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Sam Adams Award 2015: Whistleblowers Warn of Dangers to Democracy

23/01/2015 17:46 GMT | Updated 25/03/2015 09:59 GMT

Last night in Berlin, squished into an overpacked awards ceremony, I enjoyed - if that's the word for it - two hours of chilling warnings about the future of western democracy. I was at the Sam Adams Award for integrity in intelligence, held this year in a freezing cold Berlin, and won by the former Technical Director of the NSA, William Binney.

Binney is probably the most senior intelligence whistleblower in recent history. To give you an idea of his seniority - he designed most of the programmes that Edward Snowden leaked details about. So when William Binney talks about the dangers of mass surveillance, it pays to listen. It's a bit like hearing Josef Goebbels talk about the risks of propaganda. The guy knows his stuff.

While at the NSA, recalls Binney, "I worked the Soviet Union for 30 years," so he found it "easy to recognise the illegal, unconstitutional activity" of the US government for what it was. What the NSA were doing "was exactly what the KGB wanted to do." The difference is, the NSA have got better tools. Tools that Binney himself had built.

Binney saw his country being overcome by "the totalitarian process" - at which point, he says, "I immediately knew I had to do something".

Every whistleblower who took to the podium at the ceremony - and there were plenty - expressed some version of this categorical imperative to act. Edward Snowden, beamed into Berlin via video from Moscow, talked of the "obligation" to speak out. "Even if everybody else holds their tongue - not me."

The former UK Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray - who blew the whistle on the CIA & MI6's complicity in barbaric torture programmes - felt the same obligation: "everyone must know about this."

I spoke to Murray after the awards about his motives for doing what he did. "You have to understand, I was an extremely successful career diplomat. I was Britain's youngest ambassador. I had a 6-figure salary, a chauffeur, servants. I wasn't a good person, by any means - I enjoyed the wealth, I had mistresses - but torture was something... unthinkable."

After raising his concerns, Murray was promptly sacked by the government, and had his professional reputation dismantled. A high-flying career trashed. "I lost a huge amount," he sighed. "Trust me, I didn't need the attention".

Pretty much everyone who's ever blown a whistle has been branded an attention seeking "narcissist". The message that Edward Snowden is a self-centred limelight-hugger been hammered hard into the media by, amongst others, the former NSA and CIA boss, Michael Hayden.

Hayden has relentlessly attacked Snowden as being in it for his own ends. Never mind the fact that Hayden is saying all this while shilling for the Chertoff Group. Happy to line his pockets with corporate bucks, while insisting that it's Snowden who's profiting by his disclosures.

The reality is, being a whistleblower is a tough road to tread - as the former CIA analyst Ray McGovern said. "This is dreary. This is hard work." At best, you get a pat on the back and a free glass of wine at an awards bash in Berlin. At worst, you end up like Chelsea Manning - serving hard time in a military prison. That, or you end up "committing suicide", with your wrists slashed in the woods.

William Binney talked of how, after he'd resigned, the FBI came at him "with guns drawn, pointing them at me and my family". They surrounded him on his back porch and demanded that he tell them something that would implicate somebody in a crime.

Binney told them of the only crime he knew about: "George Bush, Dick Cheney, [NSA chief] Michael Hayden and [CIA chief] George Tennant have conspired to subvert the Constitution and they did it with a program called Stellar Wind" - a top secret mass surveillance initiative. At which point the head FBI agent had to hustle his colleagues away because they didn't have the necessary security clearance to hear what Binney had just said. "I caused them a security problem," chuckled Binney. "They had to brief all of them and tell them to keep quiet about it."

After the awards, I asked Binney what advice he had for any would-be whistleblowers. "The same for everyone", he smiled. "Play your part, step up, or we risk losing our democracy forever." But with so much surveillance, secret courts in place, and so little privacy left, haven't we lost it already? Binney nodded sadly. "Pretty much." His smile was gone. So is it game over? "Well, put it this way, we're in the 8th round of a 10 rounder. It's time to dig deep".

The fight is on. For Annie Machon, the MI5 whistleblower who helped organise the event in Berlin, it's an "asymmetrical information warfare" between an ever more powerful corporate-governmental system and what she calls "the resistance". At the heart of this resistance she sees "hacktivists" and, in particular, "the hardcore geek community".

So, looks like it's time for the geeks to log out of World of Warcraft and step up. There's a real battle being waged here, with hardcore geeks on both sides. William Binney is the archetypical geek: a cryptographer, mathematician and games-theory expert. But much to the NSA's embarrassment, it turned out he was a geek with a conscience. A dangerous character indeed, more deadly even than a level 47 fire mage wearing Gauntlets of the Crackling Vanquisher - to use terms a geek would understand.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not having a go at geeks. After all, if there's one thing I learned last night in Berlin it's this: geeks with a conscience are western democracy's best hope.