What Edward Snowden Won With His NBC Interview

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

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

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4980) }}

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.

What We're Following See More »
What the Current Crop of Candidates Could Learn from JFK
1 days ago

Much has been made of David Brooks’s recent New York Times column, in which confesses to missing already the civility and humanity of Barack Obama, compared to who might take his place. In NewYorker.com, Jeffrey Frank reminds us how critical such attributes are to foreign policy. “It’s hard to imagine Kennedy so casually referring to the leader of Russia as a gangster or a thug. For that matter, it’s hard to imagine any president comparing the Russian leader to Hitler [as] Hillary Clinton did at a private fund-raiser. … Kennedy, who always worried that miscalculation could lead to war, paid close attention to the language of diplomacy.”

Maher Weighs in on Bernie, Trump and Palin
1 days ago

“We haven’t seen a true leftist since FDR, so many millions are coming out of the woodwork to vote for Bernie Sanders; he is the Occupy movement now come to life in the political arena.” So says Bill Maher in his Hollywood Reporter cover story (more a stream-of-consciousness riff than an essay, actually). Conservative states may never vote for a socialist in the general election, but “this stuff has never been on the table, and these voters have never been activated.” Maher saves most of his bile for Donald Trump and Sarah Palin, writing that by nominating Palin as vice president “John McCain is the one who opened the Book of the Dead and let the monsters out.” And Trump is picking up where Palin left off.