Edward Snowden and his team : He is not alone

In New York, a team of activists and lawyers is working for Edward Snowden. And on the 19th floor of their office he is always there in the form of a robot with a camera “eye” which Snowden controls remotely from Moscow. Our reporter Julia Prosinger visited for a week – and the whistleblower helped her in an extraordinary situation.

Edward Snowden, Whistleblower.
Edward Snowden, Whistleblower.Photo: dpa

Loyal fans never miss an important match. And the one on this particular Wednesday evening couldn’t be more important: Team Snowden versus the US.

Edward Snowden is giving his first interview on US television. The people who have been supporting him for a year now have come together today in Brooklyn, with Sake and Turkish sweets, to cheer him on.

Laura Poitras, the US journalist who filmed Snowden’s first video, is sitting in a red armchair. Ten supporters – lawyers, writers and internet activists – have gathered around the TV at Ben Wizner’s home, Snowden’s lawyer.

This evening, there’s a lot at stake. Traitor or Patriot? This is still the question now, one year after Snowden went public, and at the end of July his asylum runs out in Russia.

10pm, kick off. Snowden takes the pitch. His suit is ill fitting and his friends in the Brooklyn living room make “shhh” noises. Snowden now calls himself a patriot who would die for his country, he seems as if he is serious about it. Wizner is relieved. Nerd, babyface, naive, that’s what people called him. President Obama was derogatroy when he said: “I'm not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker.” The US government turned Snowden into a low-grade clerk. That is why he is now telling his fellow countrymen that he was a proper agent, a security analyst, before he stole an estimated 1.7 million data files and passed them on to different journalists. Wizner furrows his brow.

Snowden’s revelations have triggered the biggest surveillance scandal in history. He faces a lifelong sentence for espionage and treason. Over the past 12 months, the world learned – sometimes from the Guardian, sometimes from the Washington Post, sometimes through the New York Times – about “Tempora” and “Prism”, about gaining data from deep sea cables, and how the NSA and FBI have been sucking up information from massive internet companies,.

Google and Facebook have, as a result of this, changed their policies. Obama has announced reforms and US courts are looking into whether the constitution allows such large-scale surveillance. The Pulitzer Prize was awarded to investigative journalists this year. People can order Snowden sweaters and small plastic toy figures on the internet, stickers with his portrait are plastered on Berlin lampposts. The Green party politician Hans-Christian Ströbele has found himself a new role in campaigning for the young whistleblower. The New York Times is calling for an amnesty, the editor of Stern asylum in Germany. Snowden hasn’t only become an enemy of the state, he has also become an icon.

In the Brooklyn living room, his friends shudder at the delicate questions. Many critics have judged Snowden as Putin’s man since he received him in Russia following his failed escape from Hongkong. How can a so-called hero of freedom seek refuge in a country where there is no freedom of the press? Snowden now emphasises that he doesn’t get any money from Russia and now attacks the Russian president himself.

In Wizner’s living room Snowden’s friends are pleased. That was a score. Then they laugh. Edward Snowden, those shoes! Black, chunky, and buckled. Did he buy them in Russia? asks the German reporter. Later, Snowden sends an email: No, you experts, I bought them in Switzerland, when I was working for the CIA there. He simply doesn’t have any taste when it comes to clothes.

Ben Wizner, Edward Snowden's lawyer.
Ben Wizner, Edward Snowden's lawyer.Photo: Getty

The next morning, newspapers reported on model Gisele Bündchen or Brad Pitt. Snowden’s interview, enthusiastically celebrated by his team, only had six million viewers. Has the US lost interest?

A visit to the New York office of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), one of the oldest and largest human rights organisations in the world and an institution in the US. Ben Wizner, 42, sits in a small room with the door always open, the man with the probably most coveted mandate in the world. Before this, he defended Guantanamo inmates and whistleblower Chelsea Manning. His work is financed by donations.
Wizner only wears a suit on TV or in court. His corduroy trousers hang rather low, his shirt is untucked. There are no stacks of papers covering his dark desk as is common with most lawyers. Instead, there are three charming pot plants and two plastic skulls that dance at the push of a button. Wizner bought them once for a bit of Halloween fun.

Mr Wizner, what do you think is going to happen to your client?

Wizner isn’t a zealot, an ideologist or a dreamer – eventhough you could misinterpret his quiet, singing voice for one. The arguments he uses to attack his opponents are often rhethorical questions. That is why he answers like this: “You should better pose this question to the US government. What solution does it want? Would it rather Snowden remained in Russia? Is this the best solution for our ‘national security’? Or could it find a way to bring Snowden back home, without excessive punishment, so that he can contribute to the necessary reforms?”

Is he negotiating with the US government about this? Wizner doesn’t answer this question,but says that amnesty isn’t a dirty word and that he wishes that they could at least build a bridge for Snowden into a third country.
“The US has a problem,” he says. “If they are prosecuting him here, the public would fight back worldwide.”And, he adds: “That would be as if you’d prosecute Mandela. Well, almost,” he laughs. In any case, Snowden should be able to return with dignity. But why would any country put up with a traitor? Maybe because the people want that, says Wizner. Surveys in Germany show that the large majority would receive Snowden there. Americans are still undecided.

Have Snowden’s revelations damaged individualss as his opponents claim? “So far,” says Wizner, pacey and quiet as always, with his glance now scurrying over a screen directly in front of him, “no one has shown such direct damage.” It isn’t so easy to talk to Wizner these days. In front of him is the device that keeps him in contact with Snowden. He better not explain exactly how it works, he says. The chat is encrypted. When a message arrives from Snowden, Wizner interrupts his conversation, his hands fly over the keyboard, he presses send, waits, and then often laughs. Edward Snowden is funny.

Snowden has adapted his hours to Wizner’s working day. They chat in the deep Moscow night. “I’m his gatekeeper,” he says. Wizner coordinates which of his many lawyers – for example, Plato Cacheris the criminal lawyer in Washington, or his Berlin colleague Wolfgang Kaleck – visit him when, and which journalists or politicians can meet him. He interrupts his answer again. Kaleck, with whom Wizner worked on the CIA-kidnapped Khaled El Masri case, urgently needs a few statements from Snowden. Wizner sends the emails via encrypted chat. Snowden and Kaleck discuss their strategy for Germany – it is about a possible testimony at the German parliamentary investigation committee. It is still not clear whether it will travel to him in Moscow or whether Snowden is allowed to come to Germany. Wizner doesn’t comment on the European policy, he leaves this up to Kaleck. They have divided up their tasks among themselves like a group of medical consultants.

Wizner made contact with Snowden through Laura Poitras. Snowden had already anonymously contacted the journalist half a year before his famous video from his Hongkong hotel room was made public. Poitras asked her old friend for his opinion. Wizner joined team Snowden and became his closest confidant.

Hundreds of chat hours took place prior to their first meeting in Moscow. “Ed has grown up with the internet, he feels very comfortable with it,” says Wizner who had to learn how to chat first. When they finally met in January 2014, they interacted with the familiarity of old friends.

Although they come from very different backgrounds: Edward Snowden was born in 1983 in North Carolina. His father works for the coast guard, his mother is an employee at the district court. As a child, Snowden liked Japanese computer games, he later quit school, dropped out of the IT course at college, and wasn’t interested in university. He posted arrogant comments in online forums, enlisted voluntarily to join the army to fight in Iraq and free the world from a dictator. He broke both legs in training, became a security guard for the NSA and later a security analyst because of his computer expertise – and, then, later still a whistleblower. A winding road.

By contrast, Ben Wizner was always sure that he would one day work in the public interest. He was born in 1971 in New Haven, Connecticut, grew up on the campus of the elite university Yale, his father a professor of law, his mother dean. Wizner studied literature at Harvard – he recently suggested that Snowden read Checkhov – and later law in New York. Then he joined the human rights organisation ACLU. With the natural eloquence of a son of intellectuals, Wizner now talks about its beginnings. The organisation, founded in 1920, didn’t have a particular political agenda, it only defended the constitution.

It represented, for example, a teacher who was told by a religious state not to teach the theory of evolution. Later it fought for the rights of neo-Nazis to march through a neighborhood where many Holocaust survivors lived. When the Nazis were demonstrating, the same lawyers who made this possible also stood in the streets holding up protest posters. Today, the ACLU is so powerful that it resides in an enormous office building in Wall Street, has nearly 1000 employees in offices all over the country and has about half a million members. Some deal with the right to abortion, others fight against the death sentence.

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.  

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