Inside Intelexit, the activist group trying to recruit the next Edward Snowden

On Monday, a small, civilian-operated drone flew over Dagger Complex, an American military base located at the August-Euler Airport just outside of Frankfurt, Germany. As its name implies, Dagger Complex is a place for spies. Specifically, it’s the home of the European Cryptologic Center, the U.S.’s primary signals intelligence processing center in Germany.

The drone wasn’t just there for sightseeing purposes, it had a mission—dropping a flurry of leaflets encouraging the employees inside the complex to listen to their consciences and quit in protest of their dragnet surveillance of the world’s electronic communications.

Last week, similar messages were splashed across a rolling billboard near the NSA’s headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, and the home base of Britain’s spy agency, GCHQ, in Cheltenham, England.

These efforts to inspire a mass exodus of intelligence officials is the work of Intelexit, a group that aims to dismantle the international surveillance state, one employee at a time.

The group’s argument is that the post-9/11 intelligence apparatus laid bare by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden is corrosive not only to the individual liberties of everyone being surveilled, but also to the people actually doing the surveillance.

“People working in secret services are the most surveilled in society. This is because they have access to classified information and knowledge of the structures and scandals within intelligence,” reads a passage on the organization’s website. “They are not only scrutinized and controlled by their employers but also by other secret services. Families and friends are exposed to this surveillance, too. This level of surveillance leads to extreme self-policing, which is detrimental to one’s psyche.”

“We were surprised we were even contacted at all, to be honest!”

The organization is the brainchild of the Peng Collective, a group of Berlin-based activists known for putting on, as they dub it, “creative political stunts,” such as an effort to help sneak Syrian refugees into Europe by matching with E.U. citizens who can give them lifts in their cars as they return from vacation, or deploying a small army of Twitter bots to algorithmically detect and intervene in cases of online misogyny.

Intelexit works to encourage intelligence professionals to quit and possibly become Snowden-esque whistleblowers. In addition to encouragement, Intelexit has partnered with government transparency activists at the Courage Foundation to give people plotting to leave the intelligence field the counseling and resources they need to make the career switch.

Intelexit’s Jeremie Zimmermann told the Daily Dot that the group was borne from a cognitive dissonance he and others noticed during conversations with intelligence officials.

“As an activist, I had a chance to meet people within the ‘intel community’ and talk off the record with them and notice, sometimes very subtly, hints of a moral distress … that gets stronger and stronger as those people go down the ‘rabbit hole,’” Zimmermann recalled via email. “Often these people sign up to defend values: their country’s constitution, their fellow citizens’ fundamental rights, democracy, etc., and end up in some grayish office being asked to do exactly the opposite: trampling freedoms while sitting on constitution and hurting democracy.”

Zimmerman insists Intelexit’s goal isn’t pushing anyone into a whistleblowing role they aren’t particularly enthusiastic about. Instead, he said, the mission is about “motivating and supporting this courageous choice of quitting a shit job that makes these people feel miserable.”

Once they hit the stage of deciding to quit, the intelligence officials can decide if they want to blow the whistle or not. The group offers everything from psychological counseling to legal support to media planning. Before he quit the NSA and leaked a massive trove of classified documents to journalist Glenn Greenwald and filmmaker Laura Poitras, Snowden made meticulous plans to protect his physical safety and ensure his disclosures made the maximum impact.

One aspect that complicates Intelexit’s efforts is that, at least in the U.S., most of the people working in signals intelligence are active-duty military personnel and are likely unable to resign due to the nature of their contracts.

Even though Intelexit is still relatively new, Zimmermann notes the group has already had some success. “We were surprised we were even contacted at all, to be honest!” he wrote. “I thought that triggering these discussions … was a primary objective, and that actually getting contacted would be some sort of ‘bonus’—very unlikely. Anyway, the objective was to be ready for it … and we got contacted.”

Zimmermann declined to get into more specifics about who contacted the group because Intelexit is still in the early stages of working what he predicted will be an extremely protracted process.

Representatives from the U.K. government’s intelligence agency, GCHQ, declined to comment for this report, as did officials from Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association, the nonprofit membership association serving the intelligence industry. The NSA did not respond to a request for comment.

However, in an interview with the Daily Dot earlier this year, former NSA General Counsel Rajesh De’s recounting of the reaction inside the agency to Snowden’s leaks should give a pretty good idea about how officials there would feel about any efforts to encourage whistleblowers.

“[There] was a deep, deep [feeling] of betrayal,” recalled De. “Someone who was sitting next to them—being part of the team helping keep people safe, which is really what people at the agency think they are doing—could turn around and do something so self-aggrandizing and reckless.”

Photo by Trevor Paglen/Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Aaron Sankin

Aaron Sankin

Aaron Sankin is a former Senior Staff Writer at the Daily Dot who covered the intersection of politics, technology, online privacy, Twitter bots, and the role of dank memes in popular culture. He lives in Seattle, Washington. He joined the Center for Investigative Reporting in 2016.