It’s been nearly a year since the first stories based on former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s leaks appeared in print, but public fascination with the most significant whistleblower in a generation remains at an all time high. Last night, NBC News aired a sweeping interview with Snowden recorded a week earlier and taped in Moscow, where the whistleblower has been granted temporary asylum.
Though Snowden has been interviewed by The New York Times, the Washington Post, and filmmaker Laura Poitras, the NBC interview with anchor Brian Williams was his first with a U.S. television network and his highest profile media appearance to date.
In the hour-long broadcast, Snowden spoke passionately about his desire to serve as a positive example for future whistleblowers, the distinctions between what is moral and what is legal, and how the U.S. government radically changed following 9/11.
Even before the full interview aired, one prominent U.S. official was criticizing Snowden. During a Wednesday morning interview on CBS News, Secretary of State John Kerry suggested Snowden “man-up and come back to the United States” to face punishment. Snowden has been charged with three felonies, including two under the 1917 Espionage Act.
Snowden’s attorney, Ben Wizner, told the Guardian it was unlikely Snowden would surrender himself to the U.S. because “the laws under which Snowden is charged don’t distinguish between sharing information with the press in the public interest, and selling secrets to a foreign enemy” – something the whistleblower also touched on during the interview.
Though Edward Snowden is one of the most scrutinized figures alive today, there was still much to be learned from the broadcast. Here are six of the most memorable moments, in his words.
1. “I have no relationship with the Russian government at all.”
Early in the interview, Snowden said unequivocally that he’s not working for or with the Russian government, that he has never met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and that he didn’t bring any documents to that country after he left Hong Kong. He went even further to say he didn’t have control or access to the documents, in part because he knew that to Russian spies he’d look like “Tweety bird to Sylvester the cat.”
“I’m not a spy, which is the real question,” Snowden added.
Later in the broadcast, Snowden offered criticism of Russia’s so-called “blogger registration law” and other policies that restrict freedom in the country. Russia offered Snowden a year-long asylum beginning last August – when that year is up, it’s unclear if he’ll be allowed to stay in the country.
2. “So many of the things we’re told by the government simply aren’t true.”
As Snowden gained more access to the intelligence community, the longer he worked inside, the more disillusioned he became. This comment was the essential core of his decision to go public with the documents. Following 9/11, Snowden signed up for the military but was discharged after breaking both of his legs in special forces training.
“The Iraq war that I signed up for was launched on false premises. The American people were misled,” Snowden said. “Now, whether that was due to bad faith or simply mistakes in intelligence, I can’t say for sure. But I can say it shows the problem of putting too much faith in intelligence systems without debating them in public.”
3. “The definition of a security state is one that prioritizes security over all other considerations.”
One of the most memorable exchanges between Snowden and Williams revolved around a hypothetical Google search the interviewer made on his iPhone – a single-use “burner” he’d brought with him to Russia. Williams asked why any government would care that he searched for the final score of a hockey game, to which Snowden responded with a litany of information such an innocuous search can provide.
“Do you check it when you travel, do you check it when you’re just at home?” Snowden said. “They’d be able to tell something called your ‘pattern of life.’ When are you doing these kind of activities? When do you wake up? When do you go to sleep? What other phones are around you when you wake up and go to sleep? Are you with someone who’s not your wife?”
He laid out how bulk collection of that sort can have disastrous, if unintended, effects. “These activities can be misconstrued, misinterpreted, and used to harm you as an individual,” Snowden said, “even without the government having any intent to do you wrong.”
4. “I’m still working for the government.”
Snowden sees himself as a patriot, and went so far as to say, “there are some things worth dying for. And I think the country is one of them.” When he said, “I’m still working for the government,” what he meant is that his unauthorized disclosures have triggered reforms from Congress and the Executive branch, and led a federal judge to describe bulk surveillance as “likely unconstitutional.”
“How can it be said that this harmed the country,” Snowden asked, “when all three branches of government have made reforms as a result of it?”
5. “The ‘music’ is not an open court and a fair trial.”
Secretary of State John Kerry’s call for Snowden to “man-up” is only the latest example of government officials or journalists calling for the leaker to “face the music.” When Williams put the question to him, Snowden responded that “it’s a fair question, but it’s also uninformed.”
Echoing what his lawyer told the Guardian, Snowden explained that anyone charged under the Espionage Act “can’t argue to the jury that what you did was in the public interest.”
Snowden faces a maximum sentence of 30 years for the current charges, and other charges could be added on, leading his lawyer, Wizner, to tell the Guardian, “the exposure he faces is virtually unlimited under this.”
Which leads to the final, and perhaps most significant quote of the night.
6. “What is right is not always the same as what is legal”
In the interview, Snowden showed a willingness to spend some time in prison, so long as the sentence wouldn’t serve as a deterrent to future whistleblowers. “If you’re volunteering yourself to be used as a negative example, if you’re volunteering to spend a lifetime in prison, rather than spend a time in prison, a short period, where you’ll come out, you’ll advocate, you’ll emerge stronger and inspire other people to resist these policies – are you doing good or are you doing bad?”
Snowden also described telling NSA colleagues about the programs he’d seen and become worried about. “Many of these individuals were shocked by the programs. They’d never seen them,” he said.
But the warning they offered him was clear and unmistakable. “If you say something about this,” Snowden recalled a co-worker saying, “they’re going to destroy you.”