An unrepentant Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who during the past year leaked thousands of top-secret documents to news organizations, on Monday refuted US officials' assertions that his revelations about America's mass-surveillance apparatus had damaged national security and said his acts had benefited the public worldwide.
Mr. Snowden, a fugitive who has been granted temporary sanctuary in Russia, made his comments during his first live discussion with a US audience, conducted via Internet webcast. He said he would leak the information again, despite his exile.
Presumably speaking from Russia, Snowden also urged greater use of encryption in everyday online communications so as to combat mass surveillance by governments worldwide, and said his actions had already helped to buttress such efforts.
His immediate audience was a group of US technologists meeting in Austin, Texas, at the South By Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Festival. They interrupted Snowden with applause at several points as he laid out a defense of his actions, familiar to anyone who has read his "manifesto" or his recent testimony to the European Union.
“When I went public with this, it wasn’t so I could single-handedly change the government or tell them what to do or override what the public thinks is proper,” he said. “I wanted to inform the public so they could make a decision, [so] they could provide their consent for what we should be doing.”
Two representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union, Ben Wizner and Chris Soghoian, tossed questions – some of them softballs – to Snowden via Twitter. At the start, Mr. Wizner noted that US Rep. Mike Pompeo (R) of Kansas had asked SXSW organizers to revoke their invitation to Snowden on grounds it would "encourage lawlessness." Conference organizers declined the request, Wizner said.
Snowden used the occasion to pointedly rebut congressional testimony by current National Security Agency director Keith Alexander and former NSA director Michael Hayden that his actions – and news stories resulting from the document leaks – had damaged US national security. They, not he, are the ones who harmed it, Snowden said.
“The government has never said any single one of these stories has risked a human life. The result is that the public is benefited, the government is benefited, and every society in the world is benefited. We are in a more secure place,” Snowden said. “We have more secure communication and a better sort of civic interaction as a result of understanding what’s being done in our name.”
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Snowden said, the NSA under Alexander and Hayden unduly emphasized the creation of offensive surveillance systems designed to infiltrate communications – and that this had essentially created a “back door” to America’s own communications, weakening US defenses against cyber spying by foreign adversaries.
“They began eroding the protections of our communications in order to get an attack advantage,” he said. “This is a problem for one primary reason: America has more to lose that anyone else.... It doesn’t make any sense, ... when you set the standards for vaults worldwide, to have a big back door that anybody can walk into. And that’s what we’re talking about today.”
The leaks of top-secret documents have led to a vigorous global public debate about government mass surveillance, intensive examination within the US, and Internet communications that are more secure, as social networking firms such as Facebook, Google, and Yahoo boosted encryption protections, Snowden said.
That, in turn, can make mass surveillance more costly, he said. A higher cost would not prevent intelligence agencies from doing their job, but it would force them to conduct targeted investigations instead of intrusive mass surveillance against the public.
“We have more secure communications and a better sort of civic interaction as a result of understanding what’s being done in our name," Snowden said. “So when it comes to would I do this again, the answer is absolutely yes, regardless of what happens to me.”
One questioner, in a tweet, asked, “Why is it less bad if big corporations get metadata rather than the government?” – highlighting a proposal to let companies, rather than government, hold consumer data for investigation.
“This is why we need to have this conversation, because we don’t know,” Snowden said. “Right now, my thinking, and I believe the majority, is thinking that government has the ability to deprive you of rights. Government around the world, whether it’s the US government, the Yemeni government ... any country ... they have police powers, military power, intelligence powers.... Companies can surveil you to sell you products, sell information to other companies, and that can be bad, but you have [legal] remedies.”
Snowden’s voice was garbled frequently because the communication had been sent through numerous nodes around the world, apparently to throw off anyone trying to locate his specific whereabouts.
With the “We the People...” preamble to the US Constitution as a backdrop, Snowden said his conscience is what drove him to abscond with documents and then release them.
“I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution, and I saw that the Constitution was being violated on a massive scale,” he said, to applause. The interpretation of the Fourth Amendment had been changed in secret from no unreasonable search and seizure to, ‘hey, any seizure is fine, just don’t search it.’ And that’s something the public ought to know.”
Snowden’s critics are not likely to be much mollified by his comments. Stewart Baker, former legal counsel for the NSA, was underwhelmed.
“It’s sort of astonishing that you can talk for an hour today about the evils of surveillance and not once talk about the blood in Independence Square in the Ukraine, mass surveillance at the Sochi Winter Olympic Games, or what’s happening in Crimea right this minute,” Mr. Baker says in a phone interview, speaking of Russia, Snowden's host country.
“When Snowden says the Internet is being burned by surveillance, one question has to be what he thinks about China’s more pervasive and obvious surveillance," he continues. "It raises questions about whether his objections are principled or are blaming America first even though other governments are far worse offenders.”
Some civil libertarians say some of Snowden's remarks ring true.
“Snowden made an interesting point when he said that the Fourth Amendment was secretly reinterpreted to allow the seizure of private data as long as the government promises not to search all of it,” writes Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program at NYU School of Law, in an e-mail interview.
"The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has indeed placed too much trust in the NSA to police its own access to Americans' information,” she writes. “Our government should have to show that it has reason to suspect wrongdoing before collecting our personal information, not after.”