Security adviser, journalist discuss Snowden disclosures at UNC

Oct. 30, 2013 @ 10:02 PM

Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency analyst who leaked information about the NSA’s widespread collection of American phone and email records, is a criminal to some.

To others, Snowden is the lightbearer who sparked a national conversation about the right to privacy balanced with government security interests.

To a crowd of about 200 people at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Genome Sciences Building auditorium Wednesday night, a former national security adviser to President Barack Obama and a national journalist who interviewed and received documents from Snowden represented both sides of the spectrum.

The conversation, moderated by UNC leadership and public policy professor Hodding Carter, a former PBS Frontline correspondent and the spokesman for the U.S. State Department during the Iran hostage crisis in the late 1970s, zeroed in on “Foreign Policy and National Security” current issues.

Thomas Donilon, who served as Obama’s national security adviser until June of this year and oversaw the National Security Council staff, started at the White House in his early 20s under the Carter administration.

He said he would brief President Obama every morning; national security was pegged as the first meeting topic of the day. This week, Donilon said they would have discussed the fallout from the Snowden affair, where particularly the governments of Germany, Mexico and Brazil have stood against the NSA surveillance inside their borders.

He said the NSA is naturally a foreign intelligence collection agency, and no one involved is engaged in illegal activity. The surveillance actions were authorized and reauthorized by Congress and overseen by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

“Snowden is a criminal,” Donilon said. “He worked for the National Security Agency and decided in the interest of freedom and justice that he would make these disclosures and do it from China and Russia, which is now where he is.”

Barton Gellman, one of three journalists who interviewed and received documents from Snowden this past spring, said that since his start in journalism, he has always been interested in the power relationship between the U.S. and its citizens.

“Technology and other developments have brought us to a point, and that includes legal developments, in which we have become more and more sort of radically transparent to our government or to data brokers whose names we have never heard of or big companies we have heard of such as Facebook and Google and so on,” Gellman said. “We have become radically transparent to them and they’ve become more opaque to us. It’s a place where you’re almost living inside a one-way mirror.”

Gellman connected with Snowden after Snowden reached out to a friend, independent filmmaker Laura Poitras. Gellman helped her set up secure channels, through encryption and anonymity, to talk with Snowden, and he ended up receiving the information.

“I was trying to figure out if he was for real,” Gellman said. “He was trying to figure out if he could trust me.”

His news stories reveal details about the government’s surveillance programs, and he was with the The Washington Post for 21 years before leaving in 2010 to become a contributing editor at large for Time magazine.

His story this week highlighted the NSA’s ability to reach into the cloud infrastructures of Google and Yahoo to secretly take information.

“What it comes down to though is a policy debate,” Donilon said. “... The President has put together a committee to look at this.”

He said the administration has to balance the importance of the information with protections for Americans.

“My proposition would be that there was a 0.0-percent chance that you could have a policy debate without some transparency, and the policy debate that the President and others say they welcome couldn’t and would not have happened without Snowden,” Gellman said.

But was this the best avenue to open up that discussion? Probably not, Gellman added.

Donilon pointed out that the past two major leaks this country has experienced, the first being from Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, have been internal.

He added that he supports protections for the media, but not for someone who works for the government.

“There is a difference between you as a journalist ... and a man who signed up to work for the National Security Agency, Donilon said.