In an exclusive interview, Edward Snowden tells La Repubblica what has changed in the five years since he blew the whistle on the NSA, how presidents Obama and Trump are shaped by the Deep State and why reading Merkel’s text messages is very seductive
19 March 2018 |STEFANIA MAURIZI |La Repubblica
“When Edward Snowden emerged from the shadowy world of American intelligence contractors five years ago to reveal the NSA’s mass surveillance programs, he immediately became one of the most wanted men on earth.
A hero for public opinion, an enemy of the state for governments and secret services. In fact he asked twenty-one countries for protection, mostly European nations, and they completely shut their doors to him.
In a newly published book “Women, Whistleblowing, WikiLeaks” by Renata Avila, Sarah Harrison and Angela Richter (Or Books), fresh details of this global manhunt emerge, revealing what was happening behind the scenes as the social networks, reporters and TVs pursued Edward Snowden alongside the US government.
Yes, because as soon as Snowden handed the top-secret NSA documents to journalists Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, the United States government immediately charged him, using a draconian law created in 1917: the Espionage Act. “A law which has been around for a hundred years that doesn’t distinguish between leaks to the press in the public interest and selling secrets to foreign enemies for a personal profit”, explains Snowden’s US lawyer, Ben Wizner, to Repubblica, elaborating on the serious impact of this law on journalistic sources: “There is no investigative journalism without unauthorized sources”, says Wizner. Today Snowden lives in exile in Russia, where he only has a temporary residence permit.
Many thought he would end up very badly, but when he connects via videolink for this interview with la Repubblica, he seems to be doing very well: the frank smile and peaceful face of someone who is easy in his mind.
He says he is definitely gratified with how the course of his life has changed since he stopped working for the government and started working for the public, and his agenda is filled with conferences and seminars in colleges and universities around the world, which has also allowed him to earn an income over these last few years.
Five years have passed since you revealed the NSA’s mass surveillance activities, and we have just seen dozens of US Democrats voting with the Trump Administration to renew the NSA’s surveillance powers, we’ve seen Italy approve a law which extends mandatory data retention to six years, but we’ve also seen a UK Court ruling that the UK’s mass surveillance regime is unlawful. The debate is still ongoing and the picture is mixed. In the long run, will mass surveillance be downsized in our democracies, or will it continue to flourish?
“That’s a big question…(he smiles). For one it’s certainly a real shame, I think, for the Democratic party, and unfortunately this has become quite routine, that the party that is presenting itself as a progressive force is so often joining in to limit the rights that the public enjoys. I don’t think this is unique to the Democratic Party, we see this happening even in countries that don’t share the same dynamics. What we are seeing is a new kind of creeping authoritarianism spreading across the globe.
Having said that, we have made some limited progress: in the United States, of course, we had the passage of the USA Freedom Act, which is the first surveillance law in 40 years that limited the powers of intelligence agencies rather than expanding them, but it is not guaranteed that this progress will continue, and in fact we see laws like the section 702 of the FISA [the NSA’s surveillance powers reauthorized by the U.S. Congress].
This is why we see technologists increasingly working to develop new means of enforcing human rights, through systems that apply without regard to what jurisdiction you are currently in. Let’s say you’re Italian, or you’re Belgian or you are French and you want to protect people’s rights.
Naturally, you look at your community, so you design a system that enforces the rights that you are used to in Italy, which no matter what people say about the political troubles of Italy, it’s certainly not the worst country in the world, but when we start looking at more troubled societies and we look at the Russias and the Chinas of the world, they have much lower regard for digital rights.
If that Italian system or Belgian system works globally, it can spread immediately, more quickly than governments can react. Instantaneously, an Italian can be protecting the rights of a Chinese person, of an African person, an American person”.
Many documents of the so-called “Snowden archive” remain unpublished, would you like to see them published?
“I think this is a way to get to some of the criticism there has been about the rate of publication (he smiles). There is still work to be done, for sure, and I hope that the archive will continue to be useful to journalists. On the other hand, there are parts of the archive that were never intended for publication, they have, for example, the names of the terrorist targets. The idea is: journalists need to have the context to understand when the government is lying to them. Not every detail in the archive would be in the public interest to know, but many of them are.
This is why I pursued the model I did, where journalists review the documents, they go to the government, they challenge the government on whether these things should be in the public domain, the government can say: we disagree with you, which is what they always do, but that doesn’t stop the reporting, journalists should have the final say here, not some bureaucrat.
Is this the right model? I don’t know, but I was very careful in putting this model together to intentionally be overly cautious, to be more careful than was necessary, for a specific reason: as we have seen in the Chelsea Manning case, in many of the WikiLeaks disclosures, the government instantaneously responds in the event of any leak of classified information that is embarrassing, but not damaging, by claiming that it is dangerous, by virtue of the very fact that this was classified information, it claims that it is dangerous information”.
We have seen how the US government has spent years accusing WikiLeaks of putting lives at risk, but in the end, during the trial of Chelsea Manning, the government was forced to admit that no one died, no one was hurt…
“They do this every time, that is why journalists are working so hard to be, again, more careful than necessary. This project [publishing the Snowden files] is about something larger than surveillance, it is about democracy, and the idea here is: if we can’t understand what the government is doing, our votes lose their meaning.
Therefore we need a strong example: even the most secret documents in the United States government can be published openly without causing harm, because now more than five years later, the government has never ever showed anyone who died, anyone who was harmed, and if that was the case, they would have immediately been leaking it to the press to discredit myself and the journalists”.
Thanks to your files we exposed how the NSA targets Italy. Thanks to WikiLeaks, we published the NSA’s intercepts of our former PM, Berlusconi. The Italian judiciary opened an investigation, but we never heard again from the prosecutors. Italy is the only country in the world whose judiciary nailed 23 CIA operatives who renditioned the Milan cleric, Abu Omar. We succeeded in obtaining accountability for the CIA, but not for the NSA. Why?
“You said we got accountability for the case of torture, which is an important thing: if we can’t hold torturers or kidnappers accountable to law, what does the law mean? It is true that Italy tried these people and it did convict them, but it is not as if they are sitting in prison today. This is better than the alternative, which is that they never face any justice at all, but at the same time, it is not true accountability. It is ultimately this fear of consequences that it is necessary, if we want to be able to control the activities of intelligence services not just within our own country, but internationally.
Now the CIA case is unique, because like most human intelligence services, it is actually putting people into that country. But people screw up. If you read the history of the Abu Omar case, these were not Jason Bourne or James Bond, because those people in real life do not exist. They were normal bureaucrats with a little bit of training, who get lazy, miss home and they call their wives, their husbands from the hotel phone, when they were supposed to be pretending to be an entirely different person.
The NSA is not typically entering these other countries in person. If they are, they do it for very short periods and there are no real witnesses, because the things they operate on are machines, instead of human beings.
So the NSA has less exposure, generally, than the CIA. But I think actually the largest distinction is in terms of political will: if the Italian prosecutors had wanted to demand that the next time U.S. diplomatic representatives, or the CIA chief in Italy, or the intelligence partners in the US, had engaged in Italy, that they would be required to testify, under oath, before a court, they certainly could have done that. They chose not to. And it is important to understand that that is always a conscious political choice”.
We saw that President Obama, who was an outsider to the US military-intelligence complex, initially wanted to reign in the abuses of agencies like the CIA and the NSA, but in the end he did very little. Now we see a confrontation between president Trump and so-called Deep State, which includes the CIA and the NSA. Can a US president govern in opposition to such powerful entities?
“Obama is certainly an instructive case. This is a president who campaigned on a platform of ending warrantless wiretapping in the United States, he said “that’s not who we are, that’s not what we do”, and once he became the president, he expanded the program. He said he was going to close Guantanamo but he kept it open, he said he was going to limit extrajudicial killings and drone strikes that has been so routine in the Bush years. But Obama went on to authorize vastly more drone strikes than Bush. It became an industry.
As for this idea that there is a Deep State, now the Deep State is not just the intelligence agencies, it is really a way of referring to the career bureaucracy of government. These are officials who sit in powerful positions, who don’t leave when presidents do, who watch presidents come and go, they influence policy, they influence presidents and say: this is what we have always done, this is what we must do, and if you don’t do this, people will die.
It is very easy to persuade a new president who comes in, who has never had these powers, but has always wanted this job and wants very, very badly to do that job well. A bureaucrat sitting there for the last twenty years says: I understand what you said, I respect your principles, but if you do what you promised, people will die. It is very easy for a president to go: well, for now, I am going to set this controversy to the side, I’m going to take your advice, let you guys decide how these things should be done, and then I will revisit it, when I have a little more experience, maybe in a few months, maybe in a few years, but then they never do.
This is what we saw quite clearly happen in the case of Barack Obama: when this story [of Snowden exposing the NSA’s mass surveillance] came forward in 2013, when Obama had been president for five years, one of the defences for this from his aides and political allies was: oh, Obama was just about to fix this problem! And sure enough, he eventually was forced from the wave of criticism to make some limited reforms, but he did not go far enough to end all of the programs that were in violation of the law or the constitution of the United States.
That too was an intentional choice: he could have certainly used the scandal to advocate for all of the changes that he had campaigned on, to deliver on all of his promises, but in those five years he had become president, he discovered something else, which is that there are benefits from having very powerful intelligence agencies, there are benefits from having these career bureaucrats on your side, using their spider web over government for your benefit.
Imagine you are Barack Obama, and you realise – yes, when you were campaigning you were saying: spying on people without a warrant is a problem, but then you realise: you can read Angela Merkel’s text messages. Why bother calling her and asking her opinion, when you can just read her mind by breaking the law? It sounds like a joke, but it is a very seductive thing. Secrecy is perhaps the most corrupting of all government powers, because it takes public officials and divorces them from accountability to the public.
When we look at the case of Trump, who is perhaps the worst of politicians, we see the same dynamic occurring. This is a president who said the CIA is the enemy, it’s like Nazi Germany, they’re listening to his phone calls, and all of these other things, some claims which are true, some claims which are absolutely not. A few months later, he is authorizing major powers for these same agencies that he has called his enemies.
And this gets to the central crux of your question, which is: can any president oppose this? The answer is certainly. The president has to have some familiarity going in with the fact that this pitch is going to be made, that they are going to try to scare him or her into compliance. The president has to be willing to stand strongly on line and say: ‘I was elected to represent the interests of the American people, and if you’re not willing to respect the constitution and our rights, I will disband your agency, and create a new one’. I think they can definitely be forced into compliance, because these officials fear prison, just like every one of us.”
How do you look at the increasing relationships between corporate power like Amazon and the intelligence agencies in our democracies?
“These are the companies that enable the mass surveillance abuses that were revealed in 2013. One of the very first programs, the PRISM program, I was talking about how companies were opening their private data silos. Everything Facebook knows, everything Google knows, everything Amazon knows, and the government would say ‘what do you have on this person?’ And these companies would provide it, in many cases beyond what the law required”.
They denied that, when your files were published…
“Initially they said: ‘we don’t know about this kind of stuff, this program, we’ve never heard of it”, then they said ‘Oh we do this, but it’s through a process and the government asks us a question’, but that was the whole point. These companies have data about you that they own, it’s exclusively on their servers, and they’re taking copies from their servers and providing them directly to government.
The point here is the intelligence agencies are powerful, but even they have limits. What they can see, what they can hear, what they can spy on, who they can recruit, who they can pay. Amazon, or Facebook or Microsoft, or Google, they too have limits. They have an extraordinary amount of information, but they only have what they have. But if the government can force these companies to work for them, or simply get these companies to work for them, now the government can do what Facebook and Google cannot. Google can only look in its own silo. The government can look in Facebook’s silo, Google’s silo, and everyone else’s”.
How do you reply to those critics who attack you for “only” exposing the US mass surveillance and saying that the Chinese and the Russian surveillance complexes are no less threatening?
“This is an easy one: I am not Chinese, I am not Russian, I didn’t work for the Chinese secret services or Russian secret services, I worked for the US ones, so of course my information would be about the US”.
Critics say we should also expose the Russians and the Chinese…
“Yes, if I could, I would. We need more Chinese whistleblowers, we need more Russian whistleblowers, and unfortunately that becomes more difficult to make that happen when the United States is itself setting a precedent that whistleblowers get persecuted and attacked, rather than protected”.
How do you see this serious diplomatic crisis between the UK and Russia?
“I haven’t followed it that closely, but the idea that political violence is being used in any form is reprehensible, it needs to be condemned. If the UK allegations are correct, poisoning people, particularly people who are long out of their service, and in a different country, is contemptible”.
However, one wonders how these alleged Russian operatives can move around in a country where there is the powerful GCHQ.
” You know, that’s not my area of expertise, I didn’t work with assassinations”.
How is a typical day in the life of Edward Snowden, provided that there is a typical day?
“When I came forward and I started speaking out, it became more than just a job, it became part of my identity. It’s not something you put away after working hours. Sometimes I’ll be up until 6 o’clock in the morning working on something, writing something, talking to someone, giving a speech, and it’s challenging, but at the same time it’s very rewarding, because I can feel good about what I’m doing now, I can go to sleep at night proud of the things that I did during the day, and that’s something that people at the NSA can’t say”.
You said that your personal battle was not to burn down the NSA or the CIA, but rather to give the public a chance to decide where the line should be when it comes to surveillance. However, it is very likely that the NSA and the CIA want to burn you down. Do you think you will ever be able to travel the world again as a free man?
“I hope so, but ultimately it doesn’t matter. I’m the least important part of the story. I was the mechanism of these revelations, but not the main point of it. I could be hit by a bus tomorrow, I could end up in jail tomorrow, it would certainly be a sad thing for me and I hope other people would be disappointed as well, but at the end of the day what happens to one of us is much less important than what happens to all of us. And because of that, I don’t really worry about tomorrow, I can be satisfied with today”.
What would you suggest to young and talented people who want to do the right thing?
“Question power. I don’t want people to trust me, I want people to doubt me, but I want them to take that experience and apply that to the real powers of society, not just isolated, exiled whistleblowers. Think about politicians, business leaders, the people who shape your society. Shouldn’t it be that the ones who wield the most power in society are the ones who are held to the highest standard of behaviour?
And look at the way the system works in your country, around you today, and ask if in fact the most powerful people in society are being held to the highest standards, or if you see cases where if the ordinary person breaks the smallest law, they’re going to jail, but if the most powerful people in society are engaged in criminal activity on the grandest scales, they can simply apologize and face no consequences. If that is the case, think about what you can do to fix that. The first step is always to question if this is the way things should be, and if it’s not, it’s time to change it”.