The Current

What makes the Trump-Ukraine whistleblower complaint strategic, according to Edward Snowden

Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden says a whistleblower's complaint, which triggered Donald Trump's impeachment inquiry, is strategically "quite wise."

Efforts to discredit whistleblower — if ID'd — should be ignored, Snowden says

Former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden has been living in exile in Russia since 2013 to avoid arrest. (Lindsay Mills)
Listen20:14

Read Story Transcript

Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden says a whistleblower's complaint, which triggered U.S. President Donald Trump's impeachment inquiry, is strategically "quite wise" in its focus on the president versus an institution. 

Snowden, himself a whistleblower, who has been living in Russia since 2013 to avoid arrest, told The Current's interim host Laura Lynch that Congress could be "more than happy to throw an individual abusing their office under the bus, in a way that they are not willing to do when they themselves are implicated by the same allegations." 

"This whistleblower is doing something [that's] a little bit unusual," Snowden said in his only Canadian interview about his new book Permanent Record. "They're alleging that an individual is breaking the law who, of course, is the president, [who] is historically unpopular at this moment."

Last week, U.S. media reported a complaint from an unnamed whistleblower that alleged Trump called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in July, and tried to recruit him in an effort to undermine his own political rival Joe Biden. Days before, Trump withheld $391 million in military aid to the country.

partial summary of the call released Wednesday showed Trump asked Zelensky to investigate whether Biden — while he was vice-president — shut down an investigation into a company that employed his son.

On Tuesday, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry into the president because of the allegations. The full document of the whistleblower's complaint was made public early Thursday.

Impeachment is the political process of removing from office certain elected or public officials accused of wrongdoing. The process is more difficult than you might think. 2:01

Pelosi has resisted calls for impeachment for months, but Snowden thinks she may have acted because it's such a "simple, clear" case, and "very easy to fact check."

"If we can show someone accusing the president of wrongdoing, that wrongdoing being investigated and potentially borne out, that's a tremendous advance," he said.

"That's a precedent we very much need in the United States."

On Wednesday, Trump said there was "no pressure whatsoever," and called the impeachment inquiry "Witch Hunt garbage."

But Snowden said efforts to discredit the whistleblower — if their identity is made public — should be ignored. The public must "set aside our feelings and assess the actual concrete facts," he said.

He added he feels "a sense of optimism" about better protections for whistleblowers. 

"There's very much at stake for the president, but there's far less at stake for the system, and so I think we actually will see this whistleblower protected," he said.

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky during a meeting at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, Wednesday. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

'They're going to retaliate'

In 2013, Snowden, then an NSA contractor, revealed the U.S. government was conducting mass surveillance of the public's emails, phone calls and internet activity in the name of national security. He was charged under the U.S. Espionage Act.

A year prior the revelation, President Barack Obama signed whistleblowing legislation into law, but Snowden argues those laws "only protect people in certain positions, doing things certain ways." 

"We've got 50 years of history that says if you reveal the government is doing something wrong, the government is not going to thank you for it. They're going to retaliate for it," he said.

Snowden's new book, Permanent Record, gives an account of how and why he chose to blow the whistle on U.S. mass surveillance. (Raincoast Books)

Washington is suing Snowden over the publication of his new book, arguing he broke a non-disclosure agreement signed during his employment, and is seeking to "recover all proceeds." 

His critics say he jeopardized national security in the U.S., a claim he refutes.

In a 2016 report, the U.S. House intelligence committee cited more than 20 examples of this damage, but Snowden argues all 20 points were redacted, so no detail is known.

"No one has to this day ever shown a single bit of evidence that there has been any harm either to national security broadly or to especially any individual particularly," he told Lynch.

"Destroying my reputation was the most important thing these people could do," he said.

"If they could pick up a phone at any moment and go: 'Look, he got this person killed. Look, we lost this access to this terrorist cell,' and leak that to a friendly newspaper … it would have happened by the end of the day. 

"But six years later, it still hasn't." 


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Howard Goldenthal.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.