‘When many people think about privacy they think about their facebook settings, but privacy is actually the fountainhead of all our rights.’ The New York Times
Edward J. Snowden, a former CIA employee and National Security Agency contractor, leaked top-secret documents in 2013 that exposed the extent of the NSA’s classified cybersecurity program, revealing that the agency was seizing the private communications records of hundreds of millions of individuals around the world. Snowden, who is living in asylum in Russia, is wanted in the U.S. on several charges, including two under the United States Espionage Act of 1917.
In a discussion held at the Athens Democracy Forum in Greece, convened by The New York Times in September, Snowden said that his disclosures have improved privacy for individuals in the U.S. and that “being patriotic doesn’t mean simply agreeing with your government.”
We offer here an edited excerpt of a discussion between Snowden and Steven Erlanger, The New York Times’s London bureau chief.
Erlanger: There’s a campaign for President Obama to [pardon] you before he leaves office. For many people, you’re a whistleblowing hero, and for many other people you’re a traitor who broke your oath and betrayed your country. Having knowingly broken the law and fled the jurisdiction of the American courts, why should you be pardoned?
Snowden: Whether or not I should be granted a pardon is not for me to answer. By partnering with journalists, I sought to exercise our democratic system of checks and balances in a series of disclosures in 2013. The NSA’s system of global mass surveillance was unlawful. And the courts agreed with me. Congress ultimately changed the law, putting new restrictions on the intelligence community’s powers.
I never published a single document on my own. I partnered with some of the most respected news outlets in the world: The Washington Post and The Guardian. These groups received the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for their reporting. This is why we have a free press in a democracy. The government has many great powers, particularly as they relate to the handling of state secrets, but it is the press that is charged with determining what information is truly within the public interest to know.
Erlanger: Daniel Ellsberg, a fellow whistleblower who released the Pentagon Papers in 1971, put himself forward to the court, understanding that the history of civil disobedience is being willing to accept any punishment for the moral act of standing up against authority. Why would you not return to face a jury in America?
Snowden: Daniel Ellsberg himself has argued that I made the right decision not to present myself to the court. Things have changed since the 1970s, and today the law doesn’t allow you to make a defense against Espionage Act charges in front of the jury. I am legally prohibited from even speaking to the jury about my motivation.
Can there be a fair trial when you can’t put forward a defense? At the sentencing phase you can express to the judge why you did what you did, but that is not democratic. The jury system was created so you can discuss with your peers what you did, why you did it.
Erlanger: You’ve said that concrete improvements have transpired as a direct result of your revelations. Are you concerned that governments are still doing whatever they want to do by other means or that these results are transitory?
Snowden: Do I think things are fixed? No. Do I think that any whistleblower, any single individual, can change the world? No, but I do believe that we have some oversight over our privacy rights now, and that things are improving in a material way. The United States has made some initial reforms, and European courts struck down the previous safe harbor agreement, where European companies handed over their citizens’ data to U.S. companies without any controls or guarantees of how that would be handled.
The U.S. has right now a two-tiered system of handling surveillance. If you’re a U.S. citizen, the government will go to a court to get a warrant before they spy on you. This is almost always a secret court called the FISA court, which in 33 years was asked roughly 34,000 times to authorize surveillance and only said no 11 times. They’re a rubber stamp. If you’re not a U.S. citizen, no warrant is required at all in most cases. That’s gotten a little bit better because some companies have actually begun resisting these demands. This is uncomfortable for some governments, but there is no question that this is very positive in terms of the protection of rights and the enforcement of due process around the world.
Erlanger: Stewart Baker, former general counsel for the National Security Agency, is against a pardon for you. He believes the benefits of the leaks could have been achieved with only three or four documents and that the flood of documents released harmed U.S. intelligence and national interests. Do you believe that if you’d leaked less you might have had the same effect?
Snowden: No. What he’s actually arguing here is not against me, it’s against journalism. He’s criticizing the journalists who continue to report on the archive and continue to break stories that are changing law and policy today.
What does it mean when we’re saying to journalists that it’s OK if they run the first three stories, but after they run the next three or the next 300, that’s too much? Who makes that decision? I believe that it should be the press. They’re the best placed to make those decisions, and that’s why we have the First Amendment.
Erlanger: I’m certainly with you there. You don’t speak a lot of Russian, and it’s not a place you particularly wanted to be. What do you do all day?
Snowden: I speak at conferences in Athens mostly.
Erlanger: It’s an income.
Snowden: No, but seriously, I’ve always been sort of an indoor cat. My life has been the internet. This is an explanation for why I was so moved by what I witnessed at the NSA. What we saw in 2013 wasn’t just about surveillance; it was about rights and democracy.
When many people think about privacy they think about their Facebook settings, but privacy is actually the fountainhead of all our rights. It is the right from which all others are derived and is what makes you an individual. It is the right to an independent mind and life.
Freedom of speech doesn’t have meaning without the protected space to speak freely. The same [goes] for freedom of religion: If you can’t decide for yourself what you want to worship, you’ll simply adopt whatever is popular or whatever the state religion is to avoid the judgment of others.
The less power you wield within society, the stronger your case for your personal privacy. If you’re an individual and you don’t really have any influence over anything, you are the target audience for which privacy was designed. If you’re a public official, if you enjoy an incredible amount of privilege and influence, transparency is intended for you. It’s the only way that we can hold you to the account of our standards and laws and be able to cast our votes in an informed way.
Erlanger: You’ve said that you think of yourself as still working for the United States. Could you explain what you mean by that?
Snowden: Being patriotic doesn’t simply mean agreeing with your government. Being willing to disagree, particularly in a risky manner, is actually what we need more of today. When we have this incredible, often fact-free environment where politicians can make claims and then they’re reported as truth, how do we actually steer democracy? If we have facts, we can help facilitate democracy, and this is my role.