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Snowden Reveals How He Secretly Exposed NSA Criminal Wrongdoing Without Getting Arrested

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Edward Snowden talks about his decision to leak documents to journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras rather than WikiLeaks, and the issues with the U.S. government’s response to whistleblower disclosures. His recently published memoir, “Permanent Record,” tells the story of his decision to expose the system of mass surveillance. “I think it’s so obvious that no harm to national security has resulted from this process of disclosure. And yet, the same criticisms, the same allegations are made to me as have been every other whistleblower,” Snowden says. “What we need to understand here is not my model of publication is right and WikiLeaks’ model is wrong, but rather to see you have two very different levels of caution, of risk mitigation in these publication models.”

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 continue Part 2 of our conversation with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who has just published his memoir. It’s called Permanent Record. Democracy Now!'s Juan González and I spoke to him from his home in Moscow last week, where he's lived in exile since 2013. Ed Snowden talked about how he worked at the NSA’s Office of Information Sharing — an office of one: him.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: What does the Office of Information Sharing do? Well, besides me being way better at that job than the NSA ever thought that I would be, much to their dismay, think about the director of an agency, right? Think about the head of a unit. Think about someone who’s supposed to know all the secrets to everything. They’re not technologists, and these are very technical systems. When they say, “I need to know what’s going on with this,” or, “Show me this program,” somebody has to get that, right? They don’t know how to get it themselves. And that means somebody has all the access as these directors have all of these other things. These people are called systems administrators.

And so, I was sitting, for the first time in my career, really, with absolute awareness, not of the little picture, but the big picture, how all the pieces fit together. And I created a system called the HEARTBEAT. This is a new technological platform, that you can think of it like a news aggregator, the landing page, you know, on Google News, that pulls from all of these different newspapers and says, “Here’s what’s interesting for you, based on who you are,” whatever. And it would go, “This person works in this office; they should see these kind of programs.” And I created a kind of crude proof of concept system to do this.

But a byproduct of this meant that I now was sitting on top of a mountain of secrets. And it turned out that a lot of those secrets were criminal. So now I had to find a way to collect the evidence of wrongdoing, get it out of one of the most highly secured buildings on the planet — it was a World War II-era airplane factory that was buried under a pineapple field, that was later converted into a spy base in Hawaii — and somehow get it to journalists without getting caught.


EDWARD SNOWDEN: And this is really where we get into the climax of the book.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Ed, at this point, you also discuss that you had first considered going to WikiLeaks but then changed your mind because of some changes in WikiLeaks policy that also you felt you could not in good conscience participate in. If you could talk about that, as well?

EDWARD SNOWDEN: Right. So, a lot of people misread this and think of it as me sort of denouncing WikiLeaks. And it’s not. I think some of the reporting that WikiLeaks has done is tremendously important, both for the historic record and also for contemporary politics — basically every story they’ve run in the last many years. And, of course, this — when we’re talking about is in 2013, it’s long before the 2016 election — has been covered by newspapers around the world.

But what had happened in the wake of the 2009 Manning disclosures — this is where WikiLeaks published the “Collateral Murder” video of U.S. helicopter pilots killing not just a journalist, but also the first responders that came to their aid, and the classified histories of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the State Department’s diplomatic cables, that in some ways are argued to have sort of helped spark or at least catalyze the Arab Spring movement. What had happened is, in the early parts of WikiLeaks’ reporting, they worked in concert with newspapers, with sort of The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Der Spiegel — major newspapers. But at some point, one of the journalists that they had worked with wrote a memoir, or some kind of book, where they published the password that Julian Assange had given them to the entire archive of data, that only journalists were supposed to have, not the public, because the journalists were supposed to go through this process of deciding what in this archive of material does the public need to know and what is a legitimate secret, that maybe there’s no benefit for publishing.

Once this journalist published this, WikiLeaks went — well, all of the bad guys in the world, basically, have access to this material, because the archive, encrypted archive, was available to anyone. It’s just you needed the password to unlock it. Now this bonehead journalist had published it and basically unlocked Pandora’s box. WikiLeaks was in a tough place there. And they basically revised their editorial policy to go, “You know what? We’re going to publish everything pristine and unredacted, so that everyone is on a common footing, whether you’re a good guy or bad guy. At least we all have access to the same information.”

It’s not my place to agree or disagree with that, say it’s right or wrong. But what I did want to do was try a different model, go, “What happens? Is there a difference?” Because Chelsea Manning, of course, was accused of all the same things that I was — said, you know, “This person’s a traitor,” said, “This person endangered the troops” — which has never borne out, by the way. We’re now more than 10 years on from those activities, and the government, even at Chelsea Manning’s trial, after they’ve convicted her, the government was invited by the judge to show evidence of harm, and they couldn’t show anyone was harmed as a result of the disclosures.

But could these accusations of government be mitigated by the process of whistleblowing? Could we simply be more discriminating? Could we be overly cautious? Could we accommodate, to the maximum extent, what the government thought would be an appropriate process, while still empowering journalists? And this was the model that I set out to try and prove. Can we have myself, any whistleblower — right? — gather evidence of wrongdoing and trust that to the press under the condition that the journalists agree they will publish no story simply because it’s newsworthy, simply because it’s interesting, but only publish stories they are willing to make an institutional judgment are in the public interest to know, and then, as an extraordinary check beyond that, go to the government in advance of publication, warn the government, “We are about to publish this story,” and give the government and adversarial opportunity to argue against this, say, “This will cause harm. Someone will get hurt. Redact this detail”? And in all cases I’m aware of, that process was followed.

And this is why, in 2019, I think it’s so obvious that no harm to national security has resulted from this process of disclosure. And yet, the same criticisms, the same allegations are made to me as have been every other whistleblower. And what we need to understand here is not my model of publication is right and WikiLeaks’ model is wrong, but rather to see you have two very different levels of caution — right? — of risk mitigation in these publication models. And yet, despite years and years of investigation by the most powerful government in history, in neither case has the government ever established or even offered evidence of harm as a result of this disclosure.

And so, this is the fundamental point that I just want to summarize for people. Whenever the government faces a whistleblower that is revealing some kind of wrongdoing that makes them uncomfortable, that implicates them in some kind of activity they should not be doing, they are going to try and change the conversation from the concrete harms of their actions, of their policies in government, and instead try to have a discussion about the theoretical risks of journalism in a free and open society. And, of course, there are risks to having a free press, but we embrace those risks, because those are the things that guarantee we are truly free.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Your decisions to eventually provide the information to Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, and how those meetings initially went?

EDWARD SNOWDEN: Yeah, so, I have to work with journalists to get them interested in meeting with someone who they don’t even know their name — right? — because if I give the journalists my name and they mishandle it, because the government is spying on everyone — I know how the mass surveillance system works — the government will have me in jail before anybody knows anything. So I have to go through this elaborate process of trying to reach out to journalists, convince them to use encrypted communications, while protecting myself from mass surveillance, driving around Hawaii with a specialized system, that’s basically a GPS magnet that I can attach to the roof of my car, run through the window by wire to a laptop, which has an enormously powerful antenna connected to it, and then basically create a map, using that antenna, of everywhere there are different wireless access points that are either open and unlocked or vulnerable to being unlocked by me, that I can use for this covert communications in a way that won’t lead back to me. And then I have to convince them, you know, I know something serious that you need to know about, the public needs to know about. But I can’t tell you what it is yet until you do this, then get them online, then begin showing them evidence, and then, ultimately, get them to meet. And this was a tremendously stressful period, that’s covered in some detail in the book.

But I think it is extraordinary, and I think these journalists should be all applauded for the risks that they took, because it’s very likely they could have been meeting with somebody who was saying, “Oh, you know, I’ve got the biggest secret in the world: The aliens have landed, and they work in the State Department.” But they came, and they looked at the documents. They took them seriously. They authenticated them. And eventually they won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service journalism because of that.

AMY GOODMAN: And after you met with them and you shared your stories, and they were writing them as you were meeting together in Hong Kong, describe what it meant to go underground there and then to — ultimately, how you made your way, ended up at the Moscow airport and couldn’t leave once you got there.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: Oh, yeah, this is a great question. So, I had been looking at this entire reporting system as a crazy system of a series of challenges, that were becoming increasingly difficult. But the end of it, the finish line, was you’ve delivered the secret to journalists, that the government has violated the rights of Americans and the Constitution of the United States. They can then publish that information, and that was the end of the process, because I was always planning on getting arrested.

And so, then, when the story comes out — and my biggest fear was this was going to be a two-day story that everybody stopped talking about, it just blew over, the government sort of suppressed it — it became the biggest story on the planet that year. Suddenly, everybody was interested in me. The government made me public enemy number one. I was the most wanted man in the world. It was a question of: “All right, what now?” And I didn’t really have an idea.

So I talked with journalists — or, sorry, I talked with lawyers that were introduced to me by the journalists — human rights lawyers — and tried to plan my next stage. I talked to the United Nations. And ultimately, the United Nations came back and went — this is sort of — you know, they wouldn’t say this publicly, and I wouldn’t encourage them to go on the record about this, but they went, “Look, practically, the U.S. has enormous sway in our organization. They pay an enormous amount of our budget. And the U.S. gets what the U.S. wants. We probably can’t help you. We will try, but it’s likely to work out to your disadvantage.” And so, if the U.N. can’t protect you, who can?

And my lawyer, Robert Tibbo, had this idea that I would go underground with the refugee families that he had been representing, that were themselves trying to seek asylum in Hong Kong. And so, suddenly, I’ve gone from staying in a five-star hotel with journalists to staying in an apartment shared by five people, where the kitchen is the bathroom, and the entire thing is smaller than most suburban bathrooms. And I’m trying to communicate with journalists. And these people were so brave, I still can’t believe — I’m in disbelief that they just welcomed me in, when my face was on the front page of every newspaper. But they knew what it was like to be hunted by a government for having done the right thing. They were escaping violence and persecution. And they were just trying to make their way through the world. And this is the thing that always strikes me. They had nothing. These were the most vulnerable people on the planet. But it’s the people who have nothing that care about others the most, because all they have are connections.

And so, I’ve been an aggressive advocate since then for trying to get them resettled. We have resettled two of them, a mother and her daughter, in Canada, after years and years of effort. But, unfortunately, the Trudeau government is still digging in their heels and trying to prevent the rest of the families from entering into asylum. In Hong Kong, the number of people who have their asylum claims approved is less than 1%, which is actually some of the — those are some of the worst figures in the world for that. And even if they get their asylum claims granted, they are forced to be resettled in third countries rather than in Hong Kong itself.

AMY GOODMAN: NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. He tells his story in his new book, Permanent Record. Back in 30 seconds with Snowden.


AMY GOODMAN: “El Triste” by one of Latin America’s most beloved singers, José José. Known as “The Prince of Song,” he passed away in South Florida Saturday at the age of 71.

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

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