Edward Snowden, who leaked nearly 2 million secret documents from the National Security Agency (NSA) to journalists, has been making the conference rounds recently, popping up first via satellite for a keynote at SXSW, and this week via a telepresence robot at the TED conference in Vancouver. The majority of the TED audience appeared to be supportive of Snowden's rationale for stealing and releasing the documents, based on an informal on-stage poll by TED curator Chris Anderson (and by the constant chatter about the appearance among TED attendees).
"Your rights matter," Snowden said, "because you never know when you're going to need them. When asked why anyone should care about their privacy, he responded: "People should be able to pick up the phone or send a text message or buy a book online without wondering how these events will look to intelligence agencies."
The conversation didn't end there. Today, Richard Ledgett, the deputy director of the NSA and senior civilian officer in the organization, appeared on a large-screen video screen at TED to respond to Snowden's talk.
"There were some kernels of truth in there, but a lot of extrapolations and half-truths out there," he said.
When asked if Snowden had any alternatives for expressing his concerns about NSA activity, Ledgett said he did. "Characterizing him as a whistleblower hurts legitimate whistleblowing activities," he said. According to Ledgett, there were other venues for expressing concern that Snowden could have used, like talking to a supervisor or an inspector general, "any of whom would have kept his concerns in classified channels and be happy to address them."
But it's doubtful that any sort of complaint to a higher-up would have stopped the NSA's snooping, and using Ledgett's definition of legitimate whistleblowing (keeping concerns within the organization), few of the more important whisteblowers in recent U.S. history would be considered "legitimate."
Ledgett went on to make a common argument among NSA-defenders: that Snowden put lives at risk by giving terrorists, drug traffickers, and anyone else with nefarious intentions the opportunity to understand the country's spying capabilities—and in turn, to stay away from communication methods that could assist the U.S. in catching them.
"Our people are at greater risk because they don't see what's coming their way," he said.
Ledgett also said that legitimate concerns about the balance between transparency and secrecy are an important global conversation (of course, the only reason we're even having this discussion is because of Snowden's actions). "There are things we need to be transparent about—authorities, processes, oversight, who we are—and we at NSA have not done a good job of that," he admitted. Nonetheless, Ledgett claimed that "President Madison would be proud" of the NSA's checks and balances.
When Anderson asked about Ledgett's comments this past December that he would consider amnesty for Snowden in exchange for the unreleased leaked documents, the NSA official said he had been widely misquoted, but that there was room for discussion. "There's a strong tradition in American jurisprudence of having discussions with people who have been charged with crimes when it benefits the government to get something out of that," he said.
While the TED crowd was palpably skeptical of Ledgett's appearance, he did get a standing ovation at the end of his talk—presumably more for having the guts to subject himself to a question and answer session from Chris Anderson than because of what he actually said.
During his TED talk earlier in the week, Snowden said that some of the biggest NSA-related revelations uncovered by his leaked documents have yet to come.