Five hours with Edward Snowden Lena Sundström and Lotta Härdelin
Suddenly he opens the door. DN’s Lena Sundström and Lotta Härdelin had a unique meeting with the whistleblower who has fans all over the world but risks lifetime imprisonment in the home country he once tried to save.
So why is the rest of the world turning a blind eye to this?
– It’s legitimized by the threat of terrorism. Saying it will save lives and that anyone opposing it, risks getting blood on their hands.
Snowden says he also believes there’s a degree of self-defense, just as in the case of the mass surveillance.
– They feel like acknowledging it would illustrate some weakness, or somehow legitimize abuse in countries like North Korea, Russia or China. But the truth is the opposite. It’s a sign of strength to be able to say that we made mistakes, and then show that they can be corrected, show that they can be reformed.
"The drone program creates more terrorists than it kills. There was no Islamic State until we started bombing these states. The biggest threat we face in the region was born from our own policies."
Suddenly the doorbell rings. The feeling of uncertainty, from when we were waiting at the meeting point earlier, slips back into the room for a few seconds.
But Edward Snowden calmly walks over and opens the door for the man from room service. I get my steak – medium rare – and Edward Snowden gets his hamburger with fries. The others in the room are having tea and scones. DN photographer Lotta Härdelin and our contacts: Ole von Uexküll and Xenya Cherny-Scanlon from the Right Livelihood Foundation, which awarded Snowden the Alternative Nobel Prize last year.
The announcement of the laureates, which usually is held in the Swedish Foreign Ministry, was temporarily banned last year by former Foreign Minister Carl Bildt. Edward Snowden’s father, Lon, attended the award ceremony in his son’s place.
Your father said he wishes Sweden would give you asylum. Would you feel safe in Sweden?
– It depends on the circumstances. But it would be important symbolically.
It’s clear that he’s proud of you.
– Yes, he’s a little radical now. He never used to be radical.
– Yeah! I mean he worked for the military for 30 years. He’s as conservative as it gets.
It was the same with Daniel Ellsberg’s father. Who later supported him.
– Right, right. Well, it was the same with Daniel Ellsberg, he led the marines and I signed up for the war in Iraq when everybody else was protesting against it. People get in the whole conservatives versus liberal thing, and they like to think of those conservative people as hateful people that don’t care. And that’s true of a small percentage, but we make a mistake when we generalize.
During the Bush administration, people were kidnapped all over the world and dumped in secret prisons, where they were tortured. During the Obama administration, the kidnappings, the secret prisons and the torture, have been replaced by death lists and extrajudicial executions of people, carried out by pilotless aircrafts, known as drones.
Read moreThe Intercept: The Drone Papers (october 2015).
The documents also show what Edward Snowden was talking about earlier.
– They’re not targeting individuals, they’re targeting phones. And they don’t know whether the terrorist is holding the phone or whether his mother is holding it. And this is why so many drone strikes go wrong, why so many wedding parties get hit. The information they use is dangerous and unreliable. When I saw the Drone Papers, there wasn’t a question in my mind that this was the most important security story of the year, he says.
I ask him about the terminology. ”Jackpot” is when they kill the person they intended to kill. ”Touchdown” is a drone attack targeting someone’s cell phone. ”Baseball card” refers to information about the people they want to wipe out. The hunted people are called ”objects” and get names like ”Brandy”, ”Post Mortem”, ”Lethal Aspen”, ”Ribeye”.
What is that? Is it jargon?
– It’s the military language, everything is an acronym, everything is euphemized. You don’t say assassinations, you say targeted killings. You say ”kill/capture operation”, even if nobody is going to be captured. They’ve got their own culture.
Is it about dehumanizing people?
– There’s a lot of abstraction in it, because you don’t want to think about the fact that you’re actually killing people. You don’t want to think about the fact that these people may have a family. You want to think of them as objectives, you want to think of them as goals, you want to think of them as a puzzle. You don’t want to think of you breaking into the heart of the most central infrastructure for communication in the world – Google. That you’re basically rummaging through everybody’s private life. You want to think of this as a piece of infrastructure that will be a valuable source of intelligence information.
I mention a quote in the Drone Papers. It’s when Obama’s former Director of National Intelligence explains the attraction of waging war by drone: ”It is the politically advantageous thing to do – low cost, no US casualties, gives the appearance of toughness, … it plays well domestically, and it is unpopular only in other countries.”
Listen (57 sec)
At least you think they are.
– Right. You think they are controllable.
Until IS comes along and destroys the whole idea.
– Right. Like with the drone program, which creates more terrorists than it kills. There was no Islamic State until we started bombing these states. The biggest threat we face in the region was born from our own policies.
Edward Snowden says that’s a recurring feeling.
– It’s like they have been thinking on an emotional level, not on a smart level. You get this immediate response that really doesn’t make sense. And to be honest, when you think about the US foreign policy over the last decade, that’s the only thing that could possibly explain what they’re doing. Because could anybody look at what we now spent 15 years doing and say this was a genius plan, like this was a grand strategy that really worked out. Sure there have been bright points right, but there have been clear things like, for example, the drone program, where they know it’s not working, and yet they continue it.
He says another quote stuck with him from the Drone Papers.
– It’s when he admits that the problem with the drone program is actually simply that it is creating more terrorists than it kills.
So why didn’t it get bigger headlines?
Edward Snowden nods, saying he’s still optimistic.
– What is important, is simply by having that material published, the whistleblower effected changes in both law and policy. We just don’t know it yet. Almost certainly as a result of seeing that information made public, the government has ordered internal reviews within their bureaucracies. And now advocacy organizations, representatives of the civil society and the non-governmental space, like the ACLU, will be able to bring legal challenges for those who have had their rights violated by these programs. Because previously, at least in the US, the government could flush these challenges out of courts by saying this is speculation, ”you can’t prove this happened”. Even if everybody knows that’s the case. And there’s no stronger confirmation of the government engaging in wrongdoings, than government documents detailing their own wrongdoings.
He says that way, the documents are very important for the future.
– Because if they can win a single court case, they can protect the rights of an entire generation.
You mean that we journalists aren’t as important as we like to believe we are?
– But yes, it’s disappointing that large institutional press, papers like The Washington Post, papers like The New York Times, try to avoid reporting on stories like this for competitive reasons, even when there’s a significant public interest in doing so. Headlines are important for public awareness, for holding people in account in terms of vote. You have to remember that even judges, even the heads of the intelligence agencies, even the parliamentarians who make our laws, are not in the position of virtually being the greatest geniuses in society. They are not some extraordinary people who know everything about everything. They read the papers too and are informed as a result of these. It’s not enough to simply have a free press. It’s not enough that you can write anything. Journalists should feel at least some sense of obligation that corresponds to performing a public service. Helping people understand what they need to know, just as much as what they want to know. They can only govern with the consent of the governed. But consent isn’t consent if it isn’t informed.
Daniel Ellsberg leaked the ”Pentagon Papers” in the 70s. He said he waited 40 years for someone to come forward with new documents. Then there was Chelsea Manning. Four years later, there was Edward Snowden.
And now roughly two years later, there’s another leak. You talk about a Hydra. If you chop the head of a whistleblower or source, you’ll have a new one. It seems to be going faster now. Can this source remain anonymous?
– I hope so. And who knows, it might be me.
He says it a tad teasingly, explaining what he means.
– There’s one beneficial thing with me. In court, anybody who releases documents that are older than May 2013 can use me as a fence since the NSA never identified all the documents that went walking.
We know that you took all these documents, due to the fact that you went to the press. The NSA still doesn’t know which documents you’ve got. So if spies do the same thing, they should be able to walk away with documents all the time, without anyone finding out?
– Yes, yes, absolutely. I just spoke with a former FBI Agent at an ACLU conference and he made exactly that point. He said that the government has started all these programs called the ”insider threat programs”. It’s basically the kind of model where you watch your co-workers, and what they’re doing and report if they do anything that’s an indicator of concern. For example if they have TOR stickers or EFF stickers (TOR enables anonymous communication; Electronic Frontier Foundation defends your digital rights) and they work for the NSA, they would say that’s an indication of split loyalties. Something like that. So you should report that.
They’ve learned their lesson, in other words. When Edward Snowden worked in Kunia in Hawaii, he had a sticker with the text ”Freedom isn’t free” on the door of his house. To work, he often wore a sweater sold by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, featuring a parody of the NSA logo. The eagle’s claws were carrying surveillance earphones instead of keys. And on his desk, he kept the US Constitution.
The odds of an intelligence officer from a foreign power walking around with their values written as clearly, might not be something to hope for too much. And just keeping track of intelligence service employees seems to require its own intelligence service.
After September 11, 2001, suddenly more than 1,200 government organizations and almost 2,000 private companies were working with terrorist control. Nearly five million Americans had some kind of security clearance, and about 1.4 million had access to top secret material. As someone described it – security clearances were handed out like Kleenex.
Even if the NSA is a public authority, it’s part of countless constellations of private companies, where many of the main functions have been outsourced. The agency employs about 30,000 people, but within the NSA, there are also approximately 60,000 contracted employees through private companies.
The intelligence community has also seen a transfer of power from senior agents, not quite mastering the new technology, to younger talents, like Edward Snowden, who was hired by the CIA at the age of 22. A former employee said that there was nothing in his background that could have prevented him from qualifying for a ”top-secret security clearance”, for the simple reason that ”He was so young. He didn’t have a history.”
When Edward Snowden secured a job at the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton in Hawaii, to get full access to the NSA’s unprocessed surveillance archive, the company prided itself, both online and in its annual report from the previous year, on the fact that ”In all walks of life, our most trusted colleagues and friends have this in common: We can count on them. No matter what the situation or challenge, they will be there for us. Booz Allen Hamilton is trusted in that way. You can count on us.”
So how do you know who to trust?
Edward Snowden says you don’t, of course. And he says that the former FBI Agent made that same point. That it’s crazy that the government is so obsessed with whistleblowers who are working with the press.
– No spy in the world involves the press. He also said that, asking an audience, who knows the name Edward Snowden, everybody raises their hand. Who knows Chelsea Manning? And a lot of people raise their hand. Who knows about Thomas Drake? A few people raise their hand. Who knows the name Jeffrey Delisle? Nobody raises their hand.
Who is Jeffrey Delisle?
Read moreCanadian The Star on Jeffrey Delisle (may, 2013).
The risks of having a mass surveillance system collecting data on your own citizens without adequate security are obvious. The claims that Edward Snowden’s leak would have put the lives of people at risk, as they said in 2013, have also proved groundless.
– CIA, NSA and DIA (Defence Intelligence Agency) Directors all have been brought on the floor of the congress and they have been asked by my strongest critics, begged for any evidence, that any national security interest has been harmed, that any individual has come to harm. And not in any single case have they shown concrete evidence that this occurred.
After Snowden’s disclosures, a court of appeal in the US, established that the US government’s collection of data on the telecommunication of millions of citizens was illegal.
At the same time there’s a clear consensus among those defending the mass surveillance. A republican senator said: ”None of your civil liberties matter much after you’re dead”.
A famous radio host said that ”If you’re sucking dirt inside a casket, do you know what your civil liberties are worth? Zilch. Zero, nada.”
In brief: There’s got to be occasions where security interests precede law and civil rights.
What is most favorable to the citizen will, of course, depend on who you ask.
A federal judge noted that the US does not cite a single case ”in which analysis of the NSA’s bulk metadata collection” actually stopped an imminent terrorist attack.
NSA’s mass surveillance didn’t prevent the failed terrorist attack on an airplane bound for Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, the plan to bomb Times Square, or the plan to attack the New York subway system. Instead, observant bystanders and traditional police work stopped these cases.
Nor has the surveillance been able to prevent any of the massacres that actually have happened.
”If you collect everything, you understand nothing”, as Edward Snowden puts it.
That mass surveillance was aimed at controlling terrorists no longer felt that plausible, when it was revealed that the NSA had intercepted Angela Merkel’s private cell phone. Just like when it was revealed that the GCHQ, NSA’s partner in the UK, used their mass surveillance tools to monitor Amnesty.
Edward Snowden spreads his arms.
– Pardon my language; I’m actually not going to say it, but how…
He pauses for me to hear the unspoken words.
–…. is Amnesty threatening us?
So why are they doing it?
– Ultimately, it comes back to that same feeling when people put up cameras in their own homes to keep track of what’s going on. Even if there’s no threat, even if no one ever broke into their homes. It’s the attractiveness of believing you’re in control. You do it because you can do it.
Which also applied to the NSA employees who were caught having used the agency’s powerful spy tool to monitor their partners.
Read moreNPR on #NSApickuplines (august, 2013).
This kind of privacy invasion is uncomfortable to most people. Steaming ten letters open – a common practice of the German Stasi during the Cold War – feels like a greater privacy breach than intercepting several billion emails.
– A single death is a tragedy, a million is statistics. Of course it’s a challenge. There is a point when the scope of a violation becomes so staggering that it becomes hard to understand, to imagine. It’s hard to accept so we turn away from it. ”We live in a free society but we’re being watched all the time.”
How do you explain mass surveillance to someone who doesn’t feel monitored? Someone who ”doesn’t have anything to hide”.
– It’s not about not having something to hide; it’s about having something to lose. What we lose when we’re under observation is our humanity. What shapes us, what makes us individuals, is the fact that we can think, we can develop.
Listen (38 sec)
They say you can judge a society by how it treats its weakest members. I come to think of a few lines from Glenn Greenwald’s book about the Snowden documents:
”The true measure of a society’s freedom is how it treats its dissidents and other marginalized groups, not how it treats good loyalists. Even in the world’s worst tyrannies, dutiful supporters are immunized from abuses of state power.”
When The New York Times published the first excerpt of Daniel Ellsberg’s 7,000 page Pentagon Papers, a court order requested by the Nixon administration prevented the newspaper from publishing the documents. For 13 days, Daniel Ellsberg was at the center of something the press described as the ”biggest manhunt since the Lindbergh kidnapping”, while he continued to distribute the documents across the country to 17 newspapers that now relay published them, to mock the FBI. On June 30, a Supreme Court decision finally lifted the ban.
When it came to the Snowden documents, Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger, was determined to protect the material. He set up a special editorial room at the London office, which was guarded 24/7 by security guards with lists of who had access.
In the UK, the press is more independent than in the US, and not as close to the government. At the same time, British journalists don’t boast the same constitutional rights and freedoms as their American colleagues, so as the British government started becoming increasingly aggressive, Alan Rusbridger got in touch with The New York Times. The temperature in the UK was rising, he explained. The plan was that The Guardian would hide behind the US Constitution by transferring the material to their American colleagues.
A week later, two men from the GCHQ came, insisting that The Guardian either destroy or surrender the files. They called themselves ”Ian” and ”Chris”, but The Guardian nicknamed them ”The Hobbits”.
The man who went by the name Ian, said: ”You’ve got plastic cups on your table. Plastic cups can be turned into microphones. The Russians can send a laser beam through your window and turn them into a listening device.”
The GCHQ team then opened a bag and pulled out what looked like a large microwave. The Guardian staff was told that it was a demagnetizer and that its purpose was to destroy magnetic fields, and thus erase hard drives and data.
Ian said: ”You’ll need one of these”.
A Guardian employee said: ”We’ll buy our own degausser, thanks”.
Ian said: ”No you won’t. It costs GBP 30 000”.
The employee answered: ”Okay, we probably won’t then”.
The Guardian staff would then take turns to smash the computers, memory cards, chips and hard drives in the basement under the supervision of The Hobbits. It all took three hours.
Today, many investigative journalists in Western democracies work with handwritten notes, outdoor walks, encrypted coded correspondence and cell phones placed in microwaves when dealing with sensitive material. ”Just like during the Cold War,” as a New York Times reporter put it.
Surveys made after Snowden’s revelation, show that 58 percent of the journalists covering security policy issues in the US today have changed their working methods.
These are not people torturing people. These are people sitting behind a desk, thinking everything they do is completely legal.Dusk is falling outside the window in Moscow. Lunch has started drifting to à la carte, as I ask Edward Snowden to write down his top five list of favorites among safe programs.
Just like in the documentary ”Citizenfour” I’m fascinated by how he, with all his computer skills, immediately steps down to another level. Like a Formula 1 driver who happily squeezes a child seat in the front seat, chugging along at 20 km/h. That extraordinary combination of IQ and EQ.
As he writes in my notebook, I can’t help noticing how he holds the pen. A grip that tells me he’s someone who’s used to typing on a keyboard rather than writing by hand. It feels like I’ve forced a hockey player to unlace his skates and run ten meters on ice.
He adjusts his glasses, then takes them off for a while.
– I have to hold things this close to be able to see them.
He holds up a piece of paper ten centimeters from his face.
I’m thinking how strange it feels to meet people that you’ve already read so much about. I know he has -6.50 on one eye and -6.25 on the other. Unusually small feet, taking forever to find military boots his size at US Army base Fort Benning. That he doesn’t drink alcohol or coffee, and has never been drunk. So mysterious and quiet at private parties that his friends would compare him to the vampire Edward in ”Twilight”. At the same time, he’s one of the most verbal people I’ve ever met. A person who speaks clear American English in a voice that often emphasizes a word in each sentence, making also what’s hard understandable.
I say that my experience is that the main problem is installing these programs. Using them isn’t that hard once you’ve started.
He puts his glasses back on.
We want to make lower friction to lower the barriers. The problem is that these products are still too technical, I think, to pass the ”grandma test”. People say: please don’t use the grandma test because it’s disrespectful to ”grandma”.
We can also call it the ”Greenwald test”.
– Haha! Don’t do that! He’ll grouch at you on Twitter.
But why don’t the internet companies make it easier for us to use encrypted communication?
– There are a lot of reasons. One is, if it’s not making money, they don’t have any incentive to do it. Two is, now their governments are complaining about it, so they’re a little bit worried of picking and choosing sides, but I think they need to think really hard. Because if you work for one government you work for all the governments. Because if you give the US special back door access, you’re not going to be able to sell your iPhone in China, unless you also give them a back door. The same in Russia.
I say that I’ve been surprised by how shamelessly the NSA brags about what they do, like when they had drawn a map of how they broke into Google’s system. One document even had a little smiley, saying encryption “added and removed here”.
– These are not people torturing people. These are people sitting behind a desk, thinking everything they do is completely legal, and even if it isn’t, it’s never going to become public, because it’s all classified. For them it’s just solving a series of puzzles, to them it’s just an interesting problem. They go: ”We want to be able to read what Google is doing, but Google is encrypting stuff, so what can we do? How can we get around it?” And somebody probably spent six weeks on it…
– … or actually more like six minutes.
Some people have had a hard time understanding how a 29 year old man could give up his high salary, his job, his life and his family, to defend the democratic values most of us claim we want to live by.
In totalitarian states around the world, 29 year old men and women are standing up for the right not to be monitored, the right not to be harassed, rule of law and freedom of speech, even when it means risking death penalty, lashing, life time imprisonment or exile.
Many journalists can bear witness to the fact that it can be easier to find sources willing to take great risks in countries where they risk more than in democracies, where people just risk silence in the coffee room or losing their jobs. I ask Snowden what he thinks is the reason.
– Ultimately, in many cases, people are, on the large scale, rational actors. Living in a country where the worst case scenario is losing your job, at the same time they see that the system is very stable, very robust. Which means: The politicians will talk, the press will write something about it, they will move around some letters in some legislation. But the ultimate outcome of their sacrifice will be very small. There will be nominal changes to law or policy, as opposed to structural reforms. Whereas if you’re in a weaker state, you’re in a less stable regime, you have the chance of basically being the action, the spark that lights the fire, and changes the country for the better in a real and lasting way.
– But hey…
– I’m just speculating.
I come to think of something I heard Edward Snowden say of himself at some point. That he’s an ordinary guy in an extraordinary situation. That is probably true. He maintains his right to be ordinary, despite the extraordinary circumstances. Someone who opens the door himself, takes food orders and meets us without lawyers for a several hours long conversation, because he likes travelling by talking – both in real life and on the internet, which he loves precisely because it’s a ”shark tank” where you are forced to sharpen your arguments, rather than a more pragmatic ”think tank”.
The symbolic value that materializes when an anonymous leak becomes a whistleblower with a name, a face and a context, someone who can carry a story with a weight that doesn’t require medals on the chest.
Earlier in the conversation, Snowden mentioned there being a motto when he worked for the CIA: ”Mission first, mission first.”
Maybe just the mission has changed. The question that I’ve been pondering over for two years was probably put the wrong way from the start. Edward Snowden didn’t give up his country to become a whistleblower.
He’s here because he never gave up.
This is a segement of the interview
To Read the full interview : http://fokus.dn.se/edward-snowden-english/