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In ‘The Snowden Files,’ revealing the man who revealed NSA secrets

March 14, 2014 at 6:48 PM EST
In "The Snowden Files," Luke Harding examines what former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed in of one of the biggest security breaches in American history -- and why. The author joins Jeffrey Brown for a conversation about Snowden’s personal journey toward increasing disillusionment with the U.S. government and what the world has learned about American surveillance in his wake.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: He’s a wanted man in the U.S., but this week, National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden spoke, via video from Russia, to the annual gathering called South By Southwest. He argued to the crowd gathered in Austin, Texas, that the tech industry needs to do more to protect the privacy of Americans in the digital age.

A new book examines what Snowden revealed and pulls together the threads of one of the biggest security breaches in American history.

Jeffrey Brown has our conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: It began with an e-mail, “I am a senior member of the intelligence community,” the beginning of revelations leaked by Edward Snowden of the vast surveillance and collection of data by the National Security Agency and the beginning of a new book titled “The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man.”

Author Luke Harding is a correspondent for the British newspaper The Guardia, which broke the initial Snowden story.

And welcome to you.

LUKE HARDING, Author, “The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man”: Hello.

JEFFREY BROWN: “I am a senior member of the intelligence community,” that’s what Snowden wrote to Glenn Greenwald, then a columnist for The Guardian.

But, in fact, he wasn’t a senior anything really. What’s the impression you drew of the young Snowden?

LUKE HARDING: Well, he was a junior member of the intelligence community, but someone who had incredible access to top-secret information, and who was deeply unhappy about what he saw and thought he would lift the lid on unconstitutional mass surveillance.

JEFFREY BROWN: You find insight into the mind of especially the younger Snowden through anonymous postings he made on a tech Web site. And he used this name, “The True HOOHA.”

LUKE HARDING: Yes, age 18, he made his first posting. It’s a slightly weird name.

But these postings give us some insight into how he was as a young man, someone not of the left, but of the right, very patriotic, pretty obnoxious in places, but also deeply talented with computers.

JEFFREY BROWN: You say of the right. I mean, really, his strongest leaning seems to be libertarian. He supported Ron Paul.

LUKE HARDING: Yes, he’s very conservative. He’s from a patriotic family. He even donated to Ron Paul.

And he — his sort of guiding principle was the Constitution, the American Constitution, which he kind of cherished. And he even volunteered to fight in Iraq and tried to join the U.S. military, which was a kind of disastrous episode that went wrong.

JEFFREY BROWN: And he even at one point blasts leakers of information.

LUKE HARDING: It’s deeply ironic.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

LUKE HARDING: In 2009, when he’s working as a junior analyst for the CIA in Switzerland, he absolutely blasts The New York Times publishing an article on operations in Iran, denounces them, denounces WikiLeaks.

But, of course, he changes, like most young people. He kind of goes on a journey. And the more he saw, the more disillusioned he became.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so — and that’s this part of the story that you tell in the book. What’s that — is there a key moment where he changes or was it over time?

LUKE HARDING: I think it was over a period of years.

But there are two things which upset him. Firstly, he saw more stuff. He was a systems administrator, so he could roam around the kind of secret kind of places of the NSA. He saw more documents which troubled him. And, secondly, he became disillusioned with Obama.

He thought that Obama, even though he didn’t vote for him, would roll back some of these programs. And when Obama didn’t, he decided that he would act and do this extraordinary leak.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what’s your sense of Snowden, I guess his own level of certainty about what he was doing, and what he was seeing and what he should do about it?

LUKE HARDING: He has this enormous sense of inner calm.

Ewen MacAskill, Glenn Greenwald, my Guardian colleagues who met him in Hong Kong, said he had sort of reached this place of kind of inner tranquility, if you like, where he decided he was going to do this leak, even though he knew full well that it’s would have enormous consequences for him and that his life would never be the same again.

But he felt kind of morally compelled to act. And, of course, it was a big price. He’s now in exile with no prospect of going back to the U.S. And he’s a very wanted man.

JEFFREY BROWN: That first meeting that you describe here — you know, a lot of this is in the I.T. world. It’s the tech world, but that first meeting has a lot of cloak-and-dagger of old-fashioned spy world.

LUKE HARDING: It’s like something out of a John Le Carre novel…

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

LUKE HARDING: … sort of crossed with a magical mystery tour.

He sends these instructions saying, meet me at the hotel in Hong Kong next to a plastic alligator. And I will be the guy carrying a scrambled Rubik’s Cube. And, of course, Glenn and Laura Poitras, the U.S. filmmaker who met him, were expecting to see an old, grizzled CIA veteran in a blazer. And, instead, they get this young student-like geek, and their first reaction was, it’s not him. We have been…

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s impossible, right?

LUKE HARDING: It’s impossible. It can’t be him.

And, of course, over a period of several days, they debrief him. They get his story. And he talks them through the documents. And they discover that he is indeed real.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then so much has come out now. And we on this program and you, we have all looked at this now, so much about the various surveillance programs.

Where are we in this story? Is there more to come? What do you think?

LUKE HARDING: Well, there is more to come, but there’s been a fantastic number of revelations over the last nine months. We know so much than we did a year ago.

We know that iPhones are great spying devices. We know the NSA can hack your Webcam. We know that all of our telephone records are being collected. I think the world is a different place. And there’s a kind of debate, a huge debate going on in the U.S., in Europe, in Brazil, where everyone is saying, you know, what should the boundaries be of surveillance in this kind of electronic age?

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we’re going to continue this conversation online. And I will invite our audience to join us later on.

For now, Luke Harding is the author of “The Snowden Files.”

Thank you so much.

LUKE HARDING: Thank you, Jeff.