Edward Snowden's Permanent Record (ep. 66)

October 1, 2019
mytubethumbplay
%3Ciframe%20width%3D%22100%25%22%20height%3D%22166px%22%20scrolling%3D%22no%22%20frameborder%3D%22no%22%20allow%3D%22autoplay%22%20thumb%3D%22sites%2Fall%2Fmodules%2Fcustom%2Faclu_podcast%2Fimages%2Fpodcast-at-liberty-click-wall-full.jpg%22%20play-icon%3D%22sites%2Fall%2Fmodules%2Fcustom%2Faclu_podcast%2Fimages%2Fpodcast-play-btn-full.png%22%20src%3D%22https%3A%2F%2Fw.soundcloud.com%2Fplayer%2F%3Furl%3Dhttps%253A%2F%2Fapi.soundcloud.com%2Ftracks%2F689227525%26amp%3Bcolor%3D%2523000000%26amp%3Binverse%3Dfalse%26amp%3Bauto_play%3Dtrue%26amp%3Bhide_related%3Dtrue%26amp%3Bshow_comments%3Dfalse%26amp%3Bshow_user%3Dfalse%26amp%3Bshow_reposts%3Dfalse%26amp%3Bshow_teaser%3Dfalse%22%3E%3C%2Fiframe%3E
Privacy statement. This embed will serve content from soundcloud.com.

In his new memoir, "Permanent Record," Edward Snowden tells the story of his evolution: A child of civil servants, he fell hard and fast for the internet of the 90s, ascended the intelligence community, and became one of the most famous whistleblowers in U.S. history. He joins ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero for a live taping of At Liberty at the Brooklyn Public Library.

Direct Download

EMERSON SYKES:

[00:00:04] From the ACLU, this is At Liberty. I’m Emerson Sykes, a staff attorney here at the ACLU and your host.

[00:00:16] Today I’m handing hosting responsibilities to my boss, ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero. A few days ago, he interviewed NSA whistleblower and ACLU client, Edward Snowden, in front of a live audience at the Brooklyn Public Library. Anthony spoke to Snowden about his memoir, Permanent Record. I’ll be back with you as usual for the next episode. I hope you enjoy the interview.

ANTHONY ROMERO:
[00:00:45] Hello everyone. Thank you for the introduction Joel.

It is a pleasure to be with you here tonight in Brooklyn, where I live. Hello Ed, we'll get to you in a second. I'm really thrilled to be talking to you about this incredible new book, Permanent Record. If you haven't read it, you must. It is beautifully written. It tells a very personal story that's relevant not just to the one man who's the author, but tells a personal story about each and every single one of us. It is so good that it's number two on the New York Times bestseller list. Congratulations.

[00:01:25] And the U.S. government is suing the author as an effort to try to shut the book down and perhaps is helping promote it in fact. Ed sparked a historic worldwide debate about privacy and technology when he exposed evidence of the mass surveillance that was happening unbeknownst to the American people or even to members of Congress.

So this is not our first conversation. Ed and I have had a chance to sit face to face a couple times in Moscow, couple times with the robot, couple times on video chat. But I've been really looking forward to this.

EDWARD SNOWDEN:
[00:02:00]
Hello Brooklyn!

ROMERO:
It’s only a couple FBI agents who are in the audience.

[00:02:10] So I thought I would organize our talk, Ed, into three sections: to talk first on a more personal level -- it's a memoir. It's a story about you and your life. Then to switch gears and talk a little bit about you evolving as an activist, as a human rights leader of the 21st. And then to talk to you a little bit about the way forward. Where are you now? where are you heading? Where are we heading, most importantly?

[00:02:36] So let's talk first personally, kind of get a little bit of the measure of the man, if you will. As I’ve gotten to know you over these last six or so years, I'm kind of stunned that you wrote a memoir, for a man who is as private as you are -- talk to me about how an intensely private person tackles this issue of writing a memoir. And talk about how you feel now about having revealed so much about yourself to the world.

SNOWDEN:
The answer is carefully and with great difficulty. [00:03:08]

I've been writing for about, well, six years since I came forward. But I hadn't been writing this story of me, because it's always been difficult for me to talk about myself. But for those in the audience who aren't familiar, I came forward in June of 2013 and I revealed evidence that the government had secretly constructed a system of global mass surveillance, without our knowledge, without our consent. None of us got a vote. Even the majority members of Congress did not realize what was happening. The courts were excluded from this.

And suddenly, I was the most famous and most wanted man in the world, at least for a brief period. But I didn't give a single interview for more than six months after that first sort of disclosure to journalists. Now the reason why is I didn't want the story to be about me. I've been actively trying to avoid the spotlight. But what I learned from from all of that period of silence is that if we don't tell our own stories, others will tell them for us, and they won't have the same care and concern that we do.

[00:04:22] I am a privacy advocate. And it was very hard. It was actually harder to tell this story -- to tell my story -- than it was to come forward and really actually risk my freedom, and potentially my life, to tell the world about everything that was that was going on.

[00:04:40] However, disclosure is a skill. It's something that we practice, and we get better at it with time. And when I look around at the world today, I see how much we need to have this conversation, how much we need to talk about the balance of power between the public and the government. We need to talk about surveillance and data collection in a way that's not, you know, “What is the latest scandal that Facebook is involved in?” Because Facebook is not the problem.

ROMERO:
Right.

SNOWDEN:
[00:05:13] Facebook is the product of the problem. We have to correct the system. That means going deeper. That means more than a news story. That means more than a clip that you see on the Internet. It means books. It means really structured thinking, and the only way I think that we can get people to take us seriously today about these things that do seem really abstract, that are mechanized, that are automated, that are, you know, algorithms -- they are literally inhuman -- is to attach the human element.

It's to explain to someone that you don't know why you care, how you came to care, who you are, where you came from. And in that moment of vulnerability I think -- and really that's what surveillance is about. Surveillance is about constructing vulnerability for people who have not consented to it. And one of the ironies of this process is realizing that by creating our own vulnerabilities, by saying that we are not afraid, I found a voice that I had never been able to use before. I found a message that I'd never been able to express before.

ROMERO:
[00:06:22] And I think you did a remarkable job of helping paint this story, tell the narrative of how you came to be who you are. And you know I remember we had these conversations when when you were getting ready for your big TED talk, where I said, “I need a human being who's going to show up with aspirations and loves and fallibilities.” And the book is brilliant, because I think you paint that picture of how you came to be and who you are.

So let's talk about some of the fallibilities. I’m going to put you on the spot as only a buddy can. So I didn't know what a kind of mediocre student you were, right? You know, you talked at one point about how, “The more time I spent online, however, the more my schoolwork felt extracurricular.” And you talked about the fact that you really developed your own path of education and knowledge and this kind of quest for learning. I was reminded of some of the conversations that are going on in the country about whether or not college or universities gets in the way of smart, innovative people.

[00:07:27] People like Peter Thiel, for instance, provide scholarships for people to drop out of college so they can become entrepreneurs and leaders and thinkers. So reflect to me a little bit about the role of education or formal education and how you went, you know, four-wheel driving through the life of learning and knowledge that you've built, because you're an incredibly erudite man with incredible knowledge -- this comes out in the book -- but a really unorthodox way that you got there.

SNOWDEN:
[00:7:56] Well I think a mediocre student is a very generous…

ROMERO:
Very harsh?

SNOWDEN: ...way of putting it.

ROMERO:
Okay. No, I didn’t want to offend you.

SNOWDEN:
Yeah. I mean, look, I'm not going to use Peter Thiel a role model. [applause]

ROMERO:
We’ve got a lot of nodding the faces you can't see.

SNOWDEN:
[00:08:15] The reality is, look, we're all a little different. We have strengths, we have weaknesses. And we do all have something that we can learn and something that we need to be taught. I think we've all had those moments where we felt like the smartest person in the room. We've all had a thing in a classroom where we've seen a teacher get something wrong and they're a little embarrassed and they don't want to admit it.

But then we also have been on the other side of that. And one of the beautiful things about learning is not just becoming more capable as an individual, but learning how to learn.

ROMERO:
Yeah.

SNOWDEN:
[00:08:49] And that means understanding the rules. That means discovering those strengths and weaknesses. That means doing things like I did, joining the army and then finding out that was really not something that I was designed for. I wanted very badly to succeed there. But I broke my legs and I ended up being pushed out.

And actually in the process of writing this book I discovered a lot more about myself as well. Something that's not in the book -- we didn't have space for it -- is that during all this time that I was obsessed you know with computers -- I was learning so much about technology, I was so good at it --

ROMERO: Sneaking through the window of your father's den as he was logging onto that first computer. Pretty remarkable

SNOWDEN:
[00:09:27] Yeah, exactly. I was always fascinated with technology. It was my first love.

ROMERO:
It was clear.

SNOWDEN:
I didn't want to be defined by it. I actually, when I was in high school, when I first started going to community college, I wanted to be an English teacher. And so writing was always something I enjoyed, even though I had difficulty with it at some point. But when I started trying to write a book instead of trying to write my own thoughts, instead of trying to persuade, instead of making notes for speech, I realized how out of my element I was.

And this is where I learned to lean on people who knew more than I did, who had read more than I did. People like Ben Wizner in the audience. People like the whole team at Holt -- the editor Sara Bershtel, Gillian Blake. All of these people helped make this book happen as a project.

But then there's one person in the audience right now, I think almost none of you know it, unless they announce themselves. There's a man named Joshua Cohen. This is one of I believe the greatest living authors in the country. He's a friend of Ben's. Ben is my lawyer. ]Ben works also at the ACLU and he made an introduction. And the education that I did not finish in high school because I got sick, I left early, and life got in the way, he in a real way helped complete.

00:10:43] And I remember arguing with him, debating with him, you know we we fought over commas and clauses. He developed my thinking. He developed my ability to write and he gave so much to this book, I mentioned in the acknowledgements that can't be expressed. I can't thank him enough. He made a book into a work of literature.

ROMERO:
[00:11:12] That’s great, that’s great. He’s right up front. I think he’s blushing. It's a little dark, but I believe he's blushing.

So let me ask you two other things on the more personal note before we switch into how you evolved and developed.

[00:11:22] The relationship with Lindsay - right? - who I think some of the most poignant pieces of it were the diaries pages that you published of what she was feeling or thinking when you left in Hawaii, when you were in Hong Kong and then Russia. And then you talk about how you fell in love. You gave her a 10. She gave you an eight on the hot or not website. You've talked about how she really was your soulmate and I've known that to be the case in the years I've gotten to know you and have had a chance interact with her.

What's the price of when -- for those years that you kept so much to yourself and you were really conscious not to share everything with her ‘cause you would put her in peril’s way and there was a price in that you couldn't share a big part of what was occupying your heart and mind with the person you loved the most. And then that incredible break and then that rapprochement and ultimately marriage.

[00:12:19] Talk to me about how your relationship evolved and changed as you evolved and changed in this moment with the spotlight. And now that it is all out on the table -- better, happier days with you now?

And then secondly, reflect for me a little bit on the vulnerability. You talked about in the book around breaking your legs when you wanted to go into the military and the section when you had your first epileptic seizure. And how it wracked your body and really rocked your world and your confidence. And the image I have of Ed Snowden is kind of this man who could take on the U.S. government and win. Reflect on love and the role of sickness or fallibility in your personal life and then we'll switch gears.

SNOWDEN:
[00:13:07] Okay, that was a very small question but we've got three hours. It’ll be fine.

ROMERO:
I know. Yeah.

SNOWDEN:
Let me let me let me start with the fallibility. One of the things that I really tried to express as I was writing this is how imperfect I am, how much I've always struggled and I think this is something that is important. Because so many people write these memoirs and it's like, you know, look how great I am. Look how much I did. And so much of the conversation about me and about really a lot of these public figures and things that have any kind of political importance, they divide people into good and bad. Right? You're a hero, you're a traitor. You're the best person in the world. You're the worst person on earth.

But people aren't like that. We try and we fail.

ROMERO:
Yeah.

SNOWDEN:
We hurt and I've done my share hurting. But we also strive.

[00:13:59] And when I was failing constantly at so many things, the thing that kept me going was the fact that I got better. We all have the ability to improve and we only have to get better in degrees, because fortunately we live a long time. But this is the most important thing. When we've got that worldview where we go, Oh this person did a great thing, they're a hero or, Oh that person did a bad thing, they're you know a villain. What we're doing is we're saying these people are not like us. They did something exceptional. They did something great. I couldn't because I'm normal.

[00:14:32] Well the reality is those people are normal too. And that's that's not something that diminishes them. That's something that empowers all the rest of us, because the only thing that differentiates you from them is actually the decisions that we make. We’re never more than one decision away from doing something heroic, and it can just be walking by a beggar on the street.

But I have hurt and I've hurt others and this brings me into Lindsay. I love her dearly. We had been together for the better part of a decade before I left. And we had had you know, every relationship is complex. We we fought, we broke up. We got back together. But we loved each other and we still love each other. And think about what it means to have someone you love more than anyone else, to have someone that you trust more than anyone else on the planet, and to not be able to tell them you know the reason that you're about to destroy your own life.

[00:15:28] It created distance and eventually it created anger. I couldn't tell her even though I wanted to because of course the FBI would accuse her of a crime. They would say she was a part of the conspiracy. They would say she was an accessory because she didn't pick up the phone and say, “Help help. Someone's going to talk to a journalist.”

ROMERO:
Right. And they definitely interrogated her even after...

SNOWDEN:
[00:15:48] Yeah and they interrogated her, they harassed her. They tried to make her into a tool, they tried to make her into an informant. And through all of that she stood strong, and not for me but but for her.

And the thing is after all of the things that I put her through because of that decision, which makes me besides all the other things that I've been bad at in life, also probably the worst boyfriend in the history of the United States and probably in the running for worst boyfriend in the world.

ROMERO:
She’d give you a six today. Not an eight.

SNOWDEN:
Yeah. That's how you know how good a person she is. You guys can see me. She gave me an eight.

ROMERO:
Yeah I know.

SNOWDEN:
[00:16:30] She found out what I had done at the same time everybody else did. She saw me on TV when she was with a friend. And although she would be completely justified in hating me and she was angry, she turned to her friend and she said in that moment, “We had actually been drifting apart in our relationship for some time because of all the distance, because of all the secrecy, because of all my lies.” She said what she saw on TV, that was the reason that she fell in love with me. And we we are together again today. She lives with me in exile. She has voluntarily joined me in exile.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, comes back to that that arc of self-improvement. I may have been the worst boyfriend, but I am doing everything I can to try to be the best husband because I can never be able to repay her.

ROMERO:
[00:17:15] Well that's great. And I think part of what I found so compelling in the book was when you talk about how we grow and how we develop and how we evolve, you talked at one point about how half the things you had written on the web. You talked about whether or not you try to find a way to expunge them and erase them. And you decided not to and you said, “Half the things I had said I hadn't even meant at the time. I just wanted attention.”

You know when you were 22 years old you said, “My politics at age 22: I didn't have any.” And you talk about the fact that there's statements that may have been attributed to you when you were younger that don't describe you today. And you make a very poignant point about being kind to the fact that if we do, if we live life fully we will grow and learn and we will make mistakes or reconcile ourselves with it and the line I love the most, “What mattered to me wasn't so much the integrity of the written record but that of my soul.” And it's a real tribute to you.

[00:18:16] So let's switch now about how then this younger man who was very much self-schooled and self-willed and how you evolved. You talked about Japan being your atomic moment. And how you began to kind of develop an understanding of what the government was doing behind our backs: “Japan was my atomic moment. It was then that I realized where these new technologies were headed and that if my generation didn't intervene the escalation would only continue.” Talk about the hypocrisy. Talk about you know the soul on the road to Damascus, what converted you into this human rights leader that you've become for for our generation.

SNOWDEN:
[00:18:59] It's hard honestly to hear people call me today something like a human rights leader, because I still see myself just as another person trying to do what they can to make things a little bit better.

But I wasn't always that way. I was young. I was self-interested you know. I just wanted to argue with people and win a point. It didn't matter all we were arguing about. You know I didn't even care about these things. I just wanted to feel like I knew something. I wanted to be recognized, I wanted to attention from girls. We we've all been there, we've all done these things.

[00:19:30] We’re we're in a library, so I know half of the audience is older than me at least. [laughter] And I really I want you guys to think about this for a minute. What was the most embarrassing thing you ever did when you were young? What is the stupidest thing that you ever said? Right? And now take a minute and just enjoy the fact that basically no one remembers except the people who are closest to you, because it wasn't recorded on the Internet. It wasn't trapped in this crystal that never changes and is just hanging there on the wall sort of haunting you. It's always three paces behind you and anyone can take it off the shelf and go, “Oh remember that terrible thing you said you're a terrible person no matter how much you've changed.”

Now think about the other half of the audience that's younger than right and think about the ones that are far younger than me and think about the fact that they are that young right now. And the worst things they've ever done are remembered forever, not because they want to remember but because they are not permitted to forget. The system captures it as soon as it's brought into existence.

[00:20:35] And this I think is what's responsible for so much of the tremendous division and partisanship that we see today. When you say something stupid and no one forgets about it no one moves on. No one forgives it it's always there, it can always be pulled off the shelf, you have to instead justify it. You can't evolve. You are a captive to all of your own worst mistakes.

And this becoming I guess what I am today taking these different positions coming to oppose some of the policies of the government that I volunteered to serve when everyone else was protesting the Iraq war. I volunteered to fight it when everybody else was like, “Oh, the CIA is torturing.” I said, “Hey I'll go work for the CIA.”

I didn't have skepticism, I didn't have doubt. I didn't believe that the government would lie to us because, Why would they sacrifice our long term faith in the institutions of government for short term political advantage? I was naive. But, step by step, we find those contradictions, step by step, we recognize our own mistakes through experience, through learning. We can become something more. We can realize all the terrible things that we said harmed others, yes, but through that they also harmed and diminished ourselves.

[00:21:53] And what I set out to do was not burn down the NSA. I wasn't trying to break the government. I wasn't trying to tell people how to live. I wasn't trying to tell people how to change the laws. What I was saying was that the purported values of the government, what the government says that we're doing and tells the public even under oath in front of Congress was in fact not the truth, it was a lie. And when that happens, blowing the whistle I don't think should be seen as a revolutionary act. It is not a radical act. It's rather a conventional act of return. It is saying to the government, it is saying to our public that somewhere along this path we have lost our way. I can't change it. You can't change it. But together maybe we can change it.

ROMERO:
Right.

SNOWDEN:
But that's not a decision for the whistleblower. All the whistleblower does is set say to you what you were not allowed to know right but must know for it to remain a democracy.

ROMERO:
[00:22:57] I think what I most appreciated was how the label attached to you -- whistleblower, patriot, human rights leader, privacy rights advocate -- that all of those were evolutions, right? Like even when the very first call you made on when you found that you could hack into Los Alamos website and you called the operator and you waited for the phone call back and you were anxious that, Why wouldn't they call? And then when they finally called them back and you sure you told them there was a backdoor you need to close off and you felt good about that.

And then years later, you're raising concerns around things small and large within the IC, the intelligence community, and then increasingly you find you found that people were not responsive to your criticisms. There was one point when you talked about interaction with the super superior who hauled you into his office when you were raising something. And then you say that he that he cut you off and he said quote, “‘But we're not here to talk about that. Why we're here is to talk about insubordination in the chain of command.” Right?

[00:24:08] And was the beginning of that OMG moment, that criticism from within the IC wasn't as welcomed. And so talk a little bit about how you decided that you couldn't reform the intelligence community from within.

SNOWDEN:
[00:24:24] Just a little bit of scene-setting for for those in the audience who haven't got a chance to read the book yet. This is after I've come out of the army. I've done a little bit of soul searching. I've done a stint as a security guard at the NSA. Got my first top secret clearance. I've bounced over to the CIA using my technical skills and this is where I really became kind of the insider.

I'm on a really top technical team for a young guy who just came in off the street. They were desperate for people with technical skills because the intelligence community was doubling, tripling in size after 9/11. And now I had moved from being a contractor, a sort of a private worker for the government, into an actual officer of the government, a CIA communications officer and I was going through training.

They moved me to this secret facility in Virginia, but over towards the central western part -- the base that most people had never heard of called The Hill which is different from the Farm that you hear about in movies. And the funny thing about this place is it's just way outside of regulations for like everything. It's very slapdash. We’re in a crumbling hotel.

[00:25:29] We've got families of people who are going through this training program before they get sent all around the world overseas to work out of embassies and there's there's like four people living in one hotel room with two beds -- the parents and the kids. And they're they’re hiding like their Chihuahua when the maid comes in and putting the pet snakes for their kids in the dresser drawers because they don't have the accommodations they're supposed to have. Nobody can take leave when there's family emergencies. It's really really basic stuff that's really more workers rights then like you know threat to the union.

[00:26:10] But I knew how the CIA and the bureaucracy kind of work because, unlike everybody else who is in this program or most the people who were in this program, I had previously done a stint at headquarters. So I get to sort of informally nominee to be kind of a class rep and I write these things up and I go to the boss of the school and the boss the school because he's the one responsible for this, reporting it to him was not well received. And he says basically don't rock the boat -- just go on you're going to be out of here in a couple of months. Let this be someone else's problem and I go back and tell the class and they're all real disappointed. And so I take another crack at it and go basically. That's not good enough.

And so I go to his boss and I go to his boss’s boss and I go to his boss's boss's boss and then the next day I come into school and I hear, “Hey, everything's been fixed!” Great! Rainbows and unicorns. But then I get pull pulled out of class and I get dressed down by the head of the school and then I get dressed down by his boss they pull out and they pull me out of class and in this side room and it's precisely this kind of thing that you're saying: they would fix the problem but there were going to be consequences for making things uncomfortable for them. And this is a really important point because we see this happening right now.

ROMERO:
Right now.

SNOWDEN:
[00:27:19] ...with all the whistleblowing that's in the news right. And it's it's the funniest thing, but it's human nature. We can understand this. The whistleblower that that's in the public right now I think will actually come out of this Oky. They're going to be attacked. They're going to face retaliation. But I think they'll be protected because they're not indicting a system. They're indicting a man, a man who I think most of the country believes does rightly deserve it.

But that man, who has been indicted by this, complaint is already out there saying, Oh man who who is this person, you know they're acting like a spy. You know we used to do the spies? Implying you know I don't like that this person exposed me it would be better if these people were killed. Right?

It's the proof that matters, not where it came from. It's, What are the facts? Is this a violation? Is it not? Whenever power faces some kind of opposition, they immediately try to change the conversation into, Who are you? How dare you? And get people talking about who brought this forward instead of what was brought forward.

And this was my first brush. It was a very minor brush. It ironically and ended up working out quite well for me. But into that darker side of human nature, which is completely understandable, but that we do not respond well to criticism. And that's why we need processes to account for that right.

ROMERO:
[00:28:44] Right. The part that I think is so relevant for today is what you said on the bottom of 238, when you said quote, “A whistleblower in my definition is a person who through hard experience has concluded that their life inside an institution has become incompatible with the principles developed in and their loyalty owed to the greater society outside it. This person knows that they can't remain inside the institution and knows that the institution can't or won't be dismantled. Reforming institution might be possible, however, so they blow the whistle and disclose information to bring public pressure to bear.” It's relevant not just for what you did in 2013, but relevant today.

Talk to me about the decision to go to journalists. You turned over all the cachet of documents to someone else to decide what was going to be in the public domain.

SNOWDEN:
[00:29:40] Yeah. So I mean this is this is the thing that we’re struggling with right now, and we have struggled with in this country for 50 years. I mean Daniel Ellsberg back in the 1970s when he was revealing the secret history of the Vietnam War. He was accused of all the things you see whistleblowers accused up today. He was charged under the precisely the same Espionage Act that I have been charged under. He believed he was going to spend the rest of his life in prison and he would have if Nixon hadn't pooched up the investigation.

But what you have to realize in all of these things is what drives a person to abandon the safety of their office. What drives a person to abandon the safety of the system. Whistleblowing is again never rewarded. That's that's just not how it works. And the CIA, the NSA, the IC broadly sees itself as kind of a paramilitary organization. They see following orders as equivalent to morality. You don't question the lawfulness. You don't question the propriety of what you're doing. You go, you know, Who'd said this? Is this the institution’s desire? And if it is ,you do it. If you question it, you end up with problems.

But what happens when the system fails? And what happens when your organization can't respond to it? What happens when you are required, by the process, to report the wrongdoing that you've witnessed to the people who are responsible for that wrongdoing? Right? What if you're supposed to be going to Congress and Congress is the one who's directing the wrongdoing? What if you're supposed to go to the head of an agency and the agency's director is the one whose name is on the order that is violating the law or the Constitution?

[00:31:20] And this is where we have seen, time and time again, that when you go through these proper channels, as you call them, they don't resolve the problem. Rather, they're they’re a kind of trap where whistleblowers go into and then they're flushed from the system. The complaints are buried, the programs are shored up and made even more secret. And the person who reported them has their life destroyed, they lose their career, in some cases, they lose their freedom, their family. And these are not hypotheticals. I can cite names if you want them.

I'm a technologist. I could have put this on the Internet or I could have sent it to WikiLeaks. But I wanted to do something a little bit different because I'd seen all the criticisms and allegations that had been put forward before about, Oh you know this is going to cause harm to national security, Oh people are going to die because of this.

And government always says this. They said it about Ellsberg, they said about Manning, they said about me, they said about everyone. It never bears out and they never have evidence of it, but they always claim it because, again, they want to recontextualize that conversation from the concrete harms of their policies they're being proven out by the revelations and instead talk about the theoretical risks of journalism in a free and open society.

[00:32:35] But that's all we have. That's why we have the First Amendment. That's what the Fourth Estate is there for, to contest the government's monopoly on information, to second-guess the government, and go, does the public actually need to know this? And so I tried to play my part in that by acting as a source. This means I didn't publish any documents, I still haven't published any documents, I provided evidence of what I believed to be unlawful or unconstitutional behavior on the part of the government -- violations of rights of both Americans and people around the world.

And then the journalists could sort through this. The journalists were granted access to this archive on the condition that they publish no story, simply because it's interesting or it'll get clicks. They would only publish stories that were in the public interest to know. And then as an extraordinary measure before they published these stories, they would then go to the government and give them a warning and an adversarial chance to argue against publication. That say if you publish this someone is gonna be hurt. This program is effective it's saving lives. You know, this that or the other. And then every process every story I'm aware of this process was followed.

And I don't believe the government ever spiked a story successfully, because a lot of their claims bore out to not be true. There were a few details that were omitted from this story or that so you know I believe the process was still worth going through. But this is why in 2019, six years after 2013, we have never seen any evidence of harm as a result of these disclosures.

ROMERO:
[00:34:00] I mean they talked about the sky would fall with all of your revelations and nothing came to pass.

SNOWDEN:
They always say that they say that the atmosphere is going to catch fire. The oceans are going to boil off. We're all gonna die if people know how the government is breaking the law. But they never want to substantiate that. Why do you think that is?

ROMERO:
So let's talk a little bit about the way forward.

Permanent record: Ominous title. You talked about the fact that this generation is the first one to forever have a permanent record of their activities. Is that where you think we are? Is there any way that we can recapture the golden age of the Internet? I re -- there were some remarkable language talked, “The Internet was a very different thing [the one you first came to know]. It was a friend and a parent, it was a community without border or limit, one voice and millions. A common frontier that had been settled but not exploited by diverse tribes living amicably side by side.” Hadn’t been monetized, hadn't been yet regulated, it hadn't been exploited. You think we can get back to that golden age of the Internet that you so relished in the 1990s?

SNOWDEN:
[00:35:10] I mean, this is… I think we don't need to. We don't need to move backwards. We always want to believe that the previous generation had things that were better and there are always factors of that which were, in fact, better. When we progress, we lose things but we also gain things.

The Internet that we lost, the Internet that I grew up with was a creative and cooperative space instead of the commercial and competitive space that we have today. It was not a system that was designed for exploitation. It was not an industry that functioned on the basis of something called surveillance capitalism, a word hadn't even been imagined back then. That's what we have today.

But we can create new spaces that are even better than what we had before. We can also improve the spaces that have been invaded by these anti-social forces. We don't want to go back in time. We don't need to do this whole thing, you know, make the Internet great again. [audience laughter] What we what we need to remember is that it was not the Internet that presented the greatness. It was us.

ROMERO:
Yeah.

SNOWDEN:
It was the community. It was the way we interacted with it. And the only thing that's gonna make the Internet better today, the only thing that's gonna make the future better today is not a new algorithm, it’s you, it's a new argument. It's a new action. It's the fact that people care and they say what we have today is not good enough. They say, I will not accept this. And they say, You know what, it's not enough to believe in something, you have to stand for something. And I'm ready for things to change.

ROMERO:
[00:36:48] So in the six years since you first revealed the mass surveillance, you more hopeful? Have you seen changes in laws and policies in Europe and the US? You think we're more on track now than we were back when you took that flight out of Honolulu into Hong Kong?

SNOWDEN:
Yeah, so look, when you when you look at everything that's happened the last six years of course it's a mixed history. I mean, that's the story of humanity. It's a mixed history. But we've made progress

We have seen an extraordinary influx of new voices and we have seen this new participation result in new laws. After the revelations of 2013, we get the first reforms to intelligence law in the United States since the 1970s that actually restricted what the agencies could do rather than expanded it. It's not enough. It's not even close. And thankfully your organization, the ACLU, is suing the government right now to try to make them actually follow the Constitution a little bit more closely.

[00:37:50] But we have seen things that change the game a little bit more structurally. We've seen the beginnings of data protection regulations in the European Union, for example, where they're less captured by the money of the tech companies with what's called the General Data Protection Regulation. This is an idea. It it's fledgling. It's just being explored and it's not especially successful yet, but we have a right of ownership to records about us even if we don't hold them, even if companies hold them.

You can demand, in Europe, the companies show you every record that they have on you and you can demand in most cases that the companies purge those records of you. We don't get that in the United States. We are one of the only countries in the world that's an advanced democracy that does not have basic privacy law. We have the Fourth Amendment, but the Fourth Amendment only restricts what the federal and state governments can do. It doesn't do anything to help you from Facebook and Google, right?

Moreover, beyond the law, we have had technology itself actually change and this could get technical, but it's covered in the book in much more depth for those who are interested. So I'll leave it off here. But the idea is before I came forward in 2013 the majority of the world's communications and think about this. You've got a laptop and you've got a cell phone and you've got a desktop, whatever.

You pick up a phone. The cell phone network has to know where every phone in the world is at all times your phone is screaming. “Here I am. Here I am right now.” And the thing is, all of this information used to age off, all of this information like all the dumb things we said on the Internet used to evaporate with time. But no longer.

ROMERO:
Yup.

SNOWDEN:
AT&T keeps those records going all the way back to 2008. They keep your calling records going all the way back to 1987. You've got a kid or you were born after 1987, they have every call you ever made. And this this is kind of the thing. All of these communications get from point A to point B by crossing a network. And all the communications of the world prior to 2013, the majority of them, were unencrypted. That means they were unprotected. They were crossing this path of electronically naked. All of the middlemen who passed it from point A to point B, they could take pictures of anything they saw.

ROMERO:
Right.

SNOWDEN:
[00:40:10] They could save it, they could sell it. They could do anything. Now after 2013, all of the companies, all the service providers, everybody who saw the scandal, has started armoring these communications. And we're not protected yet. There's still a lot of encrypted protection, unencrypted communications in the world, but for Internet traffic which we've got a few statistics on through web browsers. As of last year -- I don't have the most current statistics -- more than 80 percent of web traffic through some of the world's most popular browsers are now encrypted. Now they are armored as they cross that hostile path. And you didn't have to do anything for that to happen.

When you look at this in aggregate we've got advances in law. We've got advances in technology and the most important one, the one that everyone forgets about, is we have advances in awareness. The thing that 2013 was about was not surveillance.

ROMERO:
Right.

SNOWDEN:
It was about democracy.

ROMERO:
Lack of knowledge.

SNOWDEN:
It was about the fact that we were denied facts about what was going on. And everybody before 2013, there you know there was a crazy uncle. There were professors there were academics who were saying mass surveillance was possible. They were saying theoretically this could be going on. But no one could prove it was happening, so the media, all of these reporters, all of this research, all of these debates in Congress had to treat the possibilities as speculation. Now it's fact. And that's what whistleblowers do.

ROMERO:
Yeah.

SNOWDEN:
[00:41:33] We, as a democracy, cannot survive -- we cannot have a conversation about what we are going to do if we cannot agree as to what is happening in the first place.

ROMERO:
So let me throw in a question that we've gotten from an audience member that will dovetail nicely. The person writes, “You said in order to stop mass surveillance and to ensure that there would be systemic change. What can we as individuals do to affect this?”

SNOWDEN:
The most important thing that you can do is to care and to tell people you care what. It is to understand why privacy matters. It's to understand what privacy is. It's to understand that every right that we have in the Bill of Rights -- it's to understand that every right that we have as individuals and collectively at all derives in some way from privacy.

[00:42:25] Privacy is the foundation or the fountainhead of all rights. We have a right to a fair trial, because we recognize that we have a private interest in ourselves that the state has to overcome if they want to march us off to prison. When you think about the phrase “private property” -- this is the right for something to belong to you rather than something to belong to society broadly.

When you say you know the the the common refrains that we hear so much today, you know I've got nothing to hide, right --

ROMERO:
[00:42:58] That was one of the questions. Someone writes here, “How do you respond to people who aren't troubled by government surveillance because they think they have nothing to hide?’ You must have read the question. This was not shared with them beforehand.

SNOWDEN:
I hacked into your e-mail before --

ROMERO:
You hacked into my note card, so...

SNOWDEN:
[Laughter] Yeah, look, when we look at these these kind of things, the nothing to hide argument. First off, it presumes that you need to have something to hide to have a right to privacy but saying that you don't care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is like saying that you don't care about freedom of speech because you have nothing to say or freedom of religion because you don't believe in God.

And more than that it not only says that I'm an interesting it not only says that I not only do not need protection now, but I never will. You are harming everyone else because you are basically misunderstanding that to have an individual right, you have to defend it for the collective.

[00:43:55] Rights don't exist to benefit the majority, the majority doesn't need rights. The majority sets the rules. Rights exist to protect the minority from the majority. And so we need to protect the rights of those who do have something to hide. And having something to hide isn't criminal. Having something to hide isn't dangerous. The whole point of a privacy right is that you don't need something to hide to benefit from it. You don't need to justify it right, or it isn't a right it's a privilege.

Instead it is the government, it is the state, it is the corporation, it is the intruder, who needs to justify their violation of the right, their intrusion into your space, their intrusion into your life.

Privacy is simply the thing that we used to call liberty.

ROMERO:
Right.

SNOWDEN:
It is the unviolated space into which these private forces are not supposed to enter. It is the space that is retained for the people. And at the same time we have all of these officials saying, “Well, privacy is dead. Why do you care?” If privacy is dead, public power is dead.

ROMERO:
So I'm wondering from where you're sitting today, would you have done anything differently? And then tie into that Ed, if you will, why you decided not to submit the manuscript for government review. Why, you knew this lawsuit would be coming. Why did you decide not to do that?

So what would you have done differently and why not follow the rules that they laid out for you in your contracts with the government? Then I'll give you a nice kind of really easy one about where you're going to go forward from here.

SNOWDEN:
[00:45:38] Okay, I'll take these out of order.

Let me start with the lawsuit. First up, for those who aren't familiar with what the lawsuit actually is, the government is suing me for violating what they call a secrecy agreement. This has publicly been sort of mythologized as an oath of secrecy. There is no oath of secrecy. But when you enter onto duty at the CIA you do take a different oath, a real oath. It's called the oath of service where you stand in front of the flag in a somber room. You raise your right hand and you say I swear to support and defend not the agency, not the president, not even the government: “I swear to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic.”

Then, later in the day, you sign a secrecy agreement. Now this is a civil agreement it's just a contract on a piece paper but it says, I'm not going to talk journalists and I'm going to do all these other things. And at the time that seems fair. Right? You're you're gonna be handling a lot of secrets. Okay. But then what happens when you realize that these obligations come into conflict? What happens if the secret that you have agreed to protect -- you didn't know the secret until after you signed the agreement -- was that the government is violating the Constitution that you have not signed an agreement to protect, nut you have sworn an oath to protect?

[00:46:59] I hold that the superior allegiance is owed to the Constitution rather than what the government calls “Standard Form 312.” I think standard form 312 is a little lower in the hierarchy than the Constitution of the United States. The government disagrees and so the government has sued me.

ROMERO:
You know a good lawyer can help you, you think?

SNOWDEN:
[Laughter] I'm I'm looking forward to the continued support of the American Civil Liberties Union.

But look, the bottom line is this, guys, I would have given the manuscript to the government in a heartbeat, first off, if it had classified information in it that they would need to review. It doesn't. And two, and more centrally, if I thought they would actually exercise their authorities in good faith. They are being sued right now by a whole lot of government employees. These are the guys who are the real cogs and machines. These are not major critics. These are not whistleblowers and they are saying they can't get their stories a fair shake through this process. What chance do you guys think I have, right?

[00:48:05] The government argues a lot of things are classified that are not classified. If the government, got my manuscript they would have just returned it with the whole thing blacked out -- my middle name would have been blacked out.

So the question is: Would you let the CIA edit your life story? And look, the bottom line is they brought this lawsuit and fine, they might steal all the profits from the book. But I didn't write the book to make money. In fact, the only thing I think the government has accomplished here is to make more people read the book. After they filed this lawsuit on the very first day that the book launched Amazon -- Amazon sold out of books.

ROMERO:
Yep. Saw it.

SNOWDEN:
Amazon. But the thing is you know you guys shouldn't be buying books from Amazon anyway. [01:05:12] [applause] Hopefully you’ll be supporting independent…

ROMERO:
Anything you would have done differently? Anything you would have done differently?

SNOWDEN:
In terms of doing things differently... well if I could turn back time if I had everything that I've learned in the process, I would've come forward sooner. Because every day that I waited, every day that I remained in ignorance, every day that I remained unskeptical was a day that these programs expanded, these programs became entrenched, and these programs became more and more difficult to reform.

I think there was a time where if a whistleblower had come forward, these programs would have been stopped. There is no doubt in my mind that, had these programs been exposed in October of 2004, George Bush would not have been re-elected. And by the way, the New York Times had that story in October of 2004 and they did not run it -- and the election of course was decided by historically small margin -- at the request of the White House.

[00:49:49] I, of course, wasn't there, I couldn't have done that. But when you go through your life and you see something the public needs to know and you realize you could wait for a hero to do something, but they're not going to because the person that you're waiting for is you, I hope that you will act and I hope that you will not wait.

ROMERO:
So then let me close with this final. [applause] Yes.

Let me close with this final question that we've got from folks. I want to cite back to the book you talked earlier in the book you talked about “my career in the American intelligence community only lasted a short seven years, which I'm surprised to realize is just one year longer than the time I've spent since in exile in a country that wasn't my choice.”

So the question that that dovetails: Where do you imagine you'll be in 10 or 20 years?
You're 36 years old. Would you like to come home? Under what set of circumstances? What's the way forward for Ed Snowden as we think about you over the next 10, 20, 30 years?

SNOWDEN:
[00:50:54] There's an old saying that I like. It says, “A man leaves home to find his place in the world. And he returns home to find it.”

Returning to the United States will always be my goal -- it has always been my goal. Since year one, I've had a single condition for returning and actually facing a trial, which is basically volunteering for prison under the laws that we have for whistleblowers. And that single condition is the government guarantee of fair trial by guaranteeing access to what lawyers call a “public interest defence.”

The laws the government charges whistleblowers under -- it's called the Espionage Act -- is what's called a “strict liability crime.” Which means the jury only considers one question: Was the law broken? If it was, that's it, you go to jail. If you gave a document to someone who wasn't authorized to receive it, you go to jail.

We don't hold murderers to this standard of behavior. If you murder someone, the jury has to consider two questions: Was the law broken? And two, was it justified? Was it self-defense? Were they protecting someone else? Was even this egregious violation of the law a benefit to the public rather than a harm upon it?

The government in every whistleblowing case in the last 50 years has refused. They have forbidden the jury to consider the question of, if the law was broken, was it justified? And I believe that is a question that in the United States, only the jury is positioned to decide, not the government. So when my country needs me I will return.

ROMERO:
[00:52:35] Right. And we'll be glad to see you back here. Thank you very very much everyone. Let's thank Ed Snowden.

SNOWDEN:
Thank you.

Thanks very much for listening. I hope you enjoyed this special conversation between Anthony Romero and Edward Snowden. Please be sure to subscribe to At Liberty wherever you get your podcasts and rate and review the show. We really appreciate the feedback. ‘Till next week, peace.

Stay Informed