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.

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