Richard Ledgett: The NSA responds to Edward Snowden’s TED Talk (Transcript)

In response to Edward Snowden at TED2014, NSA deputy director Richard Ledgett answers Anderson’s questions about the balance between security and protecting privacy. This event happened in March 2014.

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Chris Anderson: We had Edward Snowden here a couple days ago, and this is response time. And several of you have written to me with questions to ask our guest here from the NSA. So Richard Ledgett is the 15th deputy director of the National Security Agency, and he’s a senior civilian officer there, acts as its chief operating officer, guiding strategies, setting internal policies, and serving as the principal advisor to the director. And all being well, welcome Rick Ledgett to TED.

Richard Ledgett: I’m really thankful for the opportunity to talk to folks here. I look forward to the conversation, so thanks for arranging for that.

Chris Anderson: Thank you, Rick. We appreciate you joining us. It’s certainly quite a strong statement that the NSA is willing to reach out and show a more open face here. You saw, I think, the talk and interview that Edward Snowden gave here a couple days ago. What did you make of it?

Richard Ledgett: So I think it was interesting. We didn’t realize that he was going to show up there, so kudos to you guys for arranging a nice surprise like that. I think that, like a lot of the things that have come out since Mr. Snowden started disclosing classified information, there were some kernels of truth in there, but a lot of extrapolations and half-truths in there, and I’m interested in helping to address those. I think this is a really important conversation that we’re having in the United States and internationally, and I think it is important and of import, and so given that, we need to have that be a fact-based conversation, and we want to help make that happen.

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Chris Anderson: So the question that a lot of people have here is, what do you make of Snowden’s motivations for doing what he did, and did he have an alternative way that he could have gone?

Richard Ledgett: He absolutely did have alternative ways that he could have gone, and I actually think that characterizing him as a whistleblower actually hurts legitimate whistleblowing activities. So what if somebody who works in the NSA — and there are over 35,000 people who do. They’re all great citizens. They’re just like your husbands, fathers, sisters, brothers, neighbors, nephews, friends and relatives, all of whom are interested in doing the right thing for their country and for our allies internationally. And so there are a variety of venues to address if folks have a concern.

First off, there’s their supervisor, and up through the supervisory chain within their organization. If folks aren’t comfortable with that, there are a number of inspectors general. In the case of Mr. Snowden, he had the option of the NSA inspector general, the Navy inspector general, the Pacific Command inspector general, the Department of Defense inspector general, and the intelligence community inspector general, any of whom would have both kept his concerns in classified channels and been happy to address them. He had the option to go to congressional committees, and there are mechanisms to do that that are in place, and so he didn’t do any of those things.

Chris Anderson: Now, you had said that Ed Snowden had other avenues for raising his concerns. The comeback on that is a couple of things: one, that he certainly believes that as a contractor, the avenues that would have been available to him as an employee weren’t available, two, there’s a track record of other whistleblowers, like Drake [Thomas Andrews Drake] being treated pretty harshly, by some views, and thirdly, what he was taking on was not one specific flaw that he’d discovered, but programs that had been approved by all three branches of government. I mean, in that circumstance, couldn’t you argue that what he did was reasonable?

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