Edward Snowden is not the first NSA whistleblowers. A small group of others came before him. USA Today got them together, and their conversation is terrifying.

These three men— Thomas Drake, William Binney and J. Kirk Wiebe— are responsible for a large portion of what the public knew about the NSA's domestic spying activities prior to Snowden's recent leaks. They personally played key roles in designing and implementing the NSA's computer spying technology. (For background, see here and here.) Prior to their whistleblowing, they were government employees who worked diligently to help America's spying programs. The entire transcript of their discussion about Snowden and his actions is well worth reading for anyone even mildly curious about what the U.S. government has been doing to civil liberties in the post-9/11 era. We'll highlight just a couple of their remarks. Remember, these are not some wild-eyed outside activists, but men who know the NSA from the inside.

William Binney, on whether Congress and the courts really have oversight of these NSA spying programs:

But the way it's set up now, it's a joke. I mean, it can't work the way it is because they have no real way of seeing into what these agencies are doing. They are totally dependent on the agencies briefing them on programs, telling them what they are doing. And as long as the agencies tell them, they will know. If they don't tell them, they don't know. And that's what's been going on here...

Even take the FISA court, for example. The judges signed that order. I mean, I am sure they (the FBI) swore on an affidavit to the judge, "These are the reasons why," but the judge has no foundation to challenge anything that they present to him. What information does the judge have to make a decision against them? I mean, he has absolutely nothing. So that's really not an oversight.

Thomas Drake and J. Kirk Wiebe on Snowden:

Drake: I actually salute him. I will say it right here. I actually salute him, given my experience over many, many years both inside and outside the system. Remember, I saw what he saw. I want to re-emphasize that. What he did was a magnificent act of civil disobedience. He's exposing the inner workings of the surveillance state. And it's in the public interest. It truly is. [Drake also said that Snowden likely faces "rendition."]

Wiebe: Well, I don't want anyone to think that he had an alternative. No one should (think that). There is no path for intelligence-community whistle-blowers who know wrong is being done. There is none. It's a toss of the coin, and the odds are you are going to be hammered.

Take a few minutes to read the whole thing.

[USA Today. Photo via Getty]