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In Response to Snowden's NBC News Interview

May 29, 2014

A Spy Blog response to Edward Snowden's interview with NBC News' Brian Williams

Last night, NBC News aired Brian Williams' interview with Edward Snowden. Recorded last week from a hotel in Moscow, the interview provided some interesting fodder for national debate. They spoke on topics ranging from Snowden’s motivations, to the impact of his disclosures, to his relationship with the Russian government. Here are a few of my takeaways from the broadcast.

Was Snowden trained as a professional spy?

Snowden responded to accusations issued against him by the government – that he was merely a hacker (as the President suggests), or a low-level intelligence worker who had access to information disproportionate to his responsibility – by saying he had been trained as a professional spy, working undercover overseas under an assumed name (for the CIA, NSA, and DIA). It may be some time before we, the public, find out exactly how much Snowden was “trained” in tradecraft. Years of training go into preparing an officer to maintain his cover and work in hostile environments. Nothing previously released that I have seen or heard indicates that Snowden was trained to this level.

How much damage did he really do?

Several times during the interview Snowden emphasized the limits of his disclosures, claiming no one has been harmed by the information he gave to Glenn Greenwald (or at least the government has provided no proof of harm), and that he did not provide any information about military capabilities or intentions. If this is true (and we have no way to confirm this), it further demonstrates how nuanced this debate has become. If Snowden only disclosed evidence of NSA overreach, then his self-classification as a “whistleblower” holds more credence. On the other hand, the government has repeatedly argued that terrorists and rival nations have significantly altered their methods and practices due to Snowden’s revelations. If THIS is true, then while we can’t demonstrate any actual American body count because of Snowden, there may still be serious, and lasting, repercussions.

Is he working with the Russians?

Snowden claims he never intended to stay in Russia, but rather the US State Department revoked his passport. His original intent was to relocate through Cuba to Latin America (not sure how that’s much better, but that’s for another debate). For its part, the State Department claims that it revoked Snowden’s passport while he was still in Hong Kong, yet somehow he was still allowed to go to Russia. If State is telling the truth, there may be some shenanigans happening here, and Snowden might be a willing/unwilling agent of a foreign power. Still, he insists that he has no relationship with Putin or the Russian government, and that he has not passed the Russians any information – mainly due to the fact that he says he did not bring any intelligence to Russia (he left it with the journalists).

Did he try to go through channels before leaking?

Particularly interesting was Snowden’s description of the steps he tried to take before deciding to leak his information to the press. According to Snowden, he tried to go through proper channels on several occasions to report that he thought law-breaking was taking place, writing to both his immediate supervisors as well as the NSA legal department. He claims that there is a paper trail at the NSA documenting his efforts, and he has called on Congress to ask the NSA for his letters. NBC News has filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see these letters as well. If this is the case, these claims could be a game changer.

Should he have stayed in the United States?

Many people have criticized Snowden for his refusal to “face the music” or have his day in court, saying if he’s so patriotic, why didn’t he turn himself in to the FBI after he leaked his information? This is the point at which Snowden makes the most reasonable argument: that he could not get a fair trial in the US. Out of the 11 cases since 1945 in which a government official has been charged under the Espionage Act for leaking information to the press, seven have come under President Obama. Snowden now joins a who’s who of Americans charged with espionage – including the Rosenbergs, Daniel Ellsberg, Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen, Jonathan Pollard, Chelsea Manning, and John Kiriakou (some traitors, some patriots). What this means is that Snowden would not be tried in an open court, with full access to government documents for his defense. Because of the classified nature of his case, due process can have a very different meaning under the Espionage Act.

Snowden was also highly critical of the government’s exploitation of 9/11 to create programs that he said threaten our liberties. The fear of terrorism means that we put too much faith in intelligence systems without debating their legitimacy and constitutionality in public. This is not a new revelation – in fact it is what he has always said – and taken by itself I imagine there are very few Americans who completely disagree with him. The way he went about acting on these beliefs, however, will continue to divide us. Brian Williams’ interview has served as a step toward more revelations about the Snowden case, the NSA, and the overall extent of the American intelligence system. Already the interview has caused the State Department and Secretary Kerry to answer many of Snowden’s claims, and has led the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to release an email from Snowden to the NSA’s General Council. Hopefully we can continue to get more answers, so that all of us – those who call Snowden a traitor and those who call him a patriot – can feel as though we have a better understanding of this very complicated issue. I, for one, can’t wait.