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Edward Snowden a 'uniquely postmodern breed of whistle-blower'

In a wide-ranging interview with author James Bamford for Wired magazine, the former NSA contractor opens up on why he became the most wanted man in the world.

Whistle-blower Edward Snowden gave an extensive interview to Wired magazine, speaking with author and journalist James Bamford over the course of three days in Moscow. The Russian capital is Snowden's home for the foreseeable future following the country's extension of asylum for the next three years.


The results of Bamford's time with Snowden, published Wednesday, are a fascinating look into the 31-year-old former National Security Agency contractor's deeply-held beliefs and his motivations in unearthing the secrets behind the United States' most controversial surveillance programs of our time. Snowden, who clutches an American flag on Wired's cover, wants us to know this: "I care more about the country than what happens to me." At the moment, the country he's referring to is still desperate to know his whereabouts, to bring him home and prosecute him.

As a former NSA employee himself, Bamford originally blew the whistle on the organization while in law school. He testified before the influential Church Committee, the oversight body that would become the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and led to significant reforms of the intelligence apparatus in the 1970s. Bamford later went on to publish the first book about the NSA, titled "The Puzzle Palace," inciting several threats from the US government of prosecution under the Espionage Act, the very same 1917 law under which Snowden has been charged.

Revelations about the US's sprawling surveillance efforts continue to make their way to publications around the globe, thanks to Snowden's leaked trove of documents currently in the hands of journalist Glenn Greenwald and a small circle of fellow security and privacy reporters. Now, new reports are suggesting that there may be a second NSA leaker, either concurrent with Snowden or inspired by him. Still, the US government continues to grapple with the prospect of reining in its spying as public sentiment has tilted against the NSA -- and as Snowden has emerged, over time, less a traitor and more a symbol for keeping power in check.

Check out the full piece, which is highly recommended reading, over at Wired now. In the meantime, here's some of the fascinating insights from Bamford's interview with Snowden:

Snowden on returning to the US and facing charges:

"I told the government I'd volunteer for prison, as long as it served the right purpose. I care more about the country than what happens to me. But we can't allow the law to become a political weapon or agree to scare people away from standing up for their rights, no matter how good the deal. I'm not going to be part of that."

On leaving breadcrumbs for the NSA to follow:

"That way, he hoped, the agency would see that his motive was whistle-blowing and not spying for a foreign government. It would also give the government time to prepare for leaks in the future, allowing it to change code words, revise operational plans, and take other steps to mitigate damage," Bartman wrote. "But he believes the NSA's audit missed those clues and simply reported the total number of documents he touched--1.7 million. (Snowden says he actually took far fewer.)."

"I figured they would have a hard time. I didn't figure they would be completely incapable," Snowden said.

On new revelations from the files yet to be published:

"The fact that the government's investigation failed--that they don't know what was taken and that they keep throwing out these ridiculous huge numbers--implies to me that somewhere in their damage assessment they must have seen something that was like, 'Holy shit.' And they think it's still out there."

How Snowden sees himself now:

"I used to work for the government. Now I work for the public. Technology is the greatest equalizer in human history. It allows us to try on new faces, join new communities, engage in new conversations, and discover who we are and what we want to become.

Our generation is facing a time where governments around the world are questioning wether or not individuals can be trusted with the power of technology, be left to our own devices and use it creatively and not destructively.

And while I don't know the answer to that question, what I do know is that governments shouldn't be the one's to decide. We should. And what I did was not to benefit myself. I didn't ask for money. I gave this information back to public hands. The reason I did that was not to gain a label, but to give you back a choice about the country you want to live in."

On protecting his image:

"I'm an engineer, not a politician. I don't want the stage. I'm terrified of giving these talking heads some distraction, some excuse to jeopardize, smear, and delegitimize a very important movement."

Edward Snowden has an IQ above 145:

"Everybody in my family has worked for the federal government in one way or another. I expected to pursue the same path," Snowden said.

"We always considered Ed the smartest one in the family," said Snowden's father.

On finding his moral compass in Greek mythology:

"I remember just going into those books, and I would disappear with them for hours. I think that's when I started thinking about how we identify problems, and that the measure of an individual is how they address and confront those problems."

Snowden volunteered for the Army special forces in 2004, inspired by the 9/11 attacks:

"I still very strongly believed that the government wouldn't lie to us, that our government had noble intent, and that the war in Iraq was going to be what they said it was, which was a limited, targeted effort to free the oppressed. I wanted to do my part." (In training accident, Snowden broke both legs and was discharged, leading to his transition to intelligence.)

Snowden considered becoming a whistle-blower in 2008, but held off because of Barack Obama's election, only to be disappointed:

"Not only did they not fulfill those promises, but they entirely repudiated them. They went in the other direction. What does that mean for a society, for a democracy, when the people that you elect on the basis of promises can basically suborn the will of the electorate?"

The NSA inadvertently blacked out Syria's Internet in a 2012 spying operation gone wrong:

"Inside the [NSA hacker division] TAO operations center, the panicked government hackers had what Snowden calls an 'oh shit' moment," Bamford wrote. "Back at TAO's operations center, the tension was broken with a joke that contained more than a little truth: "If we get caught, we can always point the finger at Israel."

On discovering a cyberwarfare program called MonsterMind that would detect and block foreign attacks, yet also automatically retaliate without human intervention:

"You could have someone sitting in China, for example, making it appear that one of these attacks is originating in Russia. And then we end up shooting back at a Russian hospital. What happens next?

"The argument is that the only way we can identify these malicious traffic flows and respond to them is if we're analyzing all traffic flows. And if we're analyzing all traffic flows, that means we have to be intercepting all traffic flows. That means violating the Fourth Amendment, seizing private communications without a warrant, without probable cause or even a suspicion of wrongdoing. For everyone, all the time."

On why he felt he needed to rebel against the NSA:

"You get exposed to a little bit of evil, a little bit of rule-breaking, a little bit of dishonesty, a little bit of deceptiveness, a little bit of disservice to the public interest, and you can brush it off, you can come to justify it. But if you do that, it creates a slippery slope that just increases over time, and by the time you've been in 15 years, 20 years, 25 years, you've seen it all and it doesn't shock you.

"And so you see it as normal. And that's the problem, that's what the [James] Clapper (director of national intelligence) event was all about. He saw deceiving the American people as what he does, as his job, as something completely ordinary. And he was right that he wouldn't be punished for it, because he was revealed as having lied under oath and he didn't even get a slap on the wrist for it. It says a lot about the system and a lot about our leaders."

On always looking over his shoulder for the CIA and NSA, yet knowing he'll get caught eventually:

"If somebody's really watching me, they've got a team of guys whose job is just to hack me. I don't think they've geolocated me, but they almost certainly monitor who I'm talking to online. Even if they don't know what you're saying, because it's encrypted, they can still get a lot from who you're talking to and when you're talking to them.

"I'm going to slip up and they're going to hack me. It's going to happen."