Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden urged Americans to protest against the massive phone and Internet surveillance programs he exposed in a rare public statement Thursday.
Snowden is living in exile in Russia, where he was granted temporary asylum on Aug. 1 after a dramatic month-long stay in Moscow's international airport. He's wanted by U.S. authorities for alleged theft of government property and alleged violations of the Espionage Act of 1917.
Since being granted asylum, the whistle-blower has largely shunned media attention. But in his Thursday statement, he recommends participation in the Saturday protest organizers hope will be the largest anti-surveillance demonstration in U.S. history.
Members of the Stop Watching Us coalition, which is hosting the protest, include the American Civil Liberties Union, the Mozilla Foundation, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Green Party, the Libertarian Party, social news website Reddit, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Demand Progress and Students for Liberty.
"In the last four months, we've learned a lot about our government," Snowden says in the statement. "We've learned that the U.S. intelligence community secretly built a system of pervasive surveillance. Today, no telephone in America makes a call without leaving a record with the NSA. Today, no Internet transaction enters or leaves America without passing through the NSA's hands. Our representatives in Congress tell us this is not surveillance. They're wrong.
"Now," he says, "it's time for the government to learn from us. On Saturday, the ACLU, EFF, and the rest of the StopWatching.Us coalition are going to D.C. Join us in sending the message: Stop Watching Us."
Documents released by Snowden in June revealed that the administration of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama had been vacuuming up the phone records of all Americans with secret court orders and, allegedly, working with major Internet companies to access user information.
In addition to domestic surveillance, documents about spying on the leaders of Brazil, France, Germany, Mexico, as well as on international businesses and other U.S. allies have prompted sequential furors as they are reported by media outlets with access to documents distributed by Snowden.
The House of Representative narrowly rejected on July 24 an amendment by Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., that would have ended the NSA's collection of all Americans' phone records. That amendment fell 12 votes short of passing.
Surveillance programs are expected to get another bout of legislative attention later this year. Supporters of the programs, including Obama, say NSA agents don't rifle through files on ordinary Americans and claim NSA surveillance led to information on 54 terror plots since 2001. NSA Director Keith Alexander admitted during an Oct. 2 Senate committee hearing only 13 cases were related to the U.S. The role of NSA surveillance in disrupting publicly disclosed plots has been disputed.
In a bid to raise awareness for the Saturday protest near Congress, the Stop Watching Us coalition on Wednesday released a video featuring actor John Cusack, documentary filmmaker Oliver Stone, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg and others denouncing the surveillance programs. An online petition by the coalition has more than 577,000 signatures.