Politics

01.24.14

Edward Snowden: Not All Spying Is Bad

In an online Q&A, the fugitive leaker rejected a plea deal and issued some surprising statements on state surveillance.

Edward Snowden may be under constant supervision in Russia, unable to return to the United States or travel freely, but the 30-year-old has never been more powerful.

President Obama’s announcement last Friday of reforms to the United States surveillance program was addressed to the American public but the speech was also an answer to Snowden. The former NSA contractor's massive leak of classified intelligence documents set in motion the public debate about federal spying that led to the proposals in President Obama’s speech and the even more extensive overhauls recommended by an independent agency on Thursday.

Yesterday Snowden had his chance to respond, fielding selected questions sent by Twitter using the hashtag #AskSnowden.

Though Snowden gave some surprising answers, his exchange with the public was also notable for the questions he did not address, most notably the terms of his asylum or anything else to do with his hosts in Russia.  

Here are the Five Biggest Revelations from Snowden’s Twitter Symposium:

He won’t take a plea deal to return to the U.S.

After the United States Attorney General Eric Holder rejected clemency but suggested the possibility of a plea deal yesterday, Snowden flatly ruled it out in a response to CNN’s Jake Tapper. Answering Tapper's question, “Under what conditions would you agree to return to the U.S.?” Snowden stated that repatriation wasn't possible due to the inadequacy of whistleblower protection laws in America, which he said would mean, “no chance to have a fair trial, and no way I can come home and make my case to a jury.”

“I never stole any passwords, nor did I trick an army of co-workers.”

Snowden denied reports that he had gained access to some of the classified files he leaked by tricking coworkers into giving up their passwords in order to access their accounts. This point is significant because, in Snowden’s telling, it was the daily exposure to evidence of surveillance overreach in the course of doing his own job that led to his disillusionment and inspired his breach. If it’s true that Snowden deceived co-workers to access their accounts, it suggests that he went out of his way to find documents rather than coming across them in the course of his routine work, as he's said.

Not all spying is bad

Answering a question about the appropriate scope of the U.S. national security program and whether any spying is justified, Snowden said, “Not all spying is bad. The biggest problem we face right now is the new technique of indiscriminate mass surveillance, where governments are seizing billions and billions and billions of innocents’ communication every single day.” What Snowden didn’t address is the kind of spying that he considers legitimate. More on that later.

Most spooks are good people; it’s the one percent that’s out to get you

“People at the working level at the NSA, CIA, or any other member of the IC are not out to get you. They’re good people trying to do the right thing,” Snowden said before warning that “the people you need to watch out for are the unaccountable senior officials authorizing these unconstitutional programs.”

For a self-described whistleblower who used his platform yesterday to advocate for a global reform of surveillance apparatuses, the silence on Russia can’t be just an oversight.

We need a world body to oversee surveillance programs

Snowden, who twice contributed money to Ron Paul’s election campaign, and is reported to have supported Paul’s call for a currency tied to the gold standard, seems highly out of step with the libertarian line on this one. How exactly a world body made up of states with competing interests and independent surveillance programs would agree to rules of spying is left a mystery, though Snowden does say that the key would be "the development of security standards that enforce our right to privacy not through law, but through science and technology.”

And Here’s What He Didn't Say: The Biggest Questions Snowden Left Unanswered

The Russians--what did he tell them and what does he still owe them?

Snowden never mentioned Russia at all--not a surprise to some, given the restrictions on free expression and notorious repression of journalists and other dissidents in his new host country. One doesn’t need to believe the allegations made by House Intelligence Committee chair Rep. Mike Rogers, that Snowden was a spy who had been put up to his leaks by Russian agents, to raise the issue of his current relationship with the Russian state and its intelligence services.

Whatever Snowden’s original motivations, it’s clear that he has been silent about Russia’s own massive and repressive surveillance program and that he is in close contact with people who have strong ties to the Russian intelligence services. Snowden’s lawyer and spokesman, Anatoly Kucherena, serves on an oversight body for the FSB, Russia’s state security agency, and according to some reports Snowden is constantly surrounded by FSB handlers and his entire life is “dictated by Russian intelligence.” For a self-described whistleblower who used his platform yesterday to advocate for a global reform of surveillance apparatuses, the silence on Russia can’t be just an oversight.

If not all spying is bad, what’s the good stuff?

Snowden’s leaks covered far more than the PRISM program and other surveillance aimed at collection on U.S. citizens—he also released a trove of files on U.S. intelligence collection abroad. Among the documents Snowden leaked were some relating to intelligence collection on Pakistan’s nuclear program – was that bad spying, according to him? In an early interview in Hong Kong, Snowden justified disclosing some details of the U.S. surveillance program to the Chinese on the basis that we are not at war with China — but we’re not at war with North Korea either, so would it be bad to spy on them? In addition to revealing operational surveillance programs and their targets, Snowden also leaked information that revealed intelligence capabilities – specific technologies that have been reported on for what they are capable of doing rather than for illegal instances in which they were used. Keeping those technological capabilities hidden so they can be used without their targets being able to evade them is an essential aspect of any surveillance and spy craft. Whether they are used for “good” spying or “bad” depends on who is giving the orders for their use.

Snowden clearly trusted his understanding of the distinction between good and bad spying enough to justify his massive leak, yet when it comes to what kind of intelligence collection the U.S. can legitimately conduct, his position is unclear.

 The president of the United States ordering reforms of the U.S. surveillance program, gives some vindication to the leaker who first revealed its extent and lack of legal basis. But Snowden still has questions to answer, beginning with his relationship to the Russian government.