Edward Snowden Explains What 'Direct Access' Means and Why He's Not in Iceland

Brian Fung
National Journal

Physically, Edward Snowden has gone to ground. But on the Internet, the National Security Agency surveillance leaker is hiding in plain view. Snowden took to The Guardian's website Monday for a live Q&A session in which he revealed why he didn't flee to Iceland and the discrepancy between his stated salary and what Booz Allen Hamilton said it was paying him, among other things.

Why Snowden traveled to Hong Kong—which has an extradition treaty with the United States—and not Iceland, where the leaker said he would like to end up, has been one of the more significant puzzles of this episode. According to Snowden, he had to make his travel arrangements on short notice and in a way that wouldn't get him detained "immediately":

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 U.S. administration.

It's not clear whether this explanation is meant to override Snowden's previous explanation that Hong Kong is a hub for free expression; even if it is, that raises further questions. Snowden appears to think that public opinion is a kind of insurance policy for him—but he has also said previously, "There's no saving me." So does Snowden view public opinion as an important factor in determining his fate, or not? It's also worth pointing out, with some irony, that whatever the answer, Snowden himself would've remained a background issue had he not revealed his identity.

In previous reporting, it was revealed that Booz Allen Hamilton had been paying Snowden $120,000 a year—$80,000 less than what Snowden claimed to be making. The leaker clarified that today, saying that his $200,000 figure represented a "career high." This indicates that Snowden took a pay cut to work at the contracting firm. He didn't elaborate on his motivations for doing so, however.

Asked what he thought of others' attempts to compare him with Bradley Manning, the alleged Cablegate source, Snowden praised WikiLeaks as "a legitimate journalistic outlet" and he blamed traditional media outlets for creating the impression that Manning simply dumped a pile of unredacted documents onto the Internet.

In one of the more important exchanges, former Reuters social-media editor Anthony De Rosa asked Snowden to clarify what "direct access" really means—and whether the NSA can listen in on Americans' phone calls. Snowden says NSA analysts can "query raw SIGINT (signals intelligence) databases" and retrieve phone numbers, user IDs, cell-phone identifiers known as IMEIs, and more without a court's or a higher-up's permission. The only thing that prevents abusive eavesdropping, Snowden says, is "policy"—by this, the leaker presumably means the "minimization" procedures that strip away information on U.S. citizens before it reaches the analyst's eyes—and that there are few technological barriers built in to stave this off. The NSA, for its part, argues that overspying is technologically infeasible. Who's right depends on how good you think a "near-the-front-end filter" is at screening out information on citizens. Snowden later reiterated that the policy protection against snooping on "U.S. persons" is a "one-way ratchet that only loosens."

But into that answer, Snowden also unwittingly brought up a distinction my colleague Garance Franke-Ruta identifies: The leaker is raising the prospect of potential, rather than actual, harm—something that's a lot harder to get angry about. He's also talking about a global phenomenon of injustice rather than highlighting specific instances of wrongdoing:

More fundamentally, the "U.S. Persons" protection in general is a distraction from the power and danger of this system. Suspicionless surveillance does not become OK simply because it's only victimizing 95 percent of the world instead of 100 percent. Our Founders did not write that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all U.S. persons are created equal."

Snowden may be arguing that people ought to be free from warrantless surveillance no matter where they live. Yet the parallel (and unfinished) debate over foreign hackers tells us that other states engage in cyberespionage just as they participate in off-line espionage like everyone else. And every time Snowden tries to Go Big with this story, the further he strays from the specific problem his initial leak was intended to address—and the more ammunition he gives his critics.

He did try, though, to preempt at least one line of criticism: A legal assault drawn up on grounds of treason, which would require that Snowden be aiding an enemy with which the United States is in open conflict.

"I did not reveal any U.S. operations against legitimate military targets," he said. "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."