Snowden’s First U.S. Interview Reveals 5 Surprises


Edward Snowden met and spoke with NBC News’ Brian Williams for his first interview with U.S. press. When his revelations first made the news, it was through the UK-based The Guardian. In subsequent emails and discussions, including a live question and answer at one point, he repeatedly discusses his reasons for releasing the private NSA documents that he did, his belief in the need for privacy and limited government, his patriotism, and his status as a refugee. Much of the same was heard in his interview with NBC, but there were a few surprising or unique subjects worth taking particular note of.

1. His Relationship With Russia

The U.S. and Russian relationship has been particularly terse given President Vladimir Putin’s involvement with Ukraine and international disagreements over Syria. This has put a particularly suspicious spotlight on where Snowden is currently taking asylum. When asked what he was doing in Russia, Snowden admitted the question is a fair one. “Alright, so this is a really fair concern. I personally am surprised that I ended up here,” said Snowden. “The reality is, I never intended to end up in Russia. I had a flight booked to Cuba onwards to Latin America and I was stopped because the United States government decided to revoke my passport and trap me in Moscow airport. So when people ask ‘Why are you in Russia?’ I say, ‘Please ask the state department.’”

According to NBC, the state department has given its own answer, explaining that it also didn’t intend for Snowden to end up in Russia, but had actually revoked his password prior to him flying into Moscow, while in Hong Kong, yet he somehow got on the plane. His location brings up two concerns: one, that he’ll be convinced to share information with the Russian government using monetary or friendly coercive techniques (i.e. the Russian government flips him), and two, that the information could be taken by force.

Snowden disputes both possibilities. “I have no relationship with the Russian government at all, I have never met (laughs) the Russian president. I’m not supported by the Russian government, I’m not taking money from the Russian government, I’m not a spy, which is the real question,” he pointed out. “The best way to make sure that, for example, the Russians can’t break my fingers and compromise information, or hit me with a bag of money until I give them something, was not to have it at all and the way to do that was by destroying the material I was holding before I transited through Russia.”

Michael McFaul, former ambassador to Russia, pointed to a television interview that Putin took part in as evidence that Snowden must have some sort of relationship with him. Edward Snowden asked him: “Does Russia intercept, store, or analyze, in any way, the communications of millions of individuals?” and received a televised response. “You don’t get to get on a call-in show with the president of Russia and have no relationship with the Russian government,” said McFaul to NBC, saying Snowden’s claim was “just not true.”

2. Training as a Spy

Snowden is often referred to as a government contractor, and when the average person thinks of him, they see him purely as an analyst seated in front of a computer in a basement office at the NSA. However, according to Snowden, that’s an under-emphasis of his experience in the intelligence community.

“I was trained as a spy in sort of the traditional sense of the word in that I lived and worked undercover, overseas, pretending to work in a job that I’m not and even being assigned a name that was not mine,” said Snowden, stating that he’d done so for the CIA, the NSA, and had also worked as a lecturer at the Joint counterintelligence training Academy, where he claims he “developed sources and methods for keeping our information and people secure in the most hostile and dangerous environments around the world.”

He also said nearly the same thing that eventually came from Secretary of State John Kerry when he commented on Snowden’s claims. They both talked about wording and phrasing — Snowden accusing the government of the same thing Kerry accused him of: framing the same information incorrectly. “Now the government might deny these things, they might frame it in certain ways and say ‘Oh well he’s a low level analyst,’ but what they’re trying to do is they’re trying to use one position that I’ve had in a career here or there to distract from the totality of my experience,” said Snowden.

Kerry, conversely, said in an interview with CBS that he’s telling the U.S. nothing new, but simply rephrasing it. “It’s the same disclosure that everybody’s known. He very cleverly wraps it into his language about: ‘I was a technical person; I didn’t go out there and work with humans, with other people; I wasn’t working and interacting with human beings.’ Basically, what he was doing is computer stuff, and that’s exactly what he says. So he wraps it into this larger language.”

3. Personal 9/11 Experience

U.S. security and anti-terrorism surveillance programs are inexplicably linked to 9/11 in the American mind and in discussions of the NSA’s oversteps. Whether it’s the president or Snowden discussing necessary limits to the NSA, everyone easily traces the ramped up national surveillance programs to the September terrorist attack. The event has become a symbol for security fears and justification for a number of preventative and proactive measures.

It is hard to overstate the transformation America’s intelligence community had to go through after 9/11. Our agencies suddenly needed to do far more than the traditional mission of monitoring hostile powers and gathering information for policymakers,” said President Barack Obama in his remarks on the review of U.S. surveillance back in January, accurately summarizing the reason for the inseparability of the two subjects, and naming the efforts at least a success in that sense.

Snowden spoke on his own experience with September 11 and his logic for demanding privacy despite fear of terrorism. “I’ve never told anybody this, no journalist, but I was on Fort Meade on September 11 — I was right outside the NSA, so I remember, I remember the tension that day, I remember hearing on the radio that the planes hit and I remember thinking my grandfather who worked for the FBI at the time was in the pentagon when the plane hit it,” said Snowden.

“I take the threat of terrorism seriously, and I think we all do, and I think it’s really disingenuous for the government to invoke and sort of scandalize our memories to … exploit the national trauma that we all suffered together and worked so hard to come through to justify programs 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.”

4. Think About That Email Before You Send It

Snowden also spoke on a piece of information that struck home with him about just how powerful the NSA’s surveillance capabilities had become, describing it as an invasion into not only private communications, but also “into the way you think.” Specifically, he said that analysts can monitor exchanges in real time, not just go through the backlog.

“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 processes, into the way you think,” he said. He also discussed what intelligence agencies are able to do with a switched off phone; turning them on, opening aps, taking photos, and going through their data remotely. Not new territory, but similarly in the vain of scary surveillance examples.

5. Wistleblower vs. Betrayal

In an interview with Ted Talks, Richard Ledgett, NSA deputy director, said that calling Snowden a whistleblower “hurts legitimate whistleblowing activities.” He emphasized that Snowden had a number of options in how he addressed concerns but had not taken advantage of them. “There are a variety of venues to address if folks have a concern. First up, you can go to your supervisor through the supervising chain in the organization. If you’re not comfortable with that, there are inspectors general. In the case of Mr. Snowden, he had the option of the NSA Inspector General, the Navy Inspector General, the Pacific Fleet Inspector General (etc.) … He didn’t do any of that,” said Ledgett.

This is something that Snowden directly disputed. “I actually did go through channels, and that is documented. The NSA has records, they have copies of emails right now to their Office of General Council, to their oversight and compliance folks, from me raising concerns about the NSA’s interpretations of its legal authorities. Now, I have raised these complaints not just officially in writing through email to these offices and these individuals, but to my supervisors, to my colleagues in more than one office,” said Snowden. He said that many voiced concern when he talked with them, but most said it wasn’t something that should be brought up. “The response was ‘You should stop asking questions,’” said Snowden to NBC.

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