Edward Snowden Tells NPR: The Executive Branch 'Sort Of Hacked The Constitution'

Sep 12, 2019
Originally published on September 14, 2019 10:05 am

Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who revealed some of the agency's top surveillance programs, has a memoir slated to hit shelves Tuesday.

Permanent Record is part coming-of-age-with-the-Internet story, part spy tale and — his critics might say — an attempt to try to justify betraying his country.

Snowden has lived in Russia for six years, where he first received asylum and he now has permanent residence. He is under indictment in the U.S., facing charges of violating the Espionage Act, after providing journalists with highly classified documents about the government's PRISM surveillance program in June 2013.

He remains a deeply divisive figure. Many in the national security community regard him as a traitor for revealing important spy programs, while many human rights groups say he shed the light on mass surveillance of entire populations without their knowledge.

In a phone interview from Moscow on Thursday, Snowden told NPR, "It was not my choice to be here, and this is what people forget. ... It was not my choice to live in Russia." He noted that he sought asylum in 27 countries and the U.S. government canceled his passport.

Snowden acknowledged that Russian intelligence wanted him to cooperate when he first arrived, but he insists that he rejected that offer. He pointed to the fact that he was "trapped" at the airport for 40 days upon arrival in the country. "If I had played ball, I would have left on Day 1 in a limo; I would have been living in a palace; you would have seen them giving me parades in Red Square."

Snowden stands by his story, stressing that he has nothing to give the Russian government. "The reality is this: I had destroyed my access to all the classified material that I provided to journalists before leaving Hong Kong, precisely because I didn't know what was going to happen next."

Snowden was working for the NSA in Hawaii in 2013 when he traveled first to Hong Kong, sharing NSA secrets with several journalists. He was attempting to go to Ecuador for asylum but was stopped in Moscow.

Russia's motivation for protecting him, he said, is that it is an easy way for the country to look like it's doing something good, without any retaliation. Other countries in Europe reached out to him about possible asylum — Germany, Poland — he said, but they all feared U.S. retaliation.

He says he has been willing to criticize Russia's human rights record. "You have to look at the basic facts. If you look at my public presence ... I'm constantly criticizing the Russian government's policy, the Russian government's human rights record, even the Russian president by name." He adds, "I had nothing to provide them. I have been criticizing the Russian government. What more can I do to satisfy you or any of these critics? There is nothing that will satisfy them. ... It is their distrust of Russia."

Snowden says he would come back to the U.S. for trial — but only if he could tell a jury why he leaked the information to journalists. And if he was assured that the jury could see the classified material he leaked — to assess for itself whether he did the right thing.

"You can't have a fair trial about the disclosure of information unless the jury can evaluate whether it was right or wrong to reveal this information," he said. By coming back for only "sentencing," he said, he wouldn't be setting the right example for others who might be in a similar situation.

"No one becomes a whistleblower because they want to," he said. "No one becomes a whistleblower because it has a happy ending."

Snowden warned that wide-scale data collection continues. He recalled the moment the light clicked: He was in a Best Buy, looking at "smart" refrigerators and stoves, when it dawned on him that the manufacturers, not the purchasers and owners, were the ones ultimately in control.

"Where this data that your refrigerator was collecting, that your phone was collecting, that the government was collecting — where all of this data was going was intentionally hidden from us," he said. "We are no longer partner to our technology, in large part, just as we are increasingly, unfortunately, no longer partner to our government, so much as subject to them. And this is a dangerous trend."

And he also expressed concerns about what he said was the increasing power of the executive branch of government, referencing the Amnesty v. Clapper case. "The executive branch of the government sort of hacked the Constitution," Snowden told NPR. "The government had found a way to cut out the two branches of government that could have some check."

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Edward Snowden has written a book. It is a memoir, a coming-of-age-with-the-Internet story, a spy tale and, his critics would say, an attempt to try to justify betraying his country, by a man who was charged in 2013 with two counts of violating the Espionage Act and with theft of government property - confidential, national security information. Mr. Snowden's book is "Permanent Record." Edward Snowden joins us now from Moscow.

Thanks so much for being with us.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: Thank you for having me on.

SIMON: I think a lot of people don't want to hear anything you have to say until I've asked you this question. Are you being used by Vladimir Putin?

SNOWDEN: (Laughter) No, I don't think so. When people look at this, you know, particularly with Russia in the news as much as it is, there's always this cloud of suspicion that's leveled against anybody who can be, in the most stretched way, associated with Russia. It wasn't my choice to be in Russia.

SIMON: Most stretched way - you're living there in Moscow. You have been for six years.

SNOWDEN: Right, but it was not my choice to be here. And this is what people forget. I applied for asylum in 27 different countries around the world, and it was the government, the United States government, then-Secretary John Kerry, that canceled my passport as I was leaving from Hong Kong en route to Ecuador. And this locked me in place.

I believe they panicked. And I think the reason that I'm in Russia today is because what we know - this was actually publicly reported in 2013. Every time one of these other countries, one that the United States public would be much more comfortable with - a France, a Norway, a Germany - one of two people would call the Foreign Ministry of that country. And it would be either Secretary of State John Kerry or then-Vice President Joe Biden.

The idea here is they would go, look; we understand that he has been charged with political crimes. This means you don't qualify for extradition, and you almost always do qualify for asylum protections. And the government - we know you can do this, but if you do, we want you to understand there will be a response. We're not going to say what it will be, but it will be severe because we don't want to see the public seeing this guy as a whistleblower, which the public then was coming around to do.

SIMON: You say the U.S. government panicked. Did the U.S. government panic, or just they felt it was important to the national interest of the United States to make certain you - your movement was limited?

SNOWDEN: What is the thing they are arguing is in the interest of the United States here? Sort of like in your introduction, you say some people say I betrayed the United States. Well, how did I betray the United States? All of my information was given to the American public through some of the most trusted institutions in journalism, institutions like The Washington Post. Now, as a condition of access to this archive material, these journalists were required not to publish any story that they thought was harmful, no story simply because it was interesting, no story simply because it was newsworthy - only stories that they were willing to make an institutional argument and stand for. It was in the public interest to know.

And here, as an extraordinary safeguard on top of this, I required each of the journalists working with this material in advance of publication to go to the government before they ran stories. And this is why in 2013 we heard exactly the extraordinary rhetoric that you raised before. But now in 2019, we don't hear this anymore. We have seen the laws changed. We have seen the programs changed. And we have even seen officials in the United States intelligence community - former Deputy Director Richard Ledgett, for example - say that he thought the NSA had made a mistake in concealing this program, the particularly unconstitutional phone records program, because he believed that if the NSA hadn't played these secrecy games and denied the American people the right to know, much less the right to vote on it, they could've won that sort of persuasive argument. But they didn't do it. They had made a mistake, and it had harmed the rights of everyone in the United States and everyone around the world as a consequence. And they call me the traitor?

SIMON: You recount in this book how Russian intelligence representatives met you at the airport in Moscow and said to you - I'm going to quote from your own book - "life for a person in your situation can be very difficult without friends who can help. Is there some information you could share with us?" You're there six years later. You can see why people might be suspicious, can't you?

SNOWDEN: I was trapped in that airport for 40 days. If I had played ball, I would've left Day 1 in a limo. You know, I would've been living in a palace. You would see them giving me parades in Red Square. The reality is this. I had destroyed my access to all of the classified material that I provided to journalists before leaving Hong Kong precisely because I didn't know what was going to happen next.

SIMON: Are you - at the same time, though, you're in Moscow. Are you, a very smart man, naive to think that Vladimir Putin is going to give you asylum without expecting something in return?

SNOWDEN: All throughout the Cold War in the United States, we protected dissidents from the Soviet government. These are, you know, writers. These are speakers. These are physicists. These are not people who can benefit the United States government even if they had wanted to. And we protected them nonetheless because of the message it sent.

Now, the Russian government doesn't get many chances in this context internationally, on the global stage, to do the right thing. I have been criticizing the Russian government while I am here. What more can I do to satisfy you or any of these critics who hold these positions? The reality is there is nothing that will satisfy them because it is their suspicion, it is their skepticism, it is their distrust of the Russian government as an institution which is motivating this.

SIMON: I mean, do I have to detail for you the ways in which the Putin government has earned (laughter) some suspicion?

SNOWDEN: No, no. Absolutely not. Again, I agree with you. This (laughter) - look, look; this is why I have been criticizing the Russian government. There's no distance between us on that. I'm not saying Vladimir Putin is an angel. I'm not even saying Vladimir Putin is a decent guy. What I'm saying is you have to understand there doesn't need to be a quid pro quo here for it to make sense.

SIMON: Edward Snowden. Elsewhere in the program, he talks about his work at the NSA before he leaked classified information and tells us what's keeping him from returning to the U.S. to face trial.

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