The NSA defenders who label Ed Snowden a "traitor" (senators, congressmen and any number of former intelligence officials) often assert the whistleblower had an opportunity to use "proper channels" rather than take the route he chose: leaking documents to journalists.
Snowden's written testimony to the European Parliament, which was covered here earlier by Glyn Moody, includes in-depth responses to those who still believe he could have handled this differently. When asked if there are "adequate procedures to signal wrongdoing" inside the agency, Snowden had this to say:
Unfortunately not. The culture within the US Intelligence Community is such that reporting serious concerns about the legality or propriety of programs is much more likely to result in your being flagged as a troublemaker than to result in substantive reform...
[As noted here earlier, Snowden's negative writeup
while with the CIA was a result of him bringing a security flaw in the agency's software to a supervisor's attention. He fixed the flaw and was rewarded with a critical note in his file written by the person he originally brought the problem to.]
In my personal experience, repeatedly raising concerns about legal and policy matters with my co-workers and superiors resulted in two kinds of responses. The first were well-meaning but hushed warnings not to "rock the boat," for fear of the sort of retaliation that befell former NSA whistleblowers like Wiebe, Binney, and Drake…
The second were similarly well-meaning but more pointed suggestions, typically from senior officials, that we should let the issue be someone else's problem. Even among the most senior individuals to whom I reported my concerns, no one at NSA could ever recall an instance where an official complaint had resulted in an unlawful program being ended, but there was a unanimous desire to avoid being associated with such a complaint in any form.
The world's foremost intelligence agency is nothing more than the world's most secretive cubicle farm
, staffed with supervisors more interested in coasting towards retirement at the helm of the placid USS CYA then actually addressing an employee's concerns.
And it's not as though Snowden didn't make an honest effort to utilize the proper channels.
I had reported these clearly problematic programs to more than ten distinct officials, none of whom took any action to address them. As an employee of a private company rather than a direct employee of the US government, I was not protected by US whistleblower laws, and I would not have been protected from retaliation and legal sanction for revealing classified information about lawbreaking in accordance with the recommended process.
The loophole in whistleblower protection is in the process of being closed by sympathetic court decisions
. Courts are granting contractors the same protection as US government employees. But this "protection" is ultimately hardly worth the paper the decision is printed on. Intelligence agencies are still excluded from this protection, and the protection itself is highly suspect. Ultimately, everything runs through the Obama administration -- the same administration that has prosecuted more whistleblowers
than all other administrations combined
. Snowden harbors no illusions that the US government will ever take him back on amicable terms.
There has not yet been any substantive whistleblower reform in the US, and unfortunately my government has taken a number of disproportionate and persecutory actions against me. US government officials have declared me guilty of crimes in advance of any trial, they've called for me to be executed or assassinated in private and openly in the press, they revoked my passport and left me stranded in a foreign transit zone for six weeks, and even used NATO to ground the presidential plane of Evo Morales - the leader of Bolivia - on hearing that I might attempt to seek and enjoy asylum in Latin America.
As they say, there's no "there" there. The proper channels Snowden supposedly should have used were either a) sealed off by insular officials who preferred career longevity to "rocking the boat," or b) would have resulted in prosecution thanks to a lack of whistleblower protection.
Let's not forget that one of Snowden's "proper channels"
publicly compared the whistleblower to spies who sold government secrets to foreign operatives, called him a "thief" and referred to the journalists who ended up with NSA documents as "agents" in control of their "handler." When not smearing the ex-NSA contractor, this "proper channel" said he would have met Snowden's concerns with talking points and meetings with intelligence subcommittees -- the same subcommittees that have done nothing but circle the wagons
around the agency since the leaks began.
Suggesting Snowden could have handled this through "proper channels" is to suggest that the NSA's overreach should never have come to light or, at best, that Snowden should be prosecuted for whistleblowing. "Proper channels" in the intelligence community are an illusion. Snowden found this out firsthand and these responses prompted his eventual document heist. The government really has no one to blame but itself for the situation it finds itself in.