What’s the talk of the town this week? Edward Snowden’s first US-interview, broadcast by NBC on Wednesday.
An hour-long feature, heavily edited and interrupted by numerous commercial breaks, it has been described as “another step in a media strategy that has been evolving ever since [Snowden] leaked NSA documents to Greenwald and other journalists”, and criticised (in the New York Times) for not asking certain questions.
I was dismayed by the Times piece: Are these really the essential questions the author thinks have been missed out? Also, was it really necessary to focus on character again (Snowden is “superior” (read: condescending) and “affected”, yet strangely “much more pleasant and even-keeled” than “smug and unreasonable” Glenn Greenwald). Dull.
However, I do agree with the Times author on one count: even though some interesting bits and pieces never made it to air, the interview gave Edward Snowden a chance “to show ordinary viewers that he isn’t a wild-eyed fanatic or grandiosely verbose”.
Which is a good thing. Considering the accusations and insinuations that keep being thrown around, the opportunity for a mainstream audience to see and hear Mr Snowden himself was perhaps long overdue.
It is true that the interview may not have has much news for those of us who have been following the Snowden-revelations for a year but that doesn’t mean there was nothing new at all to be learned . The Rolling Stone has compiled a list of what they consider to be “Six Memorable Quotes” which is worth reading.
My top six memorable moments are as follows.
“It’s really disingenuous for the government to invoke and…scandalise our memories.”
The aftermath of the September 11th 2001 attacks saw the introduction of the Patriot Act, which “has been cited as the legal basis” for many of the NSA’s activities, such as “scouring billions of ordinary US telephone records in an effort to combat terrorism”.
Asked by NBC anchor Brian Williams about his experience of the September 11th attacks, it became obvious that Mr Snowden is angry at the US government’s exploitation of the national trauma. Very composed throughout the entire interview, here was one of the moments where Mr Snowden’s agitation became quite obvious.
I think it’s really disingenuous, he said, for the government to invoke and sort of scandalise our memories to…exploit the national trauma that we all suffered together and worked so hard to come through to justify programmes that have never been shown to keep us safe but cost us liberties and freedoms that we don’t need to give up and our constitution says we should not give up.
Snowden isn’t alone in his criticism of post-9/11 legislation and the government’s answer to the threat of terrorism. Patriot Act author Jim Sensenbrenner himself has criticised the indiscriminate (mis)use of a law that, according to Sensenbrenner, was “never intended” to authorise “unprecedented, massive collection of the telecommunications data of innocent Americans”.
“I’m not a spy. Which is the real question.”
The question of why Mr Snowden went to Russia may seem to have exhausted itself by now but what was interesting about it in the NBC interview was how this particular moment had been edited.
Edward Snowden repeated once again that he was “trapped” at Sheremetyevo airport because the US government cancelled his passport. NBC immediately followed this up with a voice-over outlining the US government’s claim that Mr Snowden’s passport was pulled before he left Hong Kong for Russia and that somehow Mr Snowden was still able to leave Hong Kong – which he had initially chosen as a location.
Now, this could be nothing more than a harmless attempt at juxtaposing the US government’s view with that of Mr Snowden to have them both on the record.
However, the fact that NBC simply lets the government’s position stand has some serious implications that became more evident when Brian Williams asked Snowden about his alleged “relationship” with the Russian government.
Snowden noticed the implication at once. “I’m not a spy,” he insisted. “Which is the real question.”
Asked if he still had access to the material he took from the NSA, Snowden denied this, saying that he destroyed the material he had before travelling to Russia. Mr Snowden explained that he was fully aware that carrying a trove of top secret US document would make him look like “Tweety Bird to Sylvester the Cat” to Russian authorities and that this would be “extremely dangerous” for him.
“I cannot be coerced into revealing that information, even under torture.”
Note this: in an email exchange between Mr Snowden and former GOP Senator Gordon Humphrey last July, Mr Snowden wrote: “You may rest easy knowing I cannot be coerced into revealing that information, even under torture.”
At the time, the comment met with derision from members of the media who misunderstood Mr Snowden as declaring himself “torture-proof”. I blogged about this at the time, arguing that Mr Snowden had said or implied nothing of the kind, that he simply confirmed that he had taken all necessary steps to ensure that he could not give any documents to a foreign government even if he wanted to. What he said in the NBC interview clearly confirms my impression.
Further on his stay in Russia, Mr Snowden had more to say towards the end of the interview, offering criticism of the Russian government’s treatment of press freedom and freedom of expression:
It is really frustrating for someone who is working so hard to expand the domain of our rights and privacy to end up stuck in a place where those rights are being challenged in ways that I would consider deeply unfair. The recent bloggers registration law in Russia – I can’t think of any basis for a law like that… the government shouldn’t be regulating the operations of a free press.
“I was trained as a spy”
One of Mr Snowden’s statements that has been much discussed in the media following the interview is that he “was trained as a spy” and “worked undercover” for both NSA and CIA.
Some responses suggest that Mr Snowden, who has “spent most of his career behind a computer screen”, is now trying to make this experience seem more significant than it actually was.
However, considering that “the US tends to get more and better intelligence out of computers than they do out of people,” it is “misleading” to discount Mr Snowden’s experience as that of a “low-level systems administrator” who “doesn’t know what he is talking about.” This is merely an attempt at diminishing the importance of his revelations. The reasoning behind this, I imagine, would go something like this: this is a low-level systems administrator who does not know what he is talking about, therefore do not take what he says about the NSA programmes too seriously.
Which, to put it bluntly, is rubbish.
“Oh my God, we can do this?”
The extent of Mr Snowden’s expertise has often become apparent.
For example, in the NBC interview he concisely and fluently explained what it is the NSA can do and the information they can obtain, simply by tapping a person’s phone:
They’d be able to tell something called your “pattern of life”. When are you doing these kind of activities, when do you wake up, when do you go to sleep, what other phones are around you when you wake up and go to sleep? Are you with someone who isn’t your [partner]? Are you someplace you shouldn’t be? …Are you engaged in any kind of activities that we disapprove of, even if they aren’t technically illegal? And all of these things can raise your level of scrutiny even if it seems entirely innocent to you, even if you have nothing to hide, even if you’re doing nothing wrong, these activities can be misconstrued, misinterpreted and used to harm you as in individual… the problem is that the capabilities are uncontrolled, unregulated and dangerous.
He isn’t wrong about the danger of these capabilities, of course. And in one of the most interesting and frightening moments in the interview, Snowden recalls the moment he realised what it is the NSA can really do:
The NSA can watch people…draft correspondence…watch their thoughts as they form, as they type. As you write a message…an analyst…can actually see you write sentences and then backspace over your mistakes and then change the words and then kind of pause and think about what you wanted to say and then change it. And it’s this extraordinary intrusion, not just into your communications, your finished messages but your actual drafting process, into the way you think…
In other words, he NSA may not be able to quite read our minds yet but they can certainly know a lot more about us that we think we reveal – if the things we stop ourselves from saying (that is sending) because we change them as we write, are no longer private, then even the extent to which we can conceal our innermost thoughts is limited.
“Did Mr Snowden ever communicate any concerns about the NSA’s interpretation of its legal authorities?”
[o]ne major argument from critics of… Edward Snowden has been that he did not go through “proper channels” in government before taking documents on top secret surveillance programs and providing them to journalists.
Following the interview this has once again received special attention. Mr Snowden told NBC that he “reported that there were real problems with the way the NSA interpreted its legal authorities,” and that, in response he was told that he “should stop asking questions”.
Perhaps the most obvious objection to the NSA’s claims is that while there is no evidence that Mr Snowden has ever lied about anything he has revealed, the same cannot be said about the NSA. “Ben Wizner, Snowden’s legal advisor and director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, said the NSA is being disingenuous” and called the email a “red herring”.
I suppose that argument cuts both ways: people who do not trust Mr Snowden will take the NSA’s email release as evidence that he has been lying about raising concerns internally before blowing the whistle.
However, that would be failing to consider what Mr Snowden told NBC:
I’m so sure that these communications exist that I have called on Congress to write a letter to the NSA to verify that they do…write to their Office of General Counsel and say “did Mr Snowden ever communicate any concerns about the NSA’s interpretation of its legal authorities?”.
Now, not only is what Mr Snowden said very specific about who he raised his concerns with. He is also very precise about which concerns he communicated, and what kind of information Congress should ask for.
The same applies to what Mr Snowden said in a Q&A in response to the NSA’s release of the email:
It also did not include concerns about how indefensible collection activities – such as breaking into the back-haul communications of major US internet companies – are sometimes concealed under E.O. 12333 to avoid Congressional reporting requirements and regulations.
His precision together with the fact that Mr Snowden is asking Congress to verify that documentation exists does not exactly make it seem plausible that he should be lying about raising these concerns.
However, strictly speaking, it is not even necessary to make an argument that is based on trust in either Mr Snowden or the NSA. That’s because the value of Mr Snowden’s revelations is not diminished by the fact that he did or did not raise concerns internally before he published them.
All discussions of this kind really do is distract attention from the substance of Mr Snowden’s revelations. That substance remains the same, no matter who the leaker is or what are his motives.
“I don’t think there’s ever been any question that I’d like to go home”
Now, that thing about Mr Snowden wanting to go home. This has been vigorously circulated in the media and on the internet for about a week now, ever since Germany’s Der Spiegel first reported that Mr Snowden’s lawyers were in negotiations with the US government (link in German).
The way this has been reported and multiplied makes it sound as if the fact that Mr Snowden is considering going home or that his lawyers apparently are in negotiations with the US government about this (which NBC claims haven’t even begun yet), is something radically new.
It isn’t. Neither is it likely (and the Spiegel article does not make it sound like it is but this seems to have been misunderstood by others).
US Secretary of State John Kerry just called Mr Snowden a “coward” and a “traitor”, making it clear that the US government’s attitude towards Mr Snowden hasn’t changed.
Kerry has been duly slammed for that but concerns that have been raised before still apply: take, for example, Daniel Ellsberg’s reaction to Mr Kerry’s comments. Mr Ellsberg once again makes it very clear what Mr Snowden’s chances of receiving a fair trial in the US are (spoiler: less than zero).
It remains to be seen how the situation plays out especially as Mr Snowden’s asylum in Russia expires on 1st August but I am starting to think that for Mr Snowden to be able to leave Russia, the US and many other countries first need new governments (yes, Germany, this means you!)
Minus one: “Do you consider yourself a patriot?” “Yes, I do.”
The hero-traitor-patriot discussion featured prominently on NBC, which put the question to the audience on Wednesday. It is also clearly important to Mr Snowden himself.
In fact, he made some very interesting and somewhat overlooked comments that are worthy of special attention. I will therefore discuss those in a separate post.
Meanwhile, why not watch the interview? It’s online here.