NSA leaker Edward Snowden, still hidden somewhere in Hong Kong, emerged briefly for a live Guardian chat today, accusing tech companies of issuing "misleading" statements and re-asserting previous claims about warrantless wiretapping. He also burned Dick Cheney.
Snowden, who revealed himself a little over a week ago as the source of NSA documents leaked to The Guardian and The Washington Post, took questions from Guardian journalists, commenters, and Twitter users for a few hours this morning, maintaining his trademark dramatic flair: "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 in his first answer. "Truth is coming, and it cannot be stopped."
We may have to wait a little while, though. There wasn't much new information in the chat, which focused instead on clarifications of previous statements and reporting. Asked about initial reports that he had been making $200,000 while employed at the government contractor Booz Allen, Snowden explained that the figure was his "career high" salary, not his specific pay at Booz Allen. He also explained why he chose Hong Kong over Iceland:
Leaving the US was an incredible risk, as NSA employees must declare their foreign travel 30 days in advance and are monitored. 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.
And laughed off the accusation that he had cut a deal with Chinese authorities:
This is a predictable smear that I anticipated before going public, as the US media has a knee-jerk "RED CHINA!" reaction to anything involving HK or the PRC, and is intended to distract from the issue of US government misconduct. Ask yourself: if I were a Chinese spy, why wouldn't I have flown directly into Beijing? I could be living in a palace petting a phoenix by now.
In other answers, Snowden was less forthcoming. Asked about the phrase "direct access"—The Guardian reported that the NSA was given "direct access" to large tech companies' servers; subsequent reporting has disputed this—he seemed to give an indirect answer, while promising "more detail":
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.
He wrote that he stands by his claim that he "had the authority to wiretap anyone... even the president," but made it clear that the statement is only true if you also accept that "policy protection is no protection":
Yes, I stand by it. 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 turned some ire to the tech companies whose collaboration with the NSA he exposed with his leaks—"Their denials went through several revisions as it become more and more clear they were misleading and included identical, specific language across companies."—but saved his best stuff for Dick Cheney—returning to one answer to add an extra paragraph burning the former Vice President:
Further, it's important to bear in mind I'm being called a traitor by men like former Vice President Dick Cheney. This is a man who gave us the warrantless wiretapping scheme as a kind of atrocity warm-up on the way to deceitfully engineering a conflict that has killed over 4,400 and maimed nearly 32,000 Americans, as well as leaving over 100,000 Iraqis dead. Being called a traitor by Dick Cheney is the highest honor you can give an American, and the more panicked talk we hear from people like him, Feinstein, and King, the better off we all are. If they had taught a class on how to be the kind of citizen Dick Cheney worries about, I would have finished high school.
[image via AP]