Of the rowdy reception, Snowden, the former contractor who exposed mass surveillance by the National Security Agency, said via Skype "It’s something I'm not used to in a number of different political settings.”
“You guys are going to make me blush.”
— Students For Liberty (@sfliberty) February 13, 2015
Snowden spoke for about 30 minutes including the time to take three questions from the moderator.
Surveillance, a Threat to Democracy
Addressing the libertarian group, Snowden spoke of the need for people to stand up against the government and demand an end to mass surveillance as a way to protect democracy.
“When we think about democracy, we think about the way we interact, the way we control our relationship with the government as a civil society,” he said. “We have to have an even playing field and, at the end of the day, not think about what divides us but about what holds us together.”
— Luke Rudkowski (@Lukewearechange) February 13, 2015
“No matter how you feel about this particular program, about this particular controversy on the Republican side of the fence or the Democratic side of the field, ultimately as long as we can agree that we have basic rights.”
Snowden called the government’s surveillance program unconstitutional, noting that federal courts had attached the label. When the NSA previously admitted to collecting telecommunications information and metadata, they defended their acts by saying they did not review all the collected information and most Americans were, therefore, unaffected.
However, Snowden dismissed the argument saying that the collection itself was against the law.
“Our 4th amendment prohibits not only the unreasonable search but also of the seizure of our private records,” he said.
— Fergus Hodgson (@FergHodgson) February 13, 2015
The Civil Rights Movement was Illegal
The fact that surveillance was carried out in total secrecy threatened America’s democracy itself by taking away the ability of the electorate to make informed decisions, he added.
“If we don’t know about what’s going on and they make these decisions without us they take away our seat at the table. Can we really be said to be a society that’s founded on the ideals of liberty and equality, of justice and fairness?” Snowden asked.
He also countered critics who claimed that mass surveillance was a “necessary evil” as a law enforcement tool, saying that such arguments are misplaced.
— Sarah Harvard (@sarah_harvard) February 13, 2015
“The perfect enforcement of the law is not a good thing and, in fact, it’s a serious threat to the progress… of liberty in our pursuit of the kind of life and society we want to enjoy,” he said. “If we were able to perfectly enforce the laws, every unlawful action in the history of this nation that made this country great would not have been possible. The American Revolution would not have been possible. The Civil Rights movement would not have been possible.”
Snowden said “the state” has a value to society, but there needs to be some balance between the needs of society and the rights of the individual.
“Legality is not the same as morality,” he said. Law is “like medicine. When you have just enough of it, it’s helpful, but when you have too much, it can be fatal."
— Ashley Killough (@KilloughCNN) February 13, 2015
“I was afraid.”
Speaking of his own decision to release what has become known as one of the greatest leaks of classified material in the history of the US, Snowden said he had discussed the surveillance programs with other employees.
“My colleagues and my co-workers agreed that, yeah, this is wrong, but don't put this in writing,” he recounted, conceding that, as a result, he was initially simply too afraid to do anything.
“I should have disregarded that,” he added. “We would be in a better place if I had come forth sooner.”
Snowden also noted his concern — as he expressed in Linda Poitras’s documentary CitizenFour which recorded his meeting with Glenn Greenwald in Hong Kong — about the media focusing on himself as the story rather than the government’s policies.
“There's been a lot of criticism about me in particular… a debate with people saying ‘you’re a traitor but that's really irrelevant when we look at the issues that really matter,” he said. “It doesn't matter whether I’m a good guy — I could be the worst guy in the world — what matters are the policies and programs of the government that are done in your name and the powers that they apply against you.”
— Students For Liberty (@sfliberty) February 13, 2015
“I’m no hero.”
During his address, Snowden downplayed his individual role and noted that he even felt inadequate when put next to some “journalists, activists, leaders and technologists.”
“People ask me if I consider myself a hero,” he said. “I don’t. Ultimately, there are no heroes, there are only heroic acts. There are no honorable people, there are only honorable activities. When we say that this person is a hero… we are ‘otherizing.’ We say ‘I wish I could be like them but I’m not.’ Ultimately they are no different from us.”
Snowden finished by saying that making people out to be heroes “distances them from ourselves.” Rather he said any effort to expose injustice deserves recognition, and that should be seen as a call to action.
“We have more power now than we realize,” he said. “Yes, there are extraordinary powers being claimed by government but we have the power to escalate as well.”