Just hours before his alleged disappearance from a Hong Kong hotel, Edward Snowden, an ex-CIA employee and NSA contractor working through Booz Allen Hamilton, outed himself as the whistleblower in the NSA PRISM scandal. In the 12-minute video interview posted on YouTube, Ed Snowden explained his reason for releasing the documents that revealed the PRISM program. Here is the transcript of that interview.
My name is Ed Snowden. I’m 29 years old. I work for Booz Allen Hamilton as an infrastructure analyst for NSA in Hawaii.
What are some of the positions that you held previously within the intelligence community?
I’ve been a systems engineer, a systems administrator, a senior advisor for the Central Intelligence Agency, a solutions consultant and a telecommunications information systems officer.
One of the things that people are going to be most interested in, in trying to understand 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.
When you are in positions of privileged access like a systems administrator for these sorts of intelligence community agencies, you’re exposed to a lot more information on a broader scale than the average employee. 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. 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 move on from them but over time that awareness of wrongdoing sort of builds up and you feel compelled to talk about it.
The more you talk about it, the more you’re ignored and 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 is simply hired by the government.
Talk a little bit about how the American surveillance state actually functions. Does it target the actions of Americans?
NSA — the intelligence community, in general — is focused on getting intelligence wherever it can by any means possible. It believes on the grounds on sort of a self-certification that they serve the national interest.
Originally, we saw that focus very narrowly tailored on foreign intelligence gathered overseas. Now increasingly, we see that it’s happening domestically. To do that, 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.
While they may be intending to target 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.
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?
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 is a fundamentally dangerous thing to democracy. If you do that in secret consistently as the government does when it wants to benefit from a secret action that it took, it will give it’s officials a mandate to go, "Tell the press about this thing and that thing, so the public is on our side."
But they rarely, if ever, do it when an abuse occurs. That falls to individual citizens, but they’re typically maligned. 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 and watches 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."
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."
Have you given thought to what it is that the US government’s response to your conduct is in terms of what they might say about you, how they might try to depict you, what they might try to do to you?
Yes, I could be rendered by the CIA. I could have people come after me or any of their third-party partners. They work closely with a number of other nations. Or they could pay off the Triads or 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.
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 are 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 is important to you. If living un-freely but comfortably is something you’re willing to accept — I think many of us are, it’s 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’s the world you helped create and it’s going to get worse with the next generation and the next generation who extend the capabilities of this 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.
Why should people care about surveillance?
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 a 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 derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer.
We are currently sitting in a room in Hong Kong which is where we are because you travelled 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 intended to do is to defect to the country that many see as the number rival of the United States which is China.
That way 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?
There are a couple of assertions in those arguments that are 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. There are conflicts between the United States government and the Chinese PRC government, but the peoples inherently don’t care.
We trade with each other freely. We’re not at war. We’re not in armed conflict and we’re 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, "China the great firewall." Mainland China does have significant restrictions on free speech, but 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 Western government.
I believe that the Hong Kong government is actually independent in relation to a lot of other leading Western governments.
If your motive had been to harm the United States and help its enemies or if your motive had been personal or material gain, were there things that you could have done with these documents to advance those goals that you didn’t end up doing?
Absolutely. Anybody in the positions of access with the technical capabilities that I have can suck out secrets and pass them on the open market to Russia. They always have an open door as we do. I had access to 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 US, you could shut down the surveillance system in an afternoon. That’s not my intention. I think for anyone making that argument, they need to think if they were in my position — 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 for these disclosures is that nothing will change. People will see in the media all of these disclosures. They’ll know the lengths 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.
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 are policy. Even our agreements with other sovereign governments, we consider that to be a stipulation of policy rather than a stipulation of law.
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, 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 will be turnkey tyranny.
(Hey! Please let us know if you liked this article by leaving us a comment!)
You might also like some of our other articles: