“All governments lie,” NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden said in an exclusive interview with Intercepted. “All governments break the law. And most frequently, this happens without us realizing it.” This week, Intercepted broadcasts from the SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas. Snowden joined us via video feed from Moscow. He discusses Trump’s allegations that Barack Obama tapped Trump Tower and analyzes some of the CIA’s hacking capabilities. Snowden also offers his analysis of the “deep state” and blasts critics who accuse him of being a Russian agent. We interview the Libyan-American hip-hop artist Kayem (formerly known as Khaled M) about his regular detention at U.S. airports, visits from the FBI, and an incident where a police officer asked him to describe the contents of a Koran in the glove compartment of his car. Kayem, who has kept a low profile the past several years, is back on the road performing new music. He shares some verses with Intercepted.
Anthony Atamanuik as Donald J. Trump: Live from South by Southwest. Isn’t this unbelievable? The home of Alex Jones. The home of incredible liberalism. I mean, you people — 6th Street right now is a mess. A total and complete mess. There are people vomiting everywhere, and we all know it. And we’ve got such an incredible show, Intercepted. And it is — it’s all Intercepted. But only for Hillary. And one of the great guys, this Snowden guy. I mean, this guy’s truly snowed in. He’s in Russia. He’s trapped there. And I wish he helped me out more in the election, I’ll tell you that. He’s gotta get in touch with the other guys, and we’ve gotta release everything. Release it all. Except the pee video. Please. And now, the Intercepted! Intercepted —what do we call it? Steve? Where’s Steve? I’m tired. I gotta pee.
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
JS: All right. This is episode eight of Intercepted, and we are live in Austin, Texas, at South by Southwest, and we have an incredible show. We have an opportunity to talk live with the man himself, Edward Snowden. But first, we’re gonna begin by talking about something — first of all, I want to say this. I think it was really fucked up, this whole situation that happened with SXSW and the letters that were sent out to musical acts. And they tried to walk it back, and they tried to say, “Oh, well, we didn’t actually — we didn’t actually mean that we were gonna cooperate with ICE or DHS.” But it was a problem. And some bands got these letters that clearly, at this moment, with Donald Trump in power, with the Muslim ban, with the targeting of immigrants in this country; it’s at a minimum, tone deaf on SXSW’s side.
But in a different context, if you think about it, what were they thinking to send that kind of a letter out at this exact moment? And one of the ways that we wanted to respond to that was by having an artist, who is a Muslim, whose origin is from one of the countries that’s being targeted in Trump’s Muslim ban, whose family members were killed resisting the regime of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. He’s an incredible hip-hop artist and activist, and he goes by the name Kayem.
[Cheering and applause]
JS: Welcome to Intercepted.
Kayem: What’s up, man?
JS: All right. So, Kayem, I’ve done a lot of reporting about the No Fly List, about the watchlisting system, the various ways that you can end up in the matrix, and you yourself, in 2013, found yourself in a situation where you were being targeted at airports. So why don’t you share a little bit about your experience traveling while Muslim?
K: Yeah. I definitely — first of all, I’m gonna thank you, because it’s been a really tough three years. I just got off the list, and now you’ve got me on the same episode with Edward Snowden. So thank you for that, Jeremy.
JS: Congratulations on getting back on the list today. Maybe SXSW is gonna call them up, be like, “I’m sorry. There must have been an oversight.”
K: Ask him if he needs a roommate in Russia. It was trying, man. It all started — I mean, I had always had issues where I couldn’t check in online and stuff. That’s kind of just normal Muslim experience. But I think it started getting worse coming back from Toronto in 2013. I was detained in Michigan for six hours, which is the maximum time they can detain you before they have to send you somewhere else. It was really scary because the way they treat you is like there’s something really big and bad going on, really aggressive. They ended up separating me from my family and putting me in a jail cell. And, you know, eventually a man just came and told me, you know, “An agency is coming to get you.” And I had no idea what he meant. I thought he meant I’m in Guantanamo Bay. I don’t know what’s going on. And this agency — it turned out to be a local cop from Monroe County for like — there was a time when I was like — my license plate was tilted and I got pulled over on the highway, so it was like improper display of registration.
JS: Very suspicious, man.
JS: That’s some ISIS shit right there.
K: And I remember that incident. That was like 2006. I remember the incident. That’s my fault. I was like a teenager, and I’m just like, oh, I got a ticket in Michigan. I don’t think I ever paid it. But I remember that time, he ended up searching the car. He found a little copy of the Quran in the glove box, like my mom’s copy. I was driving her van.
JS: What were you thinking? Practicing your religion?
K: Well, he asked me. He asked me straight up.
JS: This is America!
K: [Laughs] He was like, “What does it say? What does it say in here?” I was like, “You want me to break down the whole Quran?” But anyway, that was the beginning. Then after that, I wouldn’t be able to get boarding passes. One time, I was flying from Chicago to Kentucky. I passed all the extra quad S stipulations, which is like, you know, when you get to security, you have to see a supervisor. They go through each individual item if you have a carry-on. I had to stop taking carry-ons. And they would wipe it with the little explosive stuff and kinda arbitrarily throw out — like I’d have a case of 50 CDs, and like 30 of them would be explosive and 20 wouldn’t. They’d throw all that stuff out. They take pictures of every page in your notebook. I remember like — they take a picture. I said something about Saddam Hussein or Iraq in a line, and they kept talking about it.
JS: You could use that as a blurb, like on your album. Kayem is — his CDs are explosive.
K: Yeah. [Laughs]
JS: — DHS.
K: He’s the bomb. He’s the bomb.
JS: That’s like getting, you know, five mics on the source or something.
K: Yeah, exactly.
JS: Anyway, sorry.
K: But anyway, I passed all that. Then once you get to the gate, they have to search you and interrogate you again. So you have to show up like five hours early, if they even print the boarding pass. But this time, I made it all the way to Detroit, which was just a connecting city. It wasn’t even where I was leaving from. And after I was already on the plane, they came up, asked for my ID, and then they told me that I had to get off, and no explanation, no refund, nothing like that, just left stranded. Luckily, I have friends everywhere, so somebody came and picked me up. The first friend, though, didn’t come back and pick me up. He was really scared. He’s like, “No, you gotta figure out what the hell’s going on. I’m not going over there.”
JS: Just to put this in context for people, on the one hand, we have this Muslim ban. And Trump — you know, now they’ve kind of repackaged it, and they’ve taken Iraq out of it. But that primarily was in response to the very selective outrage aimed at the fact that you had Iraqis who had worked as translators or collaborators with the United States military in Iraq. Because John McCain and others raised a ruckus about it, they said, “Okay, well, we’re gonna take Iraq off of this.” But they still have these six countries. So that’s one part of the policy. You, however, were born in the United States, so there’s a whole sort of different related reality. And that is that Muslims, Arabs, wide swaths of communities of color are being profiled and targeted.
JS: One of the documents that we published that we got from a whistleblower on the watchlisting program showed that the number two city in the United States where people are on the watchlist is Dearborn, Michigan, where —
K: Makes sense.
JS: Which has the largest percentage of Arab Americans and Muslim Americans as a community in the entire United States.
JS: The other four cities on that top five list were, you know, Chicago, New York, LA and then Dearborn, Michigan, you know, this small community. And I think there was something like 48,000 residents of Dearborn, Michigan, are on some form of the watchlist. And for people who say, “Well, you know, this is for our safety, and secondary screening is the best way to prevent terrorism,” they need to look at what happens if it’s taken to the extreme. Maher Arar, who is a Syrian-born Canadian citizen, was kidnapped at JFK Airport in 2002. This is, you know, an engineer, a very well educated, law-abiding, upstanding citizen in Canada. He’s coming back from a family vacation. His wife and kids are still on vacation. He’s coming back to go to work. He was working for an American company. He is in transit at JFK. He gets taken in the same way that you’re taken to a secondary screening, and ends up being rendered by the CIA and sent to Syria, a country he hadn’t been in since he was a little kid. And then was mercilessly tortured in Syria at the direction of the CIA. And he was kept in what, he called, his coffin. He was kept in a small box in Syria.
For 10 months and 10 days, he was kept inside of this coffin and interrogated about where is Osama bin Laden? Who are your other contacts within al-Qaeda? And it turns out that it was entirely a case of mistaken identity, that he had co-signed a loan for a guy, another guy in Canada, whose name was similar to someone that the CIA was tracking as an associate of some people high up in al-Qaeda. Both he and his friend were in boxes in Syria. Both of them: cases of mistaken identity. I bring that up because the stakes are very high. It’s not just a matter of, oh, we have to take off our shoes and our belts, and this is how we stay safe.
JS: They target people because they’re Muslims.
JS: And we need to be clear in how we talk about that.
K: And it’s not just — you know, it wasn’t just the flight issues. Like people don’t understand. I was having the FBI perpetually coming to the house, like constant surveillance and harassment. And what they started doing — it got to a point where my lawyer was like, “Listen, just don’t take to them. Give ‘em my business card and have ‘em talk to me.” And when I would start doing that, they’d get really upset. And they started this tactic, which was, they would find some type of bogus warrant. I go through background checks for work or whatever. So some type of bogus warrant that didn’t exist a week ago, a traffic warrant, and they’d be like, “Oh, well, we have this traffic warrant. You have to come with us.” I would refuse to get in the car with them. I said, “If it’s a traffic warrant, call local police.” And of course, they’d make a big show of it. They wouldn’t call a regular squad car. They’d get a paddy wagon and bring it to my little court and make a big showoff for the neighbors.
And I’d have to go to jail. I’d go, four or five hours, get processed, and then they’d give me a court date the next day. I’d go the next day, and the judge would immediately just say, “Case dismissed.” And that was it. And it happened over and over. It was just like this intimidation tactic that, well, if you don’t talk to us, we’re gonna really inconvenience your life. And we’d be catching them at the grocery store and all around. It’s just no way to live, even if somebody can say, you know, “Oh, it wasn’t that bad. You didn’t go to Guantanamo. You didn’t do this.” But like, living under that constant anxiety and fear and worry that like — I was worried. I kept telling my friends like, “Yo, I don’t know what’s going on. If something happens and I’m in the news, I didn’t do it,” you know. Like I was prepared for, like, my name to be used for something.
JS: My brother’s a lawyer. He calls that the Shaggy defense. “Wasn’t me.”
K: [Laughs] It wasn’t me. It really wasn’t.
JS: All right, we got to — we’re gonna transition now to — we have Ed Snowden on the line from Moscow. But before we leave you, Kayem, share a few versus with us.
K: Sure. I would say a lot of people that are familiar with my music know about the, like, more political or conscious content, and lot of subject matter’s heavy, so I just wanted to do something a bit lighter and fun. We can do that?
JS: You have the right, man.
K: All right.
JS: Well, you — you’re gonna need to check it with SXSW.
JS: They’re gonna need to see all of your papers, and they’re gonna need to approve the lyrics — okay, I’m sorry, go ahead.
K: I don’t want to get deported back to Kentucky, man. All right.
[Cheering and applause]
JS: All right, give it up for Kayem. Support the work. There’s a documentary on him online, too, you should check out about his trip to Libya. And with that, we’re about to go to Moscow.
[Kayem, “Can’t Take Our Freedom”]
In the darkest hour when the world has turned away
And no one’s watching when the sky has turned to grey and
You have no options, when your voice is illegal
Only choice for the people
Is to stand up proudly in the face of death
It ain’t a waste of breath when you speak up loudly
On behalf of the kids in the street with no pot to piss in
Living on they own ‘cause they papa’s missing
Don’t know if he’s dead or he’s locked in the prison
Disappeared, they consider him the opposition
And now I’m having visions of dreams I shouldn’t see
Like who would this close? Nah, couldn’t be
But if the people in Egypt and Tunis could do this
Decide their fate, then why wouldn’t we
More than 40 years we done rocked the nation
And the occupation we cannot be waitin’
We gon’ start debatin’ when one of us dies
10 jump in line ready to box the Satan
You can’t take our freedom or take our soul
Take our freedom or take our soul
You are not the one that’s in control
You are not the one that’s in control
La Ilaha Il-Allah, no power’s greater than God
Go ahead and devise your plans, at the end of the day
You are just a man.
Newscaster: Edward Snowden revealed the government collected information from millions of people without their knowledge. The NSA says everything it’s doing is perfectly legal.
Edward Snowden [from news report]: I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone, from you, or your accountant, to a federal judge, to even the president, if I had a personal email.
JS: Edward Snowden, welcome to Intercepted.
ES: [Laughs] Thank you. Thank you.
JS: So, you are joining us now from a disclosed location in Moscow. And I wanted to start by asking you to clarify something that has been discussed in light of Trump, the documents that were released by WikiLeaks on CIA hacking. There are people who are saying, “Oh, it’s totally implausible that the NSA would have been intercepting or reading President Obama’s communications, or spying on members of Congress.” Based on your knowledge as a NSA contractor, and also someone who worked with the CIA, explain to people the realities of those capabilities, and whether or not the NSA would, in fact, collect data or communications on lawmakers, or even the president.
ES: Yeah. So the main thing that this boils down to are word games. When people in government assert that the NSA would never collect communications on an American, any American, whether they’re a president, or a congressman, or whatever, without a warrant, they are lying. In the plain use of language, right, what “collects” means to you and me, right, that something travels across the phone line, that something travels across an internet line. They pick it up, they save it, and they drop it in their database. That happens to everyone right now. It does not matter whether you’re the president. It doesn’t matter whether you’re congress, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a judge, it doesn’t matter whether you’re an accountant, a lawyer. It doesn’t matter whether it’s you sitting in the room right now. These things happen by default. That’s how, of course, the system of surveillance works.
Because when you pick up the phone, right, there’s not a little flag associated with it that says, oh, this person’s the president, this person’s a congressman. You can manually go in and set up filters that say, you know, don’t collect on this number, that number, or whatever. But that’s not really how it works. On the backend, there’s a little bit of things like that. But what’s happening is these intelligence agencies, these lawyers at the DOJ for the president, they’re saying something different. They’re saying, to them, “collect” doesn’t mean that we copied your communications, that we put it in the bucket, and that we saved it, in case we want to look at it. To them, “collect” means that they take it out of the bucket and actually look at it and read it.
Now, if you are an American citizen and they say, “I want to look at your communications. I want to listen to this person’s phone calls and everyone they contacted,” this in theory is supposed to require a warrant. But the actual reality here is that they can do something different, and they do do this without a warrant. But if you’re in that bucket and you don’t have a U.S. passport, you know, you’re not a U.S. citizen, no Social Security card. You don’t have a green card, so you’re not sort of legally privileged as a U.S. person, even if you’re not technically a U.S. citizen, they can’t, what they say, target you directly. But if they look at the other side of that communication, right? The communication that went overseas or involved a non-U.S. person in any way, that’s entirely legal. That happens without a warrant.
And they don’t even have to be targeting a person, right? They don’t have to be going, “Oh, I want to know who this person was talking to on the other side in Pakistan. I’m gonna pull all their phone calls.” And oh, in there, it happens to be Jeremy Scahill. Or, oh, you know, I’m calling the Moscow Escort Service, or whatever. Donald Trump is their prime customer. So we get his phone call from there. No, no, no. It doesn’t require that. They can be targeting a machine. They can be targeting a server. They can be targeting a system. They can be targeting the desktop machine. Anywhere in the world, a router — and all of those communications that it’s passing, right, that include your communications, include my communications, that include people from Congress and the president just the same. All of those are in there, and they get displayed in response to the query.
Now, I did this professionally at Hawaii. This was my last position. I wasn’t interested, of course, in targeting U.S. politicians or U.S. persons at all. My assigned target, right, were Chinese intrusion sets. This is what we call sort of hackers, viruses, malware that are known to be associated with a certain group, right? But because it’s the internet, when I would look at these indicators of compromise, which is a way — sort of a technical term of ours of saying some computer got hacked somewhere. Maybe it’s at a defense contractor, right? Maybe it’s in a university, maybe it’s in a hospital. Maybe it’s at a congressman’s office, right? And it’s sending beacons that are meant for the hacker — they’re intended for the hacker — going out across the internet to this server that I know.
I say, “I want to see everything that comes from that server.” Now when that comes back to me, right, it’s not just things that go to the hacker, right? It can be everything that goes to that server, which includes legitimate transactions because many times, these servers are themselves, hacked, right? We’re talking about a hot point. Because when somebody from China, or somebody from Russia, or somebody from the NSA hacks somebody else, they don’t go directly from their origin to their target because then it’s very easy to trace back, right? Instead, they create a network of hops across the internet that are ordinary people’s computers that don’t have very good security practices, right? Your grandma — your grandma’s computer could very well be being used in actual offensive cyber operations by nation states, if when you go and you internet — or you open sort of her internet browser, it’s got all those ancient advertising bars and things like that, and services that nobody uses.
JS: Well, my grandma’s computer contains some very offensive all caps emails.
ES: Yeah, exactly.
JS: I hope she gets hacked.
ES: If they’re forwarding chain letters and things like that, that’s an indication that they’re probably popped. But when we dial this back, right, what does this mean? If anybody at the NSA, if anybody at the FBI, wanted to review communications about President Obama, right? Like me, sitting at the NSA, I could do that simply by typing in an IP address that doesn’t even have to be the president’s IP address, right? Or if I want to search for his private email address or something like that, all I have to do is type it in the system, hit ‘enter,’ and say, “show me U.S. results for this.” This is entirely legal, so long as I’m not targeting him officially. So, I’m saying, I’m not interested in Obama, right? I’m interested in this known system that’s affiliated with Chinese cyber espionage or whatever, that just happens to be Obama’s Blackberry.
JS: Let me —
ES: And —
JS: Oh, go ahead. Go ahead.
ES: I’m not doing what they call reverse targeting, which is where I admit that I’m doing this, I’m targeting this system because I want to read Obama’s emails, right? If I’m actually doing that, that happens all day long. People at NSA are doing that right now. This is legally prohibited. It’s called reverse targeting, right? But when you hit certain stop points in your investigation, you’re actually coached to do this kind of thing, where you say, we don’t know that this is Obama’s Blackberry, right? This is an unknown internet connected device. It happens to have some connection to a known foreign intelligence target, or a suspected foreign intelligence target. That doesn’t have to be saying, you know, Obama’s involved in espionage. That could just be saying that that device has been connected by a Russian malicious software scam, right? And as long as we say we weren’t intending to target him, he’s not the target of our investigation, and we didn’t know that it was Obama’s Blackberry, even if in reality, we actually did, it’s entirely legal.
JS: So let’s pretend for a moment that we should always take Donald Trump’s statements seriously, and that we’re dealing with, like, a normal, rational, sane person. If indeed there is some merit to his allegation that he made on Twitter that the Obama administration — well, he said Obama personally — but the Obama administration was, in some form or another, targeting Trump or people around him, what would that look like?
ES: So, you know, this is where I don’t want to speak too far beyond what is actually known. I don’t want to get into the sort of craft of speculation here. Donald Trump has a well-established history of making unreliable statements. That’s not in debate, right? That’s not a point of contention.
I think it is possible, based on everything we see and what we hear, there may be some indication that something like this happened on the backend, right? Where there’s been some searches that implicate not Donald Trump directly, right? Because if he had that, he’d be up on the stage waving it around on TV. But some third degree contact, something like that. It may not even be directly connected to the campaign, because this is what the NSA does, right? This is what you pay them to do.
Maybe one of these campaign officials actually had some contact with a Russian official, right, or somebody who’s a cutout, a go-between, right? But we have no evidence of that that’s publicly established, publicly known. And if Donald Trump or anybody else wants us to take this seriously, they have to show evidence. And the fact that they have not, despite the severity of this allegation, means that they’re trying to make political hay, I suspect, out of something that affects all of us, right? Which is the fact that mass surveillance is making all of us vulnerable. Had Obama wanted to read Donald Trump’s communications, the communications of anyone in his campaign, right, or anybody at the NSA had to, right, you don’t need the president’s authority for this. Any analyst with the proper authorities at the NSA, with the right clearances, who works with XKEYSCORE, right — that’s the name of our Google for spies that sorts through all of the things that you’re typing into on the internet and sending over the wire, or the SMS messages that you’re sending and the phone calls you’re making — could type in these numbers, type in these email addresses, and look at these things, right?
That’s the problem. It’s not so much that this actually happened here, there, or the other, because we don’t have evidence for that. If Donald Trump wants to take this seriously, right, he needs to fix the problem that everyone in America’s communications are being collected right now without a warrant, and then going into the bucket. And they’re protected by very lax internal policy regulations, right? And this simply is not enough. If he’s worried about the fact that somebody could have been wiretapping Trump Tower, that this could have happened without a warrant, or even with a warrant, right, the problem is not, oh, you know, poor Donald Trump. You’re the president, right? You should be asking questions about, “Why was this possible in the first place, and why haven’t I fixed it?”
JS: Right. And, you know, it sounds to me like you’re saying that Breitbart is not the best source of intelligence for the president of the United States, am I correct in saying this?
JS: I mean, this is a guy who clearly — I mean, he apparently doesn’t even, like, you know, want the full presidential daily briefing, but he damn sure makes sure to see Fox & Friends every fucking morning, which on its own level is kind of frightening. But I wanted to ask you about this conversation about what’s being called, you know, the Deep State. And I don’t know how much American television news you consume in Russia, but MSNBC has basically transformed into a Cold War opponent of the Soviet Union. And they have, like, retired intelligence person after general after admiral on the air making totally unfounded claims about what has been proven. And the people who are sort of saying, “Hey, let’s see the evidence,” like me, or Glenn Greenwald, others — we’re called Russian agents.
And you, of course, have long been tarred with the allegation that you somehow are in cahoots with the FSB, or that you brought all these documents over to Russia, and that you now have been flipped into a Russian agent. Talk about — given that you’ve lived through this yourself — talk about your assessment, or give your assessment of the relationship between Russia and the United States, Trump and Russia, and the way that all of this is being covered in the news media.
ES: I’ll talk about this generally in the context of my case, right? So —
JS: Are you an FSB agent?
ES: There are all of these crazy allegations. I’m sorry?
JS: Are you an FSB agent?
ES: [Laughs] No, I’m not. But you know, maybe that’s a retirement plan. No, seriously though, that’s exactly the problem, is we’ve got these people who make allegations, right, about things that actually are relevant, things that actually should be investigated, but they’re not interested in the actual phase of investigation. I don’t want people to trust me. I want you to doubt me, right? I’m a former NSA guy, former CIA guy. I ended up in Russia through no fault of my own, right? I was actually trying to transit to Latin America, and the U.S. government revoked my passport to trap me in Russia, which is a fairly amazing thing that people don’t really understand that well.
And yeah, there were all these allegations some years ago where they went, “Look, this just doesn’t look right, right? So maybe we can paint him with the Russian spy brush because that’s something that doesn’t go away.” We’ve been seeing movies about Russian spies for, like, you know, since we were making movies. And there are Russian spies, right? That’s the thing. You don’t just brush this off as nothing. What you do is you look into it. What you do is you investigate it, right? And Congress did this to me. The intelligence community did this to me. The CIA, the NSA, all these guys, right? They saw me as public enemy number one, because I showed evidence that they were breaking the law. The federal courts ruled they were breaking the law, right? This isn’t an allegation. This is fact. They violated the rights of every man, woman, and child in the United States. But further than that, they violated the basic human rights of everyone in the world. The United Nations affirmed that.
But so, here’s the thing. All that investigation went into me, right? Congress just released a report some months ago, which was criticized by every journalist who studied the issue, where the worst thing that they could show that I did — and this is with complete access to classified information, Congress being able to sit down with the Director of the CIA and say, “What’s actually happening with this guy?”—the worst thing that I ever did was that I lied to my boss about a sick day. I said, “Hey, guys, I’m going to the hospital,” when in reality, I was going to meet with journalists to tell them that the CIA and the NSA and all these groups were breaking the law, right? So the allegations fall apart if they’re not true after investigation.
And this gets back to a basic, fundamental point of logic, of rationality, that is supposed to be the foundation of sort of our national character, which is: That which can be presented without evidence, must be dismissed without consideration. Right? What we are supposed to be doing is calling for investigation. The allegations about Donald Trump are cause for concern. We can’t take them seriously because there’s no evidence backing them that we see publicly, right? But by all means, do we want the FBI to look into this? Yes, absolutely. Do we want the CIA to be investigating this? Yes, absolutely. And when we have evidence, we need to present it, because that’s how a system of law is supposed to work. People in the United States — you know, this is supposed to be a free country. We used to say that. We don’t say that so much anymore.
But if this is a free country, right, where people have the presumption of innocence, right — they’re innocent until proven guilty — by God, why are we saying the worst things about people imaginable without actually showing evidence of that? Now, there is plenty of circumstantial evidence at this point implicating that Donald Trump’s campaigns, the people around him, have causes for concern, right? So we should be digging into that. But passing this off as established fact is a real problem because it’s reducing our standards for evidence about things that actually happen. Saying I’m a Russian spy, right, when even the former Deputy Director of the NSA doesn’t say that is a problem. The guy who was in charge of my investigation, right? For people who are like, “Edward Snowden’s a Russian spy,” let’s go to the former Deputy Director of the National Security Agency, Chris Inglis, who is the guy who actually investigated me, and see what he thinks.
Chris Inglis: First, I have to point out that I don’t represent the United States government, anymore. I’m no longer in an official capacity, and so I wouldn’t know what the official position of the U.S. government is any more than I would know the absolute truth of what Snowden’s thinking was and all the machinations that he went through to do what he did. But here’s what I surmise, based on a careful observation of the facts available to me. It does seem clear that his intention was to go to Latin or South America after he revealed all this material in Hong Kong. He worked very hard and his lawyers worked very hard on his behalf to actually achieve that in the days and weeks afterwards. It doesn’t seem to me that a destination of China or Russia would be preferred. This was something that was done on the fly. It wasn’t carefully thought through.
I can’t imagine that his Plan A was to arrive in Moscow and essentially be in virtual isolation in a foreign country. Probably is a nice enough place to be, but it’s not home. And so I don’t think that he was in the employ of the Chinese or the Russians. I don’t see any evidence that would indicate that. And even if they’re careful in terms of practicing denial and deception, I think there would be certain telltales in there that would work out more crisply, more cleanly, separate and apart from where he’s wound up.
JS: Okay, well, clearly he’s a Russian agent; so let’s just dismiss everything he just said.
JS: The relevance of that, though — I mean, just to put it in context for people. I mean, this was a former very senior official at the NSA saying —
ES: The number two, yeah. Sorry.
JS: The number two at the NSA, who — he doesn’t say it directly, but he’s referencing what you mentioned before, which is that you didn’t choose Russia. The Obama administration chose Russia by canceling your passport, and at one point, forcing Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia — forcing his plane to make an unplanned landing, a forced landing, because they suspected you might have been onboard this aircraft. I think that’s one of the greatest lies that’s been told about your case, is this idea that you chose to go to Russia, that you intended to make a deal with Moscow. And it sticks. You hear it constantly, “Edward Snowden is a Russian spy. He now has become an asset of the Russian government.”
ES: Well, the funny thing is, you don’t actually hear this from serious people anymore. You hear this from sort of the crazy hyper-partisans. I have sort of formal affiliations with U.S. universities. I’m invited to speak at them regularly. Nobody has any legal trouble. Nobody gets — there’s no harassment or concern about this. Because serious people who actually look at this, they see that this is well-established fact, right?
JS: Wait. You’re saying that that guy who got caught sending dick pics who was an NSA guy, that he’s not a serious person?
ES: [Laughs] I’m not gonna speak about any individual —
JS: Okay, sorry. I —
ES: In particular.
JS: I don’t mean to force you to respond to someone’s dick pics. I’m sorry.
ES: The only people who are making these kind of allegations today are either sort of — and I say this with sympathy and compassion rather than reprisal — people who are seriously struggling with issues like senility, or people whose judgment is otherwise fairly well established as compromised, right? When you have, for example, Geoffrey Stone, who was part of the Obama commission to investigate what the NSA was doing, inviting me to debates, right, about the lawfulness of these programs, and they’re not saying, like, you were a Russian spy, or anything like that — the reason I’m even on the stage with these people is because they have affirmed that that’s not the case, right? If the [laughs] number two of the NSA is like, ”Look, there’s nothing to see here.” The number of times that I agree with the top leadership at the NSA in today’s world are very few. So if we’re speaking from the same page, there’s probably a reason for it.
JS: Let me ask you about the Deep State issue. There seems to be an emerging consensus among influential liberal pundits and political figures, politicians, and the Democratic Party, that there’s this awesome group of heroic NSA/CIA/military people that are protecting the republic from Donald Trump. What do you make of that narrative, that the Deep State is, A) trying to undermine Donald Trump, and B) is really in secret protecting all of us from the dangers of his administration?
ES: Well, it’s half true. And I mean, I don’t like to say these things are right or wrong because it’s not black and white. There is a Deep State, right? What are we saying when we talk about deep state? We’re talking about the people who survive presidents, right? These are not political appointees who come and go in this office or that office. They’re the people who are senior enough to influence policy, to shape the government’s understanding of an issue. And all the little people under them who are just sort of the worker bees who actually do things, these worker bees, by and large, are good people, right? I worked at NSA, at CIA, for a long time. I strongly disagree with a lot of their policies, right? They cause harm. They violate rights. They make us, the United States, less safe as a nation, and they destabilize peace, not just here at home, but around the world, right?
That’s not to say everything they do is bad, right? These worker bees, right, they’re good people who do bad things for what they consider to be good reasons, right? There are literally people in the United States who ran torture programs, and there are people who actually did the torture. I’m not saying these are good people, right? These are war crimes, uncontroversially. And these people probably did know at the time. But why did they do it, right? They did it because they were told there’d be blood on their hands or everybody else’s hands, that people were gonna die or buildings were gonna collapse, if it wasn’t done. Now I’m not saying that was the right thing to do. But who are the people who bear the most responsibility for this, right? That’s where you find the Deep State. It’s not the guy at the desk. The guy at the desk doesn’t even pick what he’s going to do that day. He’s ordered to do this, that, or the other. Follow the chain up, right?
When you go to the White House, when you go one level down to the political appointees, and then you go that one step down, right? Political appointees who survive beyond presidents, and the people who sort of convert — they roll over from being a political appointee to embed themselves in the government on a permanent basis. That’s where you see the Deep State. And these are the people who are writing the memos that become our laws. These are the people who create the findings and suggestions that say, you know what? Torture would work. Torture would save lives. Even though, in fact, it didn’t. And it actually gave al Qaeda and ISIS their greatest propaganda boost that we ever provided them, because they could say, “Look, the United States is no better than us. Yes, we chop heads off. Yes, we drill holes in hands. But you know what? They do too.” Now, of course, we aren’t actually beheading people, but we are dousing people in cold water and letting them freeze to death in a cell after we’ve beaten them all day.
We had people who had hummus in their food actually anally inserted. These people were raped with their dinner as a punishment for noncompliance or noncooperation. We can say many things. We can talk about moments of passion. We can talk about the loss of rationality in moments of panic. But these are fundamentally un-American things. And if there’s one thing, right, one thing we need to remember, it’s that these people have never faced the inside of a courtroom in a criminal trial. George Bush, right, who is sort of the architect of all of these programs and authorities — he’s the one who actually gave all these Deep Staters the legitimacy to construct and carry these things out. This could not have happened without his support — is now being rehabilitated in the public eye now. They’re saying, “Oh, he’s this wonderful, happy little painter guy. He’s like Bob Ross with an accent.” No, he’s not. He’s a war criminal.
JS: [Laughs] You know, he’s just — he’s painting his own world, man. He’s just, you know, pretty little clouds. He can make it whatever he wants. No, it’s disgusting that, well, first of all, you have the kind of, you know, True Detective season three with Bush and Michelle Obama getting all cuddly and hugging. This was a guy who was responsible for wars that killed upwards of a million people, and including thousands of U.S. soldiers. And he now is being presented as like, he’s the reasonable Republican because Trump is so, you know, unfathomably dangerous. And I think it’s a disgrace to the soldiers who died, but also the civilians whose lives were treated as just dirt to step on around the world. And it really is a sick part of our —the amnesia that’s drilled into our culture of history, of the context of how we actually ended up where we are.
I want to close by asking a couple questions about the recent CIA releases from WikiLeaks. Just to put it in context for people, the Vault Seven releases are — it’s about 8,700 or so documents or files that deal with the CIA’s hacking capabilities. And one of the things that’s gotten a lot of attention is the idea that — or the platform that allows a particular Samsung TV to be turned into a kind of in-home surveillance device. And, you know, a lot of people now are becoming aware of what’s called the Internet of Things. You know, you’ve got — your refrigerator is hooked up to the internet. You’ve got that damn Alexis, or Siri, or, you know, Go Google, or whatever it’s called. I know you, very early when this came out, said that this was extraordinarily significant. What, to you, given your expertise and your background — what are the biggest takeaways from what has been released so far, and what do you think is important for people to understand about what’s contained in these CIA documents?
ES: Yeah. I mean there’s a lot to talk about here. The thing that I don’t like that I’m not so impressed by is everybody’s talking about, you know, Samsung TVs. Nobody really cares about these Samsung TVs, in terms of what this means for our future. Any device that’s connected to the internet can be hacked, right? And this Samsung TV, in this circumstance, is not hacked through the internet. This is a USB-enabled hack, right, where somebody has to — this is an old version of TV, by the way. They had to go in and actually stick a USB drive in and start the TV up, and that would hack the TV. Then you pull the USB drive out, and the TV starts listening in on you. And people go, “Oh, well, the CIA’s not gonna be breaking into my house, right?” And that’s actually true. That’s me. Don’t panic.
But they don’t go into your house, right? What they do is they wait for when these devices are being shipped to you, when you order them on Amazon or whatever. They go to them at the airports. They get the box. They use a little hair dryer to soften the adhesive. They open up the box. Then they put the USB stick in. They seal the box back all nice and perfect, and then they ship it on to you. And now your router, your computer, your TV is hacked. This is a very routine thing that happens, right?
JS: Wait, so you’re saying that — wait, just —
ES: And it’s not typically the CIA that’s doing the hands-on on this, by the way. That’s the FBI.
JS: Just to clarify. So you’re — and I know that there are documents that were made public because of you that show that they’re intercepting routers and other devices in bulk, right? And like, for instance, some of the exports from the United States that deal with internet technology and are going overseas, they’ll actually contaminate those devices without necessarily knowing what specific person’s going to get them. They’re contaminating at the source before they’re shipped.
ES: Sort of.
JS: Yes. This is a question, not a statement.
ES: It’s not just en masse, indiscriminately for everything, right? It’s not like every iPhone that gets sent to China is back-doored. If they know there’s a particular zip code or a particular region that has, like, a nuclear facility in it, they’ll do this kind of thing. And that would be appropriate, in many cases. You would want them to do that. But this is a method, right, that they apply to many different things, where they’ll also do this to political parties, right? They might also do this to a newsroom, if they see the device is going to a particular building, or whatever. These are the kind of causes for concern. Scope out from the individual thing of how does this affect me? Think about how does this affect society, right? And this is what the real value of this CIA release is about.
The most important thing here is that we now have concrete evidence that the CIA, the NSA, the United States government, writ large, and our partners in places like the United Kingdom, are supporting a commercial market in making every internet-connected device less secure. They are paying companies to develop what are basically digital weapons or tools, like burglary tools, that will break into any device, right? And then when they create these things, the problem is, anybody can use them, right? You don’t just have to have the tool if you can rediscover the same kind of thing, which studies just came out in the last week showing the frequency of this, by the way, for any given tool, is five to 20 percent per year, right?
Five percent if you believe the sort of a not very reliable RAND study from a closed dataset. No academics are allowed to look at it. No universities are allowed to look at it. They just say, “Trust us. These numbers say what they think they are.” They say, “There’s a five percent chance every year that when the government uses a new kind of wiretap capability, the Russians, the Chinese, random hackers, whoever, will rediscover it and can use it to listen to American iPhones,” right, or Samsung TVs in the United States. Whatever the device of the day happens to be. Or 20 percent every year. That’s insane, right? It is — this doesn’t happen in any other industry. If every time you bought a hamburger, there was a five percent chance that it would kill you, people wouldn’t be eating hamburgers anymore until they changed the law. This is the dynamic that we really see in this release, and that’s the thing that people are focusing the least on, outside of policy circles now, because it’s not very exciting, it’s not very accessible, it’s not very easy to understand.
But this largely misses, I think, the top-level point, when we think about all of this stuff. And this dynamic of Donald Trump, the fact that the world is on fire, the fact that the president’s statements can’t be relied upon, the fact that his laws are violating our Constitution in such a blatant and open manner, right, is that this is actually not new. What’s different is he is so inept that we see it, right? Even his representatives go on the news, and they don’t try to lie carefully. They don’t try to lie in a manner that has a kind of art to it. They do so openly without shame because they say, “What are you going to do to stop us?” But this happened in the Bush administration. He created a warrantless wiretapping program that, on its face, violated the Fourth Amendment so badly, so boldly, that the attorney general of the United States, at one point, refused to sign it because he didn’t think he could defend that if he was eventually brought into the docket one day. What did the president do? Well, he didn’t go, “All right, well, the attorney general says this isn’t legal. We shouldn’t do it.” He turned to the NSA director and said, “Well, the attorney general won’t sign off on this. Will you do this anyway?” And the director of the National Security Agency said, “Well, the president’s asking me. Sure.” Even though he knew that was a violation of the Constitution.
Let’s go to President Barack Obama, right? This is a similar thing. Obama was a fairly progressive, fairly liberal politician by American standards. And I don’t mean on the American political spectrum, because he was actually pretty far right, as far as, what people would consider to be a liberal. He was the one who said, “The world is a global battlefield. I’m going to assassinate U.S. citizens without a trial outside of an actual combat zone because I believe they’re a threat to the United States.” Now right or wrong, whether you think he was justified or unjustified in that, that’s unprecedented, and that’s clearly a violation of due process, right? But this happened.
When you look at the statements of journalists who worked under the Obama administration — and we’re talking mainstream people, right? They’re describing his activities against the press as a war on whistleblowers, a war against the press. Whenever something comes to the public eye — cyber operations that are questionable, things that failed — he starts trying to put people in jail. The editor of the New York Times, right — this is not what we would consider sort of a radical fringe source — said the Obama White House was the most secretive they’ve ever dealt with. James Risen, who the DOJ for some time threatened with jail if he wouldn’t reveal who his source was, said Obama was the greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation.
Now, what does this all boil down to? Why does this matter? The reality is, all governments lie. All governments break the law. And most frequently, this happens without us realizing it. The majority of us, right? People who follow this, people who study this will see it. They’ll complain, they’ll protest, but they don’t have critical mass because they don’t have control of the airwaves. They’re sort of shuttled off in the corner of the room where they talk amongst each other. But the average person doesn’t care that much because these presidencies, these administrations, give them the space to deny it to themselves, right? To say, “I can go on with my day. I can go on with my life, and I don’t have to confront these issues. I can live in my comfortable life, I can go home after a hard day, right? I’ve got people to take care of. I’ve got bills to pay. I have obligations. I don’t have time to save the government, right?” We can’t do that anymore. That is no longer a luxury. And that, more than anything else, may be the silver lining of this disastrous administration, is the fact that people are, for the first time in a generation, realizing that democracy is not an inheritance.
Folks, this is a challenge. This is our challenge. This is something that requires effort. This is something that requires sacrifice. And this is something that, if you turn your back on, will not get better. It will get worse. It is not enough to believe in something. It is not enough to think that America is the land of the free, the home of the brave — we have constitutional values, and these things will simply work out. They will mean nothing unless you make them mean something. It is not enough to believe in something, ladies and gentlemen. You must stand for something.
JS: Well, Edward Snowden, on that note, we’re gonna leave it there, and thank you so much for your work, your courage, your bravery, and your sometimes funny and always sharp analysis. Edward Snowden — folks, let’s give him a round of applause — from Moscow. [Applause] Thank you for joining us here on Intercepted.
ED: Thank you.
JS: Live from SXSW in Austin. Take care, Ed.
JS: All right. That does it for this week’s show. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. We’re distributed by Panoply. Our producer is Jack D’Isidoro, and our executive producer is Leital Molad, who has a Ph.D. in unplugging microphones. Inside joke. Rick Kwan mixed the show. We had production assistance from Elise Swain. Our music was composed by DJ Spooky. Thank you to PRX and iHeartRadio for hosting us at the Capital Factory in Austin. And a very special thanks to Kayem and Edward Snowden for joining us live at SXSW. As we’ve said before, and I’ll say it again, we’re a new show. We need your support. Tell your friends, tell your foes. Go to iTunes, Google Play — wherever you do such things. Give us a rating if you feel so inclined. Even better, give us a review. Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.