In a discussion with Edward Snowden on his weekly “Liberty Report," Ron Paul and the former NSA contractor trace the genesis of the so-called Deep State, and discuss how the US intelligence community uses covert programs like those exposed by Snowden in 2013 to trample individual freedoms.
The most sinister quality of the Deep State, Snowden says, is its ability to mask its very existence from the public, allowing it to undermine President Donald Trump while remaining largely hidden from scrutiny.
“Generally, when we’re talking about the Deep State, what we’re talking about is a mass of government that survives beyond administrations, but that is not responding to the politics of the people. This belongs not to a particular political party, but it serves across parties. Across administrations.”
The Deep State’s culture of secrecy convinces employees that they won’t ever be held accountable for their actions, Snowden said, since even routine communications between employees at the CIA and NSA are classified.
“Everything we do at the NSA and CIA is typically classified by default, unless you actually work to make it not classified."
“When I sent an email about lunch plans to one of my office buddies, that was going to be classified. Even the most banal email that you’re sending...is classified."
Though he says he favors small government and opposes widespread surveillance, Snowden balked at being branded a libertarian by Paul, arguing that labels like “libertarian” or “liberal” are often reductive and don’t allow for enough nuance to accurately represent his views.
“We’re more than tribes or labels. It is true that I think we have challenges that are derived from governments reaching a new scale that they haven’t previously occupied historically, allowing for the rise of these sort of ‘Super States.’”
“Small government tends to be more respecting of individuals’ rights than large governments. And the question we need to ask, is why?”
With the passage of time, the scrutiny on Snowden and the programs that he leaked has subsided, allowing him to focus on other tasks like advocacy.
“Things were really crazy that close to the event in 2013. You never knew what was happening and what they were saying from the government side.
There was this cycle of deception that was occurring where the journalists would publish some report and say this is what’s happening and this is how they’re violating your rights... Then the government would immediately come out and say ‘oh no we don’t do that that’s a misunderstanding it’s not quite right’ and they’d issue various denials to these reports.
“Then immediately the journalists would have to find some particular point that disproved [the government’s counter-report] then the government would sort of walk back their denial, and this went on and on and on.”
"This was really consuming my life, [the journalists] lives, and the lives of everybody involved for the longest time. But as we’ve gotten farther and farther from the event, I’ve gotten free to pursue my own interest once again."
Rejecting the idea that he’s a leader in the fight against deep-state overreach, Snowden assured his viewers that he’s “not a politician” and that he isn’t comfortable in the role of spokesman. Rather, he prefers to focus on engineering methods of protecting individuals’ privacy.
“[Some people] want me to sort of be a frontman for these issues like civil liberty and peoples’ rights but I’m not a politician, I’m an engineer. Last year I gave a presentation…at MIT on how we can make phones safer by understanding what’s happening inside of them.
When we start looking at all of the problems we’re facing today, there’s sort of two tracks. There’s the political track where the government is passing laws that don’t protect citizens’ rights…the other problem is how is it that so many governments are spying on so many people?”
Because of its global nature, the expansion of government surveillance has become an intractable problem, Snowden explained.
“Even if we passed the best legal reforms in the world in the US, that doesn’t do anything against China or Russia or Germany or Brazil or any other country in the world. If we want to solve these problems, we need to find new means and mechanisms for enforcing those rights and I think that’s going to primarily be through science and technology.”
At one point in the discussion, Paul asserted that the Deep State has usurped some of the powers of the legislative and executive branches of government.
“It’s becoming more commonplace now for people to realize that the average congressman doesn’t call the shots, but there’s a force out there called the deep state and they’re the ones calling the shots.”
The discussion then turned to the balance between security and freedom, which Snowden claimed is a false dichotomy. In reality, it’s a question of liberty vs. surveillance.
"The idea here is apologists for the national security state like to trot out the old argument where they go ‘look we need to find a balance between your liberty and security.’ And it sounds persuasive, it sounds fair, until you actually start to analyze it….and you go ‘well, this isn’t really about liberty vs. security at all, it’s about liberty vs. surveillance. Because surveillance exists in a vacuum of security. Surveillance is enabled by a lack of security, it’s where you’re exposed, it’s where you’re available to be observed and can be tracked.”
“Life becomes more private, life becomes more free when you’re not observed, when you’re not watched…”
Another problem that the public struggles with is that Americans don’t have a clear definition for what liberty is, which makes it more difficult to understand when their freedoms are being trampled.
“People have said recently that privacy is what we used to call liberty, and then in the same breath they say that privacy is dead. What liberty is…is the right to self-determination. It’s the ability to have something that’s yours, rather than society’s.”
“This is codefied into our language, when we talk about private property, we’re talking about your right, your ability to have something that belongs to you. You decide how it’s going to be handled, you decide what color you want to paint your house, you decide what color shirt you’re going to wear - you don’t have to ask anyone."
“Liberty is freedom from permission. It is the fountainhead from which all other rights spring.”
“Saying that you don’t care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is the same as saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”
Interest in the Snowden leaks was revived earlier this year following Wikileaks’ “Vault 7” disclosures, which exposed the extent to which the CIA uses backdoors to hack smartphones, computer operating systems, messenger applications and internet-connected televisions. They also suggested that there is another leaker in the intelligence community.
An intelligence source cited by the Wall Street Journal said the “Vault 7” leaks are far more significant than the Snowden leaks. Even Snowden himself praised the Wikileaks disclosures, saying that "what @Wikileaks has here is genuinely a big deal", while making the following observations: "If you're writing about the CIA/@Wikileaks story, here's the big deal: first public evidence USG secretly paying to keep US software unsafe.”
Among the most high-profile programs exposed by Snowden were his revelations that the NSA could use secret court orders to force US telecoms companies like Verizon to hand over citizens’ phone records. Snowden also revealed the existence of “PRISM” – a program allowing the government to access servers of major tech companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple upon request. The Snowden revelations stretched beyond activities of the US government when he disclosed how the British intelligence service GCHQ had the capability to tap into fiber-optic cables to eavesdrop on foreign leaders.
Fundamentally, the growing power of the deep state cuts against the US democratic system.
“It raises the question: Who really has the most power in our society? Is it the voter, or at least in theory the politicians who are supposed to be carrying out their will, or is it this larger group, this constellation of influential actors who are able to subvert and shape the decisions of these Congressmen or even Presidents.”