Snowden: 'Not all spying bad' but NSA program 'divorced from reason'

During a live Web chat, NSA leaker Edward Snowden emphasizes the need for the rule of law. He also strikes, at one point, a tone you might take as conciliatory.

Edward Moyer Senior Editor
Ed is a many-year veteran of the writing and editing world who enjoys taking sentences apart and putting them back together. He also likes making them from scratch. For nearly a quarter of a century, he's edited and written stories about various aspects of the technology world, from the US National Security Agency's controversial spying techniques to historic NASA space missions to 3D-printed works of fine art. Before that, he wrote about movies, musicians, artists and subcultures.
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Edward Moyer
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Some praise him as a civil-liberties icon; others want his head. A supporter holds up an Edward Snowden mask during a December demonstration asking Brazil's president to grant political asylum to the whistle-blower. Miguel Schincariol/AFP/Getty Images

"I think a person should be able to dial a number, make a purchase, send an SMS, write an e-mail, or visit a Web site without having to think about what it's going to look like on their permanent record."

That's the word from NSA whistle-blower and leaker Edward Snowden, who today answered questions tweeted by the public as part of a live Web chat, his first since June of last year.

The Thursday event took place the same day that the US Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB), an independent federal watchdog agency within the executive branch, released a report that said -- despite differing views on the board -- that the US National Security Agency's controversial bulk phone-records program is illegal, has provided "minimal" counterterrorism value, and should be shut down.

The chat also happened just about a week after President Obama announced during a closely watched speech that "the work had begun" on reforms to the NSA and that several first steps had been taken, including initial measures to prevent abuse of the bulk phone-records program and moves to create greater privacy protections for citizens of other nations.

Snowden said during the chat that the PCLOB report makes it clear: "There is simply no justification for continuing an unconstitutional policy with a zero percent success rate." Rather, he said, warrantless, bulk collection of data should end and surveillance should be conducted along traditional legal lines involving ideas of probable cause and court orders.

"The fact that these records are gathered without the government having any reasonable suspicion or probable cause justifying the seizure of data is so divorced from the domain of reason as to be incapable of ever being made lawful at all," Snowden wrote, adding elsewhere that there was no reason for the NSA and other agencies not to abide by the law:

"The NSA and the rest of the US Intelligence Community is exceptionally well positioned to meet our intelligence requirements through targeted surveillance -- the same way we've always done it -- without resorting to the mass surveillance of entire populations," Snowden wrote.

Obama said during his reform speech that the government should no longer hold telephone metadata and that an inquiry would be made into how a third party could be developed to hold it. He also said he'd directed the attorney general and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to develop a way to require the court's permission before the NSA can access metadata in the database.

Obama also praised the "hard work and dedication of the men and women in our intelligence community" and said "those who are troubled by our existing programs are not interested in a repeat of 9/11, and those who defend these programs are not dismissive of civil liberties." Without directly addressing the president's remarks, Snowden discounted the terrorism defense but conceded that intelligence gathering was necessary. He even seemed, at one point, to strike a somewhat conciliatory tone (while saying that he wasn't the only NSA worker concerned about agency practices).

"Intelligence agencies do have a role to play," Snowden wrote, "and the people at the working level at the NSA, CIA, or any other member of the [Intelligence Community] are not out to get you. They're good people trying to do the right thing, and I can tell you from personal experience that they were worried about the same things I was."

"Not all spying is bad," he wrote elsewhere. "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. This is done not because it's necessary -- after all, these programs are unprecedented in US history, and were begun in response to a threat that kills fewer Americans every year than bathtub falls and police officers -- but because new technologies make it easy and cheap."

Snowden said, however, that despite the scale of the problem, it could be effectively addressed: "We can correct the laws, restrain the overreach of agencies, and hold the senior officials responsible for abusive programs to account."

The chat, hosted by the Free Snowden Web site, also happened as the volume increased in the debate over whether Snowden -- currently in Russia under temporary asylum and wanted by the US government under the Espionage Act -- should be considered a hero or a traitor.

Earlier this week, the heads of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees suggested Snowden may have been working for Russian spy agencies while employed as an NSA contractor. Snowden flat-out denied the allegation in an interview with The New Yorker, and said, "This 'Russian spy' push is absurd." And The Washington Post's Fact Checker blog said of the accusatory lawmakers that "there are...some hard questions they need to answer before they continue with the Russian spy theme."

Meanwhile, a Pew Research Center poll found that 56 percent of those polled want "to see the government pursue a criminal case against Snowden, while 32 percent oppose this." (It also found that 53 percent disapproved of "the government's collection of telephone and Internet data as part of antiterrorism efforts" and that 40 percent approved -- and a separate Pew poll found that younger Americans tend to be more supportive of Snowden.)

And in a newly published profile of President Obama by New Yorker editor David Remnick, the president said of Snowden that "the benefit of the debate he generated was not worth the damage done [to national security], because there was another way of doing it."

In today's chat, however, Snowden reiterated that leaking secret NSA documents was the only real way he had to make the agency's programs known.

"If we had had a real process in place, and reports of wrongdoing could be taken to real, independent arbiters rather than captured officials, I might not have had to sacrifice so much to do what at this point even the president seems to agree needed to be done," Snowden wrote. He also said:

One of the things that has not been widely reported by journalists is that whistle-blower protection laws in the US do not protect contractors in the national security arena. There are so many holes in the laws, the protections they afford are so weak, and the processes for reporting they provide are so ineffective that they appear to be intended to discourage reporting of even the clearest wrongdoing. If I had revealed what I knew about these unconstitutional but classified programs to Congress, they could have charged me with a felony. One only need to look at the case of Thomas Drake to see how the government doesn't have a good history of handling legitimate reports of wrongdoing within the system.

Despite this, and despite the fact that I could not legally go to the official channels that direct NSA employees have available to them, I still made tremendous efforts to report these programs to co-workers, supervisors, and anyone with the proper clearance who would listen. The reactions of those I told about the scale of the constitutional violations ranged from deeply concerned to appalled, but no one was willing to risk their jobs, families, and possibly even freedom to go through what Drake did.

In the approximately two-hour-long chat, Snowden also said the NSA's warrantless, bulk-records program is "setting a precedent that immunizes the government of every two-bit dictator to perform the same kind of indiscriminate, dragnet surveillance of entire populations;" that, despite some media reports, he never tricked his NSA co-workers or stole their passwords; and that "the easiest way to ensure a country's communications are secure is to secure them worldwide, and that means better standards, better crypto, and better research."

Remnick's New Yorker profile also quotes President Obama as saying that media coverage of Snowden and the NSA leaks paints "a picture of a rogue agency out there running around and breaking a whole bunch of laws and engaging in a 'domestic spying program' that isn't accurate. But what that does is it syncs up with a public imagination that sees Big Brother looming everywhere."

Snowden continued, in today's chat, to air his concerns about a potential surveillance state, and his contention that the public should have a say in creating -- or preventing -- it.

"Fundamentally," he wrote, "a society in which the pervasive monitoring of the sum of civil activity becomes routine is turning from the traditions of liberty toward what is an inherently illiberal infrastructure of preemptive investigation, a sort of quantified state where the least of actions are measured for propriety. I don't seek to pass judgment in favor or against such a state...only to declare that it is not the one we inherited, and should we as a society embrace it, it should be the result of public decision rather than closed conference."