He is curiously closed-mouthed for a man who has become famous for telling other people’s secrets. Tonight, however, Edward Snowden opened up to Brian Williams, the veteran NBC Evening News anchor man and Managing Editor, about his role as the world’s most famous whistleblower. Sitting down with the most respected journalist currently working in television, Edward Snowden is about to answer the question, “Why don’t you come home and face the music?”
In a one-hour interview taped in London, Brian Williams has managed to do what no one else has been able to….get Edward Snowden to sit down in front of a television camera to tell his story directly to the American people. The no-holds barred, nothing ruled out interview was a head to head confrontation between a very experienced journalist and the most sought after interview subject in the world in what must be considered the scoop of all scoops. Speaking together in a Moscow hotel room, one on one, without coaches on either side, the journalist and the “spy” are each trying to tell their own versions of the story, but each was clearly listening carefully to the other, speaking to one another instead of at one another.
When asked what he is doing in Russia and whether he has any relationship with the Russian government, Snowden said, “I have no relationship with the Russian government at all. I am not supported by the Russian government. I’m not take money from the Russian government.” That statement drew an angry retort U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in response to previously aired clips from the interview. Kerry has taken umbrage with the reporting on Snowden’s journey, asking why Snowden attempted to go to Cuba, and why he ended up in Russia.
NBC Senior Correspondent Andrea Mitchell, speaking during a one-hour live webcast following the one-hour program that aired on NBC Thursday night, debunked Kerry’s umbrage by pointing out that Snowden was actually on his way to Ecuador, which has no extradition treaties with the United States, and was stopping off in Cuba while in transit to Ecuador when his U.S. passport was revoked, leaving him no other options but to stay in Cuba or go to Russia, a trip for which an American passport would not have been necessary.
That raised another question for the 30 year-old Snowden. Why leave at all? Why not face the music, as the saying goes, instead of fleeing the country? In the one and only time during the interview that Williams gave Snowden any cover at all, the veteran reporter himself said that Snowden feared for his life if he had remained in the United States, clearly saying on camera something that Snowden told Williams during one of their equipment breaks.
Williams pressed Snowden about whether his Russian hosts have been trying to crack the hard nut that Snowden appears to be to gain access to the secret materials that were in Snowden’s possession. Snowden claims that he carefully divested himself of the unreleased secret materials that were in his possession before he set foot on Russian territory. Where that material is, he won’t say, but he did claim that he no longer has control over that material, nor access to it. This, he said, was necessary to prevent the Russians from attempting to tap into that treasure trove of government secrets.
What Snowden did not say, or at least what he has not yet said, is that the material in his possession, while extremely embarrassing to the United States, are not the kinds of secrets that Russia might be interested in. Rather than secret codes, or the identities of deep cover agents on foreign assignments, most of the information in Snowden’s possession was information about the American people themselves. Later in the broadcast Snowden specifically stated that he had not taken information about missile systems or other military information that could harm U.S. armed forces if drawn into combat with Russia over, say the Ukraine, or into a conflict with North Korea.
Until now, the Obama administration has characterized Snowden as a low-level systems administrator, an underling who basically stole information that he should not have had access to.Snowden tells a different story, describing himself as a trained spy, working undercover, overseas, under an assumed name, with a cover story, before becoming a counterintelligence trainer.
Well-spoken, self-possessed, facing off against one of the most skilled interviewers in the news industry, Snowden stated his case very succinctly, claiming that he was motivated solely by his deep concerns about the erosion of America’s civil liberties. Far from being the left-wing egghead that he has been portrayed as, he describes himself as a patriot who, as he rose through the ranks at the CIA ,the NSA, and the even more secret Defense Intelligence Agency, he became more and more disturbed by the discrepancies between the information the American people were being given by their government, and the very different information to which he had access as a respected member of the intelligence community.
Having washed out of basic training in the U.S. Army after reportedly breaking both legs – a type of injury that is usually associated with paratrooper training – Snowden jumped into high tech intelligence work, a transition that may have been facilitated by family connections with Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The most chilling episode of the interview covered the infiltration of US citizens’ domestic electronic equipment ranging from the cell phone in your pocket to the notebook computer on your lap. Snowden claimed that any world class intelligence organization has the capacity to turn cell phones on or off remotely, even with the phone turned off, track your online searches, and tap into the camera in your phone to take pictures of the area around you, while also tracking your physical location, and pairing your phone to the phones of other people to determine who you are spending time with and what you are doing together.
Most disturbing was Snowden’s revelation that the NSA has the technical capacity to mirror the processes of your own mind as you compose correspondence, trade tweets and emails with friends, relatives and associates, to the point where their software can actually predict your future actions on the basis of your past performance. Most important of all, Snowden thinks, is the fact that the NSA was doing this surveillance wholesale, on everyone, at the same time, looking for connections between private citizens and known criminal elements, including potential terrorist associations linking innocent individuals to “persons of interest” to the government, inferring relationships where none existed.
Snowden told Williams he attempted to raise his concerns officially, in writing, in person, with colleagues and professional associates, many of whom agreed with him that the things he was complaining about were valid complaints about dangerous behaviors. Going through channels got him nowhere, but he was warned repeatedly to shut up before the government destroyed him. Williams confirms during the interview that NBC has verified that Snowden sent at least one official email through regular channels asking for an investigation of what he calls the serious overreach by the NSA that constituted, in his view, a misreading of the rules under which the surveillance was supposed to be conducted.
When freelance journalist Glen Greenwald, who serves as Snowden’s media advisor, joins Williams and Snowden on camera during the interview, the subject of Snowden’s authenticity was raised and disposed of in a few minutes. Snowden used Greenwald to unburden himself of the documents in his possession, with the proviso that none of the news organizations to which Snowden has given information would release that information without prior consultation with government agencies to determine whether any of the informati0n Snowden had released could hurt national security or anyone working in the field.
“I am not going to walk into a jail cell to become a bad example for other government employees who might be intimidated from doing what I have done if it become necessary to do so,” he told Williams, pointing out that there have been more prosecutions under the Espionage Act during the Obama administration than there have been since the founding of the republic. Under the Espionage act, Snowden would not be eligible for a public trial. nor would he be able to call witnesses, enter evidence, or conduct what attorneys call a spirited defense. He said that sometimes doing what is right is in conflict with what is legal. “I think it is important to realize that people don’t set their lives on fire and destroy everything they love for no good reason.”
One thing is certain. Edward Snowden is not enjoying his time in exile. Snowden want to come home. He realizes that the only way he may ever be able to go home includes spending at least some time incarcerated, that the government will exact its pound of flesh from his hide in exchange for the extreme embarrassment and inconvenience to which Snowden has put this administration and its government. Snowden, speaking from Russia, is very aware of the irony of being a fugitive living in a sanctuary provided by an increasingly totalitarian Russian government under which the same freedoms he wants to protect in the United States are being eroded into extinction.
Snowden sees himself as a patriot, but he believes that being a patriot means knowing when to protect your country, to protect your freedoms, and he makes no distinction between the attacks of a foreign power on the United States and the attacks the United States have launched against its own people. Snowden points out that, since his revelations, a court of competent jurisdiction has ruled that the NSA surveillance may not be constitutional, while senior politicians, including several prominent senators have publicly said that, until Snowden came forward, they were unable to even raise the questions that Snowden raised due to the Espionage Act itself.
After the aired segment, during the one-hour webcast, Brian Williams and NBC Correspondent Pete Williams appeared to agree that, because of Snowden, it has become clear that that the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution has been abrogated by the actions of the NSA. Williams read the Fourth Amendment from beginning to end, for perhaps the first time on American television, and then suggest that the NSA’s prospective surveillance of individuals who are not under investigation, without subpoena, violating the restrictions against unreasonable search and seizure. Snowden believes that the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA Court), which authorizes the NSA to proceed with this surveillance, is a secret tribunal, a non-adversarial court where five little known jurists hand down decisions in camera, which means without public scrutiny.
During the one hour webcast following the NBC News special, Snowden makes the indelible point that sheer volume of information that has been collected actually prevents analysts from being able to find the information that might have stopped, for example, the Boston Marathon bombing. Someone made the point that, well, we already had information about the Boston Marathon bomber. The Russians told us who they were by name, but that information got lost in the myriads of other data, illustrating the point that more data is not necessarily better data.
Snowden astoundingly claims that he is still working for the United States, attempting to repair the damage that was being done by the covert surveillance programs…by exposing them. If nothing else, Snowden demonstrated exactly how bad U.S. security was…to the point where the National Security Agency actually still does not know how much information Snowden took, nor even what kinds of information he took.
In the end, however, the takeaway that has impressed these hardened professional journalists more than anything else was the way that Edward Snowden opened up to Brian Williams, poised, articulate, and unflinching to the extent that the only question he refused to answer a question was whether he voted for President Obama or not.
By Alan M. Milner, National News Editor