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.
“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.
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.”