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In the Whistleblower Chalet

I stayed in a Dutch holiday chalet at a hacker festival with five intelligence agency whistleblowers, who have a special tiny prize for Snowden—and it’s not David Miranda with a hard drive.
Ray McGovern (Photo by @mjb)

I met the whistleblowers in a peculiar location, an unassuming, identikit cluster of Dutch holiday chalets, contoured by optimistic spectrums of tulips and bursts of water fountains, thirty kilometers north of Amsterdam. We had come for OHM2013, an international hacker festival, where their attendance would help galvanize an army of hacktivists. Still, the battlefield looked like a pastoral idyll.

And then the buzz. Soon after arriving at our chalet, we detected a high frequency noise that was impossible to locate. Several unscrewed light fixtures and upturned tables later, a brief Bourne-like bug sweep moment collapsed in banality: the culprit, it turned out, was Ray McGovern's faulty hearing aid.


McGovern is as much a 'dissident' and an activist as a whistleblower. He had come to give the keynote talk, as a former senior CIA analyst who served under seven presidents and who was often tasked with preparing the President's Daily Brief. McGovern's presidential brief would be somewhat different these days: for the first three days of the hacker conference, he wore a black t-shirt with the slogan 'ARREST BUSH & OBAMA,' next to an image of handcuffs. To be fair, he had little choice: some entity seemed to have grown attached to his suitcase, which did not reach us in the Netherlands until several days after his arrival (at which point, he changed into his 'Truth' slogan tee).

McGovern is the founder of a group called the Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence, a group of ex-intelligence officials who demonstrate "courage, persistence, and devotion to truth — no matter the consequences." Since Edward Snowden blew the whistle on a transnational surveillance system, this small community of ex-spies has been in overdrive, publicly fighting his corner. Their gathering at OHM2013 had a second purpose, for plotting their next mission: to award Snowden with their annual Sam Adams Integrity Award. It wouldn't be simple.

McGovern is the group's natural father figure, with the charming Dumbledorian demeanor of an artfully skilled and worldly professional, whose extraordinary life has been infused by a resistance to the 'dark arts' of intelligence. At 73, he is wizened and sharp—I discovered, for instance, that he is fluent in Russian, which I expect will again one day be useful.


"If anyone can make the impossible possible, it is Ray," Coleen Rowley tells me, as we discuss the various fascinating methods by which the Sam Adams Associates could give an award to Snowden. His prize was a variation on the group's traditional trophy: a 3D-printed candlestick holder, a symbol of the group's aim to shine light in dark places.

Rowley is my roomie but I wouldn't want to pillow fight her. She is a former FBI agent and was recognized as a Time Person of The Year in 2002 after blowing the whistle on significant intelligence oversights preceding the 9/11 attacks. Rowley was the very first recipient of a Sam Adams Award.

These days, Rowley paints peace symbols on her shoes, but she talks like a hardened realist. She doesn't believe in heroes, and nor does she think the former NSA contractor wants to be regarded as one. "Snowden doesn't care for being put on heroic pedestals—he cares about the information," she asserts. Rowley and McGovern agree that the fairytale human binary of heroes and villains is "deceptive to the average person."

"I will resist it," Ray says. "I will not call Snowden a hero and feed into an 'us and them' paradigm. It devolves responsibility to 'the heroes,' and the only remaining duty of citizens is to stay seated and applaud them." I asked him if the Sam Adams Award couldn't be perceived as exactly that—a symbol of public celebration for the hero of the information age.


"Awarding Snowden is rewarding heroic action, not a heroic person," Coleen says. The argument jibes with the oft-repeated complaint from Snowden's defenders that by focusing on Snowden's character and personality, the media distracts from the actual information he released. This protest-meme echoes the public defense of Julian Assange and Bradley Manning too, both of whom have endured endless psychic analysis and disturbing attempts at character assassination.

There is no doubt that more intelligent journalistic scrutiny, analysis, and commentary would enrich a necessary political debate on the issue. But should Snowden's character remain hidden, or appraisals of his personality be refused, or preemptively taken as an offense? If we are to resist acknowledging Snowden's moral consciousness, self-sacrifice, and resourcefulness, do we risk prohibiting his character from inspiring others? For the general public, who are not intelligence agency operatives, Snowden's heroic actions are not replicable, but his human attributes are.

The human element is, after all, central to the Sam Adams Award. McGovern says that the award functions as a symbol of solidarity. "If he feels alone, this will be immeasurably harder. When we stand together, there is a visible synergy that not only gives us new power, but that inspires others," he says.

During chats with the whistleblowers about Snowden, I sensed their professional respect for his strategic brilliance, grounded by a solemn, nervous empathy. They know well what is coming, and how his life has irreversibly changed. With each of them, occasional moments in conversations reveal the scars from their respective experiences of persecution. Our nighttime conversations are interspersed with stories which reveal the dark capabilities of a savagely enraged state machine forced from the shadows: homes entirely torn apart, shattered ceilings, demolished baths and quarried gardens; friends and family mutated into informants; intimidation; relentless physical and electronic surveillance; arrests; extraordinary legal campaigns; a raid with guns drawn.


One of my chalet neighbors, Thomas Drake, has been through it all. Though the overtly villainous titles may have changed, "total information awareness" programs such as TRAFFICTHIEF, Mastering the Internet, and Global Telecoms Exploitation are not news to Drake.

As a senior executive at the NSA in the early 2000s, Drake expressed concerns about secret dragnet surveillance systems to his managers within the NSA, then to Congress, and then to the Department of Defense, in accordance with the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act. He eventually blew the whistle and shared unclassified documents with a journalist. His life was "shredded." He was deemed a flight risk and had his passport confiscated for sixteen months; his freedom of movement was restricted to local states; he was subjected to extensive physical and electronic surveillance; and was charged with a ten-felony-count indictment, including five counts under the Espionage Act. He was threatened with life imprisonment.

Drake reports that Snowden is likely to have analyzed his own tribulations, and decided that "he had to escape the US, to have any hope of remaining free." Drake's honed his dramatic delivery on the panel circuit; some of his sentences, like this one, drop off into a kind of mournful silence.

His own fight for freedom was largely successful, in part thanks to the efforts of another Sam Adams Associate, Jesselyn Radack. The director of National Security and Human Rights at the Government Accountability Project, Radack publicly represented and advocated for Drake. All ten felony counts against Drake collapsed at trial.


In a former life, Radack was a Justice Department ethics attorney. She too blew the whistle, in 2002, when she found the FBI had denied an attorney to the "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh, in the first major post-9/11 terrorism prosecution. For identifying this illegality, Radack was also subjected to great pressure. She was put on a no-fly list, and the US Department of Justice launched a fifteen-month 'criminal leak investigation' into her.

What Drake and Radack endured, they claim, is nothing compared to what Snowden faces. "I was stateless within my own country; Snowden is stateless outside his own country," says Drake.

Annie Machon (Andrew Griffen)

Snowden has brought back brutal memories of the their own ordeals. "Blowing the whistle totally turned my life inside out," says Annie Machon, a former MI5 intelligence officer who warned of illegalities in the agency in the 1990s; she is the only one of the group to have direct experience of life on the run.

Along with her former partner and colleague David Shayler, Machon exposed an assortment of crimes committed by British intelligence agencies: from illegal phone tapping, to wrongful convictions, and even an attempted assassination of Colonel Gadaffi.

The couple, led by Shayler's strategic foresight, lived in hiding for a year after blowing the whistle, and then in a de facto exile for two years in France. Upon their return to the United Kingdom, Machon was arrested and Shayler was sentenced to six months imprisonment for breaking the Official Secrets Act.


The psychological pressure of being persecuted while pursuing justice was intense, she says. Shayler emerged from prison rather troubled, Machon reports, and he now harbors a "Messiah complex." But she insists she has no regrets, and that she's come through that difficult time a stronger activist. She now lives in Germany, the privacy haven of the moment, where, like almost all of the Sam Adams Associates, she has devoted her post-spook life to campaigning for more government transparency.

"This one is for Snowden," she says, smiling, as she pulls a bright green plastic candlestick holder from her bag. Every Sam Adams Awardee gets a candlestick holder, and Machon decided to apply her experimentation with 3D printing to making the latest one. It's the first 3D printed object I have ever held. In its tiny collapse of the virtual and the real, it seemed like a suitable gift for the stateless whistleblower.

There were whispers that this is the group that will help form Snowden's defense committee, when the time comes. I was impressed by their support for Snowden, if only because of the risks that implies. For now, even communicating with Snowden depends upon bleeding-edge technology and old-school spy tactics, the kind you need to resist a giant Panopticon. The deepest fear about all of this was described by Senator Frank Church in 1975.

"There would be no place to hide if this government ever became a tyranny, if a dictator ever took charge in this country. The technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back, because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, it is within the reach of the government to know (…) That is the abyss from which there is no return. "


The hope that our most valuable possessions might be safe from the abyss—civil liberties, constitutional values, human rights, human life—is what has driven these whistleblowers to speak out. None of them felt like just standing by, hoping one day some other brave fool would take action. "There is such a thing as too late," says McGovern.

Sam Adams, the namesake of the award and a friend of McGovern's, was the C.I.A. analyst who knew that intelligence was being "monumentally" manipulated by the U.S. during the Vietnam War. The numbers and strength of enemy Vietnamese troops had been dramatically minimized, to suit a political exercise of making the war look winnable. Adams' painstaking analysis, plus a few overly candid cables from Saigon, evidenced this, but he did not go outside official channels to blow the whistle until the war was ending. Millions had died. It was too late.

The whistleblowers are trying to make sure that it is not too late. Their attendance at hacker conferences like OHM2013 signals the arsenal that's being assembled against secret transgressions: cryptographers, hackers and digital campaigners are now standing on a virtual frontline, combatting transnational surveillance, reinstating the right to privacy, and finding pathways out of a digital dragnet.

At five o'clock in the morning after the whistleblowers appeared together on stage and via live stream discussing Snowden and the tyrannies of surveillance, the aorta of OHM2013 was literally hacked. Someone had discovered the location of the festival's fiber optic cable, a kilometer away from the festival site and thirty centimeters underground, and used several methods to try to destroy it, eventually resolving to physically hacking the Kevlar-coated tube with a sharp metal instrument.

Within half an hour, volunteers from the hacker community had identified the rupture, re-welded the cable with surgical precision in the dark, and restored high-speed internet access for the three thousand attendees. No reward was expected, and the incident passed with little celebration for the hackers who had repaired the cable.