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The self-proclaimed source of recently leaked top secret National Security Agency documents answered questions for over an hour on Monday, in a forum hosted by The Guardian's website. The question posed to Snowden, and his answers, addressed both the broader issues and questions raised by his disclosures, along with the more personal aspects of the story. Here are the highlights:
Snowden Acknowledged That Policy Limits Exist
Perhaps the most interesting answers offered by Snowden on Monday came when he addressed the line between what intelligence agencies are technically capable of versus what policy allows them to do.
The issue came up twice. The first time, Snowden was responding to a question asking him to "[d]efine in as much detail as you can what 'direct access' means." (In the wake of the original stories in The Guardian and The Washington Post citing documents released by Snowden, several of the technology companies that had been identified as part of the PRISM program denied giving the government "direct access" to their servers.)
Here's how Snowden responded:
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. Phone number, email, user id, cell phone handset id (IMEI), and so on - it's all the same. The restrictions against this are policy based, not technically based, and can change at any time. Additionally, audits are cursory, incomplete, and easily fooled by fake justifications. For at least GCHQ, the number of audited queries is only 5% of those performed.
Snowden returned to the issue later in the chat. A reader asked Snowden if he stood by his claim that, as an NSA contractor, he "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." Snowden said that he stood by the claim, then again discussed the relationship between policy protections and technical capabilities:
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 The filter is constantly out of date, is set at what is euphemistically referred to as the 'widest allowable aperture,' and can be stripped out at any time.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.'
Snowden Said He Did Not Reveal Any Operations Against 'Legitimate Military Targets'
The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald got the the live chat going on Monday by asking Snowden why he chose to go to Hong Kong, and why he then disclosed "US hacking on their research facilities and universities?" Snowden defended his disclosures by saying that he did not reveal any operations against what he termed "legitimate military targets."
"I pointed out where the NSA has hacked civilian infrastructure such as universities, hospitals, and private businesses because it is dangerous," Snowden said. "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.
Snowden Thought Hong Kong Was A Safer Bet Than Iceland
In his coming-out interview, published last Sunday in The Guardian, Snowden said his "predisposition" was to seek asylum in a country with "shared values," like Iceland. "They stood up for people over internet freedom," Snowden said. Those words prompted some people to wonder why Snowden had flown to Hong Kong, as opposed to heading straight to Iceland.
On Monday, Snowden said that he thought Hong Kong had been a safer bet for him in the short-term.
"Leaving the US was an incredible risk, as NSA employees must declare their foreign travel 30 days in advance and are monitored," Snowden wrote. "There was a distinct possibility I would be interdicted en route, so I had to travel with no advance booking to a country with the cultural and legal framework to allow me to work without being immediately detained. Hong Kong provided that. Iceland could be pushed harder, quicker, before the public could have a chance to make their feelings known, and I would not put that past the current US administration."
Snowden Has Been Reading The News About Himself
Asked what he thought about the public debate sparked by his disclosures, Snowden revealed that he has been reading the media reports digging in to his past and his personal life.
"Initially I was very encouraged," Snowden wrote, referring to the coverage of his disclosures. "Unfortunately, the mainstream media now seems far more interested in what I said when I was 17 or what my girlfriend looks like rather than, say, the largest program of suspicionless surveillance in human history."
Snowden Still Suggests The Government May Have Him Killed
The second of Glenn Greenwald's first two questions was relatively straightforward. It read as follows: "How many sets of the documents you disclosed did you make, and how many different people have them? If anything happens to you, do they still exist?"
Snowden did not answer directly. Instead, he said that the government would not be able to "cover this up," and again raised the prospect of his being assassinated over his actions.
"All I can say right now is the US Government is not going to be able to cover this up by jailing or murdering me," he wrote. "Truth is coming, and it cannot be stopped."