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.”