"NSA. National Supermarket Association."

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Edward Snowden and his team : He is not alone
Julia Prosinger, Tagesspiegel reporter.
Julia Prosinger, Tagesspiegel reporter.Photo: Mike Wolff

In the offices next to Wizner’s open door, young high-flyers with degrees from Harvard and Yale sit at their desks. They have posters on their office walls: “Dissent is patriotic” and “Being a Muslim and praying is not a crime”. A sign shows the way to the gender-neutral toilet on the 18th floor. Since 9/11, Wizner has been fighting against restrictions to civil rights and liberties which arrived with the attack and gave ACLU a lot of new cases. The door of a colleague has a framed plastic bag stuck to it which says: NSA. “National Supermarket Association”.

Even back then, without Snowden, Wizner and his colleagues tried to appeal against what they conceived to be NSA-breaches of constitution. But they did not stand a chance in court. They only had enough proof with Snowden’s revelations. For example his first revelation: that the phone provider Verizon transfers information about domestic and international phonecalls on a daily basis. The trial is ongoing. With Edward Snowden distrust returned to the people, says Wizner. “We wouldn’t have a debate now without Snowden.” He means the debate about how democratic processes can adapt to the rapid progress in technology.

Surveillance is becoming cheaper and easier, data storage increasingly favorable. Team Snowden is worried that people will act differently if they know that they are being surveilled and that the stored data will at some point turn against them. The government argues that they were able to prevent several attacks through the collection of mass data. Among them was the planned attack by the so-called Sauerland-Cell in Germany. “We are constructing a haystack for an increasingly smaller needle,” says Wizner. He wants targeted counter-terrorism where a judge has to issue a search warrant. Wizner and Snowden also stand for the new coalition which has grown over the past years. Old leftists collaborate with hackers now, progressive computer experts suddenly agree with the backward Tea Party movement in the US. Snowden’s popularity is transfered to the ACLU – and the ACLU protects him in return. A new world for Snowden, a new world for Wizner.

Every Friday, when the interns have left the building and the most important cases have been fought out in court, Ben Wizner ascends to the nineteenth floor. There, there is a robot, a screen on stilts, with electrical rollers for legs. Wizner has postitioned the rectangle monitor “head” to face the water, in the far distance it sees with its webcam “eye” the statue of liberty. Directly in front of it is Governors Island. Snowden’s grandfather was once stationed there as admiral.

If Snowden has the time, he logs on to this New York robot from his hideout in Moscow. He can move the device backwards and forwards with his keyboard. When it happened for first time, hundreds of ACLU staff got together and waved at him. Sometimes when Wizner has to answer the phone quickly to get rid of another journalist, Snowden moves around the offices of his new friends as a robot and discusses constitutional law with them. “It would be great if we had more of these robots,” says Wizner. So that Snowden, for example, could appear at the University of Glasgow, which has made him rector. In March 2014, he talked from such a robot on stage at the Ted-Talks, an internet format which has millions of viewers. After he has answered the usual questions about himself and his future, he campaigns for winning back the internet; he campaigns for encryption and for a debate about targeted as opposed to limitless, indiscriminate surveillance.

Has Snowden always been like this? Is he interested in more than his own salvation? People who have met Wizner realise that this man must have influenced Snowden too. He must have turned him into an activist at last. It was Snowden, however, who wanted it to not be all about himself, it was Snowden who retreated so that his documents could speak, explains Wizner.

The phone rings, it is 83-year-old Daniel Ellsberg, Snowden’s predecessor, if you will. The Vietnam veteran passed on thousands of documents to journalists in 1971. Ellsberg is angry because the Secretary of State, John Kerry, called Snowden a coward on television, who should come home and, like Ellsberg back then, surrender to the Espionage Act. That case was completely different, rants Ellsberg. Back then, he published truths about a lost war, but Snowden is publishing about an ongoing war.

Wizner ist highly concerned about the Espionage Act. “I don’t belive that there is a president who wouldn’t have brought Manning or Snowden before court.” But a better system would have accommodated these two exceptional cases. For decades, lawyers have been fighting against this law which was created for and during World War I. Wizner explains that Snowden would face solitary confinement upon his return, without any chance of bail, for the rest of his life. He could even be punished for each single document. Wizner demands a reform which allows for the public interest for defence purposes. “If something is illegal right from the beginning then it surely can’t be criminal to reveal it.”

Wizner interrupts the conversation again and looks at the screen. Snowden has just asked him to set up a Skype account so that he can be seen and heard at a talk in a few days time. On the internet, as always. Snowden is two-dimensional, an icon, far away. For security reasons, he sometimes uses Skype, then Google Hangouts, always with different accounts. “God, this is boring,” swears Wizner while he clicks through the settings. Then, finally, Snowden’s voice speaks in the room: “Ben, can you hear me ok? What’s the quality like of my video?”

Wizner tells Snowden that a German journalist is sitting in the room. They both think that we should get to know each other. I walk up to the screen, in front of me sits Edward Snowden, a yellow faded T-shirt, a black wall, nothing else in the picture.

“I’m Ed,” he says.

Ed asks me to tell him something about German politics. Are the CDU and the SPD blocking each other on the investigation into the Chancellor’s mobile phone? He wants to know much more but he doesn’t want me to write about it.

Nor does he say that Germany would be his favourite country for asylum. But everyone suspects it is. His friends from his team live here, his German lawyer Kaleck, the journalist Poitras, the Wikileaks woman Sarah Harrison, the internet activist Jacob Appelbaum.

Suddenly, during the attempt to explain German, I faint. I wake up, my head lies bedded on a bean bag, my body is in the recovery position. A calm voice is coming from the screen. “The first fits are always the worst,” Snowden says. I am lucky: Snowden is not only a patriot or traitor, he is also an epileptic. He instantly recognised what was happening to me. He tells me that he was only diagnosed when he was 28 years old. When he fled the US a little more than a year ago, he told his employer that he had to go away for a few weeks for treatment for his epilepsy. Then Snowden apologises for making me look at the flickering screen, it had triggered the fit, he says.

Ben Wizner brings a glass of juice. He is moved. He has been travelling for a year, because Snowden is stuck in Russia. He speaks where Snowden doesn’t have a voice. For a year now he has literally been Snowden’s right-hand man.

He just followed Snowden’s advice via Skype and stopped me from falling against the metal filing cabinets in his office. “That’s Ed how I know him. The empathy, the clear voice, the care,” says Wizner.
For a moment, Edward Snowden became three-dimensional.

Translated by Claudia Eberlein. You can find the German version here.