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Larry Wilkerson: Snowden’s expertise allowed him to understand the threat of the NSA’s surveillance programs on civil liberties – government power exercised in secret will be abused

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. And welcome to this week’s edition of The Wilkerson Report.

We are now joined by Larry Wilkerson, former chief of staff of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. He’s currently an adjunct professor of government at the College of William & Mary and a regular contributor to The Real News Network.

Thank you for joining us.


NOOR: So, Colonel Wilkerson, can you give us your thoughts on the latest revelations coming out of The Guardian newspaper that the British government spied on leaders at the G20 summit in 2009, and also your reaction to Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old NSA whistleblower who has stepped forward as the voice behind these leaks?

WILKERSON: The first thing I would say about the alleged spying by the London equivalent of the NSA on the G20 meeting: I’d say, so what? I think we’ve been doing that for a long time. I’m sure the Brits have, too. In fact, the Brits probably taught us how to do it originally. The old saying pre-World War I, post-World War I was gentlemen don’t read others people’s mail–don’t read other gentlemen’s mail, to get it exact. That’s just simply not true. We’ve been doing that since we hustled the telegrams from the Western Union office, IT&T, and so forth over to the White House basement, read the telegrams, resealed them, and got them back by the morning transmission times. We’re just doing it in incredibly larger numbers and more massive amounts of data today. And we’re doing it in a way that I think is frightening, frightening for democracy, frightening for citizens in a democracy, frightening for the power and abuse of power that it suggests will inevitably come.

As far as Snowden is concerned, I’ve said before and I’ll continue to say until he disabuses me by something he says or does, dissent is the highest form of patriotism, and everything I’ve heard from Snowden so far indicates that his concern is for our democracy and for the protection of our civil liberties. It’s clear to me, both as a former member of government and now, for example, sitting at a university or two universities–I was at the George Washington University, too–where so-called IT experts run all of the communications mechanisms, basically, that we use today, whether for teaching or for communicating messages within the government or whatever, they’re experts. They are experts. When I hear Keith Alexander or I hear James Clapper, or for that matter when I hear President Obama or I hear Feinstein in the Congress or I hear McCain or Graham in the Congress or anybody speak, I know they’re idiots. They’re total idiots, just like I am. I don’t know anything about information technology. But I’ll tell you one thing I do know: people like Edward Snowden know it cold. And they can look at things, they can do things, they can manipulate things, they can take things, they can hack things, they can find things that none of these other people can.

So if there’s anything coming out of this, it ought to be at least that as a minimum, that these people know more than any of us. And when someone speaks from a position in the government, be he president or secretary of state or whatever, they’re just smoking something, because they don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re reading talking points that have come up from someone just like Snowden.

NOOR: Colonel Wilkerson, in this latest Q&A released on Monday by The Guardian, Snowden writes: Obama’s campaign promises in election gave Snowden faith that Obama would lead Americans toward fixing the problems he outlined in his quest for votes. Unfortunately, he continues, shortly after assuming power, he closed the door on investigating systemic violations of law. And Snowden continues. But can you respond to that quote by Edward Snowden?

WILKERSON: I feel the same way Snowden does in many respects. I am a Republican, been a Republican all my life. I campaigned for President Obama–first Democratic candidate for president I’ve ever campaigned for. I wanted him to win because I saw the abuses of Dick Cheney and I wanted that to change, and I believed his rhetoric that he was going to change things. In that respect I agree with Mr. Snowden.

The president has done a few things. He signed an executive order that a group of us gave him outlawing torture, for example, which was wonderful, fantastic. It shouldn’t have had to have been signed, because torture is a war crime domestically and internationally. But it was.

But the other things that he promised to do, like closing Guantanamo, not listening to people like John Brennan and others who move into the Oval Office and capture our presidents instantly because of their command over information beneath them–information, incidentally, that comes from people like Snowden, in other words experts in the system, whether it be intelligence or communications or whatever. And they capture him. They have clearly captured President Obama. The allure of power is such that once you have it, you don’t want to turn a bit of it loose. And if anything, the president himself is testimony to the fact that, as our founders said, if power is left alone, exercised in secret, not having any real oversight, it will be abused. And now that power is being abused. And it’s being abused in a number of ways, not just the NSA scandal.

NOOR: And, Colonel Wilkerson, it appears that Edward Snowden now has a higher approval rating than Congress and President Obama, according to recent polls. It seems like the public has identified with Snowden to some extent. They approve of what he did. They support his decision. What’s it going to take to translate this into policy changes or other meaningful changes in how this government operates?

WILKERSON: Well, I hope that’s true. I’ve seen some polls, too, and they indicate that the American people are roughly split on this. Some are really anxious about Snowden and what he’s done, and others are supportive of it, and others are still in the middle. And I think this debate that I’m watching amongst a number of people, for example, on a listserv that I am a signatory to or I view every day is indicative of this.

But I think you have to get the American people–and I think this was Snowden’s purpose. I hope it was his purpose. You have to get the American people energized into understanding that the best protection of their security, the best security they have, in other words, is their liberty and all the things that constitute that liberty, whether it’s the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, the First, the Second, or whatever, and that when you start to erode these protections, when you start to surrender them, to give them up to gain a little more security, what you’re doing is eroding both security and liberty. And if you–you know, it’s almost as if Patrick Henry’s great words of “Give me liberty, or give me death!” have been translated into give me security at any cost, including my liberties. That just doesn’t work. And I hope the American people are awakening to that, and I hope they’ll be supportive of more transparency in the government, because if they’re not, we’re headed for a much worse situation than we currently have.

NOOR: Snowden writes that the war on whistleblowers, this draconian response, he calls it, simply builds better whistleblowers. What’s your response? And in this passage in The Guardian he also–he specifically names Binney, Drake, Kiriakou, and Manning, examples of how overly harsh responses to public whistleblowing only escalate the scale, scope, and skill involved in further disclosures.

WILKERSON: I hope he’s right. And I will say that from my study of history, particularly the history of tyrannies building inside disintegrating empires, which I would say is a pretty apt description of America today, he’s right. He’s right that it builds until eventually you have something just short of and maybe even constituting a revolution. You have the people getting sick and tired of the government running roughshod over them, lacking transparency, appealing all the time to secrecy, and you wind up with a real bad situation.

America is in trouble right now. She’s in trouble in a number of ways. And it hurts my heart to say so, but she is. She’s bleeding her power out all across the world in peripheral struggles, in struggles that have nothing to do with a real national interest, in an impassioned embrace of a country–Israel. George Washington would have condemned that embrace entirely, as he did time after time with respect to France.

We really have some problems today, economic, political, financial, social, cultural. Twenty-two suicides a day in our Armed Forces. The Army and Marine Corps’ post-Iraq/Afghanistan bill is well over $100 billion. Where is that money coming from? It’s coming from Japan and China.

We need whistleblowers. We need whistleblowers desperately to begin to identify some of the reasons all this is happening to the American people. And we need to start rectifying it.

NOOR: And Colonel Wilkerson, these leaks, they provide a space for dissent, maybe reform. Are Americans going to seize this opportunity?

WILKERSON: I hope so. They’re certainly not being led by people like Feinstein and McCain and Graham and other people whom I can only classify as Luddites and/or people who are trapped in the plutocracy that’s running this country right now and simply can’t see it or don’t want to see it and escape from it. We do not have any real leadership in this country right now. If we don’t find some pretty soon, the rest of the world’s going to move as it is already moving–in some cases rather dramatically–to balance our power, because they see us eroding before their eyes.

And when that happens, all you have to do is look at history. It doesn’t matter what empire you’re looking at, you’re looking at the British or you’re looking at the Assyrian. When that happens, then the world starts to move to do things without you. And that’s not the world that we need right now, because there are just too darned many challenges confronting all of us that we need American leadership, European leadership, Asian leadership, we need leadership all across the globe to confront. And America’s just not standing up to the challenge right now. And this is just a symptom of it.

NOOR: Colonel Wilkerson, thank you for joining us.

WILKERSON: Thanks for having me.

NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy

Lawrence Wilkerson's last positions in government were as Secretary of State Colin Powell's Chief of Staff (2002-05), Associate Director of the State Department's Policy Planning staff under the directorship of Ambassador Richard N. Haass, and member of that staff responsible for East Asia and the Pacific, political-military and legislative affairs (2001-02). Before serving at the State Department, Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army. During that time, he was a member of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College (1987 to 1989), Special Assistant to General Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), and Director and Deputy Director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Virginia (1993-97). Wilkerson retired from active service in 1997 as a colonel, and began work as an advisor to General Powell. He has also taught national security affairs in the Honors Program at the George Washington University. He is currently working on a book about the first George W. Bush administration.