Just hours before the endless back-slapping and stroking of journalistic egos took place at The Washington Post in celebration of its Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on the National Security Agency’s secret electronic surveillance programs, the top U.S. intelligence official took to the stage at the University of Georgia and urged students there to consider a vastly different narrative.
That narrative, according to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, is one that neither lionizes the leaker, Edward Snowden, nor leads to the Pulitzer. And it is one Clapper has committed to bring to as many colleges and universities around the country as possible.
“It’s important to our long-term national security that the best and brightest young people at our colleges and universities understand the role of the intelligence community and consider careers in the IC,” said Shawn Turner, director of communication for U.S. national intelligence, in an email to FedScoop.
“The DNI is concerned that the recent deluge of inaccurate information about intelligence activities has the potential to discourage talented young people from pursuing service to our nation as intelligence officers,” Turner said. “Visiting colleges and universities is a great way to dispel myths and address inaccuracies for the next generation of intelligence professionals.”
Clapper, along with other senior leaders in the intelligence community, want to set the record straight on what they see as a series of inaccurate and misleading media reports that have perpetuated the myth of Edward Snowden as a courageous whistle-blower and have deliberately smeared the important work of thousands of intelligence professionals.
“The very first press article and many of those published since have often been inaccurate, misleading or incomplete in how they characterize intelligence activities,” Clapper said during a keynote speech for the University of Georgia’s Charter Lecture Series. “We’ve been watching as our intelligence advantage has been eroding in front of our eyes.”
But what has Clapper most concerned is the large number of high school and college-age students who view Snowden as a role model. He mentioned recent media reports in which at least one college admissions officer at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., reported many prospective students choose to write about Snowden as their personal hero in the essay portion of their college application.
“The idea that young people see Edward Snowden as a hero really bothers me,” Clapper said. “Believe it or not, I do get it. I do understand that some people see Snowden as a courageous whistle-blower standing up to authority. I personally believe that whistle-blowing takes an incredible amount of courage and integrity. But I don’t classify Edward Snowden as a whistle-blower.”
Clapper pointed to former Army Sgt. Joe Darby, who in 2004 exposed widespread prisoner abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison facility in Iraq.
“He agonized, thinking of his friends and his superiors, and he worried that those people could come after him for retribution,” Clapper said. “It took him three weeks of torment before he turned the disc over to a special agent with the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division.”
Back home, people called Darby a traitor and threatened his life. The Army had to give his family an armed escort for six months.
“That act of whistle-blowing took courage and integrity,” Clapper said. “I think he makes a great role model, and I would like to some day read an admissions essay on him.”
But for Clapper, there is a sharp contrast between Joe Darby and Edward Snowden.
If Constitutional violations were really Snowden’s main motivation, “he had a lot of options on where to go with it,” Clapper said. “He could have reported it to seniors at NSA, which he did not. Or, like Joe Darby, he could have gone to investigators. There’s an inspector general for NSA and another for the entire intelligence community who are Senate confirmed. My office has a civil liberties and privacy protection officer. Snowden could also have gone to the Justice Department or directly to the Congress.”
“But he didn’t go to any of those places,” Clapper continued. “Instead, he stole enormous amounts of documents containing information about a broad range of intelligence activities, and he flew to China, gave some of the documents to reporters, and then flew to Russia, where he remains today. What better wellsprings of free expression and privacy than China and Russia?”
According to Clapper, the nation could very well have had a conversation about Edward Snowden the whistle-blower if most of the documents he leaked actually related to the surveillance programs he said he was blowing the whistle on.
“But what Snowden has stolen and exposed has gone way, way beyond his professed concerns with the protection of privacy rights,” Clapper said. “He stole and leaked secrets about how we protect U.S. businesses from cyber-threats and how we support U.S. troops in war zones. Many leaked documents directly put American lives in danger. What he’s done falls far short of a courageous act of defying authority.”