Edward Snowden: 'Being Called a Traitor by Dick Cheney Is the Highest Honor You Can Give an American'
"Ask yourself: if I were a Chinese spy, why wouldn't I have flown directly into Beijing? I could be living in a palace petting a phoenix by now."
That's how Edward Snowden, the source behind the bombshell revelations about the National Security Agency's surveillance programs, responded to accusations that he's a Chinese agent during a Q&A Monday on the Guardian's website. Here are the highlights from the fascinating conversation, which was moderated by journalist Glenn Greenwald:
Question: Define in as much detail as you can what "direct access" means.
Snowden: More detail on how direct NSA's accesses are is coming, but in general, the reality is this: if 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. The restrictions against this are policy based, not technically based, and can change at any time. Additionally, audits are cursory, incomplete, and easily fooled by fake justifications. For at least GCHQ, the number of audited queries is only 5% of those performed.
The main factual dispute in the aftermath of the Washington Post and Guardian scoops about the NSA program known as PRISM involved whether the agency's analysts had "direct access" to tech companies' servers. The initial reporting suggested that the NSA is able to roam around these servers as it likes -- an allegation the firms involved in the program have strongly denied.
Snowden's evasive answer does little to clear up this point of confusion. In saying that analysts "get results for anything they want," he does not address whether the NSA can freely explore data on company servers or whether it has to first ask corporations for information the agency is seeking. Additionally, Snowden appears to be discussing the NSA's program for collecting telehony metadata -- which is separate from the PRISM program that has raised questions about "direct access."
Question: Can analysts listen to content of domestic calls without a warrant?
Snowden: NSA likes to use "domestic" as a weasel word here for a number of reasons. The reality is that due to the FISA Amendments Act and its section 702 authorities, Americans' communications are collected and viewed on a daily basis on the certification of an analyst rather than a warrant. They excuse this as "incidental" collection, but at the end of the day, someone at NSA still has the content of your communications. Even in the event of "warranted" intercept, it's important to understand the intelligence community doesn't always deal with what you would consider a "real" warrant like a Police department would have to, the "warrant" is more of a templated form they fill out and send to a reliable judge with a rubber stamp.
Glenn Greenwald follow up: When you say "someone at NSA still has the content of your communications" - what do you mean? Do you mean they have a record of it, or the actual content?
Snowden: Both. If I target for example an email address, for example under FAA 702, and that email address sent something to you, Joe America, the analyst gets it. All of it. IPs, raw data, content, headers, attachments, everything. And it gets saved for a very long time - and can be extended further with waivers rather than warrants.
In defending its wiretapping programs, the government has relied heavily on the fact that it has so-called "minimization procedures" in place to quarantine data belonging to Americans. The irony is that we know next to nothing about those procedures, as they remain classified. If Snowden is correct here, those procedures are flimsy at best and non-existent at worst.
Question: Some skepticism exists about certain of your claims, including this:
"I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone, from you, or your accountant, to a federal judge, to even the President if I had a personal email."
Do you stand by that, and if so, could you elaborate?
Snowden: Yes, I stand by it. US Persons do enjoy limited policy protections (and again, it's important to understand that policy protection is no protection - policy is a one-way ratchet that only loosens) and one very weak technical protection - a near-the-front-end filter at our ingestion points. The filter is constantly out of date, is set at what is euphemistically referred to as the "widest allowable aperture," and can be stripped out at any time. Even with the filter, US comms get ingested, and even more so as soon as they leave the border. Your protected communications shouldn't stop being protected communications just because of the IP they're tagged with.
More fundamentally, the "US Persons" protection in general is a distraction from the power and danger of this system. 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."
In the United States, much of the outrage over the NSA's activities has centered on the agency collecting data on American citizens. But what Snowden makes clear here is that he isn't particularly concerned about the distinction between Americans and non-Americans. Instead, Snowden is objecting to the entire scope of the NSA's activities -- both domestically and abroad. That will be an important consideration going forward, because if Snowden begins to unmask NSA operations abroad, the pendulum of public opinion may swing against him. Many Americans simply aren't as likely to get upset about the NSA hoovering up emails belonging to foreigners.
Question: Why did you choose Hong Kong to go to and then tell them about US hacking on their research facilities and universities?
Snowden: 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.
Second, let's be clear: I did not reveal any US operations against legitimate military targets. I pointed out where the NSA has hacked civilian infrastructure such as universities, hospitals, and private businesses because it is dangerous. These nakedly, aggressively criminal acts are wrong no matter the target. Not only that, when NSA makes a technical mistake during an exploitation operation, critical systems crash. Congress hasn't declared war on the countries - the majority of them are our allies - but without asking for public permission, NSA is running network operations against them that affect millions of innocent people. And for what? So we can have secret access to a computer in a country we're not even fighting? So we can potentially reveal a potential terrorist with the potential to kill fewer Americans than our own Police? No, the public needs to know the kinds of things a government does in its name, or the "consent of the governed" is meaningless.
CBS anchorman Bob Schieffer made waves over the weekend by arguing that Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. would never have fled the country like Snowden did. Rather, they practiced civil disobedience and served jail time for violating laws that they viewed as unjust. Snowden says he will eventually fight his case in court, but until then he remains in Hong Kong, leaking the government's secrets with glee. Here, however, he provides one of the clearest rationales to date about why he fled to Hong Kong.
Question: Edward, there is rampant speculation, outpacing facts, that you have or will provide classified US information to the Chinese or other governments in exchange for asylum. Have/will you?
Snowden: This is a predictable smear that I anticipated before going public, as the US media has a knee-jerk "RED CHINA!" reaction to anything involving HK or the PRC, and is intended to distract from the issue of US government misconduct. Ask yourself: if I were a Chinese spy, why wouldn't I have flown directly into Beijing? I could be living in a palace petting a phoenix by now.
Question: Did you lie about your salary? What is the issue there? Why did you tell Glenn Greenwald that your salary was $200,000 a year, when it was only $122,000 (according to the firm that fired you.)
Snowden: I was debriefed by Glenn and his peers over a number of days, and not all of those conversations were recorded. The statement I made about earnings was that $200,000 was my "career high" salary. I had to take pay cuts in the course of pursuing specific work. Booz was not the most I've been paid.
After his employer, the defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, issued a statement denying that Snowden had earned $200,000 at the company, the dispute over his paycheck became one of the central talking points in efforts to discredit the leaker. His answer to the question above may help restore his credibility somewhat.
Question: US officials say terrorists already altering [tactics, techniques, and procedures] because of your leaks, & calling you traitor. Respond?
Snowden: US officials say this every time there's a public discussion that could limit their authority. US officials also provide misleading or directly false assertions about the value of these programs, as they did just recently with the Zazi case, which court documents clearly show was not unveiled by PRISM.
Journalists should ask a specific question: since these programs began operation shortly after September 11th, how many terrorist attacks were prevented SOLELY by information derived from this suspicionless surveillance that could not be gained via any other source? Then ask how many individual communications were ingested to acheive [sic] that, and ask yourself if it was worth it. 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.
Further, it's important to bear in mind I'm being called a traitor by men like former Vice President Dick Cheney. This is a man who gave us the warrantless wiretapping scheme as a kind of atrocity warm-up on the way to deceitfully engineering a conflict that has killed over 4,400 and maimed nearly 32,000 Americans, as well as leaving over 100,000 Iraqis dead. Being called a traitor by Dick Cheney is the highest honor you can give an American, and the more panicked talk we hear from people like him, Feinstein, and King, the better off we all are. If they had taught a class on how to be the kind of citizen Dick Cheney worries about, I would have finished high school.
Say what you will about Snowden, but there's no denying he's feisty.
Photo by Jessica Hromas/Getty Images