Interview

Whistleblower or Traitor?

Exclusive: Former Google CEO says Snowden helped us, but he broke the law.

The executive chairman of Google, which has been a frequent target of government surveillance agencies in the United States and Britain, said classified information revealed by leaker Edward Snowden has helped the company better protect its customers' privacy from unwarranted intrusions. But he stopped short of endorsing Snowden's decision to disclose the inner workings of government spying, arguing that the leaks could have grave consequences for national security and human life.

"The Snowden information was helpful to know," said Eric Schmidt, the former Google CEO and a current advisor to its co-founders, in an interview with Foreign Policy on Thursday, Feb. 27. In 2013, company officials announced that they would henceforth encrypt traffic flowing through its data centers to make it harder for the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and other intelligence agencies to spy on users' data. Google "changed its systems" after documents revealed by Snowden showed that Britain's Government Communications Headquarters had collected information on Google users, Schmidt told FP.

"We addressed that," he said. "But that is not an endorsement of either Snowden or bulk leaking."

Schmidt said that Snowden, a former contractor for the NSA, committed a crime when he disclosed classified information in 2013 to journalists in violation of his government security clearance. (Schmidt said that he himself holds a high-level clearance.)

"[Snowden] has admitted that he violated those rules. That would be evidence of his own illegality," Schmidt said. "There's a separate question as to how society should treat such people, and to me that question is where you fall on the whistleblower versus traitor line, and I think society will sort that out."

Schmidt didn't say where he fell on that line. Asked whether Snowden should be tried in a U.S. criminal court, the Google executive deferred. "That is a question above my pay grade."

But Schmidt questioned the wisdom and the usefulness of some NSA programs that Snowden revealed, including the agency's bulk collection of Americans' phone records.

"I think that you really want to think about whether society should do that," Schmidt said. The NSA compromised the privacy of some 330 million people, he said, by collecting their phone logs, information that was "recorded for posterity … to target 56 people of which one was a likely terrorist. That's their public statement. Does that make sense to you?" he asked.

Schmidt was referring to public statements by intelligence officials that the NSA used phone logs in a handful of cases to determine whether suspected terrorists were inside the United States and possibly planning attacks. President Barack Obama is currently weighing whether to continue the controversial program, perhaps by moving the data from the NSA and placing it under the control of the FBI, phone companies, or a third party.

Schmidt didn't say whether it made sense to him to maintain such a large database of information when it is so infrequently tapped. "I have a personal view on this," he continued, "but what's more important is to have the debate. Until Snowden leaked these things, which he clearly did illegally, we weren't having this debate."

Schmidt has been less hesitant to condemn spying by the NSA that occurred overseas and that affected his company directly. (Google doesn't collect phone records.) He has called the practice, revealed in documents leaked by Snowden, of tapping into cable connections between Google's data centers in other countries and the public Internet "outrageous" and possibly illegal. Google executives have maintained that they only hand over customers' data to government agencies when presented with a legal order.

Schmidt said he had come to the conclusion that the kind of "bulk leaking" Snowden committed, which he described as releasing hundreds of thousands of documents en masse, risked lives because sensitive information could be revealed in those files. It's an issue he explores in the recently published paperback edition of his book, The New Digital Age, which he co-authored with Jared Cohen, a former State Department official who runs Google Ideas, which explores technology and public policy.

"We do not endorse the unilateral bulk leaking of data. We think it's too dangerous," Schmidt said. He acknowledged that, to date, no one is known to have died as the result of Snowden's disclosures. (National security officials have said that the leaks could "gravely impact" intelligence operations and risk the safety of military personnel.) But Schmidt said he didn't rule out the possibility that future leaks could cost lives. "People could get seriously hurt by this. This is not a good thing."

Over the course of a wide-ranging interview, Schmidt also said that efforts by foreign governments to protect their citizens' personal information and communications from intelligence agencies, such as by moving data centers to within their borders or setting up private computer networks, would fail to work.

"It would be very difficult to do that without putting in very hard gateways" to block interaction with the broader Internet, Schmidt said, referring specifically to a plan announced by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to build a European network that would avoid routing people's emails and other communications through the United States, where they could be intercepted.

"Eventually you end up with sort of a police state barrier. It slows things down. It makes encryption stop working," Schmidt said. "Eventually, Germany would need to have its own domain name system.… It just doesn't work."

But Schmidt said he doubted that Germany or any other country would follow through on plans to Balkanize the Internet. "We talked to the Germans in order to see how serious they are. It doesn't seem like what they're talking about is really going to happen."

Schmidt allowed that domestic political concerns in Germany, where he said citizens have gone "berserk" over NSA spying and revelations that the agency tapped Merkel's phone, may have persuaded the German leader to take a tough public line against U.S. intelligence efforts. "But I can report to you that there is not a credible plan to disconnect any country from the Internet, except Iran," Schmidt said, referring to Iranian officials' public announcements that they intend to sever their network connections to the outside world and filter all traffic that moves in and out of the country.

Iran has also been on the radar of U.S. national security officials, who are increasingly concerned about the Islamic Republic's efforts to build up an offensive cyberforce, which officials believe has been used to attack banks and possibly energy facilities.

Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

The Russian Anti-Olympic Protest that Putin Doesn't Want You to Know About

An activist explains why the authorities cracked down on a peaceful protest to commemorate the victims of tsarist-era genocide.

On Valentine's Day, the Russian authorities arrested a man named Asker Sokht. Sokht is a prominent member of the Circassian ethnic minority, many of whom are protesting the Olympic Games in Sochi, a city that is part of their ancestral homeland. What's remarkable, though, is that Sokht isn't one of those critics: He's known among his fellow Circassians as relatively supportive of the Kremlin, and he hasn't made any public statements opposing the Games. How he managed to awaken the ire of the authorities remains unclear. But his detention suggests that Moscow is taking no chances when it comes to one of the thorniest political controversies surrounding the games.

For Circassians, 2014 is a date fraught with unpleasant memories. One hundred and fifty years ago the Tsarist army finally triumphed in a century-long war with the Circassians and other rebellious peoples in the North Caucasus. The last Circassian fighters surrendered to the Tsar's leading general in Krasnaya Polyana, the center of the Olympic alpine events. The Circassians had already paid dearly even before their final defeat. By one estimate, Russian troops exterminated 1.5 million ethnic Circassians between 1860 and 1864. Most of the survivors, starving and brutalized, were herded onto ships that carried them away to the Ottoman Empire, where they had to start new lives from scratch. Today, 7 million Circassians live scattered around the world; a mere 800,000 remain in Russia. Oliver Bullough, in his book Let Our Fame Be Great, describes the Tsar's war against the Circassians as the first instance of modern European genocide. Yet the Kremlin -- otherwise eager to embrace the legacy of Tsarist Russia whenever it has the chance -- denies that the Circassian tragedy ever took place.

For many Circassians, the Olympic Games are merely another example of how their story has been whitewashed from history. Bullough notes that the helipad where visiting VIPs are welcomed has been built on the parade ground where the Tsar's soldiers marched to celebrate their 1864 victory. So they've decided to use the Games to draw attention to the injustice. While members of some of the other Muslim ethnic groups in the region have taken up armed jihad as a way of expressing their opposition to the authorities, however, the Circassians -- within Russia and without -- have resolutely chosen the path of nonviolent resistance.

As Sokht's case shows, that hasn't spared them from the wrath of the authorities. On Feb. 7, dozens of Circassian activists converged on the town of Nalchik, some 200 miles east of Sochi, to stage a peaceful protest against the Games. The police responded quickly and harshly, dispersing the group and arresting at least 37.

FP's Alexis Zimberg spoke on the phone with Abubekir Murzakan, the leader of a Circassian civic group that took part in the Nalchik protests.

FP: Can you tell me a little bit about these protests?

AM: We were protesting against the Olympic Games, and the opening ceremonies in particular. The city of Sochi is a Circassian symbol. Why? Because Circassian fighters fought their last stand there. Sochi was also the last capital of free Circassia, the seat of our parliament. They drove all of our people into Sochi before sending them into exile. So many died there, from disease or hunger. Sochi is a symbol for the Circassian people.

So why the protest against the Olympics? There was nothing about the Circassians at the opening of the games, in the symbols or the ceremony. Any self-respecting person would have said that the Circassians lived here, that this was their territory. The Russians didn't even say, "Yes, we fought with you. Yes, there was a war here. A tragedy, a catastrophe for this entire people happened here." Nothing was said, not a thing. They said that Argonauts lived here, Cossacks, Armenians, Greeks. They didn't manage to say a word about the Circassians. They ignored us.

FP: What sort of protest was it?

AM: The action was peaceful. I want to say to the international community that the Circassian problem will be decided only by peaceful means and within the rule of law. No one should take up arms. The strength of Russia and the strength of the Circassians aren't comparable. Russia is stronger than we are. But just because they're strong doesn't mean they're right. The Circassians have truth on their side; on its side, Russia has only force and lies. In the present age it is wrong to oppose force and lies with violence. Why? Because we have the international community, the United Nations, all the organizations that defend human rights, the rights of people. And we Circassians wish to live under the rule of law. We don't want them to drive us out from under the rule of law. Why? Because you can't frighten us with repression. You can kill us. You can arrest us. You can beat us up. You can do all that but you won't be able to intimidate us. We're for honesty, we're for freedom, we're for better mutual understanding among all the countries of the world, including Russia. Russia has drowned itself in lies. We don't want lies. We want to see general knowledge of the genocide, general knowledge of our lands that were once called Circassia.

FP: Have you been coordinating your efforts with the Circassian diaspora?

AM: We do, but it's hard. Often we no longer speak the same language. We don't have the same backgrounds. 90 percent of Circassians live in the diaspora, in Turkey, in Jordan, in Palestine, in Syria, where they have many problems because of the war there. Russia closed the borders to our compatriots. For that reason we ask the international community to open the borders to other Circassians. We ask Russia to sit down at the negotiating table and talk about repatriation, about allowing language study in schools -- to work out a road map, as they say nowadays. But we have nothing. So far no one wants to talk to us.

FP: Can you tell us more about what happened on the 7th?

AM: None of the people who participated in the demonstration were extremists. There were 10 cars with "No Sochi" banners and Circassian flags. There was also supposed to be a moment of silence in the town square. We would have stood there silently and then dispersed. The people in the cars with the flags and the banners were supposed to go through the city and all around the republic. But it didn't happen that way. They were blocked by the police and then by the FSB and Interior Ministry troops, including special counterterrorism forces. Plus traffic police, who said that we were blocking traffic. When the police held us, they gave some of us jail sentences, said that we were obstructing law enforcement organs, blocking traffic and pedestrians, and holding an illegal meeting.

More than 30 people were taken to the police station. 27 were kept overnight, and six of them ended up staying in detention for several days.

FP: The reaction of the security forces was very harsh. Why do you think that they responded in this way?

AM: In Russia, protests against the authorities are not allowed. A dictatorship has already begun. There is no freedom of speech, no freedom of action. If you ask for official permission to demonstrate, the authorities will always say no.

[When they took us into the police station, I met] the Nalchik police chief. We had a very heated exchange because he was drunk. This protest was a red flag to the police.

They took my phone away and kept it for three hours. They took everyone's phones. In some cases they searched the houses of the people who were detained. Four of the men were beaten very badly -- one of them because he was taking video footage of the protest, the others for no apparent reason.

FP: I understand they tried to get you to make a confession?

AM: They always want to portray us as Islamic fundamentalists or terrorists. They asked us all sorts of questions about this and that. The gist of it was that they wanted to make us out to be extremists or nationalists. That's what they wanted. But it didn't work. We're determined to stick to the principle of peaceful dialogue, with the authorities and everyone else. We insist on the rule of law. What we don't accept is the lie. They want to transform our truth into lies.

ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images