The Guardian this morning hosted an interview with Edward Snowden, the man behind the massive leaks of NSA material. Over the course of more than a dozen questions, Snowden stayed vague, offering tips for Obama and email users, and providing little new in the way of explaining how the NSA's tools work. Despite his worry that "the mainstream media now seems far more interested in what I said when I was 17 or what my girlfriend looks like," that level of analysis is what he provided.
But, he pledged: "More detail is coming."
Why he leaked
The first questions, selected by Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald, focused both on Snowden's decision to go to Hong Kong and the extent of the files he collected. The first point has been a repeated point of critique for those who oppose Snowden's action; former vice president Dick Cheney suggested that it meant Snowden was a Chinese spy. Snowden that it was done for safety purposes.
First, the US Government, just as they did with other whistleblowers, immediately and predictably destroyed any possibility of a fair trial at home, openly declaring me guilty of treason and that the disclosure of secret, criminal, and even unconstitutional acts is an unforgivable crime. That's not justice, and it would be foolish to volunteer yourself to it if you can do more good outside of prison than in it.
Later, he amended one of his responses to address Cheney specifically: "Being called a traitor by Dick Cheney is the highest honor you can give an American." Charges he planned to give classified info to China he calls "a predictable smear" that he flatly denied. In fact, Snowden heavily emphasized patriotic arguments, stating that "this country is worth dying for" and that "the consent of the governed is not consent if it is not informed."
He also criticized the international mandate of the NSA.
Suspicionless surveillance does not become okay simply because it's only victimizing 95% of the world instead of 100%. Our founders did not write that "We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all US Persons are created equal."
Snowden had made a similar critique earlier, arguing that the NSA ran operations in countries "we're not even fighting."
How the NSA's programs operate
Snowden didn't provide a great deal more information about how the NSA's programs work. He indicated that the agency had "hacked civilian infrastructure such as universities, hospitals, and private businesses," perhaps in reference to a document he leaked calling for plans to strike foreign facilities. He explained:
[I]f an NSA, FBI, CIA, DIA, etc analyst has access to query raw SIGINT databases, they can enter and get results for anything they want. Phone number, email, user id, cell phone handset id (IMEI), and so on - it's all the same.
In other words: If such analysts have access to the broad database of information, efforts to tie the data to individuals is trivial. Getting information into that database, he said, requires only a request from an analyst, not a warrant. Request for warrants, when needed, are sent "to a reliable judge with a rubber stamp." Analyst behavior is largely unchecked; audits of their behavior are "cursory, incomplete, and easily fooled by fake justifications," with only five percent of them audited.
This comports with what journalist Julian Sanchez understands. ("FAA" is the FISA Amendments Act.)
The WHOLE POINT of the FAA is that analysts needn't always get new specific warrants for each facility. So has to be possible sometimes.— Julian Sanchez (@normative) June 17, 2013
Snowden suggested that, contrary to claims that the government keeps a narrow focus in its data collection, the filter employs the "'widest allowable aperture,' and can be stripped out at any time," often including domestic information.
About "direct access" from tech companies
Prompted to explain the description of NSA as having "direct access" to tech company servers — something those companies have continuously denied — Snowden indicated that "more detail ... is coming." Snowden suggested that both the NSA and the companies use misleading language to keep it opaque. He asked:
If for example Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple refused to provide this cooperation with the Intelligence Community, what do you think the government would do? Shut them down?
The good news? For email, "encryption works."
On the damage he's done
When a questioner pointed out that the government is claiming that terrorists have changed their TTPs — that is, their techniques, tactics and procedures — Snowden disagreed, saying, "US officials say this every time there's a public discussion that could limit their authority."
Bathtub falls and police officers kill more Americans than terrorism, yet we've been asked to sacrifice our most sacred rights for fear of falling victim to it.
In fact, Snowden sees his leak as being helpful. Both to whistleblowers ("draconian responses simply build better whistleblowers") and to Obama.
He still has plenty of time to go down in history as the President who looked into the abyss and stepped back, rather than leaping forward into it. I would advise he personally call for a special committee to review these interception programs, repudiate the dangerous "State Secrets" privilege, and, upon preparing to leave office, begin a tradition for all Presidents forthwith to demonstrate their respect for the law by appointing a special investigator to review the policies of their years in office for any wrongdoing.
How the interview worked
The questions, selected by sympathetic reporters and carefully answered by Snowden, have so far not revealed any significant new information. Those chosen came from comments at the paper's website and via the hashtag #AskSnowden. Before his responses began, the site had tallied nearly 500 questions, and the hashtag hundreds more — ranging widely in quality.
One of Snowden's first reponses was perhaps his most evocative, suggesting that this was not the end of the conversation. "All I can say right now is the US Government is not going to be able to cover this up by jailing or murdering me," Snowden wrote. "Truth is coming, and it cannot be stopped."