Edward Snowden’s Father Speaks

Lon Snowden on his son, on the courage of John and Bonnie Raines, and the price activists pay for exposing national secrets.

In the course of reporting on John and Bonnie Raines for our January issue, writer-at-large Steve Volk spoke with a source who had a uniquely personal take on the plight of whistle-blowers — Edward Snowden’s father, retired U.S. Coast Guard chief warrant officer Lon Snowden. Lon appreciated how John and Bonnie’s story parallels his son’s, and agreed to share his perspective with Philadelphia magazine. With his permission, published for the first time here is Lon Snowden’s essay — a father speaking in his own words about the controversial and historic actions of his son; fellow activists separated by decades but united in their belief in a better government; and the price paid for exposing national secrets to the public.

I first learned of the Media, Pennsylvania, break-in when the story gained renewed national attention in early January 2014. Bonnie and John Raines and Keith Forsyth came forward to reveal how they and five associates had shattered FBI secrecy in late winter 1971 to obtain proof of government crimes. The story immediately captured my attention because it occurred less than an hour from my home and shared similarities with more recent disclosures by Ed Snowden — my son. Within days of the initial news reports, my wife realized that she shared a mutual friend with the Raineses, which led to phone conversations with John and Bonnie. My wife and I had the pleasure of first meeting Bonnie, John, Keith and others in May 2014 at the Philadelphia premiere of Johanna Hamilton’s film 1971. I admire these kind and wonderfully authentic people and always feel fortunate when we reconnect at events and conferences in different cities. The film documents their story — a story about eight ordinary citizens who came together to accomplish something extraordinary.

The passage of time has proven the Media Eight to be great Americans — courageous humanists who placed civic duty above self-interest and personal safety, to take necessary action to warn their fellow citizens of the FBI’s disregard for both the law and the constitutional rights of many innocent Americans. The Media Eight exposed high crimes and abuses that senior government officials intended to cloak in secrecy — crimes and abuses now documented as indisputable historical fact thanks to the skill and courage of the Media Eight.

It’s difficult to fully comprehend the degree of personal sacrifice made by the eight Media activists to inform us, their fellow citizens, of the government’s abusive overreach. The ongoing threat of harsh government reprisal at any moment was a burden they had to live with for years, if not decades. Yet that burden was superior to the alternative of submitting themselves to a U.S. Department of Justice that was, and remains, highly biased against citizens who expose government abuses that embarrass or implicate favored political elites. The passage of time has proven that it would have been a terrible decision for the Media Eight to surrender to a politically motivated justice system in 1971. Exposing themselves to that type of “due process” would have allowed the government to ruthlessly smear them, distract the public with propaganda, and sequester the truth-tellers to prison while providing a legion of parasitic media shills with talking points to distort or bury the truth. The same strategy is used to silence truth-tellers today, though the tactics are now far more sophisticated and insidious.

I empathize with the youngest of the Media Eight, Judi Feingold, who spent at least the first decade of her adult life exiled within her own country to avoid capture. My son also copied government files and gave them to journalists. Those journalists used the documents to expose government disregard for the constitutional rights of millions of Americans, as well as violations of both domestic and international law. My son now lives in exile, but considering the government’s reprehensible treatment of other truth-tellers, detainees and prisoners over the past decade, I’m genuinely thankful that he is on foreign soil. I do not believe that my son can find justice or safety on American soil for years, but the story of the Media Eight gives me hope that he will find peace and thrive while in exile — and I have absolute confidence that over time, the truth will also prevail in his case. As was the case with J. Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon, those who proclaim a need to govern in secrecy to protect “We the People” are too often frauds desperate to conceal the truth to protect their political ambition and personal interests. That was true in 1971, and it remains true today.

Betty Medsger’s book The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI and Hamilton’s film detail a crucial act of modern American civic leadership, a historic event that revealed important truths that every citizen should understand. The Media story of 1971 is a timeless lesson that is relevant to the challenges that “We the People” face today regarding secretive government malfeasance, including but not limited to legalized injustice, civil and human rights violations, extraordinary rendition, torture, the militarization of domestic law enforcement, and mass surveillance.

Parallels exist between the Media Eight, my son’s ongoing story, and the experiences of fellow truth-tellers such as Daniel Ellsberg, William Binney, J. Kirk Wiebe, Jesselyn Radack, Diane Roark, Thomas Drake and many others. All questioned the judgment or veracity of senior government officials, and though each of these citizens spoke the truth, all paid a high price. The truth-tellers faced persecution, isolation and/or character attacks to varying degrees — especially if their identity was known. The government conditions the media to use a deceptive lexicon to describe such citizens as whistle-blowers, criminals, leakers, traitors or rogues. They use such labels because describing them as what they are — truth-tellers — has paradoxical implications for a Justice Department attempting to persecute and prosecute them for daring to “speak truth to power.” “Truth-teller” is a context the government feared in 1971 and continues to fear today — especially when the truth-telling has been criminalized. In principled societies, integrity is valued, and liars are reviled.

Even today, more than 40 years after the Media action exposed despicable U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agency behavior, some government apologists whine that it was an injustice that the Media Eight were not prosecuted. I’ll posit that the only injustices were that J. Edgar Hoover did not live long enough to be prosecuted, that Richard Nixon was pardoned, and that others who betrayed their constitutional oaths were never held accountable. In 2014, it’s similarly unjust and disgraceful that James Clapper, the director of U.S. National Intelligence, continues to collect both a six-figure military pension and a six-figure government salary at the expense of the American taxpayer, despite lying under oath to those same American taxpayers via Congress. Conversely, the Media Eight disclosed truths that exposed government wrongdoing, but any U.S. Attorney would have leapt at the opportunity to represent the government in prosecuting them to the fullest extent of the “rule of law” in the 1970s. Fortunately, the statute of limitations has expired, and judicious citizens knowledgeable of the facts available today would likely agree, in hindsight, that it would have been a travesty of justice had they been prosecuted.

Also of significance are the lessons learned from these truth-tellers. The most successful truth-tellers have sought out members of a free press — especially when the truths in question promised to threaten senior politicians or political appointees. Many who sought out inspectors general, directors, members of Congress or politically aligned corporate media shills did not fare well — at least, not in terms of getting the truth to the public. Pentagon Papers truth-teller Daniel Ellsberg tried to work within the proverbial “system” by sharing his concerns with members of Congress, with no success. My son raised his concerns within the NSA, with no success. Dan and my son eventually turned to the press, and their identities were revealed. But the Media Eight passed their information, anonymously, to journalists — an approach that one could argue continues to offer the best balance between safety and effectiveness for modern-day truth-tellers, especially government insiders.

The Media Eight were unique in that they were normal citizens, not government or corporate insiders. As outsiders, they faced greater challenge and risk gaining access to the corrupt organization, but once they escaped undetected with the documentation needed to expose government abuses, it was far more difficult for the FBI to identify them in comparison to the task of investigating an internal breach. As was the case with Dan Ellsberg and my son, the majority of those who make disclosures to expose government fraud, waste, abuse or illegality have worked inside the corrupt organization. Organizational insiders have superior ability to expose government and corporate abuses, but they are highly incentivized to remain silent. Those few insiders who choose to expose abuses must exercise extreme diligence to remain anonymous. Both in 1971 and today, truth-tellers who have sought to remain anonymous have been most successful when they worked with responsible, trustworthy, technically competent and fearless investigative journalists who partnered with reputable and capable publishers and, in many cases, collaborated with human and civil rights organizations and attorneys.

My son collaborated with carefully selected journalists who possessed the integrity and ability to protect his identity, but all concerned — including my son — agreed that it was critical to expedite the reporting on the disclosures. The actual discussions that took place in a Hong Kong hotel room regarding my son’s decision to reveal his identity have been captured in Laura Poitras’s award-winning documentary film Citizenfour. Beyond information that is a matter of public record, I have no unique insight regarding the decisions made by my son or the collaborating journalists and publishers. But considering the ever-increasing evidence of insidious constitutional and human rights abuses committed during the Bush and Obama administrations, I’m now convinced they made the correct decision. The underlying logic of my son’s decision not to remain anonymous is best explained in his own words as shared during a video interview on the Guardian website on June 9th, 2013:

“You recognize that some of these things are actually abuses and when you talk to people about them in a place like this [the intelligence community] where this is the normal state of business, people tend not to take them very seriously and move on from them. But over time that awareness of wrongdoing sort of builds up and you feel compelled to talk about it, and the more you talk about it, the more you’re ignored, the more you’re told it’s not a problem, until eventually you realize that these things need to be determined by the public — not by somebody who was simply hired by the government. …

“I’m just another guy who sits there day to day in the office, watches what’s happening, and goes, ‘This is something that’s not our place to decide.’ The public needs to decide whether these policies are right or wrong and I’m willing to go on the record to defend the authenticity of them [the copied files he released] and say I didn’t change these, I didn’t modify the story, this is the truth. …

“You can’t come forward against the world’s most powerful intelligence agencies and be completely free from risk, because they’re such powerful adversaries that no one can meaningfully oppose them. If they want to get you, they’ll get you in time. But at the same time, you have to make a determination about what it is that’s important to you — and if living unfreely but comfortably is something that you’re willing to accept, and I think many of us are, it’s the human nature, you can get up every day, you can go to work, you can collect your large [government contractor] paycheck for relatively little work, against the public interest, and go to sleep at night after watching your shows. But if you realize that that’s the world that you helped create and it’s going to get worse with the next generation and the next generation who extend the capabilities of this sort of architecture of oppression, you realize that you might be willing to accept any risk, and it doesn’t matter what the outcome is so long as the public gets to make their decision about how that’s applied.”

Though truth-tellers following the government’s mandated “whistle-blower” approach may avoid the threat of prison, past examples demonstrate that they still pay a high price personally and professionally. Truth-tellers are routinely marginalized and characterized as ill-informed, unreliable, disgruntled, narcissistic, unbalanced or the like — and the fraud, waste, abuse, or criminality they seek to expose tends to remain suppressed. In the case of the Media Eight, history has confirmed that they were wise to remain anonymous.

Recent presidential administrations have failed to conceal their abuses of power behind a veil of secrecy, and as was the case in the 1970s, they quickly shifted to the default position of claiming the abuses and poor stewardship were critical to national security — while simultaneously using executive privilege and judicial maneuvering to hide salient truths from the voting public. Similarly hollow arguments were attempted in the 1970s, but in time the truth prevailed. A criminal president resigned in 1974, and his attorney general, who had cloaked himself in “law and order” rhetoric during Nixon’s campaign, was sentenced to prison in 1977. Similar political rhetoric is espoused today, but in updated form as the “rule of law.”

A rhetorical question begs to be asked: Would today’s Justice Department that shielded corporate elites from criminal prosecution after the 2008-’09 economic collapse, the same Justice Department that suppressed truths under the guise of “standing” and “state secrets” to protect fellow government elites from “facing the music” for programs of torture, extraordinary rendition, mass surveillance, and other abuses of power — would that Justice Department, which oversees the FBI, apply the “rule of law” in the same light-handed manner for a modern-day Media Eight? Would common citizens, who chose to submit themselves to the American justice system after exposing indisputable truths about government abuses, enjoy the same favored treatment routinely afforded to the entrenched elites responsible for the abuses?

The Media Eight did the right thing — a necessary action — the only way they could, and they did it at the right time. The American public had the right and the need to know that their FBI, CIA and NSA had been spying on innocent citizens. Those ugly truths were never going to be revealed by the political stakeholders who supported the corrupt programs. The same pattern continues in 2014 as comprehensive evidence of the CIA’s extraordinary rendition and torture programs continues to be concealed from the public by the executive branch and Congress. The release of a heavily redacted and superficial summary of the CIA’s heinous torture program is the most recent example of the government using secrecy to shield corrupt members of the political class from accountability. The decision to conceal specifics of the torture program serves only to protect government officials from threatening truths — truths that would expose them to responsibility for the commission of war crimes as defined by both the United States Code and the Geneva Conventions.

Hoover and Nixon would have surely leapt at the opportunity to conceal their abuses of power under the cover of a heavily redacted executive summary, but that didn’t happen thanks to the actions of brave citizens like Daniel Ellsberg and the Media Eight and bold journalists like Betty Medsger. They delivered the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth to the public. As a result, the American citizenry is better informed and knows it is dangerous to assume that our representatives are beyond reproach — including those at the highest levels of government. We owe that awareness to lessons learned in the 1970s, and those lessons have been underscored again and again since 2001 thanks to courageous journalists like the Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, James Risen of the New York Times, the Guardian’s Ewan MacAskill and others. The government tried to spin the Media break-in as a threat to the public, when in fact the FBI did not fear a foreign power in 1971 — it feared an informed citizenry.

The Media Eight shattered the contrived myth of J. Edgar Hoover. Abuses of power that Americans could at best have only suspected, abuses that would likely have been discounted as conspiracy theories and ignored by “objective historians,” are today indisputable facts thanks to the Media Eight and their contemporaries. Brave citizens of their era exposed Nixon, John Mitchell, Hoover and others as a disgrace to our Constitution and notion of justice — and proved with absolute certainty that even a president, his attorney general and an FBI director can — and in fact did — resort to unconstitutional and criminal behavior when allowed to govern in secret. It’s a lesson that “We the People” would be wise never to forget.