A year and a half after NSA contractor Edward Snowden shocked the world with evidence of pervasive government surveillance, the NSA is still defending its actions, with an agency director saying the organization acted lawfully and with an eye toward preserving privacy and civil liberties.

The comments, from the Director of the NSA’s Commercial Solutions Center, John DeLong, came at a symposium on surveillance and digital privacy at which Snowden also appeared. The event, “Privacy in a Networked World,” was hosted by Harvard University’s Institute for Applied and Computational Science.

Although the top-billed participants could not actually share a stage for obvious reasons, Snowden appeared live via videolink and was interviewed by cryptography expert Bruce Schneier. Describing the evolution of the NSA from a “primarily defensive to primarily offensive” agency with regards to digital subterfuge and surveillance, Snowden alleged that NSA activities had become increasingly aggressive until the media scrutiny from the 2013 leaks ultimately forced the agency to focus on issues of transparency and accountability.

Speaking of the NSA’s own internal auditing processes, Snowden was dismissive, citing his experience that internal auditors were often “the friends and associates of those being audited,” as opposed to professional external auditors who could vet internal practices impartially.

He closed his remarks by saying that his former colleagues at NSA were not “villains”, but rather people who had been enabled to make dangerous decisions as a result of a culture of impunity which had purportedly developed at the agency.

DeLong, whose comments were scheduled after Snowden’s and who did not directly interact with him, is a longtime agency employee who was previously also the NSA’s Compliance Director. While he declined to directly comment on Snowden’s appearance at the event this year, he mentioned that he was “surprised” to see the agenda of the symposium this year but nonetheless welcomed the opportunity to dispel purported misconceptions about the agency.

Offering a spirited defense of the NSA and its surveillance activities, DeLong said it was “important not to think of the NSA as having done things which were unauthorized” and maintained that except in cases of inadvertent error, agency activities were at all times within the bounds of the law.

Adding that “protecting privacy and civil liberties is more art than science”, DeLong also made comments defending the NSA’s highly-controversial metadata collection program as being far more circumscribed and controlled than has been reported publicly. Though he was perhaps constrained for time, he did not elaborate or greatly substantiate upon this point.

A former Harvard alumni himself, DeLong also invited students in attendance to consider careers with the NSA in order to help implement the types of changes they may like to see at the organization.

Despite the potentially combustible combination of speakers, the event remained a relatively genteel and sober discussion of the NSA’s role in spying and conducting digital security in the 21st century.

The only testy moment came during the question period, when a student forced the issue with DeLong and asked him whether he thought the public debate triggered by Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing had social merit. As DeLong responded, “With regard to Snowden, all I will say is that we need to let the wheels of justice turn in his case.”

Photo: Jack Plunkett/Invision/AP