Four years after a National Security Agency contractor fled Hawaii for Hong Kong with a trove of documents that would expose the reach of American intelligence surveillance programs and would eventually trap him in Russia, Edward Snowden said it was all worth it.
"The answer is yes," Snowden told the German magazine Der Spiegel in an interview from a Moscow hotel room. "Look at what my goals were. I wasn't trying to change the laws or slow down the machine. Maybe I should have. My critics say that I was not revolutionary enough. But they forget that I am a product of the system. I worked those desks, I know those people and I still have some faith in them, that the services can be reformed.
"My personal battle was not to burn down the NSA or the CIA. I even think they actually do have a useful role in society when they limit themselves to the truly important threats that we face and when they use their least intrusive means. We don't drop atomic bombs on flies that land on the dinner table. Everybody gets this except intelligence agencies."
Snowden ended up in Russia after stepping from the shadows and into the spotlight in an interview with The Guardian in Hong Kong in June 2013, just days after the first news reports based on his pilfered documents rocked the intelligence world. From Hong Kong, Snowden flew to Moscow with the intention of heading to Ecuador. But the U.S. State Department revoked his passport, and Snowden was stranded in the airport for more than a month until Russian President Vladimir Putin granted him asylum.
Supporters have praised Snowden as a global hero for exposing expansive, potentially invasive U.S. surveillance programs undertaken mostly by the NSA. Critics have called him a traitor for exposing essential secret national security tools just because the tools could be abused, but not because they had. (The Washington Post reported in August 2013 an internal audit found thousands of violations of policy in the NSA's surveillance, most of them were unintentional. The NSA also found in a handful of cases that some of its analysts had used the programs to check up on their crushes.)
The Snowden revelations prompted then-President Barack Obama to convene an expert review group to review the surveillance programs. They came back with a list of suggestions. Perhaps the most significant, which was adopted, suggested the shift of the NSA database of metadata of calls involving domestic telecommunications companies from the NSA to the companies themselves. If the NSA needed information on a call, the new policy said, they would have to request it from the companies. Ironically, one former senior U.S. official said the move may have accidentally granted the NSA even more data than it previously had.
"I know, you go: Putin that great humanitarian, of course he lets him in for free. Nobody believes that, there has got to be some deal, some quid pro quo. But they don't understand. If you think about it for a second: I was trying to get into Latin America, but the U.S. government canceled my passport and trapped me in the Russian airport. The U.S. president was sending daily demarches to the Russian side demanding my extradition," he said. "Think about the Russian domestic political situation. Putin's self-image, his image to the Russian people and how that would look if the Russian president would have said, 'Yes, we are very sorry -- here, have this guy.' And maybe there is an even simpler explanation for this, which is that the Russian government just enjoyed the rare opportunity of being able to say 'no.'"
Elsewhere in the interview, Snowden said Russia "probably" did hack the Democratic National Committee, but he was surprised the intelligence community has not provided concrete proof of the hack. (Rather, the intelligence agencies put out a report that made broad allegations and private cybersecurity firms publicly tied the hacking to alleged Russian-government affiliated hacking groups.)
Primary Source: Edward Snowden Speaks With Der Spiegel
[Like what you read? You can help support Code and Dagger by becoming a Patreon. Click here to learn how. You can also contact Code and Dagger with tips or questions at CodeAndDagger@protonmail.com.]