On May 27th, NBC News aired an interview by NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams with Edward Snowden, filmed last week in Moscow. Snowden, whose leaks of NSA documents to journalists led to news stories a year ago revealing U.S. government spy programs against American citizens, clarified many points about his actions that have been discussed in media both friendly and unfriendly to him, except for specifics of relevance to the ongoing investigation of him. He said that would be inappropriate to discuss the when, how, and the number of documents stolen in a news interview, though he would be glad to talk to the government about it.
Snowden also repeatedly discussed the principles he was trying to defend, centering on American rights to privacy and public debate of government policy. He also gave a brief but chilling exposition to Williams, of what an intelligence agency or a hacker could find out, or miscalculate, about a person, based on data gathered from a cell phone they’re using.
One revelation headlined in many press stories yesterday, is that Snowden said he was trained in intelligence. His actual point was that the usual characterization that he was a “low-level systems administrator” was misleading. He elaborated that “I’ve worked for the Central Intelligence Agency, undercover, overseas. I’ve worked for the National Security Agency, undercover, overseas. And I’ve worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency as a lecturer at the Joint Counterintelligence Training Academy, where I developed sources and methods for keeping our information and people secure in the most hostile and dangerous environments around the world. So when they say I’m a low-level systems administrator, that I don’t know what I’m talking about, I’d say it’s somewhat misleading.”
Williams pressed Snowden on what his relationship has been with “the host nation” (i.e. Russia, where he’s in exile) and whether he’s met Putin. Snowden responded, “I have no relationship with the Russian government at all. I never met the Russian President. I’m not supported by the Russian government, I’m not taking money from the Russian government. I’m not a spy, which is the real question.” He emphasized again and again that he no longer had the information he took in his possession.
After discussing his personal reaction as a teenager to the 9/11 attacks, including the fact that his grandfather, an FBI agent, was at the Pentagon when the plane hit it, Snowden said quietly but indignantly, “I take the threat of terrorism seriously. And I think we all do,” but “I think that it’s disingenuous for the government to invoke and sort of scandalize our memories, to sort of exploit the national trauma that we all suffered together, and worked so hard to come through, to justify programs that have never been shown to keep us safe, but cost us liberties and freedoms we don’t need to give up, and our Constitution says we should not give up.”
He continued: “If we want to be free…we can’t become subject to surveillance, we can’t give away our privacy, we can’t give away our rights. We have to be an active party, we have to be an active part of our government, and we have to say, ‘There are some things worth dying for.’ And I think the country is one of them.” That is, it’s still worth dying for one’s country if necessary.