With a little help from his friends at the American Civil Liberties Union, Edward Snowden conducted a Reddit "Ask Me Anything" session Thursday afternoon. The ex-spy spoke about reforms to the National Security Agency and the Patriot Act. Section 215 of the act, which the NSA uses as the legal justification for the data collection program that Snowden revealed two years ago, is set to expire June 1 unless Congress extends it.
In his answers, he expressed significant skepticism that the U.S. government will stop spying on its citizens altogether, but still encouraged users to call their member of Congress and urge them to vote against the Patriot Act extension.
He also answered questions ranging from his take on Sen. Rand Paul's recent self-described filibuster, to the state of Russian cuisine, to his favorite book. Some of his replies are highlighted below.
Q: What're your thoughts on Rand Paul's filibuster against the renewal of the Patriot Act?
A: It represents a sea change from a few years ago, when intrusive new surveillance laws were passed without any kind of meaningful opposition or debate. Whatever you think about Rand Paul or his politics, it's important to remember that when he took the floor to say "No" to any length of reauthorization of the Patriot Act, he was speaking for the majority of Americans—more than 60% of whom want to see this kind of mass surveillance reformed or ended.
He was joined by several other senators who disagree with the Senate Majority leader's efforts to sneak through a reauthorization of what courts just weeks ago declared was a comprehensively unlawful program, and if you notice that yours did not take to the floor with him, you should call them right now and ask them to vote against any extension of the Patriot Act, because right now it looks like they're going to force the reauthorization vote to occur during the dark of a holiday weekend.
Q: Even if Section 215 is not renewed, do you believe that the NSA/U.S. government will still accomplish phone surveillance without approval and in secret?
A: There are always reasons to be concerned that regardless of the laws passed, some agencies in government (FBI, NSA, CIA, and DEA, for example, have flouted laws in the past) will miscontrue the intent of Congress in passing limiting laws—or simply disregard them totally. For example, the DOJ's internal watchdog, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released a report claiming, among other abuses, that it could simply refuse to tell government oversight bodies what exactly it was doing, so the legality or illegality of their operations simply couldn't be questioned at all.
However, that's no excuse for the public or Congress to turn a blind eye to unlawful or immoral operations—and the kind of mass surveillance happening under Section 215 of the Patriot Act right now is very much unlawful: the Courts ruled just two weeks ago that not only are these activities illegal, but they have been since the day the programs began.
Q: In your opinion, do you think that a majority of American Citizens care enough that they will call Congress and sign petitions? I think a large issue in America is Political Apathy.
A: Jameel [Jaffer, deputy legal director of the ACLU] probably has a better answer, but we know from very recent, non-partisan polling that Americans (and everyone else around the world) care tremendously about mass surveillance.
The more central question, from my perspective, is "why don't lawmakers seem to care?" After all, the entire reason they are in office in our system is to represent our views. The recent Princeton Study on politicians' responsiveness to the policy preferences of different sections of society gives some indication of where things might be going wrong:
Out of all groups expressing a policy preference within society, the views of the public at large are given the very least weight, whereas those of economic elites (think bankers, lobbyists, and the people on the Board of Directors at defense contracting companies) exercise more than ten times as much influence on what laws get passed -- and what laws don't.
Q: Whats your opinion about the UK government giving GCHQ spies immunity from anti-hacking laws and does that make them worse than the NSA?
I think it's revealing that the UK government has chosen to change the law without any debate or public declaration. It's a clear red flag.
Q: What do you think about the rise of encrypted messaging apps like Threema and Bleep by Bittorrent? Which (if any) would you recommend? Also, read any good books lately?
Signal for iOS, Redphone/TextSecure for Android.
I have a special fondness for "Secrets," by Daniel Ellsberg.
* * *
Reddit users also had some soul-searching questions for Snowden.
"Do you miss pizza?" one user asked.
"This guy gets it," Snowden responded. "Russia has Papa John's. For real."
"Sorry, I just had to ask, but, Mr. Snowden, during the interview with John Oliver, was that really a picture of his junk in that folder?" another user asked.
Snowden simply replied with an ambiguous emoticon.