We have begun to lose control of what our government is doing, fugitive former U.S. spy contractor Edward Snowden told a crowd of hundreds inside Iowa City’s Englert Theatre on Monday.
Snowden, who leaked details of U.S. surveillance programs in 2013, spoke to the Englert crowd via video conference from Russia, which has granted him temporary asylum. He talked about the revelation that government surveillance is happening without knowledge and consent — not only to potential terrorists but to those with differing politics.
To those with Smartphones. To those with voices.
“It was no longer narrowly targeting people suspected of criminal activity,” Snowden said. “Instead, they began watching all of us all the time because any of us could be bad or we could go bad.”
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Snowden, 32, is a former CIA employee and former contractor for the U.S. National Security Agency who left his job with the NSA in 2013 and flew to Hong Kong, where he disclosed thousands of classified documents to a group of reporters.
The U.S. Department of Justice responded by unsealing charges against Snowden — two counts of violating the Espionage act and theft of government property.
Snowden on Monday stressed his belief that mass surveillance “doesn’t actually keep us safe.”
“It puts us at greater risk,” he said, quoting what he said was the CIA’s internal slogan of “collect it all.” “Because when you collect everything, you understand nothing.”
Snowden’s appearance Monday was a late addition to the previously scheduled lecture with former CIA analyst Ray McGovern and FBI whistle blower Coleen Rowley — organized through the University of Iowa Lecture Committee and Veterans for Peace.
During his comments, Snowden called for pushback to lawmakers and government leaders who are hiding their activities.
“We are entering a paradigm where we are becoming more accountable to government at the same time it is becoming less accountable to us,” he said. “And my question is, what are we going to do about it?”
Snowden received a standing ovation from the Iowa City crowd, but his document leak has sparked debate in the United States and abroad about the balance between surveillance and privacy. Carter Bell, UI student and chair of the lecture committee, acknowledged that Snowden is “simultaneously perceived as a traitor by some and a patriot by others, and challenges America’s views on security and liberty.” But, Bell said, the lecture committee was hopeful his appearance would evoke a “thought-provoking evening.”
Rowley and McGovern, during Monday’s lecture, called Snowden a patriot.
They supported his courage in outing NSA cover-ups, and they talked about what they called lies and fabrications they witnessed preceding Sept. 11 and the Iraq War.
“There were half a dozen ways that 9/11 could have been prevented if information had been shared between agencies and within agencies,” said Rowley, a 1980 UI law school graduate and former FBI employee who wrote a whistleblower memo about the agency’s failures to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks.
“To this day, we still don’t know the full information,” said Rowley, who later was named one of TIME’s people of the year in 2002.
McGovern served as an Army officer in the early 1960s and was an analyst in the CIA from 1963 to 1990. He chaired National Intelligence Estimates in the 1980s and prepared the President’s Daily Brief. And, in protest against the agency’s use of torture, McGovern in 2006 returned the Intelligence Commendation Medallion awarded to him at retirement.
McGovern called Snowden a good friend, “who needs no introduction.” He took the oath to defend the constitution, McGovern said.
“And he’s one of the few people who stood up and said that’s a solid oath. When I see the Forth Amendment trashed beyond recognition, I have to stand up and say something,” McGovern said. “He’s a patriot.”