Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, and one of the reporters who first broke the news of Snowden's documents, Laura Poitras, received a Ridenhour Truth-Teller prize Wednesday to a standing ovation at the National Press Club.
"A year ago, there's no way I could have imagined I would end up here being honored in this room," said Snowden, who spoke via Google Hangout in a livestream that occasionally lagged and stuttered. "When I began this, I never expected to receive the level of support that I did from the public."
Snowden leaked classified documents that exposed the NSA's massive global surveillance programs. On Wednesday, Snowden said knowing what had happened to others who had spoken out against government practices, including Thomas Drake (recipient of a 2011 Ridenhour prize), made the prospect of coming forward "intimidating." But Snowden said he came forward because he thought it was "the right thing to do."
He said there were other NSA employees uneasy with some of the spy agency's actions and felt that things "had gone too far." But these employees felt they could not speak publicly about their discomfort, Snowden said.
Snowden also repeatedly compared his actions with that of Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper, who denied that the NSA was "wittingly" collecting data on millions of Americans in a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing last spring -- a claim at odds with revelations about domestic phone records collection as a result of documents provided by Snowden. Clapper later apologized to Congress in a letter, saying his answer was "clearly erroneous."
But in a letter to the editor in the New York Times earlier this year, ODNI general counsel Robert Litt denied that Clapper had "lied" to Congress, but rather said he made an honest mistake. Although ODNI was provided the question in advance on the hearing by Senator Ron Wyden (D, Oregon), Clapper had not seen it, wrote Litt, and answered the question while having American's content information in mind. When his mistake was pointed out days later, Clapper corrected the issue with Wyden, but Litt argues "it could not be corrected publicly because the program involved was classified."
"The oath that I remember is James Clapper raising his hand, swearing to tell the truth and then lying to the American public," Snowden said. "I also swore an oath, but that oath was not to secrecy, but to defend the American Constitution."
Snowden recalled raising what he called the "famous lie" with co-workers, questioning why no one did anything about it, only to be warned about potential consequences. Snowden has previously said he raised concerns internally, but that as a contractor, he did not have the same protections as a government employee.
While Clapper has accused Snowden of perpetrating the most "massive and damaging theft of intelligence" in U.S. history, Snowden argues his actions were serving a larger public interest that superseded the national intelligence need for secrecy.
Later in the speech, he described Clapper as having "committed a crime by lying under oath to the American people," and questioned why charges were never brought against the director. By contrast, Snowden said, charges were brought against him soon after he revealed himself as the source of the leaks.
Lawmakers have also accused Clapper of misleading the public. "Director Clapper continues to hold his position despite lying to Congress under oath about the existence of bulk data collection programs in March 2013," wrote a group of congressmen led by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) in a letter to the president in January asking for Clapper's removal.
At the time, White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden responded to the letter with an e-mailed statement saying the president had "full faith in Director Clapper’s leadership of the intelligence community," and that Clapper had "provided an explanation for his answers to Senator Wyden and made clear that he did not intend to mislead the Congress."
Poitras, who also live-streamed into the event, said she had felt more "fear and intimidation" while working on the Snowden documents than in years of reporting from war zones. She also expressed a wish to share her award with her frequent co-writer on the stories, Glenn Greenwald, who was the Guardian’s lead reporter on the NSA pieces. The Washington Post and the Guardian were awarded a Pulitzer Prize for their NSA coverage resulting from Snowden's leaks.
The Ridenhour prizes, presented by The Nation Institute and The Fertel Foundation, memorialize investigative journalist Ron Ridenhour. Sheri Fink received the Book Prize for "Five Days At Memorial;" the film "Gideon's Army" received the Documentary Prize; and former Church Committee chief counsel Frederick A.O. (“Fritz”) Schwarz, Jr received the Courage Prize for his lifetime commitment to transparency.
As he recalled in an interview with The Switch earlier this year, Schwarz said the late Sen. Frank Church had warned of the dangers of the NSA's capabilities even back in the 1970s, but "it was the stone age of technology compared to today," as revealed by Snowden's leaks.
Earlier this week, The New York Times reported that Snowden had retained an espionage act expert last summer to help him negotiate a potential plea deal to return to the United States. He currently lives in an undisclosed location in Russia, where he has temporary asylum.
Note: This post has been updated from its original form to include a fuller explanation about the context of Director Clapper's statements from a New York Times letter to the editor authored by ODNI general counsel Robert Litt.