I, Spy: Edward Snowden in Exile
BIG BROTHER - SPYING - SURVEILLANCE - WHISTLEBLOWING, 21 Jul 2014
19 Jul 2014
He doesn’t drink, he’s reading Dostoevsky and, no, he doesn’t wear a disguise. A year after blowing the whistle on the NSA, America’s most wanted talks frankly about his life as a hero-pariah – and why the world remains ‘more dangerous than Orwell imagined’.
Fiction and films, the nearest most of us knowingly get to the world of espionage, give us a series of reliable stereotypes. British spies are hard-bitten, libidinous he-men. Russian agents are thickset, low-browed and facially scarred. And defectors end up as tragic old soaks in Moscow, scanning old copies of the Times for news of the Test match.
Such a fate was anticipated for Edward Snowden by Michael Hayden, a former NSA and CIA chief, who predicted last September that the former NSA analyst would be stranded in Moscow for the rest of his days – “isolated, bored, lonely, depressed… and alcoholic”.
But the Edward Snowden who materialises in our hotel room shortly after noon on the appointed day seems none of those things. A year into his exile in Moscow, he feels less, not more, isolated. If he is depressed, he doesn’t show it. And, at the end of seven hours of conversation, he refuses a beer. “I actually don’t drink.” He smiles when repeating Hayden’s jibe. “I was like, wow, their intelligence is worse than I thought.”
Oliver Stone, who is working on a film about the man now standing in room 615 of the Golden Apple hotel on Moscow’s Malaya Dmitrovka, might struggle to make his subject live up to the canon of great movie spies. The American director has visited Snowden in Moscow, and wants to portray him as an out-and-out hero, but he is an unconventional one: quiet, disciplined, unshowy, almost academic in his speech. If Snowden has vices – and God knows they must have been looking for them – none has emerged in the 13 months since he slipped away from his life as a contracted NSA analyst in Hawaii, intent on sharing the biggest cache of top-secret material the world has ever seen.
Since arriving in Moscow, Snowden has been keeping late and solitary hours – effectively living on US time, tapping away on one of his three computers (three to be safe; he uses encrypted chat, too). If anything, he appears more connected and outgoing than he could be in his former life as an agent. Of his life now, he says, “There’s actually not that much difference. You know, I think there are guys who are just hoping to see me sad. And they’re going to continue to be disappointed.”
When the Guardian first spoke to Snowden a year ago in Hong Kong, he had been dishevelled, his hair uncombed, wearing jeans and a T-shirt. The 31-year-old who materialised last week was smartly, if anonymously, dressed in black trousers and grey jacket, his hair tidily cut. He is jockey-light – even skinnier than a year ago. And he looks pale: “Probably three steps from death,” he jokes. “I mean, I don’t eat a whole lot. I keep a weird schedule. I used to be very active, but just in the recent period I’ve had too much work to focus on.”
Edward Snowden – video interview
There was no advance warning of where we would meet: his only US television interview, with NBC’s Brian Williams in May, was conducted in an anonymous hotel room of Snowden’s choosing. This time, he prefers to come to us. On his arrival, there is a warm handshake for Guardian reporter Ewen MacAskill, whom he last saw in Hong Kong – a Sunday night after a week of intense work in a frowsty hotel room, a few hours before the video revealing his identity to the world went public. Neither man knew if they would ever meet again.
Snowden orders chicken curry from room service and, as he forks it down, is immediately into the finer points of the story that yanked him from a life of undercover anonymity to global fame. The Snowden-as-alcoholic jibe is not the only moment when he reflects wryly on his former colleagues’ patchy ability to get on top of events over the past year. There was, for instance, the incident last July when a plane carrying President Evo Morales back to Bolivia from Moscow was forced down in Vienna and searched for a stowaway Snowden. “I was like, first off, wow, their intelligence sucks, from listening to everything. But, two, are they really going to the point of just completely humiliating the president of a Latin American nation, the representative of so many people? It was just shockingly poorly thought out, and yet they did it anyway, and they keep at these sort of mistakes.” It was as if they were trying not to find him. “I almost felt like I had some sort of friend in government.”
He is guarded on the subject of his life in exile. Yes, he cooks for himself – often Japanese ramen, which he finds easy to sling together. Yes, he goes out. “I don’t live in absolute secrecy – I live a pretty open life – but at the same time I don’t want to be a celebrity, you know. I don’t want to go somewhere and have people pay attention to me, just as I don’t want to do that in the media.”
He does get recognised. “It’s a little awkward at times, because my Russian’s not as good as it should be. I’m still learning.” He declines an invitation to demonstrate for us (“The last thing I want is clips of me speaking Russian floating around the internet”). He has been picking his way through Dostoevsky, and belatedly catching up with series one of The Wire, while reading the recently published memoir of Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers whistleblower.
In October last year, he was photographed on a Moscow tourist boat. “Right. I didn’t look happy in that picture.” And pushing a loaded shopping trolley across a road? “You know, I actually don’t know, because it was so far away and it was blurry. I mean, it could have been me.” Does he go out in disguise? He is deadpan: “Before I go to the grocery store, I make sure to put on, you know, my Groucho Marx glasses and nose and moustache… No, I don’t wander around in disguise.” The only props in evidence today are an American Civil Liberties Union baseball cap and dark glasses, tossed on to the bed. Some disguise.
He is not working for a Russian organisation, as has been reported, but is financially secure for the immediate future. In addition to substantial savings from his career as a well-compensated contractor, he has received numerous awards and speaking fees from around the world. He is also in the process of securing foundation funding for a new press freedom initiative, creating tools that allow journalists to communicate securely.
But push Snowden further on his life in Moscow and he clams up. There are all sorts of plausible reasons for his reticence. He thinks it reasonable to assume he is under some form of surveillance, by both the Russians and the Americans. There is a small chance that he could be harassed, or worse, if his routine or whereabouts became known. Nor does he want to be “Russianised”: pictures of him in Red Square would not play well back home.
He feels the world has got some things wrong about him, but even so he would rather not correct the record publicly. He was exasperated to be marked down as a conservative libertarian, for example (he is, he says, more moderate than has been reported), but declines to be more specific about his actual politics. It would simply alienate some people, he believes. He thinks journalists have speculated too much about his family (his father has visited him in Moscow), and misunderstood his relationship with Lindsay, the girlfriend he left behind in Hawaii; life is more complicated than the headlines. But, again, he won’t go on the record to talk about them.
At the same time, the people closest to him have plainly told Snowden he has to raise his profile if he wants to win over US hearts and minds. And, from his periodic self-corrections and occasional stop-start answers, it is evident he is on a mission to make friends, not enemies. At the end of a diplomatic answer to a question about Germany, he breaks off in frustration. “That’s probably too political. I hate politics. Really, I mean, this is not me, you know. I hope you guys can tell the difference.”
The Snowden-as-traitor camp will take his reluctance to vouchsafe too many details as confirmation that he is, if not a double agent, then a “useful idiot” for the Kremlin. He tackles some of these criticisms head on. He didn’t take a single document to Russia. He has no access to them there. He never initially sought to be in Russia – it happened “entirely by accident”. It’s a “modern country… and it’s been good to me”, but he would rather be free to travel. He repeats his criticisms of Russia’s record on human rights and free speech, and tacitly concedes that his televised question to Vladimir Putin in April this year was an error.
What about the Russian spy thesis, advanced by the Economist writer Edward Lucas, among others? Lucas has said that, had Snowden come to him with the NSA documents, he would have marched him straight to a police station. “Yeah, he’s crazy,” Snowden sighs. “He’s not credible at all.” One of the Lucas charges was a “fishy” September 2010 trip to India, where he speculates Snowden may have met unspecified Russians or intermediaries, and attended a hacking course. “It’s bullshit,” Snowden exclaims. “I was on official visits, working at the US embassy. You know, it’s not like they didn’t know I was there. And the six-day course afterwards, it wasn’t a security course, it was a programming course. But it doesn’t matter. I mean, there are always going to be conspiracy theories. If my reputation is harmed by being here, there or any other place, that’s OK, because it’s not about me.
“I can give a blanket response to all the Russia questions,” he adds. “If the government had the tiniest shred of evidence, not even that [I was an agent], but associating with the Russian government, it would be on the front page of the New York Times by lunchtime.”
What about the accusation that his leaks have caused untold damage to the intelligence capabilities of the west? “The fact that people know communications can be monitored does not stop people from communicating [digitally]. Because the only choices are to accept the risk, or to not communicate at all,” he says, almost weary at having to spell out what he considers self-evident.
“And when we’re talking about things like terrorist cells, nuclear proliferators – these are organised cells. These are things an individual cannot do on their own. So if they abstain from communicating, we’ve already won. If we’ve basically talked the terrorists out of using our modern communications networks, we have benefited in terms of security – we haven’t lost.”
There still remains the charge that he has weakened the very democracy he professes he wants to protect. Al-Qaida, according to MI6 chief Sir John Sawers, have been “rubbing their hands with glee”. “I can tell you right now that in the wake of the last year, there are still terrorists getting hauled up, there are still communications being intercepted. There are still successes in intelligence operations that are being carried out all around the world.”
Why not let the agencies collect the haystacks of data so they can look for the needles within?
Snowden doesn’t like the haystack metaphor, used exhaustively by politicians and intelligence chiefs in defence of mass data collections. “I would argue that simply using the term ‘haystack’ is misleading. This is a haystack of human lives. It’s all the private records of the most intimate activities, that are aggregated and compiled again and again, and stored for increasing frequencies of time.
“It may be that by watching everywhere we go, by watching everything we do, by analysing every word we say, by waiting and passing judgment over every association we make and every person we love, that we could uncover a terrorist plot, or we could discover more criminals. But is that the kind of society we want to live in? That is the definition of a security state.”
When did he last read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four? “Actually, quite some time ago. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t think we are exactly in that universe. The danger is that we can see how [Orwell’s] technologies now seem unimaginative and quaint. They talked about things like microphones implanted in bushes and cameras in TVs that look back at us. But now we’ve got webcams that go with us everywhere. We actually buy cellphones that are the equivalent of a network microphone that we carry around in our pockets voluntarily. Times have shown that the world is much more unpredictable and dangerous [than Orwell imagined].”
But the life he describes inside the closed walls of the NSA does have echoes of Big Brother omniscience. Snowden, sipping Pepsi from a bottle and speaking in perfectly composed sentences, recalls the period when he was working as an analyst, directing the work of others. There was a moment when he and, he says, other colleagues began to have severe doubts about the ethics of what they were doing.
Can he give an example of what made him feel uneasy? “Many of the people searching through the haystacks were young, enlisted guys, 18 to 22 years old. They’ve suddenly been thrust into a position of extraordinary responsibility, where they now have access to all your private records. In the course of their daily work, they stumble across something that is completely unrelated in any sort of necessary sense – for example, an intimate nude photo of someone in a sexually compromising situation. But they’re extremely attractive. So what do they do? They turn around in their chair and they show a co-worker. And their co-worker says, ‘Oh, hey, that’s great. Send that to Bill down the way’, and then Bill sends it to George, George sends it to Tom, and sooner or later this person’s whole life has been seen by all of these other people.”
The analysts don’t discuss such things in the NSA cafeterias, but back in the office “anything goes, more or less. You’re in a vaulted space. Everybody has sort of similar clearances, everybody knows everybody. It’s a small world. It’s never reported, because the auditing of these systems is incredibly weak. The fact that records of your intimate moments have been taken from your private communication stream, from the intended recipient, and given to the government, without any specific authorisation, without any specific need, is itself a violation of your rights. Why is that in the government database?”
How often do such things happen? “I’d say probably every two months. It’s routine enough. These are seen as sort of the fringe benefits of surveillance positions.”
And the auditing is really not good enough to pick up such abuses? “A 29-year-old walked in and out of the NSA with all of their private records,” he shoots back. “What does that say about their auditing? They didn’t even know.”
He emphasises that his co-workers were not “moustache-twirling villains” but “people like you and me”. Still, most colleagues, even if they felt doubts, would not complain, having seen the fate of previous whistleblowers, who ended up vilified and “pulled out of the shower at gunpoint, naked, in front of their families. We all have mortgages. We all have families.”
As the leaden skies darken beyond the net curtains, Snowden breaks to order a bowl of ice-cream (chocolate, vanilla and strawberry sorbet). Afterwards, he warms to his theme, explaining how he and his colleagues relied heavily on “metadata” – the information about our locations, searches and contacts that needed no warrants or court orders, but that betrays a huge amount about our lives. “To an analyst, nine times out of 10, you don’t care what was said on the phone call till very late in the investigative chain. What you care about is the metadata, because metadata does not lie. People lie on phone calls when they’re involved in real criminal activity. They use code words, they talk around it. You can’t trust what you’re hearing, but you can trust the metadata. That’s the reason metadata’s often more intrusive.”
What about his own digital habits? He won’t use Google or Skype for anything personal. Dropbox? He laughs. “They just put Condoleezza Rice on their board, who is probably the most anti-privacy official you can imagine. She’s one of the ones who oversaw [the warrantless wire-tapping program] Stellar Wind and thought it was a great idea. So they’re very hostile to privacy.” Instead, he recommends SpiderOak, a fully encrypted end-to-end “zero-knowledge” filesharing system.
Why should we trust Google any more than we trust the state? “One, you don’t have to. Association with Google is voluntary. But it does raise an important question. And I would say, while there is a distinction – in that Google can’t put you in jail, Google can’t task a drone to drop a bomb on your house – we shouldn’t trust them without verifying what their activities are, how they’re using our data.”
He is extremely alarmed by the implications of the NSA and GCHQ documents, which showed their engineers hard at work undermining the basic security of the internet – something that has also concerned Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the man credited with inventing the world wide web. “What people often overlook is the fact that, when you build a back door into a communication system, that back door can be discovered by anyone around the world. That can be a private individual or a security researcher at a university, but it can also be a criminal group or a foreign intelligence agency – say, the NSA’s equivalent in a deeply irresponsible government. And now that foreign country can scrutinise not just your bank records, but your private communications all around the internet.”
The problem with the current system of political oversight is twofold, he says. First, the politicians and the security services are too close: no politician wants to defy intelligence chiefs who warn of the potential consequences of being seen to be “weak”. And then there’s the problem that, in most societies, the job of monitoring the security agencies goes to the most senior politicians or, in the UK, retired judges – most of whom, he believes, do not have the technical literacy to understand what it is they should be looking for, or regulating.
“What last year’s revelations showed us was irrefutable evidence that unencrypted communications on the internet are no longer safe. Any communications should be encrypted by default.” This has big implications for anyone using email, text, cloud computing – or Skype, or phones, to communicate in circumstances where they have a professional duty of confidentiality. “The work of journalism has become immeasurably harder. Journalists have to be particularly conscious about any sort of network signalling; any sort of connection; any sort of licence plate-reading device that they pass on their way to a meeting point; any place they use their credit card; any place they take their phone; any email contact they have with the source. Because that very first contact, before encrypted communications are established, is enough to give it all away.” To journalists, he would add “lawyers, doctors, investigators, possibly even accountants. Anyone who has an obligation to protect the privacy of their clients is facing a new and challenging world.”
But ask Snowden if technology is compatible with privacy, and he answers with an unequivocal “absolutely”, mainly because he believes that technology itself will come up with the solutions.
“The question is, why are private details that are transmitted online any different from the details of our lives that are stored in our private journals? There shouldn’t be this distinction between digital and printed information. But the US government, and many other countries, are increasingly seeking to make that distinction.”
Snowden is not against targeted surveillance. But he returns to the philosophical, ethical, legal and constitutional objections to security agencies routinely seizing digital material from innocent people, when they would not dream of entering their houses to plant spy cameras, or walk off with personal diaries and photographs. If these things are wrong in analogue life, why not in our digital lives? And where, he asks repeatedly, is the evidence that it is cost-effective? Or even effective?
Surely he would concede there are occasions when it is of benefit to police or intelligence agencies to be able to trawl collected records after a crime or terrorist event has taken place? He concedes there are “hypotheticals” in which such a capability might have its uses, but he counters with questions of proportionality. America is not at war; terrorism should be treated as a criminal problem. He might personally draw the line in a different place in the event of a war, but, in any event, this is something that should be determined by democratic discussion.
“You have a tremendous population of young military enlisted individuals [in the NSA] who may not have had the number of life experiences, to have felt the sense of being violated. And if we haven’t been exposed to the dangers of having our liberties violated, how can we expect these individuals to reasonably represent our interests?”
He cites the German Stasi as an organisation staffed by people who thought they were “protecting the stability of their political system, which they considered to be under threat. They were ordinary citizens like anyone else. They believed they were doing the right thing. But when we look at them in historic terms, what were they doing to their people? What were they doing to the countries around them? What was the net impact of their mass, indiscriminate spying campaigns?”
The skies over Moscow are darkening as Snowden prepares to go. We give him a fragment of a smashed-up hard drive, a memento of the Guardian’s tangles with GCHQ: a year ago this weekend, senior editors destroyed computers used to store Snowden’s documents while GCHQ representatives watched. “Wow, that is the real deal,” he mutters as he examines the scarred circuit board. And then he speculates – maybe only half joking, for the tradecraft never quite goes – that it might have a tracking device in it. He says that he faces a logistical nightmare in getting home undetected tonight. A driver is waiting for him outside.
Will he be watching that night’s World Cup semi-final between Holland and Argentina? “You know, this is probably going to surprise a lot of people, but I’m not particularly athletic. I’m not a great sports fan.”
He wonders if we will want to shake his hand. We do. An adviser has warned him not to be offended if visitors are anxious about a photograph of a handshake that might come back to haunt them.
He means, if it turns out Snowden really is a Russian spy?
“Right, exactly. If you guys were running for office, then you’d be in trouble.”
And with that he picks up his rucksack and slips out of the room, back into the curious world of semi-anonymous exile that may be his fate for a long time to come.
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