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Snowden, Poitras Awarded Truth-Telling Prize for Exposing Illegal NSA Surveillance

Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower who exposed, arguably, the biggest government overreach into Americans’ privacy in the nation’s history, and Laura Poitras, the journalist who helped bring the story to the public, were honored Wednesday with the Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling.

Accepting the award over the Internet, Snowden, who has temporary asylum in Russia, said he wanted to share the prize with the many NSA employees he knew who were also dismayed by the agency’s tactics. 

“I have to say that although I am honored to be in the company of so many distinguished Ridenhour honorees, this prize is not just for me, this prize is for a cohort of so many people…all the other intelligence officers throughout the intelligence community who remember that the first principle of any American intelligence official is not an oath to secrecy, but a duty to the public,” Snowden said.

Poitras, who also appeared via the Internet, remarked that she could never have imagined the twists her life took in the last year. Snowden approached the documentary filmmaker early last year. She then helped connect him to journalist Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian. Poitras, Greenwald and Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman won the Pulitzer Prize for their work on the Snowden story.

Snowden and Poitras both singled out Thomas Drake, another NSA whistleblower who was honored with the same Ridenhour Prize in 2011. Drake, who exposed NSA wrongdoing, was prosecuted under the Espionage Act, though the charges were later reduced to a misdemeanor. However, the vindication came at the cost of his career. Drake and several other past winners were in the audience.

Seeing what Drake and other national security whistleblowers went through is what prompted Snowden to flee. Unlike national security whistleblowers who are government employees, Snowden was an intelligence agency contractor and had no real protections under federal law.

Danielle Brian at Ridenhour

POGO's Danielle Brian

“There literally are no meaningful and safe channels through which Snowden could have made his disclosures and certainly not with the impact we have witnessed,” said Project On Government Oversight Executive Director Danielle Brian, who emceed the award ceremony and also sits on the Ridenhour selection committee. “After much discussion, the selection committee was clear: Edward Snowden’s disclosures about the NSA’s domestic surveillance have had a historic and positive influence.

“Snowden along with the work of co-recipient filmmaker and journalist Laura Poitras have allowed a public debate on the proper role of national security agencies and freedom that those in other countries including Russia and China are not able to have.”

Although Snowden is a polarizing figure, his revelations about the NSA’s mass surveillance of American citizens have spurred Congress and President Obama to rein in the agency. Lawmakers have also introduced the USA Freedom Act aimed at reforming intelligence gathering.

For these reasons, Snowden was honored at the 11th annual Ridenhour Prizes, which were held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

The Ridenhour selection committee chooses winners each year who uphold the spirit of Ron Ridenhour, who worked doggedly to expose the atrocities carried out by the American troops at the My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War.

The Ridenhour Documentary Film Prize was awarded to Gideon’s Army, a film produced and directed by Dawn Porter. The film exposes the challenges faced by public defenders, including low pay and staggering case loads, as they try to give their clients the representation they deserve in the criminal justice system. While addressing the crowd, Porter said that 80 percent of people arrested are represented by public defenders.

Journalist Sheri Fink was given the Ridenhour Book Prize for Five Days at Memorial, about the ethical challenges faced by doctors at a hospital in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Schwarz RIdenhour

Fredrick A.O. Schwarz Jr. accepts the Ridenhour Courage Prize

Frederick A.O. Schwarz, Jr., chief counsel of the Brennan Center, was given the Ridenhour Courage Prize for his lifetime commitment to truth-telling. Schwarz was the chief counsel of the Church Committee, which Congress formed in 1975 to investigate illegal intelligence activities done during the Nixon administration.

Last month, Schwarz wrote in the Nation that the country needs a new Church Committee to fix its broken intelligence system.

In accepting his award, he said there are many parallels to the Cold War intelligence activities and those of after 9/11.

“The basics are identical,” Schwarz said. “Fear is the underlying motive for government going too far and secrecy is the key device for the government accomplishing what it does.”

Images by Pam Rutter.

By: Avery Kleinman
Beth Daley Impact Fellow, POGO

Avery Kleinman Avery Kleinman is the Beth Daley Impact Fellow for the Project On Government Oversight.

Topics: National Security

Related Content: Ethics, Government Secrecy, Intelligence, Defense

Authors: Avery Kleinman

Submitted by Dfens at: May 5, 2014
Why didn't I get an award? I keep telling everyone how their defense dollars are being wasted. I even throw in how organizations like POGO contribute to the defense contractor's cause by pretending like the system works and by focusing attention on small time crooks who make money from the government illegally as a way to divert attention to the vast majority who make their money immorally, but legally. I guess the first thing you have to do to get an award is to tell someone what they want to hear. Maybe POGO could expose the fact that the LCS-1 costs more than an Iowa Class Battleship, or that the DDG-1000 cost more than two battleships? No, that would put too harsh a light on those defense contractor cash cows. It's so tough to be a good whistle blower when clearly the truth is not enough.
Submitted by WW II Vet USNR at: May 3, 2014
President General Eisenhower's final speech as Pres. warned about Congressional-Military-Industry-COMPLEX he dropped the Congressional in the speech. Has anyone studied this today and how it is being used by today's COMPLEX
Submitted by Heloise at: May 3, 2014
It is certainly true that our government has done worse things in its history than persecute whistleblowers, but the issue here is secrecy. Without being able to shine a light on government opertions, we cannot function as a democracy. That is why the press is protected in the Constitution -- and by much legal precedent. Snowden and other Ridenhour recipients revive the concept: you can't respond to what you don't know; it is your right as a citizen to know what your government is doing.
Submitted by EliHawk at: May 2, 2014
So Japanese Americans, Immigrants and Leftists of the 1910s and 20s, and African Americans weren't Americans to you? Thanks for the history lesson. As to the Civil War: You're right. The War Department tapping every interstate electronic communication with absolutely zero judicial oversight isn't PRISM: It's far, far, far worse.
Submitted by Joe Newman at: May 1, 2014
The sentence you quote says "arguably" the biggest overreach. That means it's worthy of debate, which , obviously, you agree with. The other thing to note is that it specifically says that the overreach is into "Americans' privacy." So, comparing it to Japanese Internment or the Palmer Raids is a stretch, at best. As is trying to make the argument that Jim Crow laws are a privacy issue. And you want to compare what happened during the Civil War with telegraphs and what's happening under PRISM? I don't think that's a debate you're going to win. But thanks for the history lesson.
Submitted by EliHawk at: April 30, 2014
"Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower who exposed, arguably, the biggest government overreach into Americans’ privacy in the nation’s history..." Did we all just agree to forget about J. Edgar Hoover, or the Palmer Raids, or Japanese Internment? Or, for that matter, if we consider it a privacy issue, the way that Southern state and local governments handled their African American citizens from pretty much the founding of the Republic until the 1960s? Or, for that matter, the suspension of habeas corpus and tapping of nearly every telegraph by the Lincoln Administration during the Civil War? Seriously, holding anonymous metadata or accessing computer data through a FISA court that requires the issuing of a warrant pales in comparison to much of the worst of American violations of civil liberties. Pretending otherwise is a rather blatant bit of historical illiteracy, but typical of the hyping of all these Snowden 'revelations.' But that would get in the way of your narrative, I guess. For the matter, the fact that Mr. Drake, once in the legal system, was able to plead down to a misdemeanor, serve no jail time, and the judge in his trial sharply rebuked the prosecutors for overreach pretty much refutes the idea that Mr. Snowden, if he were performing legitimate whistleblowing, could only do so safely from Moscow. Of course, that challenges the heroic narrative as well, so it's safely discarded here. It's nice to know that reporters, safely gathered to give an award for 'truth-telling' can't be bothered to actually check to make their reporting factually accurate.

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