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Edward Snowden interview: He seemed calm, articulate and reasonable

As you have heard (or maybe you watched it Wednesday night), NBC anchor Brian Williams scored the first TV interview with Edward Snowden in Moscow. This link will get you NBC’s online version with video of the key moments.

Snowden said that he considers himself a patriot who did what he did for the good of his country he loves. He did not choose to take refuge in Russia and is stuck there because of the decision by the U.S. government to pull his passport. He said he has not taken any money from the Russian government, has had no contact with Vladimir Putin, and destroyed all of the stolen intelligence data from his computers before he entered Russian space so the Russians could get no benefit from it.

Pushing back at U.S. government efforts to portray him as a low-level hacker, Snowden said he had been trained as a spy and had worked in undercover positions overseas for the CIA and the National Security Agency.

He also said he had built into his agreements with the journalists to whom he leaked his stolen files an arrangement that would prevent the disclosure of information that would harm U.S. national security or would place American lives in danger.

U.S. officials have talked about the great harm Snowden’s disclosures have done, but Snowden pointed out that they have given no examples of real concrete harm. Presumably the harm to which government officials allude is the compromise of the very programs that Snowden revealed, basically the programs to collect, without a specific warrant, massive amounts of data on the communications of ordinary Americans (although the vast majority of that data was never accessed and examined by the government).

The key to whether Snowden did more harm or good to his country is whether we are better off knowing about the program to amass all that data. Snowden surely thinks we are. The NBC interview didn’t go into Snowden’s underlying rationale too deeply, but in the key exchange with Williams Snowden said:

The definition of a security state is one that prioritizes security over all other considerations. I don’t believe the United States is or ever should be a security state. If we want to be free we can’t become subject to surveillance. We can’t give away our privacy. We can’t give away our rights. We have to be an active party. We have to be an active part of our government. And we have to say — there are some things worth dying for. And I think the country is one of them.

Snowden was calm and unemotional throughout the interview. He was never argumentative and showed almost no emotion. I didn’t hear much that changed my thinking about the Snowden matter. The biggest new thing for me, and I realize this is fairly silly, was how Snowden seemed. He is slight, calm, articulate and seemed to have a ready (and reasonable) answer for every question Williams asked, although NBC said that Snowden had neither asked nor received the right to know the questions in advance nor to approve what could or couldn’t be asked.

Forgive me, but I expected him to be weirder, maybe dweebier. He mostly just seemed smart. In an interview with The New York Times before the Snowden conversation was broadcast, Williams described Snowden as “blindingly smart.”

Other than the one answer I quoted just above about giving away our rights to privacy, he didn’t talk much about any deep anguish he went through to reach the decision to do what he did. But he did say that he very much would like to be able to come home. And, in the closest he came to waxing poetic about his decision, he said that while he had lost for now the ability to travel freely, he had gained “the ability to go to sleep at night.”

Comments (23)

  1. Submitted by David Frenkel on 05/29/2014 - 12:18 pm.

    Not a spy

    Snowden worked for a defense contractor not known to employ trained spies and working previously for the CIA as an IT network administrator certainly isn’t spy training. Snowden is a classic example of somebody having too much or unnecessary classified information access which he took advantage of which is difficult to stop. It has happened in the past and it unfortunately will continue to happen. The sad part of many of these leaks is that people do get killed when their names show up as spies on formerly classified information.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/29/2014 - 04:21 pm.

      Too much access?

      I think that the problem is too much classified information, not too much access to information.

    • Submitted by Steve Hoffman on 05/31/2014 - 04:59 pm.

      Killed by information

      Snowden didn’t release the names of any agents — unlike the Bush administration (Karl Rove) who named agent Valerie Plame in print.

      I think it boils down to — who are you gonna trust, the people who lied to you or the one who told the truth?

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 05/29/2014 - 12:35 pm.

    I am having a hard time reconciling these latest claims with his previous claims.

    After he left his 4 month stint in the Army, he went back to a Maryland community college until 2005.

    In the 4 year period after that, he claims he was trained as a hacker by the CIA. He then worked as an undercover spy for both the CIA and NSA. He was also a lecturer at the DIA Joint Counterintelligence Training Academy where,as he said, “I developed sources and methods for keeping our information and people secure in the most hostile and dangerous environments around the world.” He then left direct government employment.

    He worked the next 4 years as a contract worker for a variety of companies such as Dell and Booz Allen.

    That’s about a pound more than a half-pound sack should hold.

    It doesn’t change the revelations he released, but it does change my impression of him.

  3. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 05/29/2014 - 02:28 pm.

    Snowden is no enemy of the people

    Considering the Eagle:

    If one is not blinded by the sun, look carefully now and ponder one suggestion.

    If that great symbolic bird, the generous winged Eagle starts looking, in profile, more like its not-too-close cousin the less desirable buzzard…

    …and when one looks more closely, it could be we have blindly, carelessly lately, been paying loyalty to a vulture in the making who is ever watching…not to protect us but to consume; we then being the consumed?

    What we once assumed was a Constitutional ground-scape of this once-upon-a-time free nation; where free speech and the right of privacy were the feathered crown guaranteed in our most blessed democracy; where civil liberty is/was its most precious trust…where has it all gone?

    Where is it now? What are we really losing? What is slipping away? Did that magnificent, grand bird of this republic fly away?

  4. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/29/2014 - 03:14 pm.


    Too much psychoanalysis of Snowden — too little fact about the implications of what he did, and what his alternatives were (and are).
    I agree that the onus is on our government to show that the harm resulting from his actions outweighs the benefits from shedding some light on our information gathering activities.
    Exactly what he was trained to do and by who is beside the point.

  5. Submitted by Virginia Martin on 05/29/2014 - 07:29 pm.

    value of leaks

    Without Snowden, we would never have known about the extent and amount of spying on U.S. citizens and others (such as Angela Merkl). He risked everything to bring this to our attention, and far from being a traitor, I view him as a true patriot. No one has been able to show what harm the revelations have done, except to the reputation and credibility of our government. That’s why he’s in trouble.
    Daniel Ellsberg said that it’s a whole different country from the one in which he leaked the Pentagon Papers and agreed that Snowden should not come back. I have heard this man speak and read some of his comments, and I have great admiration for him.

  6. Submitted by jason myron on 05/29/2014 - 07:55 pm.


    but anyone who complains of government overreach then seeks asylum in a country that’s Exhibit A for human rights violations is a massive hypocrite.

    • Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 05/30/2014 - 07:04 am.

      Where would you have him go, Jason

      Looks to me like he was fleeing for his life. The NSA and CIA do anything but play fair. I think anyone who exposes illegal activities by the government should be protected. Speaking of human rights violations, in addition to illegal violations of privacy let’s toss in torture. Let’s toss in military adventurism that has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths in the last decade. Lets talk voter repression and gerrymandering efforts. I’d say America, the country, is the massive hypocrite. Oh, yeah, and as a Viet Nam vet I’d like to toss in all that wonderful care our country shows its veterans at the VA,

      • Submitted by jason myron on 05/30/2014 - 02:05 pm.

        If I’m running for my life from a cape buffalo,

        I don’t seek refuge in the Lions den. If he was fleeing for his life, who does he have to blame other than himself? Frankly, I wasn’t shocked by his revelations…covert ops have been a part of American life for a long time, and it was only going to escalate after Bush signed the Patriot Act and declared an open ended “war on terror.”

        You and I seem to have been on the planet for a comparable length of time (and thank you for your service, by the way) so the fact that surveillance has escalated along with the technological advances to compile it should not come as a shock from a country that has let loose riot police on civil rights marches, student protesters and even opened fire and killed students at Kent State. I’m not defending it, in fact I find it as reprehensible as you do, but this war was lost decades ago under the guise of security and faux patriotism. Last, but not least, what the NSA does pales in comparison with private industry. I happened to disable my Ghostery on a site a couple of nights ago and watched no less than 60 companies attempting to track my info. The proverbial Genie has long since left the bottle.

    • Submitted by Chris Johnson on 06/02/2014 - 12:51 pm.

      Didn’t you read the article? He got stuck in Russia; it wasn’t his choice to be there. If one’s choice was death or living in Russia, most people would tend to pick life in Russia.

      • Submitted by jason myron on 06/02/2014 - 01:43 pm.

        Of course I read it

        but he applied for temporary asylum and took a job there, did he not? The US revoked his passport, and rightly so. He’s allowed himself to be duped by Putin and used for political purposes. Unfortunately for him, I’m sure that eventually, he’ll come to the realization that trusting a government run by an ex KGB officer was a serious blunder., especially when his usefulness to that government runs dry.

  7. Submitted by Joe Musich on 05/29/2014 - 11:42 pm.

    The …

    Corporations and their job creators retain those rights,

  8. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 05/30/2014 - 08:47 am.

    The government is surveilling and collecting our communications.

    The government flies surveillance drones over our towns, and over our homes.

    There are surveillance cameras *everywhere* recording our movements.

    Our civilian police departments are now full fledged para-military organizations, equipped with heavy weapons and armor. (Duluth just received it’s own MRAP) Oh, and many have their own drones as well.

    The government is collecting intimate details about our medical histories.

    If you purchase firearms, firearm related products or visit firearm related websites your name is on a list.

    If you have supported conservative political groups, the IRS has your number. But don’t feel out lefties, they’ll eventually get around to you as well.

    Obama is ruling by edict. If you don’t think his replacement, Republican or Democrat, wont make use of, and expand upon this precedent you’re deluding yourself.

    I’d nominate Snowden for a Nobel prize if it had any credible value left at all.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 05/30/2014 - 12:04 pm.

      Now what was the name of that president who declared an eternal global war on terror and pushed through the “Patriot Act” with visions of mushroom clouds over America? Which Attorney Generals sidestepped FISA over and over? Which administrations agencies set up all of those special closets at the big telephone companies? Hmm, when was that NSA giant computer surveillance system planned and developed in UT? Gosh, which VP order indefinite detention and extraordinary renditions? Those seemed to be somewhat lawless at the time, but…

      I just can’t remember. I guess I have forgotten..

      You win, Mr. Swift, IT IS all the precedent of Obama.

      Going where no other has been before.

      • Submitted by Lance Groth on 05/30/2014 - 01:38 pm.

        It’s not a problem of parties

        This is not a democrat or republican problem, and pointing fingers at each other is a silly distraction. Yes, Bush shamelessly used 9/11 to erode civil and constitutional rights and strengthen the executive, and yes, Obama has taken that and moved the ball even further down field. The lesson here is that each succeeding administration, going all the way back to Eisenhower’s famous warning about the military/industrial complex, pushes the envelope farther, gathering more information about the private lives of American citizens, employing ever more intrusive and powerful technology, and weakening, skirting or outright trampling our constitutional guarantees. It is a disease of the Federal government and the three letter agencies, regardless of which party happens to occupy the White House for a few years.

        As far as I’m concerned, Snowden is a patriot and did us all a tremendous service, and sacrificed much and risked even more. He did not, as far as I can tell, release any information that risked any lives or undermined national security. He simply has shown a spotlight into some dark corners so that Americans would be aware of the type of activities being done in their name, and to them. It’s the scuttlers in the dark who dislike bright lights. Democracy requires it.

        Are we a National Security State? I guess that depends on how you slice it. At the very least, we have gone very far down the road that leads to it, and in ways that I do not think are compatible with our principles.

        Snowden would be a fool to return to the America of Gitmo, and has quite recently employed practices such as waterboarding, “extraordinary rendition” and secret CIA prisons. He took refuge in one of the few places on Earth that the long arm of the American government cannot reach (at least not easily and not without a major international incident), and I say good for him – provided that he has not given his data to the Russians. He says he has not, and there are no indications that he has.

  9. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 05/30/2014 - 10:27 am.


    Did anyone ask him about helping Putin whitewash Russia’s actions in the Ukraine? That is where Snowden lost me for good.

  10. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/30/2014 - 10:47 am.

    Just one correction

    The IRS has admitted flagging ALL groups claiming charitable/educational tax status who appear to have political action as their main function — both Left and Right.

    • Submitted by Steve Hoffman on 06/01/2014 - 03:48 pm.

      IRS flagging

      That’s exactly as it should be. If any entity wants to get out of paying taxes, it should be closely scrutinized to ensure that it’s doing exactly what it says it is. I’m tired of tax exemptions for “charitable” or “religious” organizations that are nothing more than (1) political fronts, or (2) money-making operations.

      • Submitted by jason myron on 06/02/2014 - 06:32 am.


        If the core tenet of your group is anti-taxation, don’t whine when you’re looked at more closely. If I have a license plate that says “I hate Cops”, I would have the expectation that I’m going to get pulled over more often.

  11. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/30/2014 - 11:55 am.

    False claims of security

    I’ve always had mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I’ve always had a hard time getting nervous about the government looking at my Facebook account, or listening to my wife call me from the Park n Ride to tell me she’s almost home. In fact, I have nothing but sympathy for any poor bastard that’s listening to my phone calls, anyone with that job should get hazard pay due the possibility of dying from boredom.

    The other thing that’s missing for me is any stories of people disappearing in the night, or in any way being wrongly persecuted as a result of this surveillance. We had more complaints about the No-fly lists and the extraordinary renditions that we’ve had about anything coming from this data collection. So either we’re not hearing the stories or it’s not happening.

    Regarding these claims that the program was saving lives and that the revelation of it’s existence has harmed our national security. Frankly, governments always make that claim whenever secrets are revealed and it’s rarely justified. More often than not these revelations are embarrassing rather than dangerous. And for those who think that Snowden should face trial, remember the government cannot be compelled to reveal anything it declares to be a national security secret in court. How do you defend yourself against a claim that can’t be verified? The government says: “you damaged our security” you say: “OK, how?” And they say: “We can’t tell you, it’s a secret”. What kind of “trial” can that be?

    And more to the point, typically, these “secrets” are only secrets from the nations citizens, not our adversaries. Like the “secret” bombing of Cambodia… the Cambodian’s knew about it. I would assume that any terrorist worth their salt would have assumed that somehow all electronic communications were being monitored. Hey, I watched Hogan’s Hero’s, even on a street corner talking in person you use code in case someone is listening. From a counterintelligence perspective you don’t need to know the exact methods of surveillance being deployed against you, the precautions are universal in any event. The only thing you may or may not know is whether or not your codes have been broken.

    My problem with this program is that I suspect its an expensive waste of resources. The government can claim they’ve saved lives but they know they’ll never have to prove it. I think the Boston Marathon bombing proves that this program is a bust. If this dragnet should have caught anyone it should have caught those bombers. Not only did it fail to identify them before hand, but it was useless after the fact as well. You’ll recall it the public release of the photos that identified those guys, not any tippy-top secret data collection.

    I just don’t think its actually possible to troll billions of communications a day and find useful information. I don’t care what algorithms they claim to have, it just doesn’t make sense. On very basic level, computers, as fast and as cleverly programmed as they may be, are still dumb. Terrorists may be a lot of things, but they’re usually intelligent so if you square a dumb computer off against an intelligent terrorist the terrorist will win. We can assume that whatever electronic communications the Boston bombers used was collected, so either the program missed it, or they saw it and failed to recognize what it for what it was, or the bombers used some other kind of communication. Either way the program failed, and they had a lot of specific reasons to be looking at these guys, they weren’t just two of billions chatting amongst trillions. So you’re telling me that THESE bombers didn’t pop in your program but a dragnet of the entire world on a hourly basis is saving lives? I’m sorry but your going to have to convince me, I’m not taking a word for it.

    Meanwhile, the program is unconstitutional, and illegal. This is search AND seizure of our communications without probable cause or warrant. ONE thing we know for sure about the people running this program is that they’re liars, they’ve been lying about the existence and nature of this program to our faces for years. Now they’re telling us to trust them because we’re safer, well you can’t trust someone who’s been lying to you, it’s that simple.

  12. Submitted by James Hamilton on 06/02/2014 - 10:30 am.

    The court of public opinion,

    based on partial information and burdened with our preconceptions and biases, is no place to resolve Snowden’s guilt or innocence.

    Let him come home, face trial on whatever charges may be brought, and, if he is convicted, seek leniency at his sentencing or the commutation of his sentence from the then president.

  13. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 06/02/2014 - 05:46 pm.

    Thanks, Everyone for All the Thoughtful Comments

    To me Snowden is, indeed, a hero for revealing that our government has the mechanisms in place to create a “1984” scenario whenever those in charge choose to do so,…

    (just because they’re not doing it YET, doesn’t mean some future leaders will not decide that theses systems MUST be used in exactly these ways,…

    “for the good of the country”, which, as things stand, could be done very suddenly, with complete secrecy, and absolute impunity by whomever chooses to do it).

    If you care to zero in on who it is that might do such a thing, pay attention to those who are falsely accusing the other side of doing such things ALREADY (i.e., those accusing President Obama of operating as a fascist or communist dictator, for instance) . Those are the folks who reveal in their accusations toward others that, if given sufficient power to do so, they would feel absolutely justified in doing what they falsely accuse their enemies of doing.

    It’s only a matter of time before a new Joe McCarthy comes around. Imagine what such an evil demagogue could do with the information the currently-existing government surveillance systems would make available,…

    (and let us not forget that there are those on the far right who have never ceased trying to convince us all that Joe McCarthy was correct and justified in all his actions).

    Meanwhile, it saddens me to admit I’m convinced that for all the reasons stated by others, there’s no way Edward Snowden has a snowball’s chance in Hades of getting anything like a fair trial in the US. Any such trial would be a Kangaroo Court of the first order.

    Considering our government’s claim of the right to carry out “special rendition” of those our government wants to pick up, in any country in the world,…

    and the NSA and CIA’s anger and frustration at being caught subverting the US Constitution (Hi, guys! – did you see that I mentioned you in a negative way?),…

    it’s quite possible that Russia is the ONLY place where Snowden will be safe for the rest of his natural life.

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