Exiled NSA contractor Edward Snowden: ‘I haven’t and I won’t’ cooperate with Russia

Reflecting on his decision to go public with classified information, Edward Snowden says, 'The likeliest outcome for me, hands down, was that I'd spend the rest of my life in an orange jumpsuit, but that was a risk that I had to take.'
(Courtesy of Edward Snowden)

Reflecting on his decision to go public with classified information, Edward Snowden says, 'The likeliest outcome for me, hands down, was that I'd spend the rest of my life in an orange jumpsuit, but that was a risk that I had to take.' (Courtesy of Edward Snowden)

In 2013, Edward Snowden was an IT systems expert working under contract for the National Security Agency when he traveled to Hong Kong to provide three journalists with thousands of top secret documents about U.S. intelligence agencies’ surveillance of American citizens.

To Snowden, the classified information he shared with the journalists exposed privacy abuses by government intelligence agencies. He saw himself as a whistleblower. But the U.S. government considered him a traitor in violation of the Espionage Act.

After meeting with the journalists, Snowden intended to leave Hong Kong and travel — via Russia — to Ecuador, where he would seek asylum. But when his plane landed at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport, things didn’t go according to plan.

“What I wasn’t expecting was that the United States government itself … would cancel my passport,” he says.

Snowden was directed to a room where Russian intelligence agents offered to assist him — in return for access to any secrets he harbored. Snowden says he refused.

“I didn’t cooperate with the Russian intelligence services — I haven’t and I won’t,” he says. “I destroyed my access to the archive. … I had no material with me before I left Hong Kong, because I knew I was going to have to go through this complex multi-jurisdictional route.”

Snowden spent 40 days in the Moscow airport, trying to negotiate asylum in various countries. After being denied asylum by 27 nations, he settled in Russia, where he remains today.

“People look at me now and they think I’m this crazy guy, I’m this extremist or whatever. Some people have a misconception that [I] set out to burn down the NSA,” he says. “But that’s not what this was about. In many ways, 2013 wasn’t about surveillance at all. What it was about was a violation of the Constitution.”

Snowden’s 2013 revelations led to changes in the laws and standards governing American intelligence agencies and the practices of U.S. technology companies, which now encrypt much of their web traffic for security. He reflects on his life and his experience in the intelligence community in the memoir, Permanent Record.

On Sept. 17, the U.S. Justice Department filed suit to recover all proceeds from the book, alleging that Snowden violated nondisclosure agreements by not letting the government review the manuscript before publication; Snowden’s attorney, Ben Wizner, said in a statement that the book contains no government secrets that have not been previously published by respected news organizations, and that the government’s pre-publication review system is under court challenge.

Interview Highlights

On how researching China’s surveillance capabilities for a CIA presentation got him thinking about the potential for domestic surveillance within the U.S.

I’m invited to give a presentation about how China is hacking the United States intelligence services, defense contractors, anything that we have available in the network, which I know a little bit about but not that much about, because they have the person who is supposed to be giving the presentation drop out. So I go looking … seeing what exactly is it that China is doing? What are their capabilities? Are they hacking? Are they doing domestic surveillance? Are they doing international surveillance? What is occurring?

And I’m just shocked by the extent of their capabilities. I’m appalled by the aggression with which they use them. But also, in a strange way, surprised by the openness with which they use them. They’re not hiding it. They’re just open and out there saying, “Yeah, we’re doing this. Yeah, we’re hacking you. What are you going to do about it?”

And I think this is a distinction: I think yes, the NSA is spying — of course they’re spying — but we’re only spying overseas, we’re not spying on our guys at home. We wouldn’t do that. We have firewalls, we have trip wires for people to hit. But surely these are only affecting terrorists, because we’re not like China. But this plants the first seeds of doubt where I see if the capability is there.

On what he discovered about U.S. domestic surveillance

Over the final years of my career … I see that we have the same capabilities as the Chinese government, and we are applying them domestically — just as they are. We have an internal strategy at the NSA, which was never publicly avowed, but it was all over their top-secret internal slides, that said the aspiration was to “collect it all.” What this means was they were not just collecting and intercepting communications from criminals, spies, terrorists, people of intelligence value. They were collecting on everyone, everywhere, all of the time — just in case, because you never know what’s going to be interesting. And if you miss it when it’s passing by, you might not get another chance.

And so what happened was every time we wrote an e-mail, every time you typed something into that Google search box, every time your phone moved, you sent a text message, you made a phone call … the boundaries of the Fourth Amendment were being changed. This was without even the vast majority of members of Congress knowing about it. And this is when I start to think about maybe we need to know about this, maybe if Congress knew about this, maybe if the courts knew about this, we would not have the same policies as the Chinese government.

On feeling like he was breaking an oath by keeping quiet about the extent of government surveillance

My very first day entering into duty for the CIA, I was required to pledge an oath of service. Now, a lot of people are confused, they think there’s an oath of secrecy, but this is important to understand. There’s a secrecy agreement. This is a civil agreement with the government, a nondisclosure agreement called Standard Form 312. … It says you won’t talk to journalists, you won’t write books as I have now done, but when you give this oath of service it’s something very different. It’s a pledge of allegiance, not to the agency, not to a government, not to a president, but to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic.

And so when I realize we have been violating, in secret, the Fourth Amendment of that Constitution for the better part of a decade, the rate of violation is increasing, the scope of the violation is increasing with every day, that we are committing felonies in the United States under a direct mandate from the White House billions of times a day — honestly, I fell into depression. And I tried to think, how can I just get by? And this leads to a period where I resign from what would be considered direct mission-related work out in Japan, in the foreign field, as we call it, and I returned to … a purely corporate position for Dell as a sales official at CIA headquarters.

On deciding to share classified material with journalists and setting conditions for the publication of the material

I tried to reconstruct the system of checks and balances by using myself to provide documents to the journalists, but never to publish them myself. People don’t realize this, but I never made public a single document. I trusted that role to the journalists to decide what the public did and did not need to know. Before the journalists published these stories, they had to go to the government, and this was a condition that I required them to do, and tell the government, warn them they’re about to run this story about this program and the government could argue against publication and say, “You’ve got it wrong,” or “You’ve got it right.” But if you publish this is going to hurt somebody. In every case I’m aware of, that process was followed and that’s why in 2019 we’ve never seen any evidence at all presented by the government that someone’s been harmed as a result of these stories. (Editor’s note: A 2016 report by the House intelligence committee cited more than 20 examples of which, it said, Snowden damaged national security.)

On being detained in the Moscow airport for 40 days before being granted temporary asylum in Russia

Had I cooperated with the Russian government right — if you think I’m a Russian spy — I would have been in that airport for five minutes before they drove me out in a limo to the palace where I’d be living for the rest of my days, before they throw the parade where they call me a hero of Russia. Instead I was trapped in this airport for 40 days. …

The U.S. government worked quite hard to make sure I didn’t leave Russia. … Why did the U.S. government work so hard to keep me in Russia? We don’t have a clear answer, and we may never have that until more people in the Obama administration start writing memoirs, but it’s either they panicked or they realized this would be an evergreen political attack where they could just use guilt by association, people’s suspicion of the Russian government to try to taint me by proxy.

On his life in Russia and whether he receives any kind of financial support from the Russian government

I have my own apartment. I have my own income. I live a fully independent life. I have never and will never accept money or housing or any other assistance from the Russian government. …

People ask how I make my living, and I give lectures. I speak publicly for the American Program Bureau and places book me to speak about the future of cybersecurity, what’s happening with surveillance, and about conscience and whistleblowing. I’ve never been the nightclub type. I’m a little bit of an indoor cat. Whether I lived in Maryland or New York or Geneva or Tokyo or Moscow, I always spend the majority of my time looking into a screen, because I think the thing that’s on the other side of it is beautiful. It has the promise of human connection. And although the Internet is very much a troubled place … I think it is something worth fighting for, and something that they can improve.

On how he secures his personal cell phone

I try not to use one as much as possible, and when I do use one, I use a cell phone that I have myself modified. [I’ve] performed a kind of surgery on it. I open it up with special tools and I use a soldering iron to remove the microphone and I disconnect the camera so that the phone can’t simply listen to me when it’s sitting there. It physically has no microphone in it. And when I need to make a call I just connect an external microphone through the headphone jack. And this way the phone works for you rather than you working for the phone.

You need to be careful about the software you put on your phone, you need to be careful about the connections it’s making, because today most people have got a thousand apps on their phones; it’s sitting there on your desk right now or in your hand and the screen can be off but it’s connecting hundreds or thousands of times a second. … And this is this core problem of the data issue that we’re dealing with today. We’re passing laws that are trying to regulate the use of data. We’re trying to regulate the protection of data, but all of these things presume that the data has already been collected. … We need to be regulating the collection of data, because our phones, our devices, our laptops — even just driving down the street with all of these systems that surround us today — is producing records about our lives. It’s the modern pollution.

On coming back to the U.S. to face trial

My ultimate goal will always be to return to the United States. And I’ve actually had conversations with the government, last in the Obama administration, about what that would look like, and they said, “You should come and face trial.” I said, “Sure. Sign me up. Under one condition: I have to be able to tell the jury why I did what I did, and the jury has to decide was this justified or unjustified.” This is called a public interest defense and is allowed under pretty much every crime someone can be charged for. Even murder, for example, has defenses. It can be self-defense and so on so forth, it could be manslaughter instead of first-degree murder. But in the case of telling a journalist the truth about how the government was breaking the law, the government says there can be no defense. There can be no justification for why you did it. The only thing the jury gets to consider is did you tell the journalists something you were not allowed to tell them. If yes, it doesn’t matter why you did it. You go to jail. And I have said as soon as you guys say for whistleblowers it is the jury who decides if it was right or wrong to expose the government’s own lawbreaking I’ll be in court the next day.

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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