2013 is undeniably the year that former NSA contractor Edward Snowden released documents to challenge the fundamentals of the surveillance state.
He’s remained relatively out of the media but in this exclusive Washington Post interview he eloquently explains the importance of a free society and what unaccountable power looks like (and why it must stopped):
The familiar voice on the hotel room phone did not waste words.
“What time does your clock say, exactly?” he asked.
He checked the reply against his watch and described a place to meet.
“I’ll see you there,” he said.
Edward Joseph Snowden emerged at the appointed hour, alone, blending into a light crowd of locals and tourists. He cocked his arm for a handshake, then turned his shoulder to indicate a path. Before long he had guided his visitor to a secure space out of public view.
During more than 14 hours of interviews, the first he has conducted in person since arriving here in June, Snowden did not part the curtains or step outside. Russia granted him temporary asylum on Aug. 1, but Snowden remains a target of surpassing interest to the intelligence services whose secrets he spilled on an epic scale.
Late this spring, Snowden supplied three journalists, including this one, with caches of top- secret documents from the National Security Agency, where he worked as a contractor. Dozens of revelations followed, and then hundreds, as news organizations around the world picked up the story. Congress pressed for explanations, new evidence revived old lawsuits and the Obama administration was obliged to declassify thousands of pages it had fought for years to conceal.
Taken together, the revelations have brought to light a global surveillance system that cast off many of its historical restraints after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Secret legal authorities empowered the NSA to sweep in the telephone, Internet and location records of whole populations. One of the leaked presentation slides described the agency’s “collection philosophy” as “Order one of everything off the menu.”
Six months after the first revelations appeared in The Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper, Snowden agreed to reflect at length on the roots and repercussions of his choice. He was relaxed and animated over two days of nearly unbroken conversation, fueled by burgers, pasta, ice cream and Russian pastry.
Snowden offered vignettes from his intelligence career and from his recent life as “an indoor cat” in Russia. But he consistently steered the conversation back to surveillance, democracy and the meaning of the documents he exposed.
“For me, in terms of personal satisfaction, the mission’s already accomplished,” he said. “I already won. As soon as the journalists were able to work, everything that I had been trying to do was validated. Because, remember, I didn’t want to change society. I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself.”
“All I wanted was for the public to be able to have a say in how they are governed,” he said. “That is a milestone we left a long time ago. Right now, all we are looking at are stretch goals.”
‘Going in blind’
Snowden is an orderly thinker, with an engineer’s approach to problem-solving. He had come to believe that a dangerous machine of mass surveillance was growing unchecked. Closed-door oversight by Congress and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court was a “graveyard of judgment,” he said, manipulated by the agency it was supposed to keep in check. Classification rules erected walls to prevent public debate.
Toppling those walls would be a spectacular act of transgression against the norms that prevailed inside them. Someone would have to bypass security, extract the secrets, make undetected contact with journalists and provide them with enough proof to tell the stories.
The NSA’s business is “information dominance,” the use of other people’s secrets to shape events. At 29, Snowden upended the agency on its own turf.
“You recognize that you’re going in blind, that there’s no model,” Snowden said, acknowledging that he had no way to know whether the public would share his views.
“But when you weigh that against the alternative, which is not to act,” he said, “you realize that some analysis is better than no analysis. Because even if your analysis proves to be wrong, the marketplace of ideas will bear that out. If you look at it from an engineering perspective, an iterative perspective, it’s clear that you have to try something rather than do nothing.”
By his own terms, Snowden succeeded beyond plausible ambition. The NSA, accustomed to watching without being watched, faces scrutiny it has not endured since the 1970s, or perhaps ever.