Snowden was right all along. Or at least that’s what President Obama seemed to suggest on Tuesday during his public endorsement of the Justice Department’s plan to overhaul the National Security Agency’s phone records program. President Obama asked Congress to “quickly” pass legislation to reform the controversial surveillance program—a program that would still be secret today if not for Edward Snowden.
How did Snowden and his team respond to the government’s all-but-confession to the illegality of the surveillance program? Ben Wizner, legal advisor to Snowden, stopped by Harvard Law School to answer that question and many more:


What’s it like being legal advisor to Snowden?*

  • “It is an odd job. I spend a lot of time as a gatekeeper…we get a dozen media requests a day.”

When did you first meet Snowden? What was he like?

  • “I first learned his name the same day you did…when that remarkably articulate video appeared.”
  • The first question he asked was, “Do you have standing now?” That really showed us that “what he was interested in doing was not undermining our systems but revitalizing them.”

Is confidential communication with Snowden difficult?

  • “[Snowden] is awfully good at security…He certainly knows the NSA’s bag of tricks, and because he knows that, he knows we can’t be sure that our communications are secure.”
  • “I do think it is probably unlikely that they are doing so [intercepting attorney-client communications].”

Is Snowden “stuck” in Russia?

  • “We don’t think that it’s safe now for him to travel… to countries where he has been offered asylum…I don’t think it serves anybody’s interests for Snowden to be where he is right now.”

Let’s talk about the case.

  • “The only thing that’s relevant is that he was in a position of confidentiality with the government, and he broke their rules.”
  •  “It [the Espionage Act] probably ought not apply in cases like this.”

What is Snowden trying to do?

  • “The problem that Snowden wants to talk about is the problem of mass surveillance…”
  • “This is someone who obviously put principles and ideals ahead of his own situation.”

What would you say to critics who believe Snowden should have gone through “the system” rather than leaking government information? 

  • “What system? …[Snowden] had watched as his superiors gave false information to Congress…about these programs.”
  • “The American people were being deceived about what the state was doing.”

Will Snowden issue a response to President Obama’s announcement?


More about Ben Wizner: Ben is the Director of the ACLU’s Project on Speech, Privacy and Technology. In addition to his work with Snowden, he has litigated numerous cases involving post-9/11 civil liberties abuses. He has appeared regularly in the media, testified before Congress, and traveled several times to Guantánamo Bay to monitor military commission proceedings.
The conversation with Ben Wizner was hosted by Harvard Law’s American Constitution Society.
* The questions have been reformatted for the sake of brevity and clarity.
[photo from Laura Poitras/Praxis Films]