Ronan Farrow Daily   |  March 10, 2014

Snowden speaks out at SXSW

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden is stirring up controversy with a live video appearance at the South by Southwest interactive festival. NBC’s Sarah Dallof brings the latest from Austin, Texas. Then, former NSA employee William Binney and terrorism expert Michael Leiter discuss the treatment of Snowden as a whistleblower.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> thanks for coming back, moments ago nsa whistleblower edward snowden wrapped up of his first live video appearance in austin, texas. moments ago he said this. take a listen.

>> the nsa, this sort of global mass surveillance that's occurring in all of these countries, not just the u.s., and important to remember this is a global issue. they are setting fire to the future of the internet and the people who are in this room now, you guys are all the firefighters. and we need you to help us fix this.

>> nbc's sara dollof has more from washington. what was the main message?

>> reporter: good afternoon, the main message that edward snowden had to the audience, encryption is key and accountability is very necessary in this point. when he first hopped on the screen it was to a very receptive audience who applauded and cheered for him, several thousand people watching in person and countless others streaming online now. snowden appeared before a background of the u.s. constitution and spoke about the need for accountability for government agencies doing this mass surveillance . he also discussed the need for people to take their own steps, some internet browser plugins to protect themselves and stand up to government agencies and against this surveillance to send a message to other countries who may feel the nsa or other agencies continue, it will be a green light for other countries to start their own programs or to up their scrutiny of people's private lives .

>> sara dallof, thank you so much for that briefing. president obama has said that snowden had other avenues he could have actually pursued before he went to the option of leaking. he pointed to executive order 19, which he signed in 2012 which protects intelligence whist whistleblowers, that executive order does not cover government contractors which is what snowden was at the time of the leaks. snowden recently responded that he tried to report through legitimate channels ten separate times. and that the leak was a result of his not being afforded legitimate channels due to his status as a contractor. pulling back, 1.1 million u.s. government contractors have some kind of security clearance and access to see kret. are they all fertile ground for these leaks? i'm joined by william binny, long before edward snowden rocked headlines, and michael lighter, former director of the national intelligence center and can give a different take on this. william , you approve of what edward snowden did, correct by going to the media. but you think he went too far. why is that?

>> i don't necessarily condone any kind of implication on our successes on any of the intelligence programs that we had. the fact that we are doing these kinds of intelligence programs is no secret. every government in the world knows we do this and do it better than others because we got better and more resources to do that. otherwise, if he stays away from specific things that we are succeeding at, that's getting very sensitive then.

>> in your own experience, what needs to change about the channels afforded to people trying to do that?

>> you actually have to have something that really works. nothing works. the intelligence committees, none of the courts work. they claim national security and you don't have standing and things like that because any of the material that you're talking about is all kept secret and away from the courts and also from congress.

>> all right, thank you very much. let's turn to you for a second. michael , snowden started out as an employee but eventually became a contractor.

>> right.

>> how important is that to this issue?

>> i tend not to think that it is that important frankly and i do want too make clear, i don't speak for nsa, i'm not working for them now.

>> point take

>> the fact he was previously hired as an employee suggests as it should that employees and contractors go through the same security clearance process, but the real question then is was something different about status as a contractor and he doesn't have the same whistle blower protections as an employee. but i don't think he's a standard whistle blower. when he talks to the government, they say we are following the rules and talking to the fisa court --

>> he ran up against a wall.

>> he did and i think at that point, what is a supervisor do when they say the judges are involved and congress is involved? he's not the sort of whistle blower we normally think about, a rule is being broken here.

>> i'm going to push back on the idea that his being a contractor isn't that relevant. he is saying he leaked because of protections the president said are at the center of preventing leaks. and i can tell you in my own experience, staffing and office at the state department , for instance, you know as well as i, it's contractor after contractor after contractor. we gave that number earlier, 1.1 million have security clearance . they do go through the same vetting process but then don't have the same channels to blow wistles. my question to you, do you think there are too many contractors and why do you think that is sns.

>> i do think there's become an overreliance on contractors and it's for two reasons. the surge since 9/11. there's lots of money put in and you can't hire quick enough. this is a congressional issue. congress has talked about keeping the government small and the way you do that is to keep the federal employee head count low and the executive branch hires contractors. i think there's an overreliance on contractors but there's certain things that contractors do better than government employees, short term searches and information technology , these are areas we want our government to rely on in the private sector more than having federal employees.

>> there are specialized reasons to bring people in if they have a certain skill set but this is a great point made to infrequently, there are political pressures where there's almost a cheat going on. we say we want small government and the way to do it is reduce federal head count but we're ballooning the head count like people like edward snowden . i'll get the last question to you mr. binney, what would you most like to see change for the next whistle blower who goes through a process like this?

>> i would like to see a real program run by the administration that would actually do something about what whistleblowers are talking about. after all they are trying to address problems that exist inside the government, either corruption, fraud, waste abuse or ill legality. if they don't do something, there's no real protection there whatsoever for any of us. after all, the fisa court oversight of nsa is a joke as is the senate and house intelligence committees. those people have no way of verifying what nsa is telling them.

>> there have been reveal questions raised by the transparency of those courts and we'll watch closely to see whether that's a subject of reform. some on the hill are pushing for that. these are both very interesting takes on this issue. michael lighter and william binney, appreciate you're joining.