Edward Snowden, 29, the former CIA employee who leaked the existence of phone- and cyber-surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency, said the election of President Obama in 2008 kept him from leaking much earlier.
In an online question-and-answer session hosted by the Guardian on Monday, he said Obama’s campaign promises and condemnations of George W. Bush’s Patriot Act programs gave Snowden “faith that he would lead us toward fixing the problems he outlined in his quest for votes.”
Instead, Obama made things worse, he wrote: “He closed the door on investigating systemic violations of law, deepened and expanded several abusive programs, and refused to spend the political capital to end the kind of human rights violations like we see in Guantanamo.”
Snowden argued that the administration should be taking steps in the opposite direction. He proposed that Obama “personally call for a special committee to review these interception programs,” in instate other transparency measures.
Answering journalist Glenn Greenwald’s questions first in the forum, Snowden insisted he did not reveal American surveillance of “legitimate military targets.”
Instead, he characterized the programs he brought to light as “nakedly, aggressively criminal acts” that wrongly investigate and attack civilian institutions like universities and hospitals.
Snowden painted a disturbing picture of the power held by many employees of America’s intelligence and security forces. He claimed that the only restrictions preventing agents from accessing Americans’ phone and email information and the content of their communications was “policy based, not technically based, and can change at any time.”
American officials have defended the programs as a necessary tool in the fight against terrorism, but Snowden ridiculed this assertion. He characterized terrorism as a type of exaggerated bogeyman, which he argued was used by the government to coerce citizens into giving away civil liberties.
“Bathtub falls and police officers kill more Americans than terrorism,” Snowden wrote, “yet we’ve been asked to sacrifice our most sacred rights for fear of falling victim to it.”
Many have questioned Snowden’s choice to fly to Hong Kong, but he rejected those who called him a “traitor” or a spy for China. A spy, he wrote, would have flown directly to Beijing. Had Snowden done so, he “could be living in a palace petting a phoenix by now,” he said.
Similarly, Ewen MacAskill, the Guardian’s Washington, D.C. bureau chief, asked why he did not fly to Iceland, since Snowden in the past has voiced respect for Iceland and its liberal culture of Internet freedom. Snowden answered that it is very difficult to leave the country as an employee of NSA contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, and that he may not have made it to Iceland from Hawaii without being intercepted.
Iceland is where WikiLeaks first launched its website, and Snowden praised the cyber-leaking organization as a “legitimate journalistic outlet.” He also defended Pfc. Bradley Manning, currently on trial for leaking military secrets related to America’s wars in the Middle East.
Snowden called the idea that Manning had dumped documents without regard to national security or safety “not a valid assertion” and a “smear.”
Asked what he would say to others in a position to leak information in the way he has, Snowden replied simply — and perhaps overdramatically — “This country is worth dying for.”
One user raised the issue of Snowden’s salary, which he originally told Greenwald was 200,000 per year but that Booz Allen had asserted was only $122,000. Snowden clarified that he had taken a pay cut to work for Booz Allen, and that 200,000 was his “career high.”
In total, Snowden answered 18 questions from Guardian readers and users of Twitter, who tweeted using the hashtag #AskSnowden.
Greenwald closed the session just as he opened it, with a question of his own, asking if there was anything he wanted to add. Snowden encouraged Americans to stay vigilant.
“Just because you are not the target of a surveillance program does not make it okay,” Snowden wrote, warning against potential complacency. “This is the precise reason that NSA provides Congress with a special immunity to its surveillance,” he finished.