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Snowden EU Testimony Renews Calls to Grant Asylum

BY Miranda Neubauer | Friday, March 7 2014

"Blame the Game" campaign screenshot

On Monday, Edward Snowden will participate in his first live discussion before an audience as part of SXSW Interactive through a video conference with his legal advisor Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU's Speech, Privacy & Technology Project, as well as digital privacy expert Christopher Soghoian. (Republican Rep. Mike Pompeo from Kansas, also a member of the House Intelligence Committee, has asked SXSW to cancel the webcast, The Hill reported). Snowden's discussion will come amidst renewed calls in Europe to grant him asylum after a testimony he provided to the European Parliament.

Friday morning, the European Parliament's Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs committee published written testimony from Snowden in connection with the committee's inquiry about the mass surveillance of EU citizens. While Snowden emphasizes in the testimony that he is not revealing more information beyond what journalists have already published, he discusses the already published revelations in the context of the increasingly globalized nature of surveillance, as well as his own motivations for leaking the documents.

In his introduction, he cites the inability of U.S. mass surveillance to prevent the so-called Underwear Bomber from boarding the plane or the Boston Marathon bombing, and the fact that a recent investigation by the White House's Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board found that the mass surveillance program had "no basis in law."

"I know the good and the bad of these systems, and what they can and cannot do, and I am telling you that without getting out of my chair, I could have read the private communications of any member of this committee, as well as any ordinary citizen. I swear under penalty of perjury that this is true," he writes in the testimony. "These are not the capabilities in which free societies invest ... If even the US government, after determining mass surveillance is unlawful and unnecessary, continues to operate to engage in mass surveillance, we have a problem."

He also argues that the mass surveillance ends up making the public less safe since limited resources are spent on "more analysts trying to make sense of harmless political dissent and fewer investigators running down real leads."

In his answers to the committee, Snowden suggests that one of the main ways that EU member countries end up cooperating with NSA surveillance is through pressure to change laws or re-interpret vague laws in a way that could justify those actions. "These efforts to interpret new powers out of vague laws is an intentional strategy to avoid public opposition and lawmakers’ insistence that legal limits be respected, effects the GCHQ internally described in its own documents as 'damaging public debate," Snowden writes. "Germany was pressured to modify its G-10 law to appease the NSA, and it eroded the rights of German citizens under their constitution. Each of these countries received instruction from the NSA, sometimes under the guise of the US Department of Defense and other bodies, on how to degrade the legal protections of their countries' communications."

Snowden argues that this demonstrates that the rights of the voting public have been "subordinated" to the interests of state security bureaus. "The result is a European bazaar, where an EU member state like Denmark may give the NSA access to a tapping center on the (unenforceable) condition that NSA doesn't search it for Danes, and Germany may give the NSA access to another on the condition that it doesn't search for Germans," Snowden writes. "Yet the two tapping sites may be two points on the same cable, so the NSA simply captures the communications of the German citizens as they transit Denmark, and the Danish citizens as they transit Germany, all the while considering it entirely in accordance with their agreements. Ultimately, each EU national government's spy services are independently hawking domestic accesses to the NSA, GCHQ, FRA, and the like without having any awareness of how their individual contribution is enabling the greater patchwork of mass surveillance against ordinary citizens as a whole."

Noting that the NSA shares some of its technological capabilities with other countries, Snowden suggests that the main difference between the U.S. and other countries are discrepancies in funding and manpower. "Technology is agnostic of nationality, and the flag on the pole outside of the building makes systems of mass surveillance no more or less effective," Snowden writes. In that respect, Snowden in fact echoes comments President Obama has made. In an interview with German television, Obama noted that U.S. intelligence capabilities reflect U.S. advantages in other areas such as military power and humanitarian aid responses. While Obama acknowledged that the greater capabilities mean greater responsibility, he also noted that "the United States has gotten faster to a place that I suspect over time everybody is going to get to, which is that more and more of our information is stored digitally."

Snowden told the committee members that he did not feel there was an effective way to raise his concerns with superiors, as there was a tendency to either avoid "rocking the boat" or regard the issue as somebody else's problem. He added that he reported his concerns "to more than ten distinct officials, none of whom took any action to address them" and emphasized that he was not covered by U.S. whistleblower laws as an employee of a private company.

Snowden, who in one simple response declares that he is the one financing his life, affirms that he does seek asylum in an EU country, but has not received any positive response to that request from EU member states he has contacted. He urges those who wish to help him to work towards ending indiscriminate data collection. "What happens to me as a person is less important than what happens to our common rights," he writes. "I would welcome any offer of safe passage or permanent asylum, but I recognize that would require an act of extraordinary political courage."

Addressing the committee members specifically, Snowden highlights the news reports purporting that the GCHQ shared with the NSA evidence of religious conservatives' association with sexually explicit material in order to possibly discredit them. "None of these religious conservatives were suspected of involvement in terrorist plots: they were targeted on the basis of their political beliefs and activism, as part of a class the NSA refers to as 'radicalizers,'" he writes. "I wonder if any members of this committee have ever advocated a position that the NSA, GCHQ, or even the intelligence services of an EU member state might attempt to construe as "radical"? If you were targeted on the basis of your political beliefs, would you know? If they sought to discredit you on the basis of your private communications, could you discover the culprit and prove it was them? What would be your recourse?"

On Twitter, Chris Sogohian said the most important part of Snowden's testimony concerns ways of preventing mass surveillance.

"The weakness of mass surveillance is that it can very easily be made much more expensive through changes in technical standards: pervasive, end-to-end encryption can quickly make indiscriminate surveillance impossible on a cost-effective basis," Snowden writes. "The result is that governments are likely to fall back to traditional, targeted surveillance founded upon an individualized suspicion. Governments cannot risk the discovery of their exploits by simply throwing attacks at every "endpoint," or computer processor on the end of a network connection, in the world. Mass surveillance, passive surveillance, relies upon unencrypted or weakly encrypted communications at the global network level."

On the policy level, Snowden emphasizes that important measures would include better oversight, better whistleblower protections and a renewed commitment to the international asylum process. "The oversight of intelligence agencies should always be performed by opposition parties, as under the democratic model, they always have the most to lose under a surveillance state," Snowden writes.

Asked if he plans to return to the U.S. to face criminal charges, Snowden replies that "accountability cannot exist without the due process of law" and points to the "well-known gap in US law that deprived me of vital legal protections due to nothing more meaningful than my status as an employee of a private company rather than of the government directly."

In Europe, Snowden's responses have already provided more fuel to calls by some European politicians to grant protection to Snowden in Europe, against the backdrop of the European election campaigns. Committee member Jan-Philipp Albrecht, German MEP from the Green Party, writes on the Greens' net policy blog that the MEPs will discuss his answers Monday before the European Parliament on Wednesday votes on the final report on the parliamentary inquiry into mass surveillance. The Greens and the European Free Alliance have introduced an amendment to the report for the vote on Wednesday that would call on EU countries to offer Snowden protection. "Only with a safe shelter in an EU country can he be questioned directly and thereby contribute further to clarification of the facts," Albrecht writes. The Greens and the EFA have also created a campaign page in support of Snowden and linking to his testimony with the message "Blame the Game, not the Messenger."

The rapporteur for the draft report is Claude Moraes, a British MEP who is deputy leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party and also a member of the committee.

In February, a similar amendment from the Greens failed within the Civil Liberties Committee. The committee did adopt a different amendment proposed by the Socialists and Democrats calling on EU member states to "thoroughly examine the possibility of granting whistleblowers international protection from prosecution" without referring to Snowden by name, EuropeanVoice reported at the time. "What we've ended up with is a condemnation of systematic, blanket collection of personal data. We want to draw a line between data which is useful for security purposes and data which is not of use for those purposes," Moraes said after the vote, according to EuropeanVoice.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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