Edward Snowden’s first television interview was broadcast by German channel ARD on the evening of Sunday 26 January 2014. The interview was conducted by NDR’s Hubert Siebel on Thursday 23 January and was originally broadcast with a German voice over. NDR have now made available a version of the interview with the original, English language, soundtrack.
Mr Snowden, did you sleep well the last couple of nights? Because I was reading you were asking for a kind of police protection – are there any threats?
There are significant threats but I sleep very well. There was an article that came out in an online outlet called Buzzfeed, where they interviewed officials from the Pentagon, the National Security Agency… and they gave them anonymity to say whatever they wanted. And what they told the reporter was that they wanted to murder me.
These individuals – and these are acting government officials – they said they would be happy, they would love, to put a bullet in my head, to poison me as I was returning from the grocery store, they had me die in the shower…
But fortunately you’re still alive with us…
Right, but I’m still alive! And I don’t lose sleep because I’ve done what I felt I needed to do; it was the right thing to do and I’m not going to be afraid.
The greatest fear, I have – and I quote you regarding these disclosures – is that nothing will change. That was one of your greatest concerns at the time. But in the meantime, there is a vivid discussion about the situation with the NSA, not only in the USA but in Germany and in Brazil. President Obama was forced to go public and to identify what the NSA was doing on legal grounds.
What we saw initially with the response to the revelations was sort of a circling of the wagons of government around the National Security Agency. Instead of circling around the public, and protecting their rights, the political class circled around the security state and protecting their rights.
What’s interesting is, though that was the initial response, since then we’ve seen a softening. We’ve seen the President acknowledge that when he first said “we’ve drawn the right balance, there are no abuses”, we’ve seen him and his officials admit that their have been abuses. There have been thousands of abuses at the Natonal Security Agency – and other agencies, authorities – every single year.
Is the speech of Obama, recently, the beginning of a serious regulation?
It was clear from the President’s speech that he wanted to make minor changes to preserve authorities that we don’t need. The President created a review board from officials who were personal friends, from national security insiders – the former deputy of the CIA – people who had every incentive to be soft on these programmes and see them in the best possible light.
But what they found is that these programmes have no value. They’ve never stopped a terrorist attack in the United States and they have marginal utility at best for other things. The only thing that the Section 215 phone metadata programme – actually, it’s a broader programme, bulk collection; bulk collection means mass surveillance – was in stopping, or detecting, an 8500 USD wire transfer from a cab driver in California. And it’s this kind of review, where insiders go “we don’t need these programmes, these programmes don’t make us safe, they take a tremendous amount of resources to run and they offer us no value.” They go, “we can modify these.”
The National Security Agency operates under the President’s executive authority alone. He can modify or end or direct change in their policies at any time.
For the first time that President Obama did concede that the NSA collects trillions of data…
Each time you pick up the phone, dial a number, write an email, make a purchase, travel on the bus carrying a cellphone, swipe a card somewhere, you leave a trace – and the government has decided that it’s a good idea to collect it all, everything. Even if you’ve never been suspected of any crime.
Traditionally, the government would identify a suspect, they would go to a judge, they would say “we suspect he’s committed this crime”, they would get a warrant and then they would be able to use the totality of their powers in pursuit of the investigation.
Nowadays what we see is they want to employ the totality of their powers in advance, prior to an investigation.
You started this debate. Edward Snowden is in the meantime a household name for the whistleblower in the age of the internet. You were working last summer for the NSA and during this time you collected secretly thousands of confidential documents. What was the decisive moment or was there a long period of time of something happening: why did you do this?
I would say sort of the breaking point was seeing the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, directly lie on oath to Congress. There’s no saving an intelligence community that believes it can lie to the public and the legislators who need to be able to trust it and regulate its actions.
Seeing that really meant for me that there was no going back. Beyond that, it was the creeping realisation that noone else was going to do this. The public had a right to know about these programmes. The public had a right to know that which the government is doing in its name and that which the government is doing against the public.
But neither of these things we were allowed to discuss, we were allowed to know. Even the wider body of our elected representatives were prohibited from knowing or discussing these programmes and that’s a dangerous thing. The only review we had was from a secret court, the FISA court, which is a sort of rubberstamp authority.
When you are on the inside, when you go into work every day, when you go in in to sit down at a desk, you realise the power you have. You can wiretap the President of the United States. You can wiretap a federal judge. And if you do it carefully, noone will ever know because the only way the NSA discovers abuses are from self-reporting.
We are not talking only of the NSA as far as this is concerned. There is a multilateral agreement for cooperation among the services and this alliance of intelligence operations is known as the Five Eyes. What agencies and countries belong to this alliance and what is its purpose?
The Five Eyes alliance is sort of an artefact of the post World War II era, where the anglophone countries of the major powers sort of banded together to cooperate and share the costs of intelligence gathering infrastructure. So we have the UK’s GCHQ, we have the US NSA, we have Canada’s CSEC, we have Australia’s Signals Intelligence Directorate and we have New Zealand’s DSD.
What the result of this was over decades and decades was sort of a supranational intelligence organisation that doesn’t answer to the laws of its own countries.
In many countries, in America too, the agencies are not allowed to spy within their own borders on their own people. So the Brits, for example, they can spy on everyone apart from the Brits. But the NSA can conduct surveillance in England so, at the end, they could exchange their data and they would be strictly following the law.
If you asked the governments about this directly, they would deny it and point to policy agreements between members of the Five Eyes saying they won’t spy on each other’s citizens.
But there are a couple of key points there. One is that they way they define spying is not the collection of data. The GCHQ is collecting an incredible amount of data on British citizens, just as the National Security Agency is collecting an enormous amount of data on US citizens. What they’re saying then is that they will not target people within that data, they won’t look for UK citizens or British citizens.
In addition, the policy agreements between them that say British won’t target US citizens, US won’t target British citizens are not actually legally binding. The memorandums of agreement state specifically on that that they are not intended to put a legal restriction on any government. They are policy agreements that can be deviated from or broken at any time.
So if they want to spy on a British citizen, they can spy on a British citizen – and then they can even share that data with the British government, which is itself banned from spying on a UK citizen.
So there is a sort of trading dynamic there, but it’s not open, it’s more of a nudge and a wink. Beyond that, the key is to remember that the surveillance and the abuse doesn’t occur when people look at the data, it occurs when people gather the data in the first place.
I would describe it as intimate. As a matter of fact, the first way I described it in a written interview was that the German services and the US services are in bed together. They not only share information – the reporting of results from intelligence – but they actually share the tools and the infrastructure when they work together against joint targets and services.
And there’s a lot of danger in this – one of the major programmes that is the basis of abuse in the National Security Agency is called XKeyScore. It’s a front end search engine that allows them to look through all the records they collect worldwide every day.
What would you do if you could, sit so to speak, on their place with this kind of instrument?
You could read anyone’s email in the world. Anybody you’ve got an email address for, any website you can watch traffic to and from it, any computer that an individual sits at, you can watch it – any laptop that you’re tracking, you can follow it as it moves from place to place throughout the world. It’s a one-stop shop for access to the NSA’s information.
And what’s more, you can tag individuals using XKeyScore. Let’s say I saw you once and I thought what you were doing was interesting – or you just have access that’s interesting to me. Let’s say you work at a major German corporation and I want access to that network. I can track your username on a website, on a forum somewhere, I can track your real name, I can track associations with your friends – and I can build what is called a fingerprint, which is network activity unique to you. Which means that anywhere you go in the world, anywhere you try to hide your online presence, hide your identity, the NSA can find you. And anyone who is allowed to use this, or who the NSA shares the software with, can do the same thing.
Germany is one of the countries that has access to XKeyScore.
This sounds rather frightening. The question is, does the BND deliver data of Germans to the NSA?
Whether the BND does it directly or knowingly, the NSA gets German data. Whether it’s been provided, I can’t speak to until it’s been reported, because it would be classified and I’d rather journalists make the distinction about what is public interest and what should be published. However, it’s no secret that every country in the world has the data of their citizens and the NSA. Millions and millions and millions from Germans going about their daily lives, talking on their cellphones, sending SMS messages, visiting websites, buying things online – all of this ends up at the NSA. And it’s reasonable to suspect that the BND may be aware of it in some capacity.
Now, whether or not they actively provide the information I should not say.
The BND basically argues, “if we do this we do this accidentally and our filter didn’t work.”
Right. So the kind of things they’re discussing there are two things. They’re talking about filtering of ingest, which means when the NSA puts a secret server in a German telecommunications provider, or they hack a German router and they divert the traffic in a manner that lets them search through things. They’re saying, if I see what I think is a German talking to another German, I’ll drop it. But how do you know?
You could say, well these people are speaking the German language, this IP seems to be from a German company to another German company – but that’s not accurate and they wouldn’t dump all of that traffic, because they’ll get people who are targets of interest who are actively in Germany using German communications.
So realistically, what’s happening when they’re saying there’s no spying on Germans: they don’t mean that German data isn’t being gathered. They don’t mean that records aren’t being taken or stolen. What they mean is they’re not intentionally searching for German citizens. And that’s sort of a fingers crossed ehind the back promise – it’s not reliable.
So this is sort of an expansion of the same idea. If the NSA isn’t collecting information on German citizens from Germany, are they as soon as it leaves German borders? And the answer is yes. Any single communication that transits the internet, the NSA may intercept at multiple points. They might see it in Germany, they might see it in Sweden, they might see it in Norway or Finland, they might see it in Britain and they might see it in the United States.
Any single one of these places that a German communication crosses, it’ll be ingested and added to the database.
So let’s come to our Southern European neighbours then. What about Italy, what about France, what about Spain?
It’s the same deal worldwide.
Does the NSA spy on Siemens? On Mercedes? On other successful German companies for example, to have the advantage of knowing what is going on in the scientific and economic boat?
I don’t want to preempt the editorial decisions of journalists, but what I will say is there’s no question that the US is engaged in economic spying. If there is information at Siemens that they think would be beneficial to the national interests – not the national security – of the United States, they’ll go after that information and they’ll take it.
There is this old saying, you do whatever you can do – so the NSA is doing whatever is technically possible?
This is something that the President touched on last year, when he said “just because we can do something” – and this was in relation to tapping Angela Merkel’s phone – “just because we can do something doesn’t mean that we should.” And that’s exactly what’s happened. The technological capabilities that have been provided because of weak security standards in internet protocols and cellular communications networks have meant that intelligence services can create systems that see everything.
Nothing annoyed the German government more than that the NSA tapped the private phone of the German Chancellor Merkel over the past ten years. Suddenly, this invisible surveillance was connected with a known face and was not connected with a kind of watery shady terrorist background. Obama now promised to stop spying on Merkel, which raises the question: did the NSA spy on previous governments and previous chancellors, and how long did they do this for?
This is a particularly difficult question for me to answer because there’s information I very strongly believe is in the public interest. However, as I’ve said before, I prefer for journalists to make those decisions in advance, review that material themselves and decide whether or not the public value of this information outweighs the reputational cost to the officials that work in surveillance.
What I can say is: we know that Angela Merkel was monitored by the National Security Agency. The question is how reasonable is it to assume that she is the only German official who was monitored? How reasonable is it to assume that she is the only prominent German face who the National Security Agency is watching? I would suggest that it is unreasonable that if anyone was concerned about the intentions of German leadership that they would only watch Merkel and not her aides, not other prominent officials, heads of ministries or even local government officials.
How does a young man from Elizabeth city in North Carolina, 30 years old, get in such a position in such a sensitive area?
That’s a very difficult question to answer. In general, I would say it highlights the dangers of privatising government functions. I worked previously as a staff officer, an actual government employee for the Central Intelligence Agency, but I’ve also served much more frequently as a contractor in a private capacity.
What that means is you have private, for-profit companies doing inherently governmental work like targeted espionage, surveillance, compromising foreign systems. Anyone who has the skills who can convince a private company that they have the qualifications to do so, will be empowered by the government to do that and there’s very little oversight. There’s very little review.
Have you been one of these classical computer kids, sitting red eyed during in the nights at the age of 12, 15 with your father knocking at the door saying switch off the light, it’s too late now? How did you get your computer skills?
Right. I certainly have had let’s say a deep informal education in computers and electronic technology. They have always been fascinating and interesting to me. The characterisation of having your parents telling you to go to bed I’d say is fair.
If one looks to the little public data of you, your life, one obviously finds that you wanted to join in May 2004 the special forces, to fight in Iraq. What did motivate you at the time? You know, special forces, looking at you for a moment, it means grim fighting and probably killing and – did you ever get to Iraq?
No, I didn’t get to Iraq. One of the interesting things about the special forces are they they’re not actually intended for direct combat. They’re intended as a force multiplier. They’re inserted behind enemy lines, it’s a squad that has a number of different specialities in it. And they teach and enable the local population to resist or support US forces in a way that allows the local population a chance to determine their own destiny and I felt that was an inherently noble thing at the time.
In hindsight, some of the reasons we went into Iraq were not well-founded and I think did a diservice to everyone involved.
What happened to your adventure then? Did you stay long with them or what happened to you?
No, I broke my legs when I was in training and was discharged.
So it was a short adventure. In 2007 the CIA stationed you with a diplomatric cadre in Geneva. Why did you join the CIA by the way?
I don’t think I can actually answer that one.
Ok, if it’s what you have actually been doing there, forget it. Why did you join the CIA?
In many ways, it’s a continuation of trying to do everything I could do prosecute the public good in the most effective way and it’s in line with the rest of my government service, where I tried to use my technical skills in the most difficult positions I could find in the world. The CIA offered that.
If you look back – CIA, special forces, NSA – it’s not actually a description of a human rights activist or somebody who becomes a whistleblower – what happens to you?
I think it tells a story. And that’s no matter how deeply an individual is embedded in the government, no matter how faithful to the government they are, no matter how strongly they believe in the causes of their government – as I did, in the Iraq war – people can learn. People can discover the line between appropriate government behaviour and actual wrongdoing. And I think it became clear to me that the line had been crossed.
You worked for the NSA through a private contractor with the name Booz Allen Hamilton, one of the big ones in the business. What is the advantage for the US government or the CIA to work through a private contractor, to outsource the central governmental function?
The contracting culture of the national security community in the United States is a complex topic. It’s driven by a number of interests between limiting the number of direct government employees at the same time as keeping lobbying groups in Congress – typically from very well funded businesses such as Booz Allen Hamilton. The problem there is that you end up in a situation where government policies are being influenced by corporations whose interests are completely divorced from the public good in mind.
The result of that is what we saw at Booz Allen Hamilton, where you have private individuals who have access to what the government alleges are millions and millions of records that they could walk out the door with at any time without any accountability or oversight, no auditing – the government didn’t even know they were gone.
At the very end, you ended up in Russia. Many of the intelligence communities suspect you made a deal – classified material for asylum here in Russia.
The chief of the task force investigating me as recently as December said that their investigation had turned up no evidence or indications at all that I had any outside contact or help or made a deal of any kind to accomplish my mission.
I worked alone. I didn’t need anybody’s help. I don’t have any ties to foreign governments. I don’t spy for Russia or China or any other country for that matter.
If I’m a traitor, who did I betray? I gave all of my information to the American public, to American journalists who are reporting on American issues. If people consider that as treason, I think they really need to consider who do they think they’re working for. The public is supposed to be their boss, not their enemy.
Beyond that, as far as my personal safety, I’ll never be fully safe until these systems have changed.
After your revelations, none of the European countries really offered you asylum. Where did you apply in Europe for asylum?
I can’t remember the list of countries with any specificity because there were many of them – but France, Germany were definitely in there, as was the UK, a number of European countries. All of whom unfortunately felt that doing the right thing was less important than supporting US political concerns.
One reaction to NSA snooping is that countries like Germany are looking to create national internets and attempt to force internet companies to keep their data in the same countries. Is this going to work?
It’s not going to stop the NSA, let’s put it that way. The NSA goes where the data is. If the NSA can pull text messages out of telecommunication networks in China, they can probably manage to get facebook messages out of Germany. Ultimately the solution to that is not to try to stick everything in a walled garden – although that does raise the level of complexity and sophistication in taking the information – it’s also much better simply to secure the information internationally against everyone, rather than playing let’s move the data. Moving the data isn’t fixing the problem, securing the data is the problem.
President Obama at the moment obviously doesn’t care too much about the message of the leak and, together with the NSA, they do care very much more about catching the messenger in that context. Obama asked the Russian president several times to extradite you and Putin did not. It looks like you will stay for the rest of your life probably in Russia. How do you feel about Russia in that context and is there a solution to this problem?
I think it’s becoming increasingly clear that these leaks didn’t cause harm, in fact they served the public good. Because of that I think it’ll be difficult to maintain an ongoing campaign of persecution against someone the public agrees served the public interest.
The New York Times wrote a very long comment that demanded clemency for you. The headline: Edward Snowden, whistleblower. And I quote from that: “the public learned in great detail how the agency has extended its mandate and abused its authority.” And the New York Times closes, “President Obama should tell his aides to start finding a way to end Mr Snowden’s vilification and give him an incentive to return home.” Did you get a call in between from the White House?
I’ve never received a call from the White House and I’m not waiting by the phone. But I would welcome the opportunity to talk about how we can bring this to a conclusion that serves the interests of all parties.
I think it’s clear that there are times where what is lawful is distinct from what is rightful. There are times within history – and I don’t think it takes long for either an American or a German to think about times in the history of their country – where the law provided the government to do things that were not right.
President Obama seems at the moment to not be quite convinced of that because he said you are charged with three felonies, and I quote, if you – Edward Snowden – believe in what you did you should go back to America, appear before the court with your lawyer and make your case. Is this the solution?
It’s interesting because he mentions three felonies. What he doesn’t say are that the crimes that he’s charged me with are crimes that don’t allow me to make my case. They don’t allow me to defend myself in an open court to the public and convicne a jury that what I did was to my benefit.
The Espionage Act was never intended – it’s from 1918 – was never intended to prosecute journalistic sources for informing the newspapers about information that is in the public interest. It was intended for people who were selling documents and secrets to foreign governments or bombing bridges or sabotaging communications – not people who were serving the public good.
So it’s, I would say, illustrative that the President would choose to say someone should face the music when he knows the music is a show trial.
Edward Snowden, thank you very much for the interview.