Please send a big thanks to Maria for transcribing this very important interview with Snowden on January 27th, 2014! What a great gift!-A.M.
Mr. Snowden did you sleep well the last couple of nights? because I was reading that you asked for a kind of police protection. Are there any threats?
There are significant threats but I sleep very well. There was an article that came out on Buzzfeed where they interviewed officials from the Pentagon, from the National Security Agency and they gave them anonimity to be able to say what they wanted, and what they told the reporter was that they wanted to murder me. These individuals – and these are acting government officials, said that they would be happy, they would love to put a bullet in my head and to poison me as I was returning from the grocery store and have me die in the shower.
But fortunately you are still alive with us
But I’m still alive and I don’t lose sleep, because I’ve done what I feel I needed to do, it was the right thing to do and I’m not going to be afraid.
The greatest fear I have, I quote you, regarding these disclosures is nothing will change. That was one of your greatest concerns at the time. But in the mean time there is vivid discussion about the situation with the NSA, not only in America but also in Germany and in Brazil and President Obama was forced to go public and to justify what the NSA was doing on legal grounds.
What we saw initially in response to the revelations was a circling of the wagons of government around the National Security Agency. Instead of circling around the public and protecting their rights, the political class circled around the security state and protected their rights. What’s interesting is though that was the initial response since then we’ve seen a softening, we’ve seen the president acknowledge that when he first said we’ve drawn the right balance, there are no abuses. We’ve seen him and his officials admit that there have been abuses, there have been thousands of violations of the National Security Agency and other agencies/authorities every single year.
Is this speech of Obama recently, the beginning of the serious regulation?
It was clear from the president’s speech he wanted to make minor changes to preserve authorities that we don’t need. The president created a review board from officials that were personal friends, from national security insiders, former deputy of the CIA – people who had every incentive to be soft on these programs and to see them in the best possible light but what they found was that these programs have no value, they’ve never stopped a terrorist attack in the United States and they have marginal utility at best for other things.
The only thing that the Section 215 [unintelligible] bulk collection, bulk collection means mass surveillance program, was in stopping or detecting a $8500 wire transfer from a cab driver in California and it’s this view where insiders go: we don’t need these programs. These programs don’t make us safe, they take a tremendous amount of resources to run and they offer us no value, they go: we can modify these. The National Security Agency operates under the president’s executive authority alone. He can end or modify or direct a change in their policies at any time.
For the first time President Obama did concede that the NSA collects and stores trillions of data.
Every time you pick up the phone, dial a number, write an email, make a purchase, travel on the bus carrying a cell phone, swipe a card somewhere you leave a trace and the government has decided that it’s a good idea to collect it all everything even if you never been suspected of any crime. Traditionally the government would identify a suspect they would go to a judge they would say we suspect he’s committed this crime, they would get a warrant and they would be able to use the totality of their powers in pursuit of the investigation. Nowadays what we see is they want to apply the totality of their powers in advance, prior to an investigation.
You started this event, Edward Snowden is in the meantime is a household name for the whistleblower in the age of the internet. You were working til last summer for the NSA and during this time you collected secretly thousands of confidential documents. What was the decisive moment or was there a long period of time was something happening or why did you do this?
I would say sort of the breaking point is seeing the director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, directly lie under oath to congress. There’s no saving an intelligence community that believes it can lie to the public and the legislators who need to be able to trust it and regulate its actions. Seeing that really meant for me there was no going back. Beyond that it was the creeping realization that no one else was going to do this. The public had a right to know about these programs, the public had a right to know that which the government is doing in its name and that which the government is doing against the public. But neither of these things we were allowed to discuss, we were allowed to know. Even the wider body of our elected representatives were prohibited from knowing or discussing these programs and that’s a dangerous thing. The only review we had was from a secret court, the Fiza court which is sort if a rubber stamp authority. When you are on the inside going to work everyday and you sit down at the desk and you realize the power that you have: you can wiretap the president of the US, you can wiretap a federal judge and if you do it carefully no one will ever know because the only way the NSA discovers abuses are from self-reporting.
You’re not talking only of the NSA. As far as this is concerned there is a multi-lateral agreement for corporations among the services and this alliance of intelligence operations is known as the five I’s. What agencies and countries belong to this alliance and what is its purpose?
The five I’s alliance is an artifact of the post World War II era where the Anglophone countries of the major powers banded together to cooperate and share the costs of intelligence gathering infrastructure. So we have the UK’s GCHQ, we have the US’ NSA we have Canada’s CSEC, Australias’ Signals Intelligence Directorate and we have New Zealand’s DSD. What the result of this was, over decades and decades, was a supra-national intelligence organization that doesn’t answer to the laws of its own countries.
In many countries, as in America too, the agencies like the NSA are not allowed to spy within their own borders on their own people, so the Brits for example they can spy on everybody but the Brits but the NSA can conduct surveillance in England so at the very end they could exchange their data and it would be, they would be strictly following the law.
If you ask the governments directly about this – they would deny it and point to policy agreements between the five I’s saying they won’t spy on each other’s citizens. But there are a couple key points there: one is that the way they define spying is not the collection of data; the GCHQ is collecting an incredible amount of data on British citizens just as the National Security Agency is gathering an enormous amount of data on US citizens. What they’re saying is that they will not then target people within that data, they won’t look for UK citizens or British citizens. In addition the policy agreements between them that say British won’t target US citizens, US won’t target British citizens are not legally binding, the actual memorandums of agreement state specifically on that that they’re not intended to put a legal restriction on any government. They’re policy agreements that can be deviated from or broken at any time. So if they want to spy on a British citizen they can spy on a British citizen, and then they can even share that data with the British government that is itself forbidden from spying on UK citizens. So there is a trading dynamic there but its not open it’s more a nudge and wink and beyond that the key is to remember that the surveillance and the abuse doesn’t occur when people look at the data it occurs when people gather the data in the first place.
How narrow is the cooperation of the German Secret Service – DND, the NSA and the five I’s?
I would describe it as intimate as a matter of fact the first way I described it in our written interview was that the German services and the US services are in bed together. They not only share information, the reporting that results from intelligence but they actually share the tools and the infrastructure they work together against joint targets and services and there’s alot of danger in this. One of the major programs that face abuse the National Security Agency is what’s called XKEY Score it’s a front-end search engine that allows them to look through all the records they collect worldwide everyday.
What would you do if you would sit in their place what would you do with this instrument?
You could read anyone’s email in the world, anybody you’ve got an email address for, any website you could watch traffic to and from, any computer an individual sits at you can watch it, any laptop that you’re tracking you can follow it as it moves from place to place throughout the world. It’s a one stop shop for access to the NSA’s information. And what’s more you can tag individuals using XKEY Score where let’s say I saw you once and I thought what you were doing was interesting or you just have access that’s interesting to me let’s say you work at a major German corporation and I want access to that network I can track your user name on a website forum somewhere, I can track your real name, I can associations with your friends, and I can build what’s called a fingerprint which is network activity which is unique to you. Which means anywhwere you go in the world, anywhere you try to hide your online presence, hide your identity, the NSA can find you and anyone who’s allowed to use this or who the NSA shares the software with can do the same thing. Germany is one of the countries that has access to XKEY Score.
This sounds rather frightening. The question is does the DND deliver data of the Germans to the NSA.
Whether the BND does it directly or knowingly, the NSA gets German data. Whether it’s provided I can’t speak to until it’s been reported, because it would be classified and I prefer that journalists make the distinctions and the decisions about what is public interest and what should be published. However it’s no secret that every country in the world has the data of their citizens in the NSA. Millions and millions and millions of a data connections from Germans going about their daily lives, talking on their cellphone sending SMS messages, visiting websites, buying things online – all of this ends up at the NSA. And it’s reasonable to suspect that the BND may be aware of it in some capacity. Now whether or not they actively provide the information I should not say.
The BND basically argues if we do this we do this accidentally actually and our filter didn’t work.
Right so the kind of things that they’re discussing there are two things they’re talking about filtering of “ingest” which means when the NSA puts a secret server in a German telecommunications provider or they hack a German router and they divert the traffic in a manner that lets them search through things, they’re saying if I see what I think is a German talking to another German I’ll drop it. But how do you know? You could say well these people are speaking the German language this IP address seems to be from a German company to another German company but that’s not accurate and they wouldn’t dump all of that traffic because they’ll get people who are targets of interest who are actively in Germany using German communications. So realistically what’s happening when they say there is no spying on Germans they don’t mean the German data isn’t being gathered, they don’t mean records aren’t being taken or stolen, what they mean is they’re not intentionally searching for German citizens. And that’s sort of a fingers crossed behind the back promise, it’s not reliable.
What about other European countries like Norway and Sweden? for example because we have alot of underwater cables going through the Baltic Sea.
So this is an expansion of the same idea. If the NSA isn’t collecting information on German citizens in Germany are they as soon as they leave German borders and the answer is yes. Any single communication that transits the internet the NSA may intercept at multiple points. They might see it in Germany, they might see it in Sweden, they might see it in Norway or Finland they might see it in Britain or the US. Any single one of these places the German communication crosses it will be “ingested” and added to the database.
So let’s come to our southern European neighbors then. What about Italy, what about France, what about Spain?
It’s the same deal worldwide.
Does the NSA spy on Siemens, on Mercedes on other successful German companies for example to prevail to have the advantage of knowing what is going on scientific and economic front.
I don’t want to preempt the editorial decisions of journalists. . .
But what I will say there is no question that the US is engaged in economic spying. If there is information at Siemens that they think would be beneficial to the national interests, not the national security of the US, then they will go after that information and they’ll take it.
There is this old saying “you do whatever you can do” so the NSA is doing whatever is technically possible.
This is something the president touched on last year where he’s said just because we can do something, and this was in relation to tapping Angela Merkel’s phone, just because we can do something doesn’t mean that we should. And that’s exactly what’s happened. The technological capabilities that have been provided because of weak security standards in Internet protocols and cellular communications networks have meant that intelligence services can create systems that see everything.
Nothing annoyed the German government more than the fact that the NSA taped the private phone of the German Chancellor Merkel over the last ten years obviously. Suddenly this invisible surveillance was collected with a known face and was not connected with a kind of watery, shady, terrorist background. Obama now promised to stop snooping on Merkel which raises the question did the NSA tape already previous governments, previous chancellors – when did they do this and how long did they do this for.
This is a particularly difficult question for me to answer because there is information that I very strongly believe is in the public interest. However as I’ve said before I prefer for journalists to make those decisions in advance reviewing the material themselves and decide whether or not the public value of this information outweighs the cost to the officials that ordered the surveillance. What I can say is we know Angela Merkel was monitored by the NSA. The question is how reasonable is it to assume that she is the only German official that was monitored? How reasonable is it to believe that she is the only prominent German face who the NSA was watching. I would suggest it seems unreasonable that if anyone was concerned about the intentions of German leadership that they would only watch Merkel and not her aides, not other prominent officials, not heads of ministries or even local government officials
How does a young man from Elizabeth city in North Carolina, 30 years old get in such a position, in such a sensitive area?
That’s a very difficult question to answer. In general I would say it highlights the danger of privatizing government functions. I worked previously as an actual staff officer, a goverment employee for the CIA. But I’ve also served much more frequently as a contractor in a private capacity. What that means is you have private for-profit companies doing inherently governmental work like targeted espionage surveillance compromising foreigns systems and anyone who has the skills who can convince a private company that they have the qualifications to do so will be empowered by the government to do that and there is very little oversight, there’s very little review.
Have you been one of these classical computer kids sitting red-eyed during the night at the age of 12, 15 and your father was knocking on your door and saying will you switch off the light it’s too late now. Do you get your computer skills from that side, when did you get your first computer?
I’ve definitely had a deep informal education in computers and electronic technology. They’ve always been fascinating and interesting to me. The characterization of parents telling you to go to bed is fair.
If one looks to the public data of your life one discovers that you obviously wanted to join in May 2004 the special forces to fight in Iraq, What did motivate you at the time special forces looking at you in the very moment means fighting and probably killing and did you ever get to Iraq?
No I didn’t get to Iraq. One of the interesting things about the special forces are they are not actually intended for direct combat they are what’s referred to as the force multiplier. They’re inserted behind enemy lines. It’s a squad that has a number if different specialties in it and they teach and enable the local population to resist or support US forces in a way that allows the local population a chance to help determine their own destiny and I felt that was an inherently noble thing at the time. In hindsight some of the reasons that we went in to Iraq were not well founded and I think did a disservice to everyone involved.
What happened to your adventure then? Did you stay long with them or what happened to you?
No, I broke my legs when I was in training and was discharged.
So it was a short adventure. In 2007 the CIA stationed you with a diplomatic [unintelligible] in Geneva, Switzerland why did you join the CIA by the way?
I don’t think I can actually answer that one.
Okay if it is what you have been doing there forget it but why did you join the CIA?
In many ways I think it’s a continuation of trying to do everything I could to prosecute the public good in the most effective way and it’s in line with the rest of my government service where I tried to use my technical skills in the most difficult positions I could find in the world, the CIA offered that.
If we look back special forces, CIA, NSA, it’s not actually the description of a human rights activist or somebody who becomes a whistleblower after this. What happened to you?
I think it tells a story and that’s no matter how deeply an individual is embedded in the government, no matter how faithful to the government they are, no matter how strongly they believe in the causes of their government, as I did during the Iraq war, people can learn, people can discover the line between appropriate government behaviour and actual wrong-doing. And I think it became clear to me that line had been crossed.
You worked for the NSA through a private contractor with the name Booz Allen Hamilton one of the big ones in the business. What is the advantage for the US government or the CIA to work through a private contractor to outsource a central government function?
Contracting culture of the national security community in the US is a complex topic. It’s driven by a number of interests between primarily limiting the number of direct government employees at the same time as keeping lobbying groups typically from very well funded businesses such as Booz Allen Hamilton. The problem there is you end up in a situation where government policies are being influenced by private corporations who have interests that are completely divorced from the public good in mind. The result of that is what we saw at Booz Allen Hamilton where you have private individuals who have access to, what the government alleges, millions and millions of records that they could walk out the door with no accountability, no oversight, no auditing – the government didn’t even know they were gone.
At the very end you ended up in Russia, many of the intelligence community suspect you made a deal: classified material for asylum here in Russia.
The chief of the task force investigating me as recently as December said that ther investigation had turned up no evidence or indications at all that I had any outside help or contact or made a deal of any kind to accomplish my mission. I worked alone I didn’t need anybodys help, I don’t have any ties to a foreign government, I’m not a spy for Russia or China or any other country for that matter. If I’m a traitor, who did I betray? I gave all of my information to the American public, to American journalists who are reporting on American issues. If they see that as treason I think people need to consider who do they think they are working for. The public is supposed to be their boss, not their enemy. Beyond that as far as my personal safety, I’ll never be fully safe until these systems have changed.
After your revelations none of the European countries really offered you asylum . Where did you apply in Europe for asylum?
I can’t remember the list of countries with any specificity because there were many of them but France, Germany were definitely in there as well as the UK. A number of European countries all of whom felt unfortunately, that doing the right thing was less important than supporting US political concerns.
One reaction to the NSA’s snooping in the very moment, countries like Germany are thinking to create national Internets, an attempt to force Internet companies to keep their data in their own country. Does this work?
It’s not going to stop the NSA let’s put it that way. The NSA goes where the data is. If the NSA can pull text messages out of telecommunications networks in China, they can probably manage to pull Facebook messages out of Germany. Ultimately the solution to that is not to try to stick everything in a walled garden although that does raise the level of sophistication and complexity of taking that information. It’s also much better to simply secure the information internationally against everyone rather than them playing let’s move the data. Moving the data isn’t fixing the problem, securing the data is the problem.
President Obama and the [unintelligible] obviously doesn’t care too much about the message of the leak and together with the NSA they do care very much more about catching the messenger in that context. Obama asked the Russian president several times to extradite you. Putin did not. It looks that you will stay for the rest of your life probably in Russia – how do you feel about Russia in that context, is there a solution to this problem?
I think it’s becoming increasingly clear that these leaks didn’t cause harm in fact they served the public good. Because of that I think it will be very difficult to maintain an ongoing campaign of persecution against someone who the public agrees served the public interest.
The New York Times wrote a very long comment and demanded clemency for you. The headline: Edward Snowden Whistleblower and I quote from that the [unintelligible] detail how the agency has extended its mandate and abused its authority and the New York Times closes President Obama should tell his aides to begin finding a way to end Mr. Snowden’s villification and give him an incentive to return home. Did you get a call in between from the Whitehouse?
I’ve never received a call from the Whitehouse and I’m not waiting by the phone but I would welcome the opportunity to talk about how we can bring this to a conclusion that serves the interests of all parties. I think it’s clear there are times where what is lawful is distinct from what is rightful. There are times throughout history and it doesn’t take long for either American or a German to think about times in the history of their country where the law provided the government to do things which were not right.
President Obama obviously in the very moment not quite convinced of that because he said you are charged with 3 felonies and I quote: if you, Edward Snowden, believe in what you did you should go back to America, appear before the court with a lawyer and make your case. Is this a solution?
It’s interesting he mentions 3 felonies. What he doesn’t say is that the crimes that he’s charged me with are crimes that don’t allow me to make my case. They don’t allow me to defend myself in an open court to the public and convince a jury that what I did was to their benefit. The Espionage Act was never intended, it’s from 1918, it was never intended to prosecute journalistic source – these people who are informing the newspapers about information that’s in the public interest. It was intended for people who were selling documents in secret to foreign governments, who were bombing bridges, who were sabotaging communications, not people who are serving the public good. So it’s I would say illustrative that the president would choose to say someone should face the music when he knows the music is a show trial.