YouTube video

Michael Ratner: Citizens must demand an end to surveillance state and Obama admin’s war on whistle-blowers

Story Transcript

JAISAL NOOR, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

NSA Whistleblower Ed Snowden speaks out.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: I’m no different from anybody else. I don’t have special skills. I’m just another guy who sits there, day-to-day, in the office, watches what’s happening, and goes, this is something that’s not our place to decide. The public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong.

NOOR: That’s 29-year-old NSA whistleblower Ed Snowden speaking out in a video posted to the Guardian’s website on Sunday.

Now joining us is Michael Ratner. He’s president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York and chair of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin. He’s also a board member for the Real News and the US attorney for Julian Assange. Thank you for joining us, Michael.

MICHAEL RATNER: Good to be with you, Jaisal.

NOOR: So Michael, what’s your reaction to Ed Snowden, this 29-year-old NSA analyst speaking out, saying that he is, in fact, the NSA whistleblower. Right now there’s over eight thousand signatures on the White House’s website calling for his pardon. At the same time the NSA is seeking a criminal probe of Snowden. Republicans have called for his extradition from Hong Kong, where he’s currently holed up. He moved there a few weeks ago, ahead of this leak. What is your reaction to this news and what his supporters and detractors are calling for?

RATNER: When I heard the news on Sunday I was just completely amazed. I mean, I had been following the revelations about the massive surveillance state that has been revealed through the material that Edward Snowden has put out, and done through Glenn Greenwald and the Guardian. But I thought to myself, my first reaction is, here’s an American hero. Here is someone who has revealed the massive surveillance state that many of us have been talking about for a long time but couldn’t actually prove. Now we have the proof, and the question, as Edward Snowden said, is will the American people do anything about it?

The other pretty amazing thing, to me, is that he came out and revealed himself. I mean, he’s been giving the documents, but [today] he actually revealed himself in the face of the most horrendous government repression of whistleblowers in our history. Six espionage prosecutions, Bradley Manning on trial as we speak for aiding the enemy and espionage. Julian Assange being given political asylum because of persecution in the United States, now living in the Ecuadorian London embassy. Jeremy Hammond, a person who allegedly, or admittedly, now, hacked into the Stratfor emails, facing up to 10 years.

So we’re talking about an incredible repressive government apparatus against whistleblowers and knowledge and those who would want to spill its secrets of criminality. And yet, despite that, Edward Snowden came out and was so upset by what he had seen, in his conscience, that he has revealed to all of us the incredible nature of the surveillance state we’re living in.

NOOR: Now Michael, I want to play another clip of Ed Snowden. This one he’s talking about the power the NSA has to surveil anyone anywhere. Let’s go to that clip.

SNOWDEN: You don’t have to have done anything wrong. You simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody, even by a wrong call, and then they can use the system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with, and attack you on that basis, to sort of derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer.

NOOR: So that was Ed Snowden talking about the power of the NSA. Michael, can you talk about the fact that this is an NSA insider? He works for a private company, Booz Allen Hamilton, coming out and saying this. How does this, as you said, we’ve heard about the NSA’s power for years, now, but talk more about the significance of what Ed Snowden is saying here.

RATNER: What Ed is saying is that he, as an infrastructure analyst working for a private company, Booz Allen, that works for the NSA, that he, not particularly high level, could wiretap, get the email of any person in the United States he wanted, all the way up to the president if he had that email. That’s remarkable, and what we’ve seen by what he’s revealed, the massive metadata on our phone calls, the access to servers that the NSA has from major companies like Google and Facebook to other issues like the US committing cyber warfare, is that everything we say and almost everything we do is now being monitored and grabbed in by these NSA vacuum cleaners into the files of the NSA.

And at any time they want, if I get out and give a speech in support of my client, [inaud.] client, Julian Assange and Wikileaks, they can say, let’s target Ratner. Let’s see what we’ve got on him. Let’s see what he did at the doctors. Let’s see if he has any diseases. Let’s see what he’s doing. Or, if one of our colleagues is deciding to do a demonstration or gathering in a public square, they can get all the information they want on that person. They can know all his or her friends. They can know everything. It’s a pervasive, wide-scale, broad surveillance system that keeps information in their files for a very long time, if not forever. We don’t know that.

What it does, if you think about it, and Glenn Greenwald said this on his show the other day, on Democracy Now, he said, this basically takes in every new form of communication that we have. How do we communicate now? Yes, we communicate in person, but we don’t write letters, we write emails. We communicate on Facebook. We communicate on Twitter. So what you now have the NSA doing is monitoring and taking in every form of human interaction that we employ, or almost every form. I mean, that is extremely, extremely dangerous.

NOOR: Now, as recent as March the NSA has denied they have the capability of doing this. Now lawmakers have called for his extradition to the US. Has there been discussion of actually opening up a probe into what the NSA’s doing as far as surveilling American citizens without suspicion?

RATNER: You know, our Congress is disgusting. I mean, all three of the branches, if you look at them, the president, who basically went out of his way and said, oh, now we can have some public debate on it, but who tried to minimize the intrusion on Americans by essentially a Kafka-esque statement that is a lie to the American people, saying, well, we don’t get the names of the people who are making the calls, or who you’re calling. But, you know, you can go on the computer, even I can go on, and there’s companies that give you the name from a phone number. That they have automatically. That’s a given.

So what we’re seeing now is these efforts to really look at him as a criminal, or open an investigation rather than the investigation we need. We have Congress who approved the laws that allowed this. We have the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and other courts that have approved this kind of thing, and we have the executive. So we have, essentially, our three branches of government all against any kind of serious probe, any kind of stop to this massive surveillance state. Hopefully these latest revelations by Edward Snowden will begin to push that ball so we can begin to get some kind of look into what this country is doing and the surveillance state it has become.

NOOR: So Michael, this leak happened at a very interesting time. You have the Manning trial going on right now. You have the Obama administration carrying out an unprecedented [level] of prosecutions against whistleblowers. Let’s go to a clip of Snowden talking about the repercussions of his actions.

SNOWDEN: Yeah, I could be, you know, rendered by the CIA. I could have people come after me, or any of their third-party partners. You know, they work closely with a number of other nations. Or, you know, they could pay off the Triads or, you know, any of their agents or assets. We’ve got a CIA station just up the road in the consulate here in Hong Kong. I’m sure they’re going to be very busy for the next week. And that’s a fear I’ll live under for the rest of my life, however long that happens to be.

NOOR: So Michael, you seem to have lost your video connection. We’re going to stay with you on the phone. What’s your reaction to Ed Snowden’s own words about the possible, or the likely efforts the US government will take to bring him to account for what he’s done?

RATNER: You know, this country is a terrifying place for what it does to whistleblowers, for what it does to the Guantánamo detainees, for what it does to people in its prisons. He mentioned rendition. This country is certainly completely capable of grabbing someone on the streets, whether it’s Hong Kong or someone else, bundling him onto a plane and getting him to the United States. We’re assuming they don’t torture him on the way here. He probably has no real chance of saying he can’t be tried because of that. So this country, you know, they can do all that.

They can try for his extradition. That, I think, is a much trickier business in his case, but we’ll see. I mean, there is an extradition treaty, apparently with Hong Kong separately, maybe, from the old days, maybe with China. I’m not sure. But espionage, if that’s what they try and get Ed Snowden on, is a classic political crime, and it’s oftentimes not extraditable. On the other hand, what they try and do because of that is get people on computer fraud crimes and things like that, wrongfully accessing computers. That’s certainly what they’ve been trying with Julian Assange, which I don’t think they have any evidence for, but that’s what kind of thing they want to do because they want to avoid espionage charges for that reason.

So I think he’s in great jeopardy. The question is, will Hong Kong protect him, as he said in his talk. Hong Kong, of course, is part of China. He pointed out it has different traditions than mainland China, et cetera. But on the other hand, there are these talks going on with China and the US, and so we just don’t know the answer. I would be very frightened for him. I would hope people come out to protect him and say he is an important source of the truth. He is an important whistleblower. WE have to protect Ed Snowden.

And there’s also been a question of whether other countries can give him asylum if China does not, or Hong Kong, I don’t know if they can give it separately. Let’s hope that comes forward. The big thing is to try and save Ed Snowden now, so he doesn’t have to spend the rest of his life in some really underground, horrible US prison, which is what I think they would like to do to him.

I do want to say, more broadly, what’s going on here. As I said, the US is being incredibly repressive about what they call people who are going onto the internet getting material, whether they are inside or outside. And a broader issue, what’s going on, and Julian Assange has talked about this as well as others, is looking at the internet as an incredibly democratizing force, that we can all communicate with each other, as Julian and others say, laterally, can become a real place to share education and ideas, a real place to become political. And that’s lateral, but its backbone is controlled centrally by big companies, whether it’s Google and others, and by government.

And their effort is going to be to make sure that our lateral communications and our education cannot occur, and that the big companies come down and the governments come down and control it from a central point of view. The struggle we’re seeing play out now, and I think Julian Assange is right about this, is between those of us who want to see a democratic internet, a one in which we can share political space, political ideas, or one of the government which can lead, as he says in his book, “Cyberpunks,” to a tyranny. And what worries me here is, as we see the government get more and more repressive, they see the internet as a means of surveilling all of us that can lead, really, to a tyranny, and the fight that Ed Snowden is putting up, the fight that others are really saying, we won’t accept that.

NOOR: So Michael, what can concerned citizens do? You know, as you mentioned, his greatest fear is that a discussion does not happen, we don’t have a debate about this in the public. It seems like so far he has succeeded in, I know it’s been all over the television networks, the issue of whether this is right and whether the public should have a say in how much surveillance is conducted. For those that want to support Snowden, what can the average citizen do?

RATNER: I think the first thing is, do what he says, which is, he doesn’t want his personal situation diverting from the incredible revelations that have come out already and, according to Glenn Greenwald, will continue to roll. So there have to be demands made on our government, and in the streets, that we have to end the surveillance state, that we have to open up this discussion about the role of the National Security Agency and its huge budget and its secretive, the fact that it’s ungoverned by anybody except itself, the fact that we used to joke that its initials stood for No Such Agency. Well, we now know that No Such Agency is taking in, like a vacuum cleaner, everything we do.

Then you, of course, have to go to each situation of these amazing whistleblowers and journalists. So you have to support Bradley Manning, get him out that situation he’s in. He’s already pled guilty to 20 years. They’re going with a sledgehammer to try and give him life. You have to make sure that Julian Assange can get out of that embassy and get a safe passage to Ecuador. You have to see if Jeremy Hammond, if we can get him time served instead of 10 years that he’s possible to get. And in the case of Ed Snowden you have to act immediately. Go online, sign the petitions. Send protests to the White House. Go to your congresspeople, say these are secrets the American people should have known a long time ago. We should debate. This kind of massive surveillance state has got to end. All of our freedoms are in great jeopardy.

NOOR: Thank you for joining us, Michael.

RATNER: Thank you, Real News and Jaisal, for having me on this really important topic.

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.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Michael Ratner is President Emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) in New York and Chair of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin. He is currently a legal adviser to Wikileaks and Julian Assange. He and CCR brought the first case challenging the Guantanamo detentions and continue in their efforts to close Guantanamo. He taught at Yale Law School, and Columbia Law School, and was President of the National Lawyers Guild. His current books include Hell No: Your Right to Dissent in the Twenty-First Century America, and Who Killed Che? How the CIA Got Away With Murder.

NOTE: Mr. Ratner speaks on his own behalf and not for any organization with which he is affiliated.