In a taped NBC interview broadcast Wednesday night, Edward Snowden explained to interviewer Brian Williams why and how he revealed NSA surveillance programs. New details emerged about Snowden’s government work and his efforts to blow the whistle internally before going public.
Snowden told Williams he tried going through channels before taking his concerns public–expressing concerns to NSA’s office of general counsel and their oversight and compliance folks in writing (emails) and also to supervisors and colleagues in multiple offices. He reported problems with the way the NSA was interpreting its legal authorities, and says he was told to stop asking questions. NBC reports that “Two U.S. officials confirmed Wednesday that Snowden sent at least one email to the NSA’s office of general counsel raising policy and legal questions.” Not mentioned in the interview: Previously, NSA Deputy Director Rick Ledgett denied that Snowden made any formal complaints or expressed concerns to anyone.
The “Chilling” Details of NSA Surveillance Capabilities
Snowden intelligently and clearly explained the dangers of NSA’s electronic surveillance , a topic that many Americans still struggle to understand. In Part 3 of the online video, Williams says, “What Edward Snowden told us about spying on our data and our personal devices was chilling.” Williams held out a “temporary” cellphone provided to him to cover the Olympics and asked what the government could do that device if they wanted to get into his life. The NSA, Russian or Chinese intelligence, or another entity with significant funding, “can own that phone the minute it connects to the network,” replied Snowden. “As soon as you turn it on, it can be theirs they can turn it into a microphone, they can take pictures from it, they can take the data off of it. But, it’s important to understand that these things are typically done on a targeted basis.” Williams: Can anyone turn it on remotely if its off, can they turn on apps, did anyone know or care that I googled the final score of the Rangers-Canadiens game last night because I was traveling here? Snowden: I would say yes to all of those. Snowden then rattled off a long list of personal details potentially revealed by such a search, including a “pattern of life” and “whether you’re engaged in activities the government disapproves of, even if not technically illegal.”
All of these things can raise your level of scrutiny even if it seems entirely innocent to you; even if you have nothing to hide; even if you’re doing nothing wrong. These activities can be misconstrued, misinterpreted and used to harm you as an individual even without the government having any intent to do you harm. The problem is that the capabilities themselves are unregulated, uncontrolled and dangerous.
Snowden’s Path to Whistleblowing
Snowden described enlisting for Army special operations, washing out, and working in multiple intelligence roles. He revealed publicly for the first time that, on September 11, 2001, he was at Fort Meade, just outside the NSA. (Coincidentally, that was whistleblower Thomas Drake’s first day at the NSA.) He disputed allegations that he was only a low-level systems analyst, saying he was trained as a “traditional” kind of spy, and worked undercover for the US in other countries. Asked if he sees himself a patriot, Snowden said he does, but “being a patriot means knowing when to protect your country, knowing when to protect your Constitution, knowing when to protect your countrymen from the — the violations of and encroachments of adversaries.” Snowden, its seems, is something of a miracle: an individual with a rare combination of skills needed to evaluate and disclose classified information, the high-level access needed to obtain it, and a strong compulsion to do what he believed was right–even at great personal cost. “People don’t set their lives on fire and burn down everything they’ve ever loved for no reason,” said Snowden, suggesting his disclosures were a “a pearl of great price.”
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it. — Matthew 13:45-46, King James Version
It is not yet clear how much that pearl means to other Americans or how many will stand up for the man who gifted it to them; however, the results of an NBC Twitter poll are encouraging. [For the entire interview of Edward Snowden (parts 1-6) presented on Wednesday night, see the NBC News website.]