Brian Williams' exclusive interview with whistleblower Edward Snowden aired on NBC last night. The nearly 40-minute interview didn't provide any new information for those who have been closely following Snowden's situation, but offered Snowden a chance to debunk some of the nonsense being said about him, particularly by politicians—such as Secretary of State John Kerry—who think he should just "man up" and come home to face espionage charges for the crime of telling the public what their government is doing.
Here are some highlights:
- Snowden says he did not bring any of his documents with him to Russia and he doesn't have access to any of them, even by computer, to give to the Russians. His files are all in the hands of the journalists he's partnered with, such as Glenn Greenwald. Williams also acknowledged that NBC News has partnered with Snowden and Greenwald to report on some of the documents.
- Snowden says he was working like a spy, lying about what his job was and even using a fake name. He says his critics are using his earlier position as a "low-level analyst" to detract from the totality of his work. He says he has worked for the CIA and the National Security Agency (NSA) and gave lectures on keeping information secure.
- He's not a fan of using fears of terrorism to undermine civil liberties: "I take the threat of terrorism seriously and I think we all do. I think it's really disingenuous for the government to invoke, and sort of scandalize our memories, to sort of exploit the national trauma that we all suffered together and worked so hard to come through to justify programs that have never been shown to keep us safe but cost us liberties and freedoms we don't need to give up and our constitution says we should not give up."
- Probably the only really new disclosure for those who have been following Snowden's leaks is his claim that any powerful intelligence agency, not just America's but Russia's and China's as well, can access cellphones as soon as they're turned on. They can use the phones' embedded microphones and cameras and turn phones on when they're off. But, he points out, such technology would likely only be used against targeted people. Williams asked whether an intelligence agency would be interested in knowing that he looked up the score for a hockey game, prompting Snowden to explain how this information could be used to establish Williams' "pattern of life": "Are you engaging in any kinds of activities we disapprove of, even if they're technically not illegal?" The activities Williams engaged in could increase his level of scrutiny, even if he hasn't done anything wrong.
- NSA analysts can watch people's Internet communications and see them write messages in real time.
- He reiterates (as this has already been reported) that he did attempt to go through proper channels to blow the whistle on the unconstitutional surveillance of the NSA. His concerns are documented in writing, he says, and Congress should be able to get them from the office of general counsel. NBC has confirmed that at least one email from Snowden exists and has filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to look for other records.
- The NSA's auditing process was so negligent that any private contractor could walk into the Agency, take anything they wanted, and walk out, and the government would never know. He pointed out that despite claims that all sorts of military secrets were at risk, nothing about troops or weapons or non-surveillance issues have appeared in the press.
- Snowden entered into agreements with the media outlets he's provided documents to that they would actually check with the government to make sure no specific harms could befall individuals from their reporting. This played out recently when Greenwald and other journalists declined to name one of the countries in which America is reportedly recording and temporarily storing all mobile calls.
- He explains that he cannot return home to "face charges" because of the intricacies of the Espionage Act and how they're stacked against the defendant. He would not be provided an open court or "a fair trial."
- He is frustrated being in Russia where individuals' rights are "being challenged," given that he sees himself as fighting for Americans' rights. He objects to Russia's new law requiring the registering of bloggers and says no government should be regulating the operations of a free press.
- Williams asked him to explain how he sees himself still serving the government. Snowden points out that one court so far has ruled the bulk metadata collection likely unconstitutional and members of Congress are trying to end it (though their efforts have been extremely watered down). "How can it be said that I did not serve my country?" he asked. "How can it be said I have harmed government when all three branches of the government have made reforms as a result of it?"
If you missed it, watch the interview below: