Edward Snowden Talks to NBC News

Edward Snowden montage

Composite image courtesy NBC News, Rob Shields, Alan Clanton  

Edward Snowden Talks to NBC News

By R. Alan Clanton | published Thursday, May 29, 2014 |
Thursday Review editor

A year has passed since the world first learned that the U.S. intelligence agency NSA (National Security Administration) had been empowered—perhaps for more than a decade—to use its considerable resources to collect data on millions of Americans, along with the data of millions more people worldwide.

The revelations, which came by way of a whistle-blower who had leaked documents to a select few reporters, seemed almost beyond the scope of the average person’s understanding: working largely in secret, and using authority granted by an even more secretive court, the NSA had—beginning a year or two after the 9/11 terror attacks—aggressively deployed a program of bulk data harvesting using any and all high tech means at its disposal. We would learn that the breadth of the data being collected by the NSA was staggering. It included cell phone activity, emails, text messages, search engine requests, uploads and downloads, landline data, online transactions, browser history, even use of applications on handheld devices.

Coupled with the somewhat more obscure news that the NSA was constructing a massive data center in Utah (about an hour’s drive south of Salt Lake City), into which would be installed the world’s largest set of computers and file servers, there was a chilling sense that science fiction had become reality. The government and its most secretive agencies could spy on us in ways that truly boggled the mind, and we would soon learn that dozens of the biggest high tech companies were—whether knowingly or unknowingly, enthusiastically or grudgingly—cooperating with the process. Those well-known brand names included Google, Facebook, Amazon, Yahoo, AT&T, Verizon, Apple, AOL, Microsoft and several others.

In short, the NSA could harvest nearly all of your digital data, and then cull through the material to form a profile of you more detailed and more exacting than what you thought you knew about yourself.

Days after the news broke, we would learn through the British newspaper The Guardian, that the name of the whistle-blower (many would characterize him as a traitor and spy) was Edward Snowden, a former U.S. Army recruit turned systems analyst and security consultant whose relationship with the NSA remains unclear even now. Over the next days and weeks, first in Hong Kong, later in other locations, Snowden would selectively reveal more documents from his trove of stolen materials—feeding them carefully to reporters such as Glenn Greenwald.

Snowden’s revelations sparked a furious debate in the United States—and soon worldwide—over the scope and breadth of what the NSA had been empowered to do in the name of national security. In an effort to combat jihadist terror, the NSA had, in essence, been written a blank check. But the outrage cut across traditional party lines and the normal lines which separate conservatives from liberals, hawks from doves, U.S. allies and enemies alike. Overnight, Snowden became arguably the world’s most infamous fugitive (though Wiki Leaks founder Julian Assange may still top that list), and Snowden’s eventual arrival in Moscow seemed to confirm the worst-case fears of many in the United States—Snowden was little more than a rank traitor to his country and a few hairs short of being an outright spy (more on that point later).

President Obama called Snowden a hacker. Members of Congress wanted Snowden returned to the United States. There was general outrage that someone described as an analyst or a security contractor could have had access to the massive trove of materials he had presumably taken possession of, and even more focused outrage at the obvious clumsiness of the NSA’s own internal security checks and balances. That an agency with the power to turn its gaze onto almost every part of our lives also had the internal effectiveness of the keystone cops seemed to cast a surreal light on the whole affair: Snowden had used $9 thumb drives from Target and Office Depot to steal his truckload of information.

In the meantime, and in spite of the anger at Snowden, there was an even larger tsunami of outrage on Capitol Hill regarding the NSA. Had the security agency greatly overstepped its mission? And had its actions crossed the line into broadly unconstitutional terrain through its massive program of data collection? Late in 2013, multiple court cases quickly worked their way upward, converging and reorganizing. One Federal judge called the NSA’s actions “Orwellian,” but the next Federal judge vindicated the agency’s actions as a necessary adjunct to maintain a safe society and to insure a homeland free of terror.

For a brief period in November and December, the matter seemed on a direct trajectory to the U.S. Supreme Court (where, in fact, it may still land in the future). In January, forced by the hue and cry in the press and by outrage around the world—for by then it had been revealed that the NSA was eavesdropping on phone conversations and reading the text messages of the leaders of Germany, Spain, Italy, Brazil and even European market regulators—and by the expanding revelations of the NSA’s full reach and power, the President took his case to the world in a widely watched press conference. Obama defended the NSA’s program, but promised to rein in some of the more intrusive of the agency’s actions, proposing routine and annual forms of oversight, as well as a careful review of the NSA’s practices and policies.

But President Obama also stated flatly that, in a world of terror, the business of spying must go on.

“As a President who looks at intelligence each morning,” he said, “I cannot help but feel that our nation must remain vigilant.” The normally nuanced and conciliatory Obama, while conceding that Americans and citizens worldwide have a right to be concerned by what they had learned because of Snowden’s revelations, seemed to many observers to have morphed into a neo-conservative data hawk.

Asked pointedly about the disposition of the young Snowden, the President waved the question aside. “I am not going to dwell on Mr. Snowden’s actions or motivations,” Obama said. But the President also stressed to reporters that the United States cannot tolerate having its most sensitive secrets revealed to the world based on the whim of one individual with an ax to grind.

The debate over the NSA went on, and Mr. Snowden remained stuck in Moscow, where he has alternately sought asylum in other countries while also angling quietly and gently for a possible return to the U.S. Snowden had remained something of an enigma during these last 12 months, his only outreach being to the occasional investigative journalist. But almost no one in the world truly fully understood the motivations and the mindset of Edward Snowden.

Earlier this month, in a posh hotel in downtown Moscow, Edward Snowden gave his first interview to American television to Brian Williams of NBC News.  During prime time on Wednesday, May 28, NBC aired a heavily edited version of that conversation.

Williams prefaced the interview with the caveat that Snowden received no compensation for his cooperation, which we can assume meant no money from NBC News.

Early in the interview Williams sought to clarify Snowden’s mercurial job title during his brief stint with the National Security Administration, a job title which has seemingly remained in flux among both U.S. officials and the media. Snowden was most often described as a “low-level analyst,” but he was also frequently characterized as a security contractor. The point, as it turns out, is not academic: Snowden walked out of the NSA with flash drives containing millions of pages of information purloined directly from the NSA’s own computers and servers. Debate remains intense to this day why security was so lax at the NSA, or why someone with Snowden’s alleged low-level clearance was given access to so much internal data.

When Williams asked him directly, Snowden responded by explaining that he had been working, variously, in deep cover roles for the CIA, the NSA and Army Intelligence for many years; the characterizations of him as “low-level” were cover stories concocted by people who wish to remain blameless for the debacle now unfolding.

NBC’s Williams also took direct aim at the perception of Snowden as a spy. Why flee to Russia under such circumstances? Snowden said it was never his intention to end up in Moscow, but when his travel permits and papers were cancelled by the U.S. State Department, he found himself essentially stuck, with the airport terminal now his home. Snowden said he has had no contact with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and little contact with Russian security agents. Though he would not give a specific explanation, Snowden claimed he did not have access to the materials stolen from the NSA because he did not bring them with him to Russia.

“I took nothing to Russia,” he told Williams, “so I could give them nothing.” Brian Williams pressed him further: could Snowden access those files remotely? According to Snowden, no.

Williams also seemed unconvinced that Snowden had not become a hero of the Russian intelligence community, or a willing pawn of the Moscow political machine. “Why hasn’t Putin taken a run at you?” Williams asked. Snowden seemed to evade the obvious contradiction and one was left with one of two conclusions: either it has been sufficient for Russian PR that Snowden is stuck in Moscow, since, after all, Russian hackers may be as skilled or more skilled than the best the U.S. has to offer; or, Snowden is evading the truth that he has, in fact, had direct contact with Russian security teams.

“I have no relationship with the Russian government,” Snowden said, “I have never met the Russian president. I’m not supported by the Russian government. I’m not taking money from the Russians. And I am not a spy, which is the real question.”

Snowden also seemed to understand the complex debate swirling around his self-identified role as whistle-blower. Traitorous though his actions may have been, Snowden views himself as having served a larger purpose within the framework of the democracies of the world: his theft of thousands of documents (by some estimates, 1.7 million pages of material) tossed a harsh light on the actions of a secretive agency whose activity was, in many ways, extra-constitutional at worst, and at best, a stark overreach of its mission.

NBC News has broadcast parts of its interview with Snowden throughout the week, and some of Snowden’s statements and claims have sparked outrage on the part of public officials. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed uncharacteristic anger at Snowden’s perception of himself as a hero. Kerry, it has been reported in the last months, has been forced to swallow a lot of discomfort in his meetings and conferences worldwide—especially when foreign negotiators, diplomats and heads-of-state make snarky jokes about the NSA and its capacity to spy on conversations.

Germany’s Angela Merkel and Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff have been particularly angered by the presumption of pax Americana expanded into intrusive spying even on the leaders of nations allied with the U.S.

Kerry, stung each time the issue is thrust into his face and feeling rightly that the explosive story has become an ongoing distraction for U.S. foreign policy, stresses forcefully that Snowden could have—and should have—taken the path of the true whistleblower, by going through channels. The White House and others have also made this charge: if Snowden is such a good guy, why did he board that plane to Moscow to be given sanctuary in an authoritarian, bullying state. Snowden told Williams that he did go through channels, and asserted that the NSA knows this. Snowden claims there are plenty of emails to back-up his claim that he attempted to enlighten his managers and superiors to the violations of liberty he witnessed at the spy agency, and he told Williams that the response he received from one boss was to “stop asking questions.”

At the core of his case was Snowden’s contention that the U.S. government acted in a manipulative way after the tragic events of 9/11, shifting its posture and quietly using the transformative event as an excuse to engage in the systematic chipping away of civil liberties. To Snowden, the world after 9/11 empowered the NSA not to embrace the complex but noble mission of thwarting terror, but instead gave the agency government-sponsored carte blanche to employ Machiavellian tools to keep tabs on its own people.

Another aspect of the Snowden interview came to the forefront very quickly: the perception of Snowden as someone greatly obsessed with his own importance in the world. During the interview on NBC, Snowden seemed to border on arrogance and smugness alike. But as one colleague said in an email today, this could be characteristic of someone who is in fact “one of those self-important computer nerds,” or merely someone for whom the intense spotlight has thrust a harsh, white-hot light. What is perceived as arrogance may be a natural defense posture for someone now so widely vilified by many people in his own country. Still too is the possibility that Snowden’s brash overcompensation is a result of his need to correct the widely held view of him as a “rogue” analyst, or that of a vindictive hacker.

Again, like the issue of his exact job title, the question of his perceived arrogance is neither academic nor merely a study in psychology. Snowden seemed genuine when he says he would like to be able to return to the United States. His self-definition as a patriot intent on exposing a program of Orwellian proportions means that he views himself as a hero, or at least an anti-hero, bent on bringing enlightenment to the American people and millions more worldwide.

In the end, Snowden’s return to the U.S. will almost certainly be predicated upon his submission to some form of trial in a courtroom. There, his advocates and attorneys may be able to make the case that Edward Snowden—like other whistleblowers on the past generations, and Daniel Ellsberg comes most easily to mind—engaged in an act of civil disobedience to make the United States a stronger democracy.

His interview on NBC settled little in that regard, except perhaps to harden the views of those already predisposed to one less-than-nuanced view or the other: Edward Snowden as traitor and spy, versus Edward Snowden as a brave whistleblower—thrusting a critical light on a government-sponsored program with the sweeping power to dismiss our liberties and curtail our basic freedoms.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Reining-In the NSA, Sort Of; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; January 17, 2014.

Turnkey Tyranny; Kevin Robbie; Thursday Review; January 6, 2014.