Transparency International mainly deals with fighting against corruption across the world. However, the organization has recently taken part in a ceremony awarding Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden with the "Whistleblower Prize 2013.” How can you explain this?
The "Whistleblower Prize” was set up by the German branch of the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms (IALANA) and the Federation of German Scientists (VDW). Transparency International got involved, as the organization understands the importance of information protection amid rapidly and globally developing IT-technologies. How can we possibly protect our data in today’s hi-tech world? TI believes that what Snowden did was really courageous, so our involvement was to emphasize the adherence to the protection of people who exposed things in public interest.
This was the first time German branch of TI has taken part in the ceremony. Was it a sort of PR?
Absolutely not. After we found out about possible links between Germany and the NSA, we thought it was time for action. And then the invitation from the Federation of German Scientists came in, which we gladly accepted. Now TI Germany considers taking part in the following ceremonies, though this depends on what the focus will be. Thus, lawyers and scientists set up the prize, while our organization simply joined the event.
You are saying you were invited to the event, right?
We were. Human rights protection has always been on the Transparency International agenda as it often goes together with corruption, fighting which, however, remains our priority.
Let’s get back to Snowden. Did I get it right that TI believed it should have been Germany that granted him asylum?
Our point was that Snowden’s leaks triggered lots of questions, like how the intercepted German data were stored, how much of them were deciphered and how Americans got access to the data in the first place. We also wondered, whether German intelligence cooperated with NSA. Those are all-important questions, so we believe Snowden is an essential witness and would be happy to welcome him in Germany in this context and ask him all these questions.
Did the German government react in any way to Snowden’s award?
No, and we didn’t expect it to. We’ve been following debates about Snowden and Germany’s involvement in the case for the past two weeks. The issue was discussed at a specific parliamentary committee whose members are trying to figure out what to do with Snowden, whether to grant him asylum and work with him under the witness protection program. Up to this point, the government has rejected this opportunity but generally it discussed the issue with MPs, not our organization.
You’ve mentioned that the government’s reaction was predictable. So what was the point of this award?
It was first and foremost to draw attention to legal problems, as in Germany we have no legal regulations to protect whistleblowers. We’ve already had a couple of Snowden-like cases though on a smaller scale. Recently, a janitor at an elderly care home was dismissed after revealing that the patients didn’t receive proper treatment. Under German laws, she breached the Labor Code, showing disloyalty to her employer. If loyalty is defined as putting a blind eye on illegal actions, we find this definition wrong. The case was reviewed by the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled that the woman did the right thing. So, we would like to improve the situation with whistleblowers protection in Germany.
Do you think that Germany may fear spoiling its relations with the US because of Snowden?
We tried to find this out, namely what German intelligence thought of NSA surveillance, but neither TI nor the majority of people realized that the US and Germany are still bound by agreements which date back to the Allied-powers Occupation. They were to regulate special cooperation, including security and protection for the US military in Germany. We find these regulations obsolete and needing to be revised. And we’ve heard similar demands from the other side of political spectrum. We also need to see, whether the interests of German citizens and companies were breached. And the government is certainly concerned over its ties with the US especially as the two have become great friends.
Should we expect any decisive moves from the government in the run-up to the September elections?
I don’t really know. When such things happen, only part of the truth is revealed and these facts define further moves by the government. We all remember plans to shut down NPPs in Germany after the Fukushima disaster and public outrage. That was the time of a political U-turn and, I believe, we will see more data about links between US and German intelligence coming soon.
Do you think there still exist some concealed data?
I don’t know. Snowden really caused many issues to surface and, my guess is, the vast bulk of this information was not taken out of the blue. Lots of German data are known to have been intercepted, saved and analyzed and what we care about is, whether the government knew and assisted in this. Recently, the powers that be were trying to say they knew nothing but the Echelon spy network case probed by the European Parliament revealed that some data were collected through German companies. I can’t claim that we know it for sure, but we intend to probe this information as it potentially threatens personal data privacy of Germans.
The West keeps slamming Russia for human rights abuses but Russia appeared to be the only country to have sheltered Snowden. How could this happen?
I think that if Russia grants asylum to such a prominent whistleblower it will be an important signal to start exposing similar crimes domestically and start probing the cases of corruption, if there are, though I saw reports that there are.
Would you call Snowden a hero?
I would call him an ideal whistleblower – he acted altruistically and courageously and, thus, is worth respect. As for a possible penalty, if we look at Manning, we can imagine how harsh it could be. A man faces court for exposing espionage – I don’t quite get it. Is Snowden a hero or not? He is, definitely, a brave man and society needs people like him.
Do you think the US has legal grounds to accuse him of stealing and leaking state property?
We’re not entitled to discuss US laws being applied to US citizens. We often hear that the US doesn’t care about the Personal Data Protection Act as much as we do here. Article 10 of the country’s Constitution (Letters, Mail, Communication) guarantees every German citizen the secrecy of correspondence and communication. However, no one can keep other states from monitoring personal communication in today’s globalized web.
Snowden is not the first whistleblower the US has seen. Is the US government concerned over the fact that maybe he is not the last?
He is definitely not the last, as I’ve mentioned Manning before.
Manning told people about the horrors of war, and I find his severe penalty absurd. Whistleblowers emerge only in societies that see injustice and abuse.