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Did Edward Snowden just disclose more secrets in online chat? (+video)

In his online chat on the Guardian newspaper web site, NSA leaker Edward Snowden said members of Congress have 'special immunity' from snooping by the intelligence agency.

By Staff Writer / June 17, 2013

A bus drives past a banner supporting Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee who leaked top-secret documents about sweeping US surveillance programs, at Central, Hong Kong's business district, June 17.

Kin Cheung/AP

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Washington

National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden answered questions from ordinary folks Monday on a Guardian newspaper online chat. It was a technical first of sorts – a virtual public news conference by someone who’s in a lot of trouble and does not wish to make public their precise location.

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Washington Editor

Peter Grier is The Christian Science Monitor's Washington editor. In this capacity, he helps direct coverage for the paper on most news events in the nation's capital.

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So did he reveal anything new? Yes – among other things, he charged that US lawmakers are themselves shielded against NSA snooping.

This came on his very last answer in the chat, after Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald asked him if he had anything to add. Mr. Snowden said that just because you – as in “you, the average citizen” – are not an NSA target does not make the agency’s programs OK.

That’s because civil liberty protections built into NSA procedures are no replacement for having the information gathering limited to individuals who have already fallen under suspicion.

“This is the precise reason the NSA provides Congress with a special immunity to its surveillance,” Snowden added.

Is this true? As national security expert blogger Marcy Wheeler points out, it’s certainly feasible to block the NSA from access to all official congressional numbers. But given the multiple communications devices common to congressional aides and campaigns, plus personal stuff, it might be challenging to actually wall off Congress from any inadvertent NSA collection.

However, Ms. Wheeler notes that immediately after Snowden’s initial leaks Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Maryland, chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, complained publicly about the possibility the NSA was intercepting her communications. Then she shut up about it, and did not bring up the subject at a hearing featuring NSA director Keith Alexander.

“So while Snowden is clearly trying to push the debate, it is also quite likely that the immunity comment is true,” Wheeler wrote Monday.

Another interesting tidbit that came out of Snowden’s Guardian chat was his assertion that he is trying to protect the privacy of people all over the world, not just in the United States.

He said that he believes “suspicionless surveillance” is not OK, period, even if the targets of this are not American citizens.

“Our founders did not write that ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all US persons are created equal,’ ” Snowden said in the chat.

This shows that Snowden is not just concerned about the effect of NSA programs on American citizens, but is an extreme skeptic of government surveillance of all sorts, writes Zeke Miller of Time Magazine.

“In that sense, Snowden is emerging as an heir to [Wikileaks founder] Julian Assange,” Mr. Miller writes.

Other interesting stuff that came out of the Guardian chat includes Snowden’s denial that he is a spy for China. If he were, he’d have gone straight to Beijing and be living in a palace “petting a phoenix,” he said.

He also was harshly critical of former VP Dick Cheney, who has called Snowden a “traitor” for his disclosure of NSA secrets. He said Cheney had supported the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping as well as the Iraq War.

“Being called a traitor by Dick Cheney is the highest honor you can give an American,” said Snowden.

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