Snowden says: Mission accomplished
In a fascinating interview in the Washington Post that was conducted over 14 hours, Edward Snowden makes it clear that all that has come to pass as a result of his leaks of classified information has improved society, and was not done to destroy the NSA.
It's difficult not to see a little arrogance and meglomania coming from Snowden as he matter of factly describes his activities. But perhaps he can be forgiven these excesses given the doors he has opened and the light he has shed on activities that, if not illegal and unconstitutional, should be.
Here are some excerpts of this long interview with a complicated man, that include some quotes from those opposed to his leaking:
"For me, in terms of personal satisfaction, the mission's already accomplished," he said. "I already won. As soon as the journalists were able to work, everything that I had been trying to do was validated. Because, remember, I didn't want to change society. I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself."
"All I wanted was for the public to be able to have a say in how they are governed," he said. "That is a milestone we left a long time ago. Right now, all we are looking at are stretch goals."
At the Aspen Security Forum in July, a four-star military officer known for his even keel seethed through one meeting alongside a reporter he knew to be in contact with Snowden. Before walking away, he turned and pointed a finger.
"We didn't have another 9/11," he said angrily, because intelligence enabled warfighters to find the enemy first. "Until you've got to pull the trigger, until you've had to bury your people, you don't have a clue."
It is commonly said of Snowden that he broke an oath of secrecy, a turn of phrase that captures a sense of betrayal. NSA Director Keith B. Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr., among many others, have used that formula.
In his interview with The Post, Snowden noted matter-of-factly that Standard Form 312, the classified-information nondisclosure agreement, is a civil contract. He signed it, but he pledged his fealty elsewhere.
"The oath of allegiance is not an oath of secrecy," he said. "That is an oath to the Constitution. That is the oath that I kept that Keith Alexander and James Clapper did not."
People who accuse him of disloyalty, he said, mistake his purpose.
"I am not trying to bring down the NSA, I am working to improve the NSA," he said. "I am still working for the NSA right now. They are the only ones who don't realize it."
What entitled Snowden, now 30, to take on that responsibility?
"That whole question - who elected you? - inverts the model," he said. "They elected me. The overseers."
"It wasn't that they put it on me as an individual - that I'm uniquely qualified, an angel descending from the heavens - as that they put it on someone, somewhere," he said. "You have the capability, and you realize every other [person] sitting around the table has the same capability but they don't do it. So somebody has to be the first."
Six months ago, a reporter asked him by encrypted e-mail why Americans would want the NSA to give up bulk data collection if that would limit a useful intelligence tool.
"I believe the cost of frank public debate about the powers of our government is less than the danger posed by allowing these powers to continue growing in secret," he replied, calling them "a direct threat to democratic governance."
In the Moscow interview, Snowden said, "What the government wants is something they never had before," adding: "They want total awareness. The question is, is that something we should be allowing?"
Snowden likened the NSA's powers to those used by British authorities in Colonial America, when "general warrants" allowed for anyone to be searched. The FISA court, Snowden said, "is authorizing general warrants for the entire country's metadata."
"The last time that happened, we fought a war over it," he said.
Have the Snowden revelations made us freer? I don't think there's any question that reforms that are coming either from the administration or congress are going to lift some of this surveillance from the American people, thus improving - probably not enough - our privacy. At the very least, the right to privacy has been given a new lease and you can bet we're going to be a lot more vigilant about protecting it.
Have Snowden's leaks made us less safe? The spooks say yes, and even some independent analysts agree with them. But trading freedom for a little security has never been a good deal and while Snowden still may not be a hero because he ran away rather than face the consequences of his actions, he will certainly be remembered for his actions in pulling back the curtain on the massive surveillance undertaken by the government in our name.