bring the misconduct of the intelligence community before the Federal Courts where it could be adjudicated," Wizner said. "Every single time those cases were turned away, not on their merits, because we either didn’t have standing or the subject matter was too secret or that the officials had immunity. So, basically the system everyone says Ed should have gone through had refused to consider the claims.
"We heard President Obama say after the initial Snowden revelations that all three branches of the U.S. Government had approved these programs and therefore, the American people didn’t have to worry about them," Wizner said. "That statement was true, but it was the problem, not the defense, because the problem was that while the public was in the dark and being lied to about these programs, the system approved all of them."
However, as soon as the public was brought into the conversation with Snowden’s revelations, all three branches of government changed course, Wizner said.
"You had the president say that some of the programs weren’t necessary. You had congress, for the first time since 1978, take away powers from the intelligence community, rather than add them," he said. "You also had federal courts say that some of the programs were unconstitutional and were illegal."
Something that also gratifies Wizner is that now, 2 ½ years after the initial reports were released, people are still talking about the issues.
"The window that his actions opened up for this global conversation about surveillance and free societies is still open," he said. "I didn’t know that these issues would still hold the world’s attention [this long] after the act. I expected my life would return to normal a lot faster than it had.
"Another thing would be to say this is an ordinary legal representation for me," Wizner said with a laugh. "What I’m trying to do primarily is to help him be an effective reform advocate as possible. That is an unusual role for a lawyer, but it is one that has been very interesting to be involved in.
"But at this time, he is the only person in the world who can command a global audience for talking about abstract issues such as privacy and surveillance. So, I think it’s a great responsibility and privilege to help him."
One thing Wizner urges everyone to remember is that Snowden didn’t give the NSA’s classified information to the American public. The media did.
"The number of documents that Snowden put out is zero," Wizner said. "Every bit of information that has been provided to the public has been done by news organizations that went through their professional judgments."
Reporters, editors and publishers had decided it was in the public’s interest to publish it, according to Wizner.
"And even more, the information that is out is just a fraction of what they have," he said. "Now, it’s up to the public to decide what the consequences will be. If a majority of Americans believe that some of these surveillance practices should stay in place, he’ll live with that, as long as the decision is made through an open democratic process and not a secret cabal."
The Park City Institute will kick off its 2015-16 Main Stage Season at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts, 1750 Kearns Blvd., on Saturday, Dec. 5, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets range from $50 to $100 and can be purchased by calling 435-655-3114 or by visiting http://www.ecclescenter.org.
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