What Edward Snowden Won With His NBC Interview

Traitor or patriot, Edward Snowden got exactly what he wanted Wednesday night.

National Journal
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Dustin Volz
May 28, 2014, 7:45 p.m.

Nearly a year after his ex­plos­ive leaks rocked the U.S. in­tel­li­gence com­munity, Ed­ward Snowden ap­peared on tele­vi­sion Wed­nes­day night to re­mind the world that his cru­sade against gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance is far from over.

The Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency-con­tract­or-turned fu­git­ive sat down with NBC’s Bri­an Wil­li­ams in Mo­scow for his most in­tim­ate and high-pro­file ex­pos­ure yet to make his case dir­ectly to the Amer­ic­an pub­lic that his ac­tions were mo­tiv­ated by genu­ine con­cerns about the power of Amer­ica’s spy agen­cies.

“My pri­or­ity is not about my­self,” Snowden said dur­ing an hour-long prime-time spe­cial. “It’s about mak­ing sure that these pro­grams are re­formed and that the fam­ily that I left be­hind, the coun­try that I left be­hind, can be helped by my ac­tions. I will do everything I can to con­tin­ue to work in the most re­spons­ible way pos­sible — and to pri­or­it­ize caus­ing no harm while serving the pub­lic good.”

He ad­ded, “We can’t give away our pri­vacy; we can’t give away our rights.”

The much-hyped in­ter­view was scant on new policy de­tails, but provided an ar­tic­u­late and res­ol­ute Snowden with an­oth­er op­por­tun­ity to keep both him­self and sur­veil­lance re­form rel­ev­ant as Con­gress de­bates how much it should lim­it the gov­ern­ment’s bulk data col­lec­tion au­thor­ity.

Snowden again made the case that U.S. “in­tel­li­gence cap­ab­il­it­ies them­selves are un­reg­u­lated, un­con­trolled, and dan­ger­ous.”

“It’s not the dirti­ness of the busi­ness, but the dirti­ness of the tar­get­ing — the lack of re­spect for the pub­lic,” Snowden said. He ad­ded that the gov­ern­ment had ex­ploited the “na­tion­al trauma” of Sept. 11, 2001, to “scan­dal­ize our memor­ies” as a means to jus­ti­fy its heightened sur­veil­lance powers.

Snowden re­spon­ded to ac­cus­a­tions of treas­on by telling Wil­li­ams he had nev­er met Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin, and that he was only in Mo­scow be­cause the State De­part­ment re­voked his pass­port when he was en route to Lat­in Amer­ica. The com­puter tech­ni­cian also re­it­er­ated that he at­temp­ted to bring his con­cerns to of­fi­cials with­in the NSA be­fore flee­ing to Hong Kong with a trove of clas­si­fied doc­u­ments last May.

NBC said it had in­de­pend­ently veri­fied with “mul­tiple sources” that Snowden had in fact “sent at least one email” to the NSA’s law­yers in April 2013 in­quir­ing about the agency’s leg­al jus­ti­fic­a­tion for its do­mest­ic sur­veil­lance. 

“One of my fi­nal of­fi­cial acts in gov­ern­ment was con­tinu­ing one of these com­mu­nic­a­tions with a leg­al of­fice,” Snowden said. “And in fact, I’m so sure that these com­mu­nic­a­tions ex­ist that I’ve called on Con­gress to write a let­ter to the NSA to veri­fy that they do.”

Snowden, 30, has been an un­yield­ing thorn in the side of the in­tel­li­gence com­munity ever since his leaks last June ex­posed clas­si­fied de­tails of the NSA’s secret phone and In­ter­net sur­veil­lance pro­grams. Snowden be­came an overnight — and in­ter­na­tion­al — house­hold name as pub­lic­a­tions around the world re­por­ted on an on­go­ing cas­cade of rev­el­a­tions, which have promp­ted both the pres­id­ent and Con­gress to be­gin steps to­ward sur­veil­lance re­form.

Last week, the House passed with bi­par­tis­an sup­port a bill that would es­sen­tially end the gov­ern­ment’s cur­rent col­lec­tion of bulk tele­phone re­cords by in­stead keep­ing that in­form­a­tion with private phone com­pan­ies, from which in­tel­li­gence agen­cies could re­quest data on an as-needed basis fol­low­ing ju­di­cial ap­prov­al. Pri­vacy ad­voc­ates and tech com­pan­ies, however, have cri­ti­cized the bill as “watered down,” and sev­er­al dropped their sup­port for it dur­ing the fi­nal hours of de­bate.

Wed­nes­day night’s sweep­ing in­ter­view with Wil­li­ams con­sti­tutes Snowden’s most high-pro­file me­dia ap­pear­ance to date, but it fol­lows a rising trend of will­ful ex­pos­ure de­ployed by the once-her­met­ic fu­git­ive. While 2013 saw Snowden nar­rowly evad­ing au­thor­it­ies as he dashed around the globe in pur­suit of asylum, 2014 has wit­nessed in­creased will­ing­ness to step in­to the lime­light. Already this year he has par­ti­cip­ated in a num­ber of on­line dis­cus­sions, ap­peared via video at events such as SX­SW, and dis­cussed Rus­sia’s sur­veil­lance prac­tices with Vladi­mir Putin at a tele­vised news con­fer­ence.

Snowden has also stayed busy by earn­ing ap­point­ment to the board of dir­ect­ors of the Free­dom of the Press Found­a­tion and be­ing elec­ted to serve as a rep­res­ent­at­ive for more than 20,000 stu­dents at the Uni­versity of Glas­gow.

Snowden’s pub­lic ap­pear­ances have pre­dict­ably drawn the scorn of his de­tract­ors, who con­tin­ue to sug­gest he is everything from a cow­ardly nar­ciss­ist to a pur­pose­ful trait­or. (NBC it­self has cap­it­al­ized on this as­pect nar­rat­ive, with an in­ter­act­ive cam­paign ask­ing people wheth­er Snowden is a #Pat­ri­ot or #Trait­or.) Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry blas­ted Snowden’s “pretty dumb” claims after NBC aired ex­cerpts of his re­marks be­cause they “ex­posed for ter­ror­ists a lot of mech­an­isms which now af­fect op­er­a­tion­al se­cur­ity of those ter­ror­ists and make it harder for the United States to break up plots, harder to pro­tect our na­tion.”

In re­sponse to Snowden’s com­ments that he is only in Rus­sia be­cause the U.S. gov­ern­ment re­voked his pass­port and es­sen­tially left him stran­ded last sum­mer in a Mo­scow air­port, Kerry said he would be “de­lighted” to see Snowden come home and face tri­al.

But Snowden and his cham­pi­ons have re­peatedly in­sisted that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s tough pro­sec­u­tion of leak­ers make a re­turn vir­tu­ally im­possible, lest Snowden resign him­self to a life in a pris­on cell.

“Some­times to do the right thing, you have to break the law,” Snowden said.