Edward Snowden: ‘We Need a Watchdog That Watches Congress’

The fugitive leaker, appearing by video conference, attacked virtually every corner of the national security apparatus during a Q&A session at the festival.

National Journal
Dustin Volz
March 10, 2014, 8:47 a.m.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4804) }}

Amer­ica’s most high-pro­file fu­git­ive vis­ited one of the coun­try’s most pop­u­lar en­ter­tain­ment fest­ivals in Texas on Monday, draw­ing thun­der­ous ap­plause from a crowded room filled with his ad­or­ing fans.

Ed­ward Snowden, ap­pear­ing from Rus­sia through a live video stream, told at­tendees of the South by South­w­est In­ter­act­ive con­fer­ence in Aus­tin that Con­gress had fun­da­ment­ally failed to do its job as an over­seer of the gov­ern­ment’s bulk sur­veil­lance pro­grams, de­clar­ing that “we need a watch­dog that watches Con­gress.”

The former Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency con­tract­or, in a con­ver­sa­tion with the Amer­ic­an Civil Liber­ties Uni­on’s Chris­toph­er Sog­hoi­an and Ben Wizn­er, also charged the cur­rent and most re­cent chief of the NSA as the two people most re­spons­ible for jeop­ard­iz­ing the coun­try’s na­tion­al se­cur­ity due to their pref­er­ence for ag­gress­ive col­lec­tion of data rather than pro­tec­tion of it after the Sept. 11, 2001, ter­ror­ist at­tacks.

“More than any­thing, there are two of­fi­cials who have harmed our In­ter­net se­cur­ity and na­tion­al se­cur­ity,” Snowden said, his im­age back­dropped by an en­larged copy of the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion. “Those two of­fi­cials are Mi­chael Hay­den and Keith Al­ex­an­der.”

He ad­ded: “When you are the one coun­try that has a vault that is more full than any­one else’s, it doesn’t make any sense to be at­tack­ing all day and nev­er de­fend­ing your vault. And it makes even less sense when you’re set­ting the stand­ards for vaults world­wide and leav­ing a huge back door open.”

Snowden also told SX­SW that the tech­no­logy com­munity can push for changes to the way In­ter­net data is col­lec­ted and stored even in the ab­sence of ac­tion from Cap­it­ol Hill, spe­cific­ally cit­ing the need for end-to-end en­cryp­tion of data, which he likened to a “de­fense against the dark arts for the di­git­al realm.”

“The people who are in the room in Aus­tin right now are the folks who can really fix things “¦ even when Con­gress hasn’t yet got­ten to the point to pro­tect our freedoms,” Snowden said. “There’s a policy re­sponse that needs to oc­cur but there’s also tech­no­logy re­sponse that needs to oc­cur.”

Snowden and Sog­hoi­an also briefly lauded Sil­ic­on Val­ley tech firms for em­bra­cing tight­er en­cryp­tion stand­ards in the past year, des­pite wor­ries that it might not mesh with their busi­ness mod­el of shar­ing data with ad­vert­isers. But more needs to be done, Snowden said, of­fer­ing a mod­el where cus­tom­ers could pay a small fee for en­cryp­ted data as­sur­ances as a pos­sib­il­ity.

“It’s not that you can’t col­lect any data, it’s that you should only col­lect data and hold it enough for the op­er­a­tion of the busi­ness,” Snowden said. “Wheth­er you’re Google or Face­book, you can do these things in a re­spons­ible way” while pro­tect­ing cus­tom­er in­form­a­tion.

Snowden, 30, be­came an overnight house­hold name in June 2013, when his leaks re­veal­ing in­tim­ate de­tails of the NSA’s secret phone and In­ter­net sur­veil­lance pro­grams first began to emerge in ma­jor pub­lic­a­tions around the world. A seem­ingly end­less de­luge of rev­el­a­tions con­tin­ued throughout the year, cul­min­at­ing in all three branches of U.S. gov­ern­ment dis­cuss­ing sur­veil­lance re­form, and sev­er­al for­eign heads of state ex­press­ing a loss of trust in Pres­id­ent Obama’s ad­min­is­tra­tion.

But if 2013 found Snowden trot­ting around the globe in search of refuge from U.S. au­thor­it­ies, 2014 has been a year of in­creased will­ing­ness to step in­to the lime­light. Janu­ary found him par­ti­cip­at­ing in an on­line ques­tion-and-an­swer dis­cus­sion and ap­poin­ted to the board of dir­ect­ors of the Free­dom of the Press Found­a­tion. Last month, Snowden was elec­ted to serve as a rep­res­ent­at­ive for more than 20,000 at the Uni­versity of Glas­gow.

Not every­one was thrilled to see Snowden speak­ing at SX­SW. Rep. Mike Pom­peo, R-Kan., last week sent a let­ter to SX­SW or­gan­izers ur­ging them to nix Snowden’s ap­pear­ance, say­ing it would “stamp the im­prim­at­ur of your fine or­gan­iz­a­tion on a man who ill de­serves such ac­col­ades.” Wizn­er took a few mo­ments at the start of the pan­el to lam­bast Pom­peo’s let­ter.

The fu­git­ive, who down­loaded some 1.7 mil­lion top-secret NSA doc­u­ments when em­ployed in Hawaii by gov­ern­ment con­tract­or Booz Al­len Hamilton, was sta­tioned in Hong Kong when the first Snowden files hit the In­ter­net. He fled to Rus­sia, where he cur­rently re­mains, after an in­ter­na­tion­al brouhaha that ended with him earn­ing tem­por­ary asylum there.

On Sat­urday, Wikileaks founder Ju­li­an As­sange spoke, also via video, at the con­fer­ence and said the NSA “has grown to be a rogue agency.”

“It has grown to be un­fettered “¦ the abil­ity to sur­veil every­one on the plan­et is al­most there, and ar­gu­ably will be there with­in a few years,” As­sange said from the con­fines of the Ecuadori­an Em­bassy in Lon­don, where he has been — bey­ond the reach of Brit­ish au­thor­it­ies — since 2012.

What We're Following See More »
Jon Stewart May Debut on HBO Before the Election
19 minutes ago

"Jon Stewart could arrive on HBO in time for the November presidential election. In a Paley Media Council interview Thursday with CNN’s Brian Stelter, HBO CEO Richard Plepler was asked whether viewers could expect to see Stewart, former host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” on HBO before the general election. 'Yeah, I’m hopeful,' Plepler said."

Metro to Begin Rolling Closures Next Month
3 hours ago

Beginning next month, Metro will begin a series of "about 15 separate large-scale work projects," each of which will close down stations and/or sections of track for up to weeks at a time. The entire initiative is expected to take about a year. The Washington Post has a list of the schedule of closures, and which lines and stations they'll affect.

Trump to Meet with Ryan, Leadership Next Week
3 hours ago

A day after saying he could not yet support Donald Trump's presidential bid, House Speaker Paul Ryan has invited the billionaire to a meeting in Washington next week with House leadership. Ryan and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus will also meet separately with Trump. 

Obama on Trump: ‘This Is a Really Serious Job’
4 hours ago

"President Obama used the White House podium on Friday to dismiss Donald Trump as an unserious candidate to succeed him, and said leading the country isn't a job that's suited to reality show antics." At a briefing with reporters, the president said, "I just want to emphasize the degree to which we are in serious times and this is a really serious job. This is not entertainment. This is not a reality show. This is a contest for the presidency of the United States. And what that means is that every candidate, every nominee needs to be subject to exacting standards and genuine scrutiny."

Panama Papers Spur White House to Crack Down on Evasion
6 hours ago

In the The White House on Thursday night unveiled a series of executive actions to combat money laundering—"among the most comprehensive response yet to the Panama Papers revelations." The president's orders will tighten transparency rules, close loopholes that allow "foreigners to hide financial activity behind anonymous entities in the U.S., and demand stricter “customer due diligence” rules for banks.