In a 90-minute question and answer session on the Guardian‘s website Monday, self-professed NSA leaker Edward Snowden defended his disclosure of highly classified details of secret U.S. surveillance programs. Snowden’s answers to 18 questions from readers demonstrated that he is not simply concerned about potential government monitoring of American citizens; he is an extreme skeptic of government surveillance of all sorts. In that sense, Snowden is emerging as an heir to Julian Assange.
The Wikileaks founder Assange, 41, became famous—or infamous—three years ago when his website roiled Washington with the release of thousands of classified State Department cables describing developments, and sometimes secret U.S. action, in foreign countries. Assange, currently seeking asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, defended the document dump on the broad grounds that information should be free and that government spying is assumed to be always wrong.
Snowden’s comments today make clear his agenda goes beyond protecting Americans from snooping by their own government. “Suspicionless surveillance does not become okay simply because it’s only victimizing 95% of the world instead of 100%,” Snowden, 29, wrote Monday, referring to documents he leaked showing that the NSA has spied on foreign leaders and citizens. Snowden has also revealed details of NSA hacking into Chinese computer systems. “Our founders did not write that ‘We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all US Persons are created equal.'”
Snowden also clarified one of his most explosive claims—that even a single low-level intelligence analyst could pull up records on any American at a whim, a claim top current and former intelligence officials have strongly denied. Snowden said there was no technical impediment to such an action, merely a policy one. “It’s important to understand that policy protection is no protection—policy is a one-way ratchet that only loosens,” he said, voicing another tenet of the free-information movement for which he has become an avatar.
Asked about WikiLeaks, Snowden explicitly defended Assange and his group’s massive disclosure, allegedly facilitated by Army private Bradley Manning, who is currently being tried on charges that the leaks aided American enemies.
“Wikileaks is a legitimate journalistic outlet and they carefully redacted all of their releases in accordance with a judgment of public interest,” Snowden said. Unredacted documents released into the public domain had not been the fault of WikiLeaks, but “was due to the failure of a partner journalist to control a passphrase.”
There were other clear echoes of Assange’s past remarks in Snowden’s responses Monday. Both men suggest that much, if not all, American spying abroad is wrong, including the spying on allies and foreign leaders that perhaps every government has practiced for decades, if not centuries.
“Congress hasn’t declared war on the countries – the majority of them are our allies – but without asking for public permission, NSA is running network operations against them that affect millions of innocent people,” Snowden said. “[T]he public needs to know the kinds of things a government does in its name, or the “consent of the governed” is meaningless.”
Snowden’s decision to branch out from simple whistleblower on controversial domestic surveillance programs to being a whistleblower on the entire intelligence community puts him at odds with most Americans, who question the need for the massive domestic surveillance programs but are more than fine with spying on other countries.
Defenders of the government’s surveillance programs have seized on his recent revelations of American espionage abroad to undermine Snowden’s broader case about the modern surveillance state. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein quickly branded the latest leaks as “an act of treason.” White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said on CBS Face The Nation that the disclosure “in effect, gives a playbook to those who would like to get around our techniques and our practices.” “I think he’s a traitor,” former Vice President Dick Cheney told Fox News Sunday.
“I think he has committed crimes in effect by violating agreements given the position he had,” Cheney added. “I think it’s one of the worst occasions in my memory of somebody with access to classified information doing enormous damage to the national security interests of the United States.”
Cheney even raised concerns circulating among conservatives in recent days that Snowden might be a Chinese spy. On Monday Snowden called that charge a “predictably smear” and said he’s had no contact with the Chinese government. “If I were a Chinese spy, why wouldn’t I have flown directly into Beijing? I could be living in a palace petting a phoenix by now,” he said.
“Being called a traitor by Dick Cheney is the highest honor you can give an American, and the more panicked talk we hear from people like him, Feinstein, and [Rep. Peter] King, the better off we all are,” Snowden added. “If they had taught a class on how to be the kind of citizen Dick Cheney worries about, I would have finished high school.”
Snowden didn’t offer details about his future plans, though he suggested that he faces grave personal peril. “All I can say right now is the US Government is not going to be able to cover this up by jailing or murdering me,” he added. “Truth is coming, and it cannot be stopped.”