Snowden feels ‘vindicated’ that NSA revelations raised questions on surveillance

December 24, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden made headlines this year when he leaked classified documents about U.S. surveillance practices. In an extensive interview with Barton Gellman of The Washington Post, Snowden said he doesn't regret his actions. Jeffrey Brown talked to Gellman to review other highlights from their conversation.
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GWEN IFILL: Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who leaked a trove of documents about that secret agency’s operations, is once again in the news.

Jeffrey Brown has the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: “The mission’s already accomplished. I already won” — the words of Edward Snowden from an extended interview conducted in Moscow.

It comes six months after Snowden’s revelations first appeared in newspapers.

Barton Gellman of The Washington Post wrote some of those key early stories, and it was he who’s just interviewed Snowden. He’s also a senior fellow at The Century Foundation.

Gellman joins us now.

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So, welcome to you.

Clearly, Edward Snowden feels he’s succeeded, but how does he define his mission and what he set out to do?

BARTON GELLMAN, The Washington Post: That’s exactly the important question.

He is not saying he succeeded in remaking the world or changing any particular policy. What he wanted to do was take big important decisions out of a small secret world and give it to the people on whose behalf the policies were undertaken. He thought that something big and dangerous was growing in terms of a big surveillance apparatus.

He wanted the American people to decide for themselves what the limits should be.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that question aimed at him, often angrily, who elected to you decide what should be public, he has no regrets about what he did.

BARTON GELLMAN: He is very comfortable with his choice.

He, I think, feels vindicated by the fact that there has been six months of very intensive attention to things that he thought were worthy of attention. And, indeed, just after we spoke, I come back from Russia, and a federal judge says that the program that Snowden thinks is illegal is almost certainly unconstitutional, and the leaders of the U.S. technology industry tell the president that the NSA’s work is damaging the American information economy.

The president’s own task force tells him that NSA programs that Snowden brought to attention ought to be cut back.

JEFFREY BROWN: In your interview, Snowden claims to have raised his concerns internally with superiors, but the NSA denies having any evidence that he talked to anyone about this before going to reporters. Right?

BARTON GELLMAN: The NSA’s denial was careful, as many NSA denials are.

They said they have no record of any conversation of the kind that Snowden described. They also say that they haven’t asked anybody to respond to Snowden’s account. All the interviews they did with his co-workers took place before I asked the question.

JEFFREY BROWN: And tell us about Snowden himself. He’s living in Moscow. He’s a man who captured the world’s attention, but he’s a wanted man. How did he strike you?

BARTON GELLMAN: He’s a wanted man. He’s also under asylum under international law.

Nevertheless, he’s quite cautious and is not looking to expose himself to outsiders who may be looking for him. He is calm. He’s serene. He’s — he’s a man who knew what he was getting himself in to, as much as anyone can know that. And he is satisfied that he did it for the right reasons, and he’s prepared to — he was prepared for the consequences, which already are considerable, given the fact that he’s been taken away from his family and so on.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how does he live now? How much could you tell?

BARTON GELLMAN: He allowed a few glimpses. He’s a private guy.

He says he has no obligation to open his private life to others. His ideas, he knows, are going to be scrutinized. But he doesn’t think he has to tell everybody everything about himself personally. And he’s got security reasons not to.

But it’s quite interesting. He is living a life — he describes himself as indoor cat. And that predates his time in Moscow. Even in Hawaii, which we associate with these big open spaces and surf and so on, he — he described himself as a guy who spent a lot of time in front of the screen, whose world is virtual, whose world is one of ideas, treating the Internet as a big library and as a source of news.

He’s following all the developments in the cause that he cares about. He’s communicating with journalists and lawyers and whoever else he likes, and subsisting on sort of ramen noodles and chips. He also used the word ascetic to describe himself. He said, I just don’t have a lot of needs.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the striking things he told you is that rather than trying to destroy the NSA, he says he’s trying to make it better. He says he believes, in that sense — quote — “I am still working for the NSA right now.”

BARTON GELLMAN: He has not given a lot of time to critics, and he hasn’t wanted the story to be about him personally.

But he did make some early — he did make some — some responses for the first time. He affirmed quite clearly that his loyalty is to the United States, to the U.S. Constitution. He is not against the NSA. He’s not against intelligence-gathering.

What he’s against, very specifically, is bulk, mass surveillance, the idea of sweeping up enormous amounts of data about whole populations in order to look for clues you don’t even know exist. He believes that the NSA’s historic mission, and, in fact, the only thing it ever had the capability of doing for most of its existence, was to target individuals and institutions for foreign intelligence purposes.

There’s nothing stopping it from doing that. He supports that and he thinks that’s the right thing to do. He believes in the mission of intelligence-gathering. What he can’t accept is that the lives of hundreds of millions of people who are suspected of nothing wrong are being stuffed into these gigantic data systems.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, finally, what about more releases and more revelations? Has Snowden given out all that he has or is he still releasing material?

BARTON GELLMAN: He has had nothing to do with the pace or content of stories. He handed me and two other journalists quantities of material some six months ago. He has not tried in any way to tell us what to publish when, what not to publish, what the stories should say.

So that continues to be the case. I intend to keep on working on the story. I am sure that my fellow journalists who have the material are going to continue to do that. But that’s completely out of his hands.

JEFFREY BROWN: Barton Gellman of The Washington Post, thanks so much.

BARTON GELLMAN: Thank you.