Edward Snowden’s Motivations, In His Own Words

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Edward Snowden Video Interview with Guardian – Part 1

Video from Here; Transcript, replicated below, from DemocracyNow! (emphasis added)

Edward Snowden (ES): My name’s Ed Snowden. I am 29 years old. I work for Booz Allen Hamilton as an infrastructure analyst for NSA in Hawaii.

Glenn Greenwald (GG): What are some of the positions that you held previously within the intelligence community?

ES: I have been a systems engineer, systems administrator, a senior adviser for the Central Intelligence Agency, a solutions consultant and a telecommunications information systems officer.

GG: One of the things people are going to be most interested in, in trying to understand what—who you are and what you’re thinking, is there came some point in time when you crossed this line of thinking about being a whistleblower to making the choice to actually become a whistleblower. Walk people through that decision-making process.

ES: When your in positions of privileged access, like a systems administrator for these sort of the intelligence community agencies, you’re exposed to a lot more information on a broader scale than the average employee, and because of that, you see things that may be disturbing. But over the course of a normal person’s career, you’d only see one or two of these instances. When you see everything, you see them on a more frequent basis, and you recognize that some of these things are actually abuses. And when you talk to people about them in a place like this, where this is the normal state of business, people tend not to take them very seriously and, you know, move on from them. But over time that awareness of wrongdoing sort of builds up, and you feel compelled to talk about it. And the more you talk about it, the more you’re ignored, the more you’re told it’s not a problem, until eventually you realize that these things need to be determined by the public, not by somebody who was simply hired by the government.

GG: Talk a little bit about how the American surveillance state actually functions. Does it target the actions of Americans?

ES: NSA and the intelligence community, in general, is focused on getting intelligence wherever it can, by any means possible, that it believes, on the grounds of sort of a self-certification, that they serve the national interest. Originally, we saw that focus very narrowly tailored as foreign intelligence gathered overseas. Now, increasingly, we see that it’s happening domestically. And to do that, they — the NSA specifically targets the communications of everyone. It ingests them by default. It collects them in its system, and it filters them, and it analyzes them, and it measures them, and it stores them for periods of time, simply because that’s the easiest, most efficient and most valuable way to achieve these ends. So while they may be intending to target someone associated with a foreign government or someone that they suspect of terrorism, they’re collecting your communications to do so. Any analyst at any time can target anyone, any selector anywhere. Where those communications will be picked up depends on the range of the sensor networks and the authorities that that analyst is empowered with. Not all analysts have the ability to target everything. But 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.

GG: One of the extraordinary parts about this episode is that usually whistleblowers do what they do anonymously and take steps to remain anonymous for as long as they can, which they hope, often, is forever. You, on the other hand, have this attitude of the opposite, which is to declare yourself openly as the person behind these disclosures. Why did you choose to do that?

ES: I think that the public is owed an explanation of the motivations behind the people who make these disclosures that are outside of the democratic model. When you are subverting the power of government, that that’s a fundamentally dangerous thing to democracy. And if you do that in secret consistently, you know, as the government does when it wants to benefit from a secret action that it took, it will kind of get its officials a mandate to go, “Hey, you know, tell the press about this thing and that thing, so the public is on our side.” But they rarely, if ever, do that when an abuse occurs. That falls to individual citizens. But they’re typically maligned. You know, it becomes a thing of these people are against the country, they’re against the government. But I’m not. I’m no different from anybody else. I don’t have special skills. I’m just another guy who sits there, day to day, in the office, watches what happening—what’s happening, and goes, “This is something that’s not our place to decide. The public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong.” And I’m willing to go on the record to defend the authenticity of them and say, “I didn’t change these. I didn’t modify the story. This is the truth. This is what’s happening. You should decide whether we need to be doing this.”

GG: Have you given thought to what it is that the U.S. government’s response to your conduct is in terms of what they might say about you, how they might try to depict to, what they might try to do to you?

ES: Yeah, I could be, you know, rendered by the CIA. I could have people come after me or any of their third-party partners. You know, they work closely with a number of other nations. Or, you know, they could pay off the triads or, you know, any—any of their agents or assets. We’ve got a CIA station just up the road in the consulate here in Hong Kong, and I’m sure they’re going to be very busy for the next week. And that’s a fear I’ll live under for the rest of my life, however long that happens to be. You can’t come forward against the world’s most powerful intelligence agencies and be completely free from risk, because they’re such powerful adversaries that no one can meaningfully oppose them. If they want to get you, they’ll get you, in time.

But at the same time, you have to make a determination about what it is that’s important to you. And if living unfreely but comfortably is something you’re willing to accept — and I think many of us are; it’s the human nature — you can get up every day, you can go to work, you can collect your large paycheck for relatively little work against the public interest and go to sleep at night after watching your shows. But if you realize that that’s the world that you helped create and it’s going to get worse with the next generation and the next generation, who extend the capabilities of this sort of architecture of oppression, you realize that you might be willing to accept any risk, and it doesn’t matter what the outcome is, so long as the public gets to make their own decisions about how that’s applied.

GG: Why should people care about surveillance?

ES: Because even if you’re not doing anything wrong, you’re being watched and recorded. And the storage capability of these systems increases every year consistently, by orders of magnitude, to where it’s getting to the point you don’t have to have done anything wrong. You simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody, even by a wrong call, and then they can use the system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with, and attack you on that basis, to sort of derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer.

GG: We are currently sitting in a room in Hong Kong, which is where we are because you travel here. Talk a little bit about why it is that you came here. And specifically, there are going to be people who will speculate that what you really intend to do is to defect to the country that many see as the number one rival of the United States, which is China, and that what you’re really doing is essentially seeking to aid an enemy of the United States with which you intend to seek asylum. Can you talk a little bit about that?

ES: Sure. So there’s a couple assertions in those arguments that are sort of embedded in the questioning of the choice of Hong Kong. The first is that China is an enemy of the United States. It’s not. I mean, there are conflicts between the United States government and the Chinese PRC government. But the peoples, inherently, you know, we don’t care. We trade with each other freely. You know, we’re not at war. We’re not, you know, armed conflict, and we’re not trying to be. We’re the largest trading partners out there for each other.

Additionally, Hong Kong has a strong tradition of free speech. People think, “Oh, China, great firewall.” Mainland China does have significant restrictions on free speech, but the Hong Kong—the people of Hong Kong have a long tradition of protesting in the streets, of making their views known. The Internet is not filtered here, no more so than any other Western government. And I believe that the Hong Kong government is actually independent in relation to a lot of other leading Western governments.

GG: If your motive had been to harm the United States and help its enemies, or if your motive had been personal material gain, were there things that you could have done with these documents to advance those goals that you didn’t end up doing?

ES: Absolutely. I mean, anybody in the positions of access with the technical capabilities that I had could, you know, suck out secrets, pass them on the open market to Russia. You know, they always have an open door, as we do. I had access to, you know, the full rosters of everyone working at the NSA, the entire intelligence community, and undercover assets all around the world, the locations of every station we have, what their missions are and so forth. If I had just wanted to harm the U.S., you know, that—you could shut down the surveillance system in an afternoon. But that’s not my intention. And I think, for anyone making that argument, they need to think, if they were in my position, and, you know, you live a privileged life—you’re living in Hawaii, in Paradise, and making a ton of money—what would it take to make you leave everything behind?


The greatest fear that I have regarding the outcome for America of these disclosures is that nothing will change. People will see in the media all of these disclosures. They’ll know the length that the government is going to grant themselves powers, unilaterally, to create greater control over American society and global society, but they won’t be willing to take the risks necessary to stand up and fight to change things, to force their representatives to actually take a stand in their interests. And the months ahead, the years ahead, it’s only going to get worse, until eventually there will be a time where policies will change, because the only thing that restricts the activities of the surveillance state are policy. Even our agreements with other sovereign governments, we consider that to be a stipulation of policy rather than a stipulation of law. And because of that, a new leader will be elected, they’ll flip the switch, say that because of the crisis, because of the dangers that we face in the world, you know, some new and unpredicted threat, we need more authority, we need more power, and there will be nothing the people can do at that point to oppose it, and it’ll be turnkey tyranny.


Edward Snowden Video Interview with Guardian – Part 2

Video from Here; Transcript, replicated below, from Mashable (emphasis added)

Glenn Greenwald (GG): Have you given thought to what it is that the U.S. government’s response to your conduct is in terms of what they might say about you, how they might try to depict you?

Edward Snowden (ES): I think the government is going to launch an investigation, I think they’re going to say I committed grave crimes, I’ve violated the Espionage Act, they’re going to say I’ve aided our enemies in making them aware of these systems. But that argument can be made against anybody who reveals information that points out mass surveillance systems because fundamentally they apply equally to ourselves and they do to our enemies.

GG: When you decided to enter this world, did you do so with the intention of weaseling your way in and becoming a mole so that you could one day undermine it with disclosures or what was your perspective and mindset about it at the time that you sort of, first got into this whole realm?

ES: No. I joined the intelligence community when I was very young, sort of the government as a whole, I enlisted in the army shortly after the invasion of Iraq. And I believed in the goodness of what we were doing, I believed in the nobility of our intentions to free oppressed people overseas. But overtime, over the length of my career, as I watched the news and I increasingly was exposed to true information that had not been propagandized in the media, that we were actually involved in misleading the public, and misleading all publics, not just the American public, in order to create a sort of mindset in the global consciousness, and I was actually a victim of that.

America is a fundamentally good country, we have good people, with good values that want to do the right thing, but the structures of power that exist are working to their own ends to extend their capability at the expense of the freedom of all publics.

Laura Poitras (LP): Can you talk about what you think some of the most important primary documents are and what they reveal?

ES: The primary disclosures are the fact that the NSA doesn’t limit itself to foreign intelligence, it collects all communications that transit the United States. There are literally no ingress or egress points anywhere in the continental United States where communication that enter or exit without being monitored and collected and analyzed.

The Verizon document speaks highly to this because it literally lays out their using an authority that was intended to be used to seek warrants against individuals and they’re applying it to the whole of society by basically subverting a corporate partnership through major telecommunication providers and they’re getting everyone’s calls, everyone’s call records, and everyone’s Internet traffic as well.

On top of that you got Boundless Informant, which is sort of a global auditing system for the NSA’s intercept and collection system that lets us track how much we’re collecting, where we’re collecting, by which authorities, and so forth. The NSA lied about the existence of this tool to Congress and to specific congressmen in response to previous inquiries about their surveillance activities.

Beyond that, we’ve got PRISM, which is a demonstration of how the U.S. government co-opts U.S. corporate power to its own ends. Companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft — they all get together with the NSA and provide the NSA direct access to the back ends of all the systems you use to communicate, to store data, to put things in the cloud, and even just to send birthday wishes and keep a record of your life. And they give NSA direct access that they don’t need to oversee so they can’t be held liable for it. I think that’s a dangerous capability for anybody to have but particularly an organization that’s demonstrated time and time again that they’ll work to shield themselves from oversight.

GG: Was there a specific point in time that you can point to where you crossed the line from contemplation to decision making and commitment to do this?

ES: I grew up with the understanding that the world I lived in was one where people enjoyed a sort of freedom to communicate with each other in privacy without it being monitored, without it being measured, or analyzed or sort of judged by these shadowy figures or systems anytime they mention anything that travels across public lines.

I think a lot of people of my generation, anybody who grew up with the Internet, that was their understanding. As we’ve seen the Internet and government’s relation to the Internet evolve over time, we’ve seen that sort of open debate, that free market of ideas sort of lose its domain and be shrunk.

GG: But what is it about that set of developments that makes them sufficiently menacing or threatening to you that you’re willing to risk what you’ve risked in order to fight them?

ES: I don’t wanna live in a world where everything that I say, everything I do, everyone I talk to, every expression of creativity, or love, or friendship is recorded, and that’s not something I’m willing to support, it’s not something I’m willing to build, and it’s not something I’m willing to live under. So, I think anyone who opposes that sort of world has an obligation to act in a way they can.

Now I’ve watched and waited and tried to do my job in the most policy-driven way I could, which is to wait and allow other people, wait and allow our leadership, our figures to sort of correct the excesses of government when we go too far. But as I watched I’ve seen that’s not occurring in fact we’re compounding he excesses of prior governments and making it worse and more invasive. And no one is really standing to stop it.

Want more? Read his live tweet chat provided by The Guardian.


I’m reminded of V for Vendetta as I read and listen to Edward Snowden. I’m reminded of a brave man “cast vicariously as both victim and villain,” but who, in actuality has the best interest of us at heart. Now unlike the masked V — who really can be criticized for the means he uses to achieve the goal of freedom — Edward Snowden tried to be as legal as he could be in his “espionage.” He carefully weeded through his vast array of top secret knowledge, scrutinizing over every document he released, asking (in his own words), if “each was legitimately in the public interest.”

Nevertheless, I’m reminded of V’s speech in the movie:

Good evening, London. Allow me first to apologize for this interruption. I do, like many of you, appreciate the comforts of every day routine – the security of the familiar, the tranquility of repetition. I enjoy them as much as any bloke. But… I thought we could mark this November the 5th, a day that is sadly no longer remembered, by taking some time out of our daily lives to sit down and have a little chat.

There are of course those who do not want us to speak. I suspect even now, orders are being shouted into telephones, and men with guns will soon be on their way. Why? Because while the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power.

Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth. And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn’t there? Cruelty and injustice, intolerance and oppression. And where once you had the freedom to object, to think and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillance coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission. How did this happen? Who’s to blame?

Well certainly there are those more responsible than others, and they will be held accountable, but again truth be told, if you’re looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror. I know why you did it. I know you were afraid. Who wouldn’t be? War, terror, disease. There were a myriad of problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense. Fear got the best of you, and in your panic you turned to the now high chancellor, Adam Sutler. He promised you order, he promised you peace, and all he demanded in return was your silent, obedient consent.

Last night I sought to end that silence. …More than four hundred years ago a great citizen wished to embed the fifth of November forever in our memory. His hope was to remind the world that fairness, justice, and freedom are more than words, they are perspectives. So if you’ve seen nothing, if the crimes of this government remain unknown to you then I would suggest you allow the fifth of November to pass unmarked.

But if you see what I see, if you feel as I feel, and if you would seek as I seek, then I ask you to stand beside me one year from tonight….

On June 5th, The Guardian published the evidence revealed by Edward Snowden, a man who like V could really be any citizen. Snowden tried to pull the scales off our eyes and remind us that freedom is more than a word and that fear has gotten the best of us. In our panic, we have given all power and freedom and secrecy to a government who has turned the search back on us.

The news says, a “V for Vendetta mask is a popular symbol among antigovernment libertarians,” because they know that this way of labeling it places all the significance and all the meaning of the message into a much smaller box than it deserves. (When did believing in libertarian freedom earn you the title of “antigovernment” anyway?)

But the truth is that the Guy Fawkes mask is a way of showing that it does not matter who pulls the scales off your eyes, the important part is that the scales come off. Edward Snowden tried to pull back the curtain and show you the elements of tyranny hiding behind the democracy you love.

And for that, perhaps we should remember, remember the fifth of June as well as November and try to change our society accordingly.

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2 Responses

  1. David John Marotta

    Attorney General William Holder wrote to Russia promising that the United States would not kill or touture Edward Snowden. I thought the headlines must be spoofed. They were not.

    William K. Black wrote in “Is It Legal Malpractice to Fail to Get Holder to Promise Not To Torture Your Client?

    One of the things I never expected to read was a promise by any United States official that a potential defendant in a criminal prosecution by our federal courts “will not be tortured.”

    The idea that the Attorney General of the United States of America would send such a letter to the representative of a foreign government, particularly Russia under the leadership of a former KGB official, was so preposterous that I thought the first news report I read about Attorney General Holder’s letter concerning Edward Snowden was satire. The joke, however, was on me. The Obama and Bush administrations have so disgraced the reputation of the United States’ criminal justice system that we are forced to promise KGB alums that we will not torture our own citizens if Russia extradites them for prosecution.

    The standard joke that came to mind when I read Holder’s letter was the bartender who brings out glasses to three customers and asks “which of you ordered his whiskey in a clean glass?”

    Paul Schwietering wrote in “Should Obama pardon Snowden?“:

    So far, this Snowden saga has damaged our relations with Hong Kong, China, Russia and nearly all of Latin America, to say nothing of the embarrassment it has caused. President Obama and NSA Director Alexander have publicly claimed to “welcome the debate” that we are now having over the scope of the NSA’s spying on innocent Americans and the role of the secret “Foreign Intelligence Surveillance” courts which issue new “laws” pertaining to domestic spying on American citizens that most Americans have never even been aware of. This is a debate which, like it or not, we wouldn’t be having if it were not for Edward Snowden. The fact that a hysterical Congress passed a so called “Patriot Act” which was blatantly unconstitutional at the behest of the worst administration in American history is bad enough, but at least a citizen can vote against a Congressman or Senator who voted to pass it. What recourse does a citizen in a “democracy” have against secret judges in secret courts issuing secret “laws” of which almost no one knows whether or not they are being applied equally to rich and poor or Republican or Democrat, or even what the laws are?

    In ancient times, there was once an Emperor who had the laws of the day written near the very top of a high wall, so that no one could read them. As a result, citizens who didn’t know what the laws were frequently were caught unwittingly violating the law. This supplied a steady stream of revenue to the Emperor in the form of fines. Once that Emperor passed on, this practice was forbidden and a principle was established that is supposed to survive in our law to this very day. That principle is that a citizen should not be held accountable for violating a law that could not be found by a reasonable effort to discover what the law is.

    There can be no doubt that if the framers of our Constitution could know about these “FISA” courts they would be outraged.

    May Bruce writes about a Petition to Pardon Snowden Which Has Received Enough Signatures To Supposedly Get A White House Response:

    An online White House petition calling for National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden to be pardoned has surpassed the 100,000 signatures required to receive an official response from the Obama administration.

    “Edward Snowden is a national hero and should be immediately issued a full, free, and absolute pardon for any crimes he has committed or may have committed related to blowing the whistle on secret NSA surveillance programs,” the petition reads.

    While the petition now has enough signatures to warrant a response, it’s unlikely the White House will grant the request. The U.S. has charged Snowden with espionage and there is currently an international manhunt under way to find the alleged leaker, who fled Hong Kong on Sunday for Moscow.

    According to the We The People petition website, the White House “will do our best to respond to petitions that cross the signature threshold in a timely fashion, however, depending on the topic and the overall volume of petitions from We the People, responses may be delayed.”

    The White House started the petition website in 2011 as “a platform for all Americans to create and sign petitions asking the Obama Administration to take action on a range of issues.” But it has often provided an outlet for the president’s political opponents. The threshold for a White House response was raised from 25,000 signatures to 100,000 early this year.

    Many petitions have simply been ignored by the Obama administration. So much for inviting the dialog.

    Stephen Walt wrote in “Snowden deserves an immediate presidential pardon“:

    Mr Snowden’s motives were laudable: he believed fellow citizens should know their government was conducting a secret surveillance programme enormous in scope, poorly supervised and possibly unconstitutional. He was right.

    Thanks to Mr Snowden, we now know that officials and private contractors have been collecting vast amounts of information about ordinary Americans and conducting unprecedented levels of spying on US allies. We know key officials lied on Capitol Hill about what the NSA was doing, casting doubt on the quality of Congressional oversight. By going public, Mr Snowden reminded us that secret programmes undertaken in the name of national security are extremely difficult to control.

    NSA defenders argue that these programmes only target individuals who might pose a threat. They maintain ordinary citizens whose digital records might be incriminating or embarrassing need not be concerned, because government officials will never examine their data without probable cause and judicial approval.

    How naive. Under the veneer of “national security”, government officials can use these vast troves of data to go after anyone, questioning what they were doing, including whistleblowers, investigative journalists or ordinary citizens posting comments on news websites.

    Once a secret surveillance system exists, it is only a matter of time before someone abuses it for selfish ends. Richard Nixon kept his own “enemies list” and used the Central Intelligence Agency to spy on American citizens. Former Federal Bureau of Investigation director J Edgar Hoover helped keep himself in office by collecting dirt on officials.

  2. David John Marotta

    I find some of the reader comments on the New York Times article “U.S. Letter Says Leaker Won’t Face Death Penalty” worth repeating here:

    I hope all of my fellow New York Times readers and commentators who are older than thirty or so will take a moment to pause and contemplate the headline of this article and what it means for America that the United States is assuring Russia that we “won’t torture or kill” a government whistleblower. Do you all remember a time not so long ago when a statement like this would have seemed surreal, improbable?

    The rule of law in this country is in truly deep trouble. The irony is that for me at least, it is this ‘constitutional lawyer president,’ Obama, who has brought it even lower than the Rumsfeld-Cheney administration.

    I think the thing that frosts me the most about the Snowden case is how the U.S. government is openly and shamelessly pursuing him when his “crime” was exposing the completely illegal and unconstitutional activities of the U.S. government. The government has become so emboldened that they don’t feel the need to handle this in a more discreet way and in fact they want what happens to Edward to be a Lesson to All of Us. We the People have just been peed on. The flagrancy with which they are attempting to make a political prisoner out of Snowden is truly quite alarming.

    Like his father said on NPR at one point: he believed his son had betrayed his government, but in no way had he betrayed the people of his country. Very powerful statement to think about. And why has it taken the US government so long to issue this statement anyway? Maybe if it had been forwarded with a little more expedience, I’d say it’s a honest guarantee of his safety. But THIS is clearly a well planned political tactic, they are playing chess with him…

    I think everyone can see through Mr. Holder’s offer as a charade. Mr. Snowden will not be treated with the rights and privileges of what is left of the US Constitution defined legal system. He will be treated as an “enemy combatant” in the “war on terror”, at best, and probably end up in either America’s Gulag, Gitmo, or a military prison. The /Marine Corps run Portsmouth, New Hampshire prison is said to be very brutal.

    Who in their right mind can trust a government which is spying not only on its own people; but the rest of the world? Or, a government which has been, and is, lying to the world? Or, a government which is willing to trample over its own laws?

    Think of Mr. Snowden as a traitor or a hero, but our government is no longer the “beacon of light” or the hope of the “huddled masses yearning to breath free”. It has morphed into another authoritarian state that is no different than those we fought against in WWII and the Cold War. Whatisi disheartening, is the people gave up their rights over paranoia that resulted from 9/11; plain and simple, because Congress passed a so called “Patriot Act” which none never read.

    It is only a matter of time before comments like this will been seen as being treasonous. And journalists/newspapers being subject to government scrutiny and censorship. The government will do anything to protect the oligarchs.

    If nothing else,the Snowden Affair shows the lengths the US Government is willing to go to silence him and other detractors.

    No traitor, he. Rather, a profile in courage, nationally and internationally. Edward Snowden should receive the Nobel Peace Prize, for his courageous attempt to reverse U.S. totalitarian-style national surveillance is of direct relevance to the form of government that will operate in the most powerful nation on the face of the earth — and therefore of immense relevance to world peace.

    And if Snowden should receive that award, we would be in the surrealistic situation of seeing one Nobel Peace Prize winner — Obama — reassuring another — Snowden — that he (Obama) won’t kill him! Even the most creative novelist couldn’t invent such a scenario!