James Risen On Edward Snowden: 'Only Reason We're Having These Debates Is Because Of A Series Of Whistleblowers'

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H/t Heather for this video.

As the case of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden moves forward in the press, the conventional wisdom of the media elites seems to be that Snowden is bizarre, a coward,a weasel, a traitor, and a Chinese spy, to name a few -- with little or no support for the service he provided to the American people. New information is coming out from Snowden, some of which you may disagree with, but that shouldn't define the story at hand or detract from its importance.

The stupidity surrounding some of the responses given to attack him has been beyond the pale. Jeffrey Toobin said that Snowden should have just gone to his bosses to complain about the program if he was unhappy. Riiiiight! They would have immediately promoted him and then held a press conference. Sticking up for Edward Snowden was New York Times national security journalist James Risen, who has broken some very big stories in the past and who knows the value of whistleblowers to our society.

DAVID GREGORY: And I should point out, your reporting going back into the last decade was instrumental in revealing a lot of these programs at the very start during the Bush years.

JAMES RISEN: There's some limited evidence of abuse. It's been anecdotal and there's never been a thorough investigation inside the government of that. One of the problems going back to the Bush administration was all of this was kept so secret, even after we began to report about it, that the inspectors general and the internal investigations were kept secret.

So there's never been a full public accounting of the level of abuse, the level of-- there's virtually no transparency at all about how much of this really has caught up American citizens. And I think that's really one of the issues here is you've got the creation of a modern surveillance infrastructure with no debate publicly except on a ad hoc basis whenever someone in the press reports about it.

JAMES RISEN:The only reason we've been having these public debates, the only reason these laws have been passed, and that we're now sitting here talking about this is because of a series of whistleblowers. That the government has never wanted any of this reported, never wanted any of it disclosed.

If it was up to the government over the last ten years, this surveillance infrastructure would have grown enormously with no public debate whatsoever. And so every time we talk about how someone is a traitor for disclosing something, we have to remember the only reason we're talking about it is because of it.

The importance of this statement by Risen seems to be lost on most of the pundits commenting in support of the NSA metadata program. Snowden did the U.S. an invaluable service by disclosing these programs. Much of the discussion by Ignatius was directed at Snowden's worthiness (or lack thereof) to be an actual whistleblower.

Ignatius: So this is part of our system of laws and legal procedures. And that's what makes me nervous when-- somebody like Edward Snowden just willy-nilly throws it all up in the air for people to see.

I'm asking the question here about who's celebrated, who's not. I mean, who's a journalist? What's, you know, real journalist activity versus what David referenced before, which is we are a country where we shouldn't be comfortable with the idea of a 29-year-old disaffected contractor who is personally offended by a program, takes it upon himself to leak government secrets and compromise what the government in three branches thinks is important.

I think all whistleblowers should go to Ignatious and he decides what should be leaked. Don't you agree? And then came this segment.

JAMES RISEN: And I think one of the reasons that's happened and has repeatedly happened throughout the War on Terror is that the system, the internal system for whistleblowing, for the watchdog and oversight system is broken. There is no good way for anyone inside the government do go through the chain of command and report about something like this. They all fear retaliation, they fear prosecution.

And so most whistleblowers, the really, the only way they now have is to go to the press or to go to someone, go outside like Snowden did. He chose people in the press to go to. He picked and chose who he wanted. But the problem is people inside the system who try to go through the chain of command get retaliated against, punished, and they--

ANDREA MITCHELL:I--

JAMES RISEN:--eventually learn not to do it anymore.

ANDREA MITCHELL: Jim, I think they can go to Congress, they can go to the Intelligence Committee. They can go to--(OVERTALK)

JAMES RISEN: If you go-- if you're not in the intelligence community, if you're a low-ranking person in the intelligence community and you go to the Congress, to the Senate, or the House, you'll-- you will be going outside the normal bounds of--

The very idea that the government is using these programs under strict supervision and guidance with no malfeasance has already been smashed by James Bamford's excellent story in Wired.

In my article I quote from a former NSA intercept operator, Adrienne Kinne, who was posted at the NSA’s giant listening post in Georgia and who eavesdropped on many communications between Americans overseas and in the U.S., including personal calls between journalists and their families. But while she was in Georgia, satellites deep in space did the actual interception:

“Basically all rules were thrown out the window and they would use any excuse to justify a waiver to spy on Americans,” she said. She added, “A lot of time you could tell they were calling their families, waking them up in the middle of the night because of the time difference. And so they would be talking all quiet and soft and their family member is like half asleep and incredibly intimate, personal conversations.” Kinne protested both within NSA and then in a letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee, but neither took any action.

Her allegations were confirmed by a second source I interviewed several years ago. David Murfee Faulk was also an intercept operator at NSA Georgia, but at a later date than Kinne, whom he never met. While there, a colleague told him about being instructed to begin warrantless targeting of Americans overseas calling the U.S. “The calls were all in English, they were all American, and the guy goes back to his supervisor, a warrant officer, and says, ‘Sir, these people are all Americans,’” according to Faulk. “He said, ‘No, just transcribe it, that’s an order, transcribe everything.’ . . . A lot of these people were having personal phone calls, calling their families back home, having all kinds of personal discussions, and everything just disappeared somewhere, someone’s got it.

Like Kinne, Faulk’s fellow intercept operator also complained. "After a few days he said he didn’t want to do it anymore, didn’t think it was right. And in a situation like that the officer just gets someone else to do it. So they got somebody else to do it. There is always somebody else who will do something like that. The whole agency down here, at least the way it operates in Georgia, there’s a lot of intimidation, everybody’s afraid of getting in trouble, and people just follow orders.” Like Kinne, Faulk also told his story privately to the Senate Intelligence Committee.

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