Letter from the US: Snowden’s email provider resists gov't attacks

A new whistleblower has come forward with a chilling new revelation concerning Washington’s surveillance of its citizens. But he is not allowed to blow his whistle under threat of jail.

All the whistleblower could do was report his act of resistance and that there was a threat. He did so on the United States' progressive TV show Democracy Now! on August 13.

Ladar Levison is the owner of Lavabit, an email provider that offers users a secure service the government cannot easily get into. It employs sophisticated encryption -- putting user's messages in hard-to-crack code.

He recently shut down Lavabit rather than turn over to government spooks some of his 410,000 user’s files. Reflecting his sadness on having to scrap 10 years of hard work in building up Lavabit, he compared his decision to “putting a beloved pet to sleep … faced with the choice of watching it suffer or putting it to sleep quietly”.

“I felt in the end I had to pick between the lesser of two evils and that shutting down the service, if it was no longer secure, was the better option.”

Lavabit was the email service for Edward Snowden. Snowden said of Levison’s decision that it was “inspiring”.

Democracy Now! reported that Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who has been responsible for providing the press with Snowden’s revelations, said: “What is particularly creepy about the Lavabit self-shutdown is that the company is gagged by law from even discussing the legal challenges it has made and the court proceeding it has engaged.

“In other words, the American owner of the company believes his Constitutional rights and those of his customers are being violated by the US government, but he is not allowed to talk about it.”

Greenwald added: “Just as is true for people who received National Security Letters under the Patriot Act, Lavabit has been told they would face serious criminal sanctions if they publicly discuss what is being done to their company.”

Levison said: “Just to add one thing to Greenwald’s comments, I mean, there is information that I can’t even share with my lawyer, let alone with the American public. So if we’re talking about secrecy, you know, it’s really the extreme.

“And I really think it is being used by the current administration to cover up tactics they may be ashamed of.”

With Levison on the program was his lawyer, Jesse Binnall.

The following exchange is instructive. Levison said: “I’ve always complied with the law. It’s just that in this case I felt that complying with the law ...”

Binnall interupted: "He does have to be careful at this point. But I think he can speak philosophically about the ... his philosophy behind Lavabit and why it would lead to his decision to shut down.”

In a response to a query about what Levison can or cannot say, Binnall said: “Ladar is in a situation where he has to watch every word he says when he’s talking to the press, for fear of being imprisoned. And we can’t even talk about what the legal requirements are that make it so he has to watch his words.

“But the simple fact is, I’m really here with him because there are some very fine lines that he can’t cross, for fear of being dragged away in handcuffs. And that’s pretty much the exact fears that led the Founding Fathers to give us the First Amendment in the first place.”

Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman then reported that soon after Lavabit was shut down, another encrypted email provider called Silent Circle, also shut down. Founder and CEO Mike Janke said: “There was no 12-hour heads up [to his customers]. If we had announced it, it would have given the authorities time to file a National Security Letter.

“We decided to destroy [Silent Circle] before we were asked to turn information over. We had to do scorched earth.”

In response, Levison said: “I can certainly understand his position. If the government had learned that I was shutting my service down -- can I say that?”

Binnall replied: “I think it’s best to kind of avoid that topic, unfortunately ...”

Levison went on: “Yeah. But I will say that I don’t think I had a choice but to shut it down without notice … I’ll leave it to your listeners to understand why.”

Goodman also asked Levison if he could say whether or not he received a National Security Letter.

Levison said: “No.” Binnall added: “Unfortunately he can’t.”

Democracy Now! then played a recording of Barack Obama from 2005, when he was a Senator, opposing the legislation authorising National Security Letters.

In it, Obama said: “This is legislation that puts our own Justice Department above the law. When National Security Letters are issued, they allow federal agents to conduct any search on any American, no matter how extensive, how wide-ranging, without ever going before a judge to prove that a search is necessary.

“All that is needed is a sign-off from a local FBI agent. That’s it. Once a business or a person received notification that they will be searched, they are prohibited from telling anyone about it …

“And if someone wants to know why their own government has decided to go on a fishing expedition through every personal record or private document, through the library books that you read, the phone calls that you’ve made, the emails that you’ve sent, this legislation gives people no rights to appeal the need for such a search in a court of law.

“No judge will hear your plea; no jury will hear your case.”

Levison made a correction to Obama's comments: “It’s possible to receive one of these orders and have it signed off by a court. You know, we have the FISA court, which is effectively a secret court, sometimes called a kangaroo court because there’s no opposition…”

In FISA’s secret hearings, only the government presents its case. The targets aren’t even aware of the proceedings.

That was Obama in 2005. Now we have Obama, president of the National Security State of America, championing the opposite.

That Levison has come forward to speak out at all is an indication that in spite of the huge campaigns by the government, the military and the media against whistleblowers such as Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, branding them as traitors for telling the US people about the crimes of what is supposed to be “their” government, the truth has begun to penetrate.

Another sign that growing numbers of ordinary US people are becoming uneasy about these revelations was a vote in the House that almost defunded some of the worst aspects of the NSA’s criminal program.

The bill, only defeated by seven votes, would have prevented the mass collection of records that are not explicitly relevant to an authorised foreign intelligence, terrorism or covert intelligence activities.

Of course, those exemptions amount to a hole wide enough to drive an ocean liner through. But the mass collection of records of every communication -- as exposed by Snowden -- could not be funded.

That this almost made it through the House, known and despised for its venality, indicates the popular unease.

A recent headline in the New York Times read: “NSA Leaks Make Plan for Cyberdefense Unlikely.” The article told the story about how the super spy agency was planning to “deploy the equivalent of a ‘Star Wars’ defense … designed to intercept cyberattacks before they could cripple power plants, banks or financial markets.

“But administration officials say the plan, championed by Gen. Keith B. Alexander, the director of the National Security Agency and head of the Pentagon’s Cyber Command, has virtually no chance of moving forward given the backlash against the NSA over recent disclosures about its surveillance programs….

“‘Whatever trust was there is now gone’ [a senior intelligence] official said. ‘I mean, who would believe the NSA when it insists it is blocking Chinese attacks but not using the same technology to read your emails?’”

Another indication was a speech by Obama after that vote. In it, he acknowledged that many Americans don’t trust the government on this score.

Obama promised reforms to introduce more “safeguards” and “transparency.” These reforms of the vast spying apparatus will be proposed by that apparatus itself, headed by General Alexander. We can all rest easy, he assured us.

[Barry Sheppard was a long-time leader of the US Socialist Workers Party and the Fourth International. He recounts his experience in the SWP in a two-volume book, The Party — the Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, available from Resistance Books. Read more of Sheppard's articles.]