Edward Snowden, America's most-wanted whistle-blower, says the truth about the government spying program he revealed will eventually come out, regardless of what happens to him.
"All I can say right now is the US Government is not going to be able to cover this up by jailing or murdering me," Snowden wrote in a live online chat with the Guardian on Monday. "Truth is coming, and it cannot be stopped.
The 29-year-old former defense contractor, who exposed the National Security Agency's massive domestic surveillance program after fleeing the United States, answered a series of questions submitted through the Guardian's website and Twitter (hashtag #AskSnowden).
First, Snowden stressed that his controversial leaks did not reveal any U.S. "operations against legitimate military targets":
I pointed out where the NSA has hacked civilian infrastructure such as universities, hospitals, and private businesses because it is dangerous. These nakedly, aggressively criminal acts are wrong no matter the target. Not only that, when NSA makes a technical mistake during an exploitation operation, critical systems crash. Congress hasn't declared war on the countries—the majority of them are our allies—but without asking for public permission, NSA is running network operations against them that affect millions of innocent people. And for what? So we can have secret access to a computer in a country we're not even fighting? So we can potentially reveal a potential terrorist with the potential to kill fewer Americans than our own Police? No, the public needs to know the kinds of things a government does in its name, or the "consent of the governed" is meaningless.
He was asked how many copies of the NSA documents he made, and "if anything happens to you, do they still exist?"
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According to the U.K. newspaper, the hour-and-a-half chat was subject to Snowden's "security concerns and also his access to a secure Internet connection." Snowden did not disclose his location.
Earlier this month, Snowden was interviewed by the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald in his hotel room in Hong Kong. After the paper revealed his identity (at his request), he reportedly checked out of the hotel and went into hiding.
"I carefully evaluated every single document I disclosed to ensure that each was legitimately in the public interest," Snowden said in his original interview. "There are all sorts of documents that would have made a big impact that I didn't turn over, because harming people isn't my goal. Transparency is."
On Monday, Snowden was asked if he was "suggesting that Manning indiscriminately dumped secrets into the hands of WikiLeaks" and intended to harm people. Bradley Manning, whose trial by court-martial is in its third week, is a former Army intelligence analyst charged with aiding the enemy.
"No, I'm not," Snowden responded. "WikiLeaks is a legitimate journalistic outlet and they carefully redacted all of their releases in accordance with a judgment of public interest. The unredacted release of cables was due to the failure of a partner journalist to control a passphrase. However, I understand that many media outlets used the argument that 'documents were dumped' to smear Manning, and want to make it clear that it is not a valid assertion here."
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He was asked to elaborate on how much "direct access" the NSA had to phone-call records and if analysts could listen to the content of domestic calls without a warrant.
"The reality is this: if an NSA, FBI, CIA, DIA, etc analyst has access to query raw SIGINT databases, they can enter and get results for anything they want. Phone number, email, user id, cell phone handset id (IMEI), and so on—it's all the same," Snowden replied. "The restrictions against this are policy based, not technically based, and can change at any time. Additionally, audits are cursory, incomplete, and easily fooled by fake justifications."
Under authorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Snowden continued, "Americans’ communications are collected and viewed on a daily basis on the certification of an analyst rather than a warrant. They excuse this as 'incidental' collection, but at the end of the day, someone at NSA still has the content of your communications":
All of it. IPs, raw data, content, headers, attachments, everything. And it gets saved for a very long time—and can be extended further with waivers rather than warrants.
Snowden was also asked why he did not fly directly to Iceland, where he told the Guardian he would have preferred to seek asylum:
Leaving the US was an incredible risk, as NSA employees must declare their foreign travel 30 days in advance and are monitored. There was a distinct possibility I would be interdicted en route, so I had to travel with no advance booking to a country with the cultural and legal framework to allow me to work without being immediately detained. Hong Kong provided that. Iceland could be pushed harder, quicker, before the public could have a chance to make their feelings known, and I would not put that past the current US administration.
Snowden, who said he had not had contact with the Chinese, scoffed at speculation that he would provide classified information to the Chinese or other governments in exchange for asylum.
"This is a predictable smear that I anticipated before going public, as the US media has a knee-jerk 'RED CHINA!' reaction to anything involving [Hong Kong] or the [People's Republic of China] and is intended to distract from the issue of US government misconduct," Snowden replied. "Ask yourself: if I were a Chinese spy, why wouldn't I have flown directly into Beijing? I could be living in a palace petting a phoenix by now."
He also responded to the argument, made by U.S. officials, that the NSA spy program has foiled dozens of terror plots:
Journalists should ask a specific question: since these programs began operation shortly after September 11th, how many terrorist attacks were prevented SOLELY by information derived from this suspicionless surveillance that could not be gained via any other source? Then ask how many individual communications were ingested to acheive that, and ask yourself if it was worth it. Bathtub falls and police officers kill more Americans than terrorism, yet we've been asked to sacrifice our most sacred rights for fear of falling victim to it.
Snowden thinks his revelation of the NSA spy program gives President Barack Obama "an opportunity to appeal for a return to sanity, constitutional policy, and the rule of law rather than men. He still has plenty of time to go down in history as the President who looked into the abyss and stepped back, rather than leaping forward into it."
Snowden added that he's become disillusioned with the public debate over his leak:
Initially I was very encouraged. Unfortunately, the mainstream media now seems far more interested in what I said when I was 17 or what my girlfriend looks like rather than, say, the largest program of suspicionless surveillance in human history.