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Whistleblower Edward Snowden on Trump, Obama & How He Ended Up in Russia to Avoid U.S. Extradition

StorySeptember 30, 2019
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We conclude our interview with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who has just published his memoir titled “Permanent Record.” In 2013, after quitting his job at the NSA, Snowden attempted to fly from Hong Kong to Latin America in order to avoid being extradited to the United States. But the U.S. revoked his passport when he stopped through Russia, effectively stranding him there. Snowden has lived as an exile in Moscow ever since. He tells us his story.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we conclude our interview with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who has just published his memoir, Permanent Record. Juan González and I spoke to him last week and asked him to describe how he arrived in Moscow, where he now lives.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: Ultimately, it’s a question of: As the U.S. government continues to apply pressure, where do you go? The Chinese government is probably unlikely to intervene. They don’t want any part of this. The Hong Kong government, as we just described, is not exactly a beacon of human rights itself, and their courts are unlikely to adjudicate the process fairly in the face of historic U.S. pressure. So you have to look at what country will be able to protect someone who’s standing on principle. And in this case, at this moment, Ecuador was trying to take a real freedom of speech, freedom of the press perspective. They had famously, of course, welcomed Julian Assange into their embassy. And unfortunately, they have since reversed that decision and delivered him to the British police. But so, I tried to go to Ecuador.

What this meant, if you look at the flight maps, is there’s no direct flight from Hong Kong to Latin America, or at least to Ecuador, rather, that does not cross U.S. airspace, which would be a dangerous thing to do for someone in my position. So you’ve got to go the long way around, and that means going through nonextradition countries. So I have to build an air bridge over the flight path, which goes from Hong Kong to Russia, Russia to Cuba, Cuba to Venezuela, and then from Venezuela to Bolivia, or Bolivia to Ecuador, Venezuela to Ecuador. And that’s what I did.

Now, as soon as I left the airport in Hong Kong — we had gone wheels up — there are press conferences being called by the secretary of state, then John Kerry. And he canceled my passport, which meant that when I landed in Russia, I could no longer leave; I couldn’t board my onward flight. I’m stopped at passport control. I am intercepted by security and led into this business lounge, right? And I knew this was coming, because I worked for the CIA, had worked for the NSA. I had training on what it’s like when governments interfere with your travel.

But I had prepared for this. Prior to leaving Hong Kong, because I knew I would have to go through all of these different countries, I destroyed my access to the archive. It had been provided to journalists, and now I had no way of recovering it. I didn’t know any passwords. I did not have any data. There was nothing I could do to assist these governments. And this is not — you don’t have to think about this: “Oh, you know, we love and trust Ed Snowden.” Think about it in terms of self-preservation. If you know something that’s of such extraordinary value to any intelligence service, they might consider actually torturing you. Obviously, that would be dangerous for them, because I’m the most famous person in the world; somebody’s going to ask, “What happened to him?” But, you know, then they can just push me off a building afterwards and go, “Oh, I guess the CIA found him.” So the only way to be safe was to not have anything of value.

But I get intercepted nonetheless, which I anticipated would likely be the case. And I walk into this room, and there’s these different guys in basically identical suits. And as soon as this older gentleman starts talking, I know exactly what he is, because I worked at the CIA and had seen these guys over and over again. He’s what we call a case officer. When people think of intelligence, they think of like James Bond. They think that’s what a spy is. But the reality is, almost every “spy,” as we would think about them, who works for the U.S. intelligence service or any other ones, is actually just a normal guy who works out of an embassy under the cover of a diplomat. And his job is not to spy himself; his job is to talk other people into spying. We call this recruiting assets. And the assets themselves, those are the actual spies. The other guy just meets with them and writes down what they say.

So, these guys say, “I regret to inform you your passport has been canceled,” after they ask me preliminary questions about, like, “Where you going? What are you doing? You want to stay in Russia?” And I go, “No, no, no, I’m planning to go onward.” And I know they already know this, because, of course, I’m flying on a Russian airline, so they’re going to have the passenger manifest. And when he says, “Your passport’s been canceled,” the first thing I think is, “This is a trick. My government would not be that stupid,” because, you have to understand, from the U.S. perspective, if they think I’m actually a traitor, if they think I’m actually likely to help a foreign government, Russia is the last place on Earth they would want me to be, right? And I don’t think the government is that stupid. So, instead, they know — the U.S. government, which is getting passenger manifests from around the world, knows that I’m en route to Ecuador. Why wouldn’t they just let me continue to Ecuador, where it would be much easier for the CIA to operate than in Russia?

But I go and I check the internet, with a witness, Sarah Harrison, a journalist, who was with me, precisely so I can’t be isolated.

AMY GOODMAN: And Sarah, of course, was with WikiLeaks. And did Julian Assange help you in getting that ticket from Hong Kong to Russia — I mean, from Hong Kong beyond —


AMY GOODMAN: — so that you could make that journey, that escape?

EDWARD SNOWDEN: Right. No. So, this is actually — there’s a lot of confusion about this. People are like, oh, Julian Assange, you know, arranged asylum for me in Russia, and all of these conspiracy theories. It’s completely untrue. Assange was helpful. WikiLeaks was helpful. And Sarah Harrison especially was helpful. But the things WikiLeaks, as an organization, did had nothing to do with Russia. Again, it was never the plan to be in Russia.

He talked to the Ecuadorian consul in the embassy, where he was trapped, and got him to sign an emergency document, the kind of safe passage document, that you — that were used so prominently in World War II. Unfortunately, this was an unofficial document, because they broke protocol. It didn’t really have any legal meaning. But the man who signed this, Fidel Narváez, is an extraordinarily brave man.

And having that document is, in a real way, even though it didn’t have legal force — was what gave me the confidence, the courage to get on that plane to begin the journey. So, yes, when I — the whole thing about Julian Assange sort of masterminding me being in Russia, which I think is actually the question that a lot of people have there, is simply untrue.

AMY GOODMAN: But not Russia, but helped you to leave Hong Kong so that you could make it to the destination you were hoping for. At the time, wasn’t it also true that President Morales’s plane was brought down — right? — in Austria, because the U.S. government thought that you might be on board his flight from Bolivia?

EDWARD SNOWDEN: Yeah, this is precisely correct. The chronology is a little bit different, but it is correct. So what happens is I leave Hong Kong. I get trapped in Russia. These guys pitch me. And this — for those who are interested in the book, this is an entire chapter. It’s laid out in detail. I refused them, because I’m not going to cooperate with any intelligence service anymore. And I’m worried that there’s a tape recorder under the table recording this, and they’re going to use this to try to compromise me, to try to manipulate me.

So, I go, “Look, I don’t have anything. I’m not going help you guys. I’ll be fine on my own. If you want to search my bag, it’s right here.” Of course, I’m saying this as politely as possible, because I don’t want any more enemies. And they go, “Are you sure? Are you sure there’s not any little thing that you can do? Because life is going to be very difficult for someone in your position without friends.” And actually, Sarah — Sarah stopped them and said, “No, thanks. We’ll be fine.” And I will always admire her courage.

But so, now, because I wouldn’t cooperate with the Russian intelligence services, I’m trapped in an airport that I can’t leave. And I spend the next 40 days in this airport applying for asylum to countries around the world. And this is where the Morales incident that you mentioned comes into play.

Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia, has been asked about my situation. And he said, “Of course, Mr. Snowden is defending human rights around the world. This guy is not a criminal, and he should be protected. It’s not Bolivia’s problem, but, you know, if he were in Bolivia, maybe.” And he had been traveling to Moscow for an energy conference there. And as his plane left, there was a rumor that I was on board the plane. And so Europe closed its airspace to his presidential aircraft, which is an extraordinary violation of international law that’s unprecedented. Like, can you imagine Air Force One being grounded with the U.S. president on it? And they wouldn’t let it leave. It was forced to make an emergency landing in Austria, until the U.S. ambassador was able to walk through the plane with the Bolivian president to prove that I wasn’t on board. Of course, this was an extraordinary insult to the whole of Latin America. They were furious about this.

And it’s after this moment, it’s after the U.S. went too far, where finally Russia let me out of the airport. And I think it was because it had just become such a distracting spectacle, that it was now affecting Russia’s international relations. The reality is, we will probably never know what the Russian government’s actual thinking is, unless they start writing far more forthcoming memoirs than I think any of us expect. But when you look at that situation, my suspicion is that they realized, given Russia’s problematic human rights record, this is a rare opportunity for them to do basically nothing and yet to end up doing the right thing for the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Your thoughts, Edward Snowden, on President Trump?

EDWARD SNOWDEN: I’ve said before, Donald Trump strikes me as nothing so much as a man who has never known a love that he hasn’t had to pay for. And I think that forms all of his decision making. I think that explains all of the things that we see. This is someone who sees the world through a prism of a very, very sad lens, which is that what he is, who he is, does not today, and never has and never will, have any value. The only thing that matters is what he has, what he can trade. And I think that really explains all of the transactional corruption that we have seen throughout this administration, is simply someone who thinks that’s what life is.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, your thoughts on President Obama? Because your trials and tribulations — maybe not trial yet — actually occurred through the Obama years.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: Yeah, I mean, this is a — it’s tremendously unpopular, I think, even still today, for anybody to say a bad word about Obama, because, on balance, when you look at a lot of the things that came out of the Obama White House, this is a man that I think most believe tried to do good.

The thing is, some of the things that he failed to do were the most consequential moments of his presidency. And what we saw is that a young senator, who campaigned on a platform of ending mass surveillance, saying, “There will be no more warrantless wiretapping in the United States. That’s not what we do. That’s not who we are,” once he sat in the chair himself, did not extinguish the program; rather, he extended and embraced it — a president who said he was going to hold Bush-era officials to the account of the law and make sure that there was accountability for those who had engaged in war crimes, for those who had tortured, and then very quickly abandoned that. I’m not going to say why, because I don’t know. I think that’s something that he’s going to have to answer to history. But I think our country has very much, I think, experienced the consequences of those decisions.

AMY GOODMAN: NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, his new memoir, Permanent Record. Watch Part 1 of our discussion with him on our website at democracynow.org, where Snowden condemns President Trump’s mistreatment of the anonymous whistleblower who helped spur the Democrats’ impeachment effort. The Department of Justice has also sued Edward Snowden for the royalties of the book.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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