In an online question-and-answer session on Thursday evening, NSA contractor turned whistle-blower in exile Edward Snowden answered 13 questions from members of the public.
Snowden’s answers, all very articulate and balanced – “not all spying is bad” he maintains – gave further insight into his personality and motivations. Ranging from the death threats he received to cryptography and the future of data collection, the questions were posted on Twitter with the #AskSnowden hashtag and the answers revealed on the “official support site” freesnowden.is.
Snowden’s answers all reiterated his message: that the exposed mass surveillance programs should be terminated because they are inefficient, unconstitutional and a dangerous slippery slope.
The current surveillance programs have created a capability called ‘retroactive investigation’, Snowden explained. “Where once you come to the government’s attention, they’ve got a very complete record of your daily activity for the last five years”. But, quoting the independent watchdog report by the Privacy & Civil Liberties Oversight Board, he underlined the fact that the NSA surveillance of 120,000,000 American phones had never once helped discover or disrupt a terror plot.
For the ex-NSA contractor, the conclusion to draw from these facts is simple: “There is simply no justification for continuing an unconstitutional policy with a 0% success rate.”
No coming home
One question asked “Under what conditions would you agree to return to the US?” Snowden’s answer was short and sharp: “Returning to the US, I think, is the best resolution for the government, the public, and myself, but it’s unfortunately not possible in the face of current whistle-blower protection laws, which through a failure in law did not cover national security contractors like myself.”
Snowden used the opportunity to call for a change in these whistle-blower laws. “If I had revealed what I knew about these unconstitutional but classified programs to Congress, they could have charged me with a felony (…) If we had had a real process in place, and reports of wrongdoing could be taken to real, independent arbiters (…) 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.”
His comments came as Attorney General Eric Holder said in Virginia that the US government would not consider clemency for him. “If Mr. Snowden wanted to come back to the United States, enter a plea, we would engage with his lawyers. We’d do that with any defendant who wanted to enter a plea of guilty,” Holder said.
Snowden also took the opportunity to discuss accusations and threats against him: “I never stole any passwords, nor did I trick an army of co-workers,” he said.
On Tuesday Snowden’s Russian lawyer said better security was needed after a report emerged that quoted unnamed US intelligence officials saying they wanted Snowden dead and discussing ways to kill him. The former contractor said the alleged threats worried him, but for different reasons. “That serving officials of our government are so comfortable in their authorities that they’re willing to tell reporters on the record that they think the due process protections of the 5th Amendment of our Constitution are outdated concepts” he said. “These are the same officials telling us to trust that they’ll honour the 4th and 1st Amendments. This should bother all of us.”
Writing for ZDF’s Hyperland blog, German start-up Tame.it’s social media editor Tobias Wagner, noted that before the Q&A started at 9:15 PM CET, there were already 7,500 tweets with the #AskSnowden hashtag. Then during the session tweets poured in every second, to a total of 10,000 tweets from 5,000 different users. “A lot of unanswered questions,” Wagner writes.