Exactly five years ago this week, Edward Snowden absconded to Hong Kong with a trove of documents detailing the extent of the U.S. government’s global and domestic surveillance programs. He soon found himself in exile in Russia and dubbed “the most wanted man in the world.” The Snowden leaks started a new conversation about digital privacy and online security, and even led to changes in the law. But more recently we’ve discovered it isn’t just Big Government that poses a massive threat to our privacy, but also Big Tech. Facebook, for example, exposed data on up to 87 million Facebook users to a researcher who worked at Cambridge Analytica, a political consultancy employed by the Trump campaign. The issues of surveillance and privacy and mass data collection, not just by the government but by Big Tech firms like Facebook, are still as live and and as contentious as ever. On this week’s episode of Deconstructed, Edward Snowden joins Mehdi Hasan from Moscow to discuss surveillance, tools that can help protect people’s privacy, and the likelihood of a Trump-Putin deal to extradite him.
Edward Snowden: There’s always going to be consequences for opposing people in power. These are risks worth taking. When I came forward, it changed the law.
Mehdi Hasan: I’m Mehdi Hasan, welcome to Deconstructed.
My guest today is the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Yes, the man himself, who became a global household name almost exactly five years ago. He joins me from Moscow to talk about everything from privacy and Facebook, to Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.
ES: I think people are asking for too much when they hope that the Mueller investigation is going to come up with kind of a smoking gun, and say, “yes! Vladimir Putin! Donald Trump! In the hotel room! With the piss tape!” Life is not that simple.
MH: So this week: the Edward Snowden interview.
Piers Morgan: Breaking news tonight. Reports that through a secret court order, the Obama administration is collecting the phone records of millions of Verizon customers.
MH: It was June 2013, and I remember reading the breaking story on the Guardian website about the NSA, the National Security Agency, collecting the phone records of millions of innocent, unsuspecting Americans.
Gerri Willis: It’s a program that’s been known as PRISM.
MH: And I remember thinking: This is huge. This is going to be a big, big deal.
Kristen Welker: The NSA has called for a criminal investigation to determine who exactly is behind these leaks.
MH: They didn’t have to wait too long to find out.
ES: My name’s Ed Snowden, I’m 29 years old.
MH: In an instant Edward Snowden became one of the most famous — and one of the most wanted — people on earth. And in the years since, he hasn’t became any less controversial, any less divisive. For some, like myself, he’s a hero.
Daniel Ellsberg: Mr. Snowden, whom I regard as an American hero, and a very great patriot.
Ron Paul: I mean he’s done a great service because he’s telling the truth.
Senator Bernie Sanders: Snowden played a very important role in educating the American people.
MH: For others, he’s a villain who needs to be punished.
John Kerry: This is a man who has done great damage to his country.
President Donald J. Trump: I think he’s a total traitor and I would deal with him harshly.
John Bolton: My view is that Snowden committed treason, he ought to be convicted of that and then he ought to swing from a tall oak tree.
MH: It’s exactly five years this week since Edward Snowden left Hawaii for Hong Kong, beginning a journey of leaking and whistleblowing and truth-telling, that ended up with him in exile in Russia, dubbed “the most wanted man in the world.”
Today, there’s a different president in the White House, but the issues of surveillance and privacy, of mass data collection, not just by the government but by big tech firms like Facebook, are still as live and as contentious as ever. And Edward Snowden, who remains holed up in Moscow, is still passionate about those issues, about righting wrongs, as I discovered when I caught up with him via the Internet for this Deconstructed special.
MH: Edward Snowden, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed.
ES: It’s a pleasure to be with you!
MH: Snowden’s leaks helped expose the astonishing reach of the U.S. government’s global and, crucially, domestic surveillance programs. They helped start a new and much-needed conversation about digital privacy and online security, and even led to changes in the law.
But more recently we’ve discovered it isn’t just big government that poses a massive threat to our privacy but also big tech — Facebook, for example, exposed data on up to 87 million Facebook users to a researcher who worked at Cambridge Analytica, a political consultancy employed by the Trump campaign. It was a huge, huge scandal.
So I started off by asking Edward Snowden: “Is privacy dead?”
ES: No, and I think this is the thing that is really taken out of context by politicians and all of these corporate powers that are working to use that as a justification to extend and further the abuses that we’ve seen in the last decade or so. When you look at the polling and all of these different issues and you ask young people, particularly, you know: Do you care about privacy? They actually seem to care more than older generations because this is affects their lives everyday. They understand what it means to make a mistake, have someone with a smartphone in the room and then have it haunt you for the rest of your time in high school or college or whatever.
There is this feeling of powerlessness that’s surrounding all of us every day on this issue, because we see that we are being abused. People openly admit that they’re abusing us. You know, Mark Zuckerberg in front of Congress is talking about this quite unashamedly.
Mark Zuckerberg: So for example the messages that people send is something that we collect in order to operate the service.
ES: And the question is: Is it really true that there’s nothing we can do about it?
MH: That Congressional hearing in April, with Mark Zuckerberg all dressed up in suit and tie, facing down a long line of irate senators produced a lot of headlines, mostly about how well the Facebook CEO had acquitted himself and how ignorant those rather crusty legislators were about the inner workings of the social media giant. But it also included a few disturbing — and quite revealing — moments.
Roger Wicker: There have been reports that Facebook can track users’ Internet browsing activity even after that user has logged off of the Facebook platform. Can you confirm whether or not this is true?
MZ: Um, Senator, I want to make sure I get this accurate, so it would probably be better to have my team follow up afterwards.
RW: You don’t know?
MH: That exchange between Mark Zuckerberg and Republican Senator Roger Wicker caught Edward Snowden’s eye. He even tweeted about it at the time, saying, “and they call me a criminal.”
ES: I’m not saying that he’s violated a law in terms of statute, I’m saying that he’s violated the values, the very understanding of what it means to be part of American society. Right? This is nakedly exploitative, and maybe there are some people who are all rah-rah capitalism, saying, “That’s what we’re supposed to be doing. We’re supposed to be the Exxon Valdez out there slaloming, around, you know rocks. Doesn’t matter what the risks are, doesn’t matter who gets harmed as long as you make money.” Right?
But I think we’re a part of something bigger and I think he knows that, right? Mark Zuckerberg is not an idiot.
MZ: We are here to build things that bring people together.
ES: When you say at Facebook, you know: We’re only collecting this, we’re only collecting that, you’re a part of our Facebook family.
MZ: The vast majority of what happens on these services is people getting closer to the people they care about, even when time or distance get in the way.
ES: And at the same time, he’s spying on what you do, right? Not just out at the block party — everything that they could get access to on your phone they were stealing and they weren’t saying: “Are you sure you want to send this to Facebook?” They were just taking it.
MH: In recent years, Snowden has made it his mission not just to educate people on how to protect their own privacy, but also to create new tools to help them do it. One such app is called Haven, developed by Snowden in conjunction with the Freedom of the Press Foundation, which the former NSA contractor has been president of since 2016.
Haven takes all the surveillance power of a mobile phone — an Android phone to be specific — all the cameras and microphones and re-purposes them, allowing you to detect intrusions into your home, your office, your hotel room, by people who might be trying to physically access your data.
ES: Let’s say you’re traveling for business, and you’re going through someplace like China. If you could leave basically a sacrificial, old device behind and it just watches the room for you. If you put the Do Not Disturb sign on the door, but the maid walks in, instantly you get an alert. When we’re looking at this problem of privacy today and these spaces are being shrunk by governments, they are being shrunk by corporations.
When we talk about Haven as an app, what we’re talking about is can we start to protect some of these through new means. Right? The same technologies that have been used against us to kind of erode the rights that we enjoy in our daily lives, can we use them to enforce them?
MH: Snowden, of course, is well aware of the irony of his situation, that he’s working to promote individual privacy and government accountability and transparency while living in one of the world’s most authoritarian states. The fact that he took refuge in Russia has led many of his more vicious critics to speculate that he is some sort of agent of the Putin government.
Juan Williams: He is a puppet, in my opinion, for the Russians. Just as what’s going on with Assange. He’s a puppet for the Russians.
Mike Rogers: I believe there’s a reason that he ended up in the hands, the loving arms, of an FSB agent in Moscow. I don’t think that’s a coincidence, no.
MH: Your enemies here in the U.S. have accused you of being ultra-critical of the. U.S. government but soft on the Russian government, on President Vladimir Putin. And yet in March, I saw that you were on Twitter suggesting there had been vote-rigging in the Russian presidential election. You even called on Russians to “demand justice.” More recently you called the Russian government’s attempt to crack down on the messaging app Telegram “totalitarian.”
Now, from where I’m sitting, those were pretty bold, ballsy, principled moves by you, but were they also foolish moves? Aren’t you risking pissing off Putin and him then sending you back into the U.S. in a fit of rage?
ES: You know, yeah there’s definitely risks involved. And it’s not a smart thing to do. Every one of my lawyers tells me it’s a mistake to keep criticizing the Russian government. They say: Look, you’ve done enough. But that’s not what I’m here for, right? If I wanted to be safe, I never would have left Hawaii. I believe that this world can be better. I believe that this world should be better, but it’s not going to get better unless we make it better. And that requires risk, that requires hard work, that ultimately might require sacrifice.
Donald Trump’s going to be coming out to Russia, you know, whenever he can, whenever sort of politics will let him, because it seems clear that there is no one in this world he loves more than the Russian president. Will he try to make some deal? Maybe. Can I do anything about it? No. But would I sell out my principles in order to try to make that less likely? No.
MH: You just mentioned, I couldn’t help but catch when you said, does he love anyone more? I’m sure a lot of our listeners will be chuckling there.
What is your take? I mean you’re someone who’s out there in Russia, you have criticized both Trump and Putin, what is your take on this whole, did he/didn’t he collude with Russia?
ES: I think people are asking for too much when they hope that the Mueller investigation is going to come up with kind of a smoking gun and say, “Yes! Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, in the hotel room with the piss tape!” You know that’s not how the world works; life is not that simple.
And to be honest, everyone who has heard Trump speak for three minutes knows he’s a wrecking ball. This does not sound like the kind of person that you would want to engage in some kind of complicated Manchurian Candidate, when, you know, the guy can’t even remember what he was going to say at the end of a sentence.
MH: That’s a good point. He’s not great at keeping secrets, or shutting his mouth.
ES: Right, right, right. But that doesn’t mean that he didn’t want to cooperate, that doesn’t mean that he wouldn’t do anything to achieve an advantage. I just think we just need to be realistic about what an investigation can possibly find.
MH: Now you might say that’s Edward Snowden bending over backwards to be ultra-fair to a man, to a president, who hasn’t been very fair towards him – in fact, Trump wants to kill Snowden and says so openly.
DJT: This guy’s a bad guy. And, you know, there is still a thing called execution.
MH: Trump’s new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has said the same thing:
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: He should be brought back from Russia and given due process. And I think the proper outcome would be that he would be given a death sentence.
MH: Of course, if you’re a member of the US political or intelligence establishments and you break the law, you tend not to get prosecuted, let alone threatened with execution.
MH: How frustrating is it for you that you can’t return to the U.S. and yet former CIA chief General David Petraeus who leaked intel to his mistress, avoided prison, is now a senior fellow at Harvard. General James Clapper, former director of national intelligence lied to Congress under oath, now a high-profile paid contributor at CNN? And Gina Haspel oversaw torture at a black site in Thailand is director of the CIA? The double standards are pretty glaring and surely they must be pretty irritating for you.
ES: Well, I think implying frustration or irritation, you know, that would require surprise. This is not a surprise to me. The awareness that these problems existed in our system, that these double standards were occurring between how the most powerful in our society are treated and how the ordinary people are treated is what drove me forward. It is certainly disappointing and I think we all need to be honest as Americans about the scale of the problem here.
When we have people — officers in government — who are revealing information of critical public importance for the public’s benefit, rather than for personal benefit, rather than to get a better book deal like these General Petraeus-type individuals, they may end up hunted or thrown in prison for the rest of their lives, tortured, as in the case of Manning, and then (laughs), we have this other class that, as you say, gets a slap on the wrist and a speaking tour —
MH: — or a promotion in Gina Haspel’s case, to run the damn CIA.
ES: Right, right, right. She has admitted to managing an actual torture program. What does this say, and not just about the government of the United States, but what message does this send to every other government in the world about what is OK, what is permitted, what is not permitted?
It used to be that these were the kind of decisions, these were the kind of programs and abuses, that we used as kind of a moral wedge to distinguish the us and them, the good guys from the bad guys. You know? The shining city on the hill from the evil lurking behind the Iron Curtain.
MH: I guess the argument is the United States was never really that shining city on the hill, but at least it pretended in the past. Now it doesn’t even pretend.
ES: Right, but this is really the question: Is it that it never existed? Is it that we were simply mis-taught and ignorant the whole time, or did we at least have a value, did we least try to be that and now we’re simply being more pragmatic, more utilitarian, and we’ve dropped the mask?
MH: For me, Snowden’s actions were completely legitimate, even if not legal: he saw clear wrongdoing at the top of government, he tried to get it stopped internally and when that didn’t work, he exposed it to the world. He became a whistleblower. And yet so many liberals attacked him for doing so, and they attacked him, I believe, for partisan purposes: because he went against the Obama administration, he went against their administration.
In his first interview from Hong Kong in 2013, Snowden warned us about what might happen if this surveillance system, these spying tools, capable of hoovering up almost every detail of our lives, fell into the hands of a completely unscrupulous leader.
ES: A new leader will be elected, they’ll flip the switch, and there will be nothing that people can do at that point to oppose it. And it’ll be turnkey tyranny.
MH: And at the time, a lot of us shrugged. Because the president was this guy.
President Barack Obama: If you’re a U.S. person, NSA is not listening to your phone calls, and it’s not targeting your emails unless it’s getting an individualized court order.
MH: Well, we’re not shrugging now.
DJT: I want surveillance of certain mosques, OK? If that’s OK. I want surveillance. [Crowd cheers.]
MH: Do you think if a similar figure to yourself emerged today to leak against this administration, the Trump administration, in the same way you did five years ago, do you think the response would be very different today? Because I suspect liberals would hail a 2018 version of Edward Snowden, simply because Donald Trump is president and we all hate Donald Trump.
ES: Right. There’s no doubt that Obama as president got special treatment by the media. But I don’t think it’s right to focus on drawing sort of these distinctions. We don’t need any more Red Team-Blue Team in the United States, but as a practical matter. I think you’re absolutely right. You know, Donald Trump is the least popular certainly, and arguably, actually I think demonstrably the least intelligent president we’ve had in the White House now possibly since, you know, we started tracking these kind of things.
And if someone came forward with evidence of the kind of crimes and abuses that we saw in the 2013 revelations, I think they will never have a better moment than they have now.
You know, it’s important to understand that when I came forward I was not trying to bring down Barack Obama or the White House, the NSA or anything like that. I was actually trying to empower him. He campaigned on a platform of ending the kind of mass surveillance that he actually ended up extending and expanding and entrenching. He was given, sort of with a gift-wrap and a bow, a mandate to deliver on all of those promises that previously might not have been possible to work through Congress.
If today, given the fact that we have so many arch Republicans saying, “oh, surveillance is so evil because it’s being done against us,” we’re met and joined with Democrats who despite saying, “oh, we are against abuse of power but we’re going to extend warrantless wiretapping programs and powers and give them to Donald Trump,” the political climate might change in an historic way.
MH: What is your advice to someone who is sitting inside the NSA, the CIA, the Pentagon right now, who wants to leak classified information, wants to highlight wrongdoing potential criminality inside the government, but looks at what happened to you — you had to flee the country. You are living in Russia. You had to claim asylum there. You’re threatened with execution by the president of the United States. They look at what happened to you and they’re not sure what to do.
What is your advice to such a person? To do it even if they’ve got a wife and kids, a life they don’t want to give up?
ES: If you believe in something, you have to be willing to stand for something or you don’t really believe in it at all. There’s always going to be consequences for opposing people in power and there’s no doubt that I have faced retaliation, as has every public interest whistleblower coming out of the intelligence community in the last several decades, going back to Daniel Ellsberg. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. These are risks worth taking.
When I came forward, it changed the law.
MH: He’s right. And he did change the world. For the better.
And this isn’t some sort of fringe far left or extreme libertarian or anarchist position: Establishment figures like former president Jimmy Carter, former vice president Al Gore and Barack Obama’s own former attorney general Eric Holder all agree that what Snowden did was illegal, yes, but also important, in the public interest and ultimately good for America and good for American democracy.
Holder now says:
Eric Holder: I think that he actually performed a public service by raising the debate that we engaged in and by the changes that we made.
MH: Yes, the changes. Remember, one federal judge called the surveillance techniques exposed by Snowden “almost Orwellian” and “almost certainly” unconstitutional.
And shortly after that ruling, a panel of security experts tasked by then President Obama with reviewing NSA surveillance practices made 46 different recommendations for change.
So it’s an absolute scandal in my view that Edward Snowden is still considered a traitor, still threatened with the death penalty, still having to live in exile in Moscow, thousands of miles away from his family, his friends, his country.
And look, even if you think Snowden is a criminal and don’t think he should be pardoned, which is what Jimmy Carter said he’d consider doing if he was still president, you surely have to admit that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. He’s been living in fear, in exile, in isolation, for five years now.
To be clear: I’m not saying he should be made a paid pundit on CNN like James Clapper, or a fellow at Harvard like David Petreaus or the head of the CIA like Gina Haspel. What I am saying is that he deserves to be allowed to just come home and, at some stage, be able to live his life freely.
Call it a pardon, call it clemency, call it an amnesty, call it a plea deal — I really don’t care what we call it. Just let the man come home.
MH: Where do you think you’ll be another five years from now?
ES: I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. There have been so many times, over the last five years, where I’ve been sure that things were going to change, that people understood, there were days I was sure that nothing was ever going to change, and it’s status quo forever. But it’s that uncertainty that actually gives me optimism, that gives me hope.
So many people look at the world today, they look at how broken and ruined things are, and they are just disempowered and lost. But what I want people to focus on is the fact that things changed, right. And if they can change for the worse, they can change for the better. And the only reason the world is changing for the worse is because bad people are working to make it happen that way. And if more good people are organizing, if we’re talking about this stuff, if we’re willing to draw lines that we will not allow people to cross without moving us out of the way, the pendulum will swing, and I’ll be home sooner than you think.
MH: Edward Snowden, I hope you’re right. Thank you so much for taking time out to speak with us on Deconstructed.
ES: It was a pleasure. Thank you very much.
MH: That was Edward Snowden, speaking to me from Russia. And that’s our show.
Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept, and is distributed by Panoply. Our producer is Zach Young. Dina Sayedahmed is our production assistant. Leital Molad is our executive producer. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.
And I’m Mehdi Hasan. You can follow me on Twitter @mehdirhasan, and tweet at the show using #deconstructed. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to this podcast so you can hear it every Friday. Go to theintercept.com/deconstructed or use your podcast platform of choice. If you’re subscribed already, please do leave us a rating or review — it helps new people find the show. And if you want to give us feedback, email us at [email protected] Thanks so much!
See you next week.
First came the Never Trumpers, and I did not speak out, because they stood against Donald Trump. Then came the Lincoln Project, and I did not speak out, because their videos went viral. Then came the Chamber of Commerce, and by then it was too late.