What you missed at Edward Snowden’s AMA

So, earlier today, the Guardian hosted a question-and-answer session with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Sort of like a Reddit AMA, but with less ham-fisted sexual innuendo. People were able to submit questions via comment, or via Twitter.

I thought the whole thing was excellent. Like many people, I’ve been trying to withhold judgment on Snowden’s motivations. But after reading this, I’m strongly inclined to believe that his motives are pure, and that he is displaying the type of heroism that our country desperately needs.

Or, if he is actually a villain with some sort of mysterious ulterior motive, he is the sort of charismatic genius supervillain you never see outside of the movies, and I look forward to seeing the schematics for his secret volcanic undersea lair.

I’ve posted a few of the highlights below. If you’re really short on time, here are the highlights of the highlights:

the public needs to know the kinds of things a government does in its name, or the “consent of the governed” is meaningless.

Our founders did not write that “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all US Persons are created equal.”

Ask yourself: if I were a Chinese spy, why wouldn’t I have flown directly into Beijing? I could be living in a palace petting a phoenix by now.

Being called a traitor by Dick Cheney is the highest honor you can give an American

This country is worth dying for.

And here are the more extended highlights

Q (Glenn Greenwald): Why did you choose Hong Kong to go to and then tell them about US hacking on their research facilities and universities?

A: First, the US Government, just as they did with other whistleblowers, immediately and predictably destroyed any possibility of a fair trial at home, openly declaring me guilty of treason and that the disclosure of secret, criminal, and even unconstitutional acts is an unforgivable crime. That’s not justice, and it would be foolish to volunteer yourself to it if you can do more good outside of prison than in it.

Second, let’s be clear: I did not reveal any US operations against legitimate military targets. I pointed out where the NSA has hacked civilian infrastructure such as universities, hospitals, and private businesses because it is dangerous. These nakedly, aggressively criminal acts are wrong no matter the target. Not only that, when NSA makes a technical mistake during an exploitation operation, critical systems crash. Congress hasn’t declared war on the countries – the majority of them are our allies – but without asking for public permission, NSA is running network operations against them that affect millions of innocent people. And for what? So we can have secret access to a computer in a country we’re not even fighting? So we can potentially reveal a potential terrorist with the potential to kill fewer Americans than our own Police? No, the public needs to know the kinds of things a government does in its name, or the “consent of the governed” is meaningless.

Q (Gabrielaweb): Why did you wait to release the documents if you said you wanted to tell the world about the NSA programs since before Obama became president?

A: Obama’s campaign promises and election gave me faith that he would lead us toward fixing the problems he outlined in his quest for votes. Many Americans felt similarly. Unfortunately, shortly after assuming power, he closed the door on investigating systemic violations of law, deepened and expanded several abusive programs, and refused to spend the political capital to end the kind of human rights violations like we see in Guantanamo, where men still sit without charge.

Q (MonaHol): Ed Snowden, I thank you for your brave service to our country.

Some skepticism exists about certain of your claims, including this:

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.

Do you stand by that, and if so, could you elaborate?

A: Yes, I stand by it. US Persons do enjoy limited policy protections (and again, it’s important to understand that policy protection is no protection – policy is a one-way ratchet that only loosens) and one very weak technical protection – a near-the-front-end filter at our ingestion points. The filter is constantly out of date, is set at what is euphemistically referred to as the “widest allowable aperture,” and can be stripped out at any time. Even with the filter, US comms get ingested, and even more so as soon as they leave the border. Your protected communications shouldn’t stop being protected communications just because of the IP they’re tagged with.

More fundamentally, the “US Persons” protection in general is a distraction from the power and danger of this system. Suspicionless surveillance does not become okay simply because it’s only victimizing 95% of the world instead of 100%. Our founders did not write that “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all US Persons are created equal.”

Q (Spencer Ackerman): Edward, there is rampant speculation, outpacing facts, that you have or will provide classified US information to the Chinese or other governments in exchange for asylum. Have/will you?

A: This is a predictable smear that I anticipated before going public, as the US media has a knee-jerk “RED CHINA!” reaction to anything involving HK or the PRC, and is intended to distract from the issue of US government misconduct. Ask yourself: if I were a Chinese spy, why wouldn’t I have flown directly into Beijing? I could be living in a palace petting a phoenix by now.

Q (@KimberlyDozier): US officials say terrorists already altering TTPs because of your leaks, & calling you traitor. Respond?

A: US officials say this every time there’s a public discussion that could limit their authority. US officials also provide misleading or directly false assertions about the value of these programs, as they did just recently with the Zazi case, which court documents clearly show was not unveiled by PRISM.

Journalists should ask a specific question: since these programs began operation shortly after September 11th, how many terrorist attacks were prevented SOLELY by information derived from this suspicionless surveillance that could not be gained via any other source? Then ask how many individual communications were ingested to acheive that, and ask yourself if it was worth it. Bathtub falls and police officers kill more Americans than terrorism, yet we’ve been asked to sacrifice our most sacred rights for fear of falling victim to it.

Further, it’s important to bear in mind I’m being called a traitor by men like former Vice President Dick Cheney. This is a man who gave us the warrantless wiretapping scheme as a kind of atrocity warm-up on the way to deceitfully engineering a conflict that has killed over 4,400 and maimed nearly 32,000 Americans, as well as leaving over 100,000 Iraqis dead. Being called a traitor by Dick Cheney is the highest honor you can give an American, and the more panicked talk we hear from people like him, Feinstein, and King, the better off we all are. If they had taught a class on how to be the kind of citizen Dick Cheney worries about, I would have finished high school.

Q (Ryan Latvaitis): What would you say to others who are in a position to leak classified information that could improve public understanding of the intelligence apparatus of the USA and its effect on civil liberties?

A: This country is worth dying for.

4 thoughts on “What you missed at Edward Snowden’s AMA”

  1. Thanks for this post, as I’m short of time right now, so I haven’t been following this story very closely.

    However, I’m still waiting for more technical details from Snowden. For example, is he claiming the NSA can break SSL/TLS/HTTPS at will, via cryptanalysis, man-in-the-middle attacks, or whatever? Of course, certain companies (Facebook, Google, etc.) may have given the NSA their private keys, which would expose communications with those companies, but that’s a long way from a general vulnerability.

    By the way, inspired by all this, I’ve proposed observing this July 7 as Spook the Spooks Day; see this blog post for details.


    1. @Ralph,

      Yes, I’ve heard a number of people expressing similar concerns — trying to drill down into exactly what he is saying, at a technical level. All I can do is speculate about why he has not provided more technical details. Here are a few ideas:

      1. He does not know. This seems unlikely to me, but maybe his access did not allow him to know exactly how things were being done.
      2. He is trying not to share too much, so as not to undermine what he considers to be legitimate NSA activities.
      3. He is focused on pushing the big-picture message out to a broad audience, and is trying to keep the focus on warrantless surveillance, not letting it shift to arcane technical details that will not be comprehensible or interesting to the vast majority of the population.

      At one point, he says, “More detail on how direct NSA’s accesses are is coming, but in general, the reality is this: if an NSA, FBI, CIA, DIA, etc analyst has access to query raw SIGINT databases, they can enter and get results for anything they want.”

      That suggests #3 to me, and that maybe when media interest starts to flag a little bit, he will provide some of those technical details.

      The other specific thing he says is this:

      Encryption works. Properly implemented strong crypto systems are one of the few things that you can rely on. Unfortunately, endpoint security is so terrifically weak that NSA can frequently find ways around it.

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