Snowden: I wanted to 'correct the excesses of government'

Edward Snowden says a surveillance state, where the National Security Agency vacuums up Americans' domestic communications, was "not something I'm willing to live under."

Declan McCullagh
Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
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Hundreds of protesters took to the streets of San Francisco last week to demonstrate against NSA domestic surveillance. Dara Kerr/CNET

Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden remains, as far as the public knows, stuck in the transit area of a Moscow airport. But two newly published interviews reveal more about why he decided to go public with documents confirming the NSA's domestic surveillance of American citizens.

The interviews, separately published today by the Guardian and Spiegel Online, were conducted over a month ago -- before his identity as the NSA's most famous leaker became public.

Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden in interview with Glenn Greenwald for the Guardian, June 6, 2013. Guardian/Screenshot by CNET

But they show that Snowden predicted how the documents he divulged would be received by Washington officialdom: "I think the government's going to launch an investigation. I think they're going to say I committed grave crimes, [that] I violated the Espionage Act. They're going to say I aided our enemies."

Which is exactly what happened. The U.S. government has alleged that Snowden violated the Espionage Act, and a Washington Post op-ed claimed he "has aided America's enemies." Secretary of State John Kerry has branded Snowden, who has not been convicted of a crime, as a "traitor to his country."

Snowden, who reportedly has received asylum offers from Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, said he was not willing to idly stand by while the NSA's massive eavesdropping apparatus was being turned inward on fellow citizens:

I don't want to live in a world where everything that I say, everything that I do, everyone I talk to, every expression of creativity or love or friendship is recorded. And that's not something I'm willing to support, it's not something I'm willing to build, and it's not something I'm willing to live under. I think anyone who opposes that sort of world has an obligation to act in a way they can. I've watched and waited and tried to do my job in the most policy-driven way I could, which is to wait and allow other people -- wait on our leadership -- [to] correct the excesses of government when we go too far. But as I've watched, I've seen that's not occurring. In fact, we're compounding the excesses of prior governments and making it worse and more invasive. And nobody is really standing to stop it.

The NSA is "getting everyone's calls, everyone's call records, and everyone's Internet traffic as well," Snowden said. When NSA Director Keith Alexander was asked during a congressional hearing last month about whether "e-mail contacts" are ingested as well, he refused to answer the question, saying that could be discussed only in a "classified session."

Along with its partners, like the U.K. spy agency General Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the NSA vacuums up telephone calls, text, and data, Snowden said.

But how much they get depends on the capabilities of the individual collection sites -- i.e., some circuits have fat pipes but tiny collection systems, so they have to be selective. This is more of a problem for overseas collection sites than domestic ones, which is what makes domestic collection so terrifying. NSA isn't limited by power, space, and cooling PSC constraints.


• The Electronic Privacy Information Center is planning to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to throw out the secret court order, revealed by the Guardian on June 5, that requires Verizon to turn over to the NSA daily logs of Americans' domestic and international phone calls. The order by Judge Roger Vinson is illegal because millions of domestic phone records cannot "plausibly be relevant to an authorized investigation," EPIC's legal brief says.

• Privacy International today launched a separate challenge to GCHQ's domestic surveillance. Its argument (PDF) seeks a "declaration" that the agency's bulk monitoring is "unlawful."

• The European Parliament voted today to adopt a resolution instructing its Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice, and Home Affairs "to conduct an in-depth inquiry into the matter," including how EU citizens' rights are being protected.

• The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court reinterpreted the word "relevant" -- as, in relevant to a possible future intelligence probe -- to include databases with millions of records in them, the Wall Street Journal reported today. And the Washington Post highlighted how Internet backbone provider Global Crossing worked with the FBI, the Justice Department, and Homeland Security to ensure that "surveillance requests got fulfilled quickly and confidentially."

• Brazil's O Globo Mundo newspaper published more top-secret slides on an NSA program called X-KEYSCORE.

Anti-NSA protesters march through San Francisco (pictures)

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