The NSA whistleblower that kicked off the PRISM scandal last week has taken part in a live Q&A on the Guardian website, revealing further details about the extent of the US authorities surveillance activities.
In the Q&A on Monday, Edward Snowden, responded to questions put to him on the Guardian website, confirming that whatever happens to him or the evidence he has revealed that the “US Government is not going to be able to cover this up by jailing or murdering me. [The] Truth is coming, and it cannot be stopped”.
He also said that he chose to disclose the spying activities from Hong Kong, rather than Iceland (his preferred country for diplomatic asylum) as a result of fear he would be intercepted en-route to Iceland. He also noted that he thought Hong Kong would fight harder against any extradition requests.
“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,” he wrote. “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 was also quizzed over minor inaccuracies in reports, such as telling Glenn Greenwald his salary was $200,000 when in fact it was $122,000 to which he said he had been debriefed over a number of days and that $200,000 figure was a “career high”.
Snowden also explained why he waited until after President Barack Obama’s election (he had apparently previously claimed he wanted to tell the world long before Obama came to power) as his “campaign promises and election gave me faith that he would lead us toward fixing the problems he outlined in his quest for votes”.
“Unfortunately, shortly after assuming power, he closed the door on investigating systemic violations of law, deepened and expanded several abusive programs, and refused to spend the political capital to end the kind of human rights violations like we see in Guantanamo, where men still sit without charge,” Snowden added.
Later, Snowden said that Obama still had time to “go down in history as the President who looked into the abyss and stepped back, rather than leaping forward into it” and that the disclosures presented an opportunity for “a return to sanity, constitutional policy, and the rule of law rather than men.”
“I would advise he personally call for a special committee to review these interception programs, repudiate the dangerous “State Secrets” privilege, and, upon preparing to leave office, begin a tradition for all Presidents forthwith to demonstrate their respect for the law by appointing a special investigator to review the policies of their years in office for any wrongdoing. There can be no faith in government if our highest offices are excused from scrutiny – they should be setting the example of transparency,” he added.
On “Direct Access”
He also provided a little more detail on exactly what “direct access” means and exactly who can access what without a warrant.
“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,” Snowden wrote.
He said that the rules against this access are policy, and not technology, based and that they 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 percent of those performed,” Snowden added.
When questioned more closely over exactly what NSA analysts could access without a warrant, and how that is justified he said:
“[The] NSA likes to use ‘domestic’ as a weasel word here for a number of reasons. The reality is that due to the FISA Amendments Act and its section 702 authorities, Americans’ communications are collected and viewed on a daily basis on the certification of an analyst rather than a warrant. They excuse this as “incidental” collection, but at the end of the day, someone at NSA still has the content of your communications. Even in the event of ‘warranted’ intercept, it’s important to understand the intelligence community doesn’t always deal with what you would consider a ‘real’ warrant like a Police department would have to, the ‘warrant’ is more of a templated form they fill out and send to a reliable judge with a rubber stamp.”
He also confirmed exactly what analysts could access.
If I target for example an email address, for example under FAA 702, and that email address sent something to you, Joe America, the analyst gets it. All of it. IPs, raw data, content, headers, attachments, everything. And it gets saved for a very long time – and can be extended further with waivers rather than warrants.
Snowden said he also stood by assertions previously made that he could “wiretap anyone, from you, or your accountant, to a federal judge, to even the President if I had a personal email” in relation to protections offered by the US authorities and constitution”.
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.
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%.
Despite this Snowden did say that “properly implemented strong crypto systems are one of the few things that you can rely on.”
“Unfortunately, endpoint security is so terrifically weak that NSA can frequently find ways around it,” he added.
On Google and Facebook
When news of PRISM first broke it wasn’t long before each of the major technology companies named had put out statements denying any involvement. Specifically responding to a question on Google and Facebook’s statements, Snowden said:
“Their denials went through several revisions as it become more and more clear they were misleading and included identical, specific language across companies. As a result of these disclosures and the clout of these companies, we’re finally beginning to see more transparency and better details about these programs for the first time since their inception.
They are legally compelled to comply and maintain their silence in regard to specifics of the program, but that does not comply them from ethical obligation.”
Predictably he was also asked if he had already – or had plans to – divulge national US secrets to China in exchange for asylum, a suggestion he describes as a “predictable smear […] intended to distract from 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,” he added.
Nonetheless, some readers took that as Snowden trying to dodge the question and asked for a flat out denial that he had been in contact with the Chinese government, which he duly provided.
“No. I have had no contact with the Chinese government. Just like with the Guardian and the Washington Post, I only work with journalists,” he said.
On deciding to reveal PRISM
According to Snowden, there was no single moment where he realized he had to take action, instead he said it was “seeing a continuing litany of lies from senior officials to Congress – and therefore the American people – and the realization that that Congress, specifically the Gang of Eight, wholly supported the lies” that forced him to take action.
Since revealing the scheme, Snowden said he was “initially very encouraged” by the media reaction. However, as the focus has drifted away from the surveillance project he’s been less impressed.
“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.”
As the Q&A wrapped up, Snowden fired some parting words of advice for citizens everywhere, whether or not they were being watched.
“Thanks to everyone for their support, and remember that just because you are not the target of a surveillance program does not make it okay. The US Person / foreigner distinction is not a reasonable substitute for individualized suspicion, and is only applied to improve support for the program. This is the precise reason that NSA provides Congress with a special immunity to its surveillance.”
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