Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden answered questions about the pervasive collection of data by the intelligence agency and his reasons for leaking classified documents on the NSA's operations and capabilities.
In an interview arranged by legal-defense fund site Courage Foundation on Jan. 23, Snowden, who many consider a traitor and others consider a whistleblower, took senior U.S. administration officials to task for allowing, without meaningful oversight, the NSA's mass surveillance of U.S. citizens, world leaders and foreign nationals.
Taking written questions online, Snowden argued that spying is a necessary part of international politics, but that mass surveillance undermines democracy for very little increase in overall security. Furthermore, if the United States embraces mass surveillance, so will the rest of world, he argued.
"If our government decides our Constitution's Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable seizures no longer applies simply because that's a more efficient means of snooping, we're setting a precedent that immunizes the government of every two-bit dictator to perform the same kind of indiscriminate, dragnet surveillance of entire populations that the NSA is doing," Snowden said. "It's not good for our country, it's not good for the world, and I wasn't going to stand by and watch it happen, no matter how much it cost me."
The online interview came at the end of a week of renewed debate over the NSA's domestic surveillance and the accountability of the U.S. government's intelligence programs. On Jan. 17, President Barack Obama announced changes to the NSA surveillance efforts, saying the nation would end its program for collecting phone data "as it currently exists."
But critics assailed the pledge as an empty promise. The U.S. will continue to have the capability to collect and search phone records and issue secretive national security letters, although a separate organization may be designated as a custodian of the data, privacy experts said.
"The president should end–not mend–the government’s collection and retention of all law-abiding Americans’ data," the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement. "When the government collects and stores every American’s phone call data, it is engaging in a textbook example of an ‘unreasonable search’ that violates the Constitution."
On Jan. 23, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, (PCLOB) a bi-partisan panel that reviews government actions to ensure privacy protections, concluded that the collection of domestic phone records should be suspended because it "implicates constitutional concerns under the First and Fourth Amendments." Unlike the president, but like the ACLU, the PCLOB argued that the program should not continue in any form, because other anti-terrorism tools were available.
"The Board does not recommend that the government impose data retention requirements on communications providers in order to facilitate any system of seeking records directly from private databases," the board said in its 238-page report. "The Board also does not recommend creating a third party to hold the data; such an approach would pose difficult questions of liability, accountability, oversight, mission creep, and data security, among others."
In his interview, Snowden said he would not return to the United States to face a trial, until the protections for whistleblowers were strengthened and extended to national security contractors. Snowden was granted asylum in Russia following the first news reports based on his leaked NSA documents. U.S. officials have gone so far as to reportedly voice wishes for Snowden's death.
During the online interview, the former contractor also denied reports and NSA assertions that he tricked co-workers into giving up passwords.
The U.S. government needs to reverse course, allow meaningful oversight of intelligence organizations and stop mass surveillance, Snowden said.
"What makes our country strong is our system of values, not a snapshot of the structure of our agencies or the framework of our laws," he said. "We can correct the laws, restrain the overreach of agencies, and hold the senior officials responsible for abusive programs to account."