'Not all spying is bad': Three key takeaways from Snowden's Q&A

'Not all spying is bad': Three key takeaways from Snowden's Q&A

Summary: U.S. fugitive and whistleblower Edward Snowden said "not all spying is bad," but indiscriminate mass surveillance was a global problem — one that America "needs to take a lead in fixing."

TOPICS: Security

Love him or hate him — "patriot" or "traitor" — there's almost no denying that whistleblower Edward Snowden's surveillance disclosures remains the biggest and longest-running political story of the decade.

On Thursday, in a live Q&A session he disclosed a little bit more — mostly on his reasoning, decision-making, and state of mind. 

It comes just after a week after U.S. President Barack Obama promised reforms to the bulk metadata collection program and the secret surveillance authorization court as a result of Snowden's leaks. While an unprecedented move on behalf of the White House, the reforms were widely criticized by many, including privacy advocates, for not going for enough.

Hours before the Snowden Q&A, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder ruled out clemency for Snowden, who has been charged under the Espionage Act. Holder did say, however, the government would "engage in conversation" in efforts to seek a negotiated plea with the fugitive.

Meanwhile, also on Thursday, one U.S. government watchdog called the National Security Agency's bulk metadata collection program "illegal," siding with an earlier court ruling, and further adding weight to the notion that the government's capabilities reach beyond the realm of reasonable.

But after comments made by Russian President Vladimir Putin on Snowden's apparently indefinite asylum status in the country, the U.S.' bid to see the whistleblower tried in court may be further away than ever.

Here are some of the key takeaways from the Snowden session:

1. Whistleblower protections are 'weak'

Snowden said early on in the questioning that U.S. whistleblower laws are "weak" and "ineffective," to the point that they "appear to be intended to discourage reporting of even the clearest wrongdoing."

"If I had revealed what I knew about these unconstitutional but classified programs to Congress, they could have charged me with a felony," he said. This is because intelligence community contractors, which Snowden was, are not afforded the same privileges under such laws as full-time employees, he claimed. 

"I still made tremendous efforts to report these programs to co-workers, supervisors, and anyone with the proper clearance who would listen," he added.

Later in the Q&A, in a response to CNN's Jake Tapper, Snowden said his return to the U.S. was "not possible" in the face of current whistleblower laws.

2. 'Stealing passwords'

Snowden denied stealing passwords or tricking "an army of co-workers" in order to collect the estimated 200,000 classified documents from the NSA.

It was in response to a November article by Reuters that claimed in an "exclusive" report that Snowden "persuaded between 20 and 25 fellow workers at the NSA regional operations center in Hawaii to give him their logins and passwords by telling them they were needed for him to do his job as a computer systems administrator," according to sources speaking to the news agency.

3. 'Not all spying is bad'

The crux of the intelligence machine he disclosed is its size and breadth, and its apparent indiscriminate nature.

One federal judge, who recently called the NSA's bulk metadata program as likely unconstitutional, described the NSA's activities as "indiscriminate" — a point Snowden agreed with. 

"The biggest problem we face right now is the new technique of indiscriminate mass surveillance," he said, "where governments are seizing billions and billions and billions of innocents' communication every single day." 

Believing that a person should not have to feel as though every call, text message, or email that is sent is recorded somewhere, he said, adding: "This is a global problem, and America needs to take the lead in fixing it." 

Topic: Security

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  • Credibility?

    By qualifying Snowden as a "whistle-blower" at the beginning of your article, you take side right off the bat. Why not just refer to him as "Snowden" instead and people will form their own opinion. Unless your article is clearly featured as an opinion piece, which it is not, you should learn more about objective reporting.
    • He certainly blew the whistle

      The controversy is over whether or not he was right to do so; and whether or not he should be prosecuted for it.
      John L. Ries
      • Exactly

        That he's a whistleblower is not up for discussion. He is by definition. Whether that's s good or bad thing is a different issue. Zack is being perfectly objective.
      • There is a difference

        between blowing the whistle on a program and being a whistle-blower.
        • "Whistleblower"

          I won't go into the fine details just now, but put it this way: the BBC is calling him a whistleblower, and so will I.
          • A sheep...

            being herded by the BBC shepherd.

            Wonderful, I'm so glad you have your own independent opinion, convictions, and understanding of what Snowden has done and have this wonderful forum to spread your total misunderstanding of just how serious this all is.

            This is not only about what he released as damaging to the country as it is.

            It goes way beyond Snowden! It encompasses many who have access to classified information and don't truly understand the need to classify and protect that material. This will, I predict, be the trigger for more non-patriots to release other classified material because people want to minimalize this and call him a "whistleblower".

            You simply have no clue about Classified Material, what it involves, and how you vow to protect it.
          • You can be a perjuror and a whistleblower simultanously

            He exposed alleged wrongdoing by the NSA and federal officials, which was probably illegal as it involved public disclosure of classified information. Whether he was right to do so is the current controversy, but I think the term "whistleblower applies.

            Personally, I think the proper thing to have done would have been to feed the documents to a member of Congress with the appropriate clearances (probably a member of the House or Senate Armed Services committee). Otherwise, leak the documents, but stay home, retain a lawyer (looks like he could have afforded one) and fight the inevitable espionage charge.
            John L. Ries
          • Darrell Issa would be his best bet.

            He seems to have the lowest moral threshold in releasing secret information if it helps his political agenda. Of course, he releases ONLY the parts that further his ends, and censors out the parts that do not.

            By analogy, one could say that the Gospels promote suicide by taking verses out of context: "Judas went and hanged himself." "Go thou and do likewise."

            So maybe Issa would not be the best choice after all.
    • Why is whistle blower at question?

      How could someone NOT say Snowden was a whistle blower?

      I know exactly what your problem is. Usually there are some positive connotations attached to the term whistle blower and it appears that of course has your ire up lest someone think that what Snowden did was the right thing to do.

      I suggest that simply shows that at best what Snowden did was questionable, it was something terribly difficult to discern with absolute certainty either way as to the degree of rightness or wrongness of the situation. And that of course put Snowden in a rather sticky situation. With rather poor whistle blower laws in place.

      I think the following is one of the "core" problems we have in this kind of situation in terms of government whistle blowers. Just about everyone has some things in the back of their mind where they feel it would be just plain wrong for the government to do those things. Further, due to the rabid bi-partisanship currently in the states particularly, many people would just LOVE the party they hate to be caught doing those things and they would surely want someone to blow the whistle and expose the rotten behavior for what it was so that all could see what the government was really up to.

      Currently it sounds like in many cases there is no practical way for a whistle blower to do that in any respect with some measure of safety for him/herself. That is a disservice for every citizen who feels the public should know when a particular political party is up to something we feel there is no way they should ever be doing that particular thing. In many cases it appears that for someone to discuss such behavior with any proper authority would be deemed improper and they would face prosecution.

      Whats worse for the potential whistle blower is that they could easily find themselves in a situation where the dreaded information does somehow get found out and they are then finding themselves at some point on the hotseat being asked why they did not TELL someone about the truly despicable events going on, and you can betcha it wont float the boat to simply say "I was afraid of being charged as a traitor because it looked like there were insufficient whistle blower protection laws to allow me to tell anyone!"

      If that line worked nobody would ever get in trouble in the government that facilitated underhanded government activities. We have long since taken a dim view of "I was just following orders and I didn't want to get in trouble for resisting the situation."

      If someone can say; "here is the route Snowden should have followed to report his concerns, it would have both served to bring the issue to light to proper authorities to ensure the issue was properly scrutinized and it would have kept the information safe until the process was complete and Snowden wouldn't have got in trouble", then they should say it because only then it will show that Snowden in fact really did do the wrong thing.

      It serves zero purpose in any country to have poor whistle blower laws in place. The problems it creates are numerous.

      1. It creates a situation where government wrongdoings may well persist indefinitely if anyone and everyone who has knowledge of the activity and has concerns about the legality of the practice is terrified to speak to anyone about it.

      2. It runs the risk that persons who although terrified at the potential government backlash can no longer live with the knowledge without answers about the rightness or wrongness of the government action in question, and decide to leak the information in very public and perhaps completely inappropriate way to ensure the public does find out and to give themselves some measure of protection from just simply disappearing without the world knowing they are gone or that something has been done to them.

      3. Potential whistle blower can easily find themselves seriously stuck in a catch 22 situation. Blow the whistle and then you risk being branded a traitor and ending up in jail, or don't blow the whistle and run the risk of being question by an inquest on some future date why you never spoke to anyone about the terrible behavior you knew about and as a result you end up being branded a traitor and end up in jail for sitting silently by and even assisting in some way with these terrible goings on.

      4. How about this great solution; if you think your involved in some government work that you think is dead wrong and likely illegal, just quite your government job, get out and don't look back. That way, your out one good job and the government gets to continue to be very very bad. If you think that is anything close to an appropriate solution, your nuts.

      I think the article says a couple very basic things, Snowden was a whistle blower, the laws protecting whistle blowers are poorly constructed.

      I think there is only one conclusion to be reached, the law as it stands does all of the citizenry no good and has extraordinary potential for serious mischief in many unfortunate ways.
  • Traitor

    Whistle-Blower my *ss. He's a damn traitor, plain and simple. The only people who should be concerned with all this surveillance are those with something to hide -- crooks, robbers, terrorists, and the like. Traitor. Traitor. Traitor.
    • -or perhaps anyone who happens to disagree with their boss

      "...those with something to hide - crooks, robbers,..." - Or perhaps anyone who happens to disagree with their boss about something and would prefer to not get fired for such discovery...
    • The only people who should be concerned... are those with something to hide

      Seeing as you have nothing to hide, could you please send me your email login details, and all of your text messages and MMS messages too?

    • If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about.

      -- Germany, 1935.
      • The US today is a far cry from germany in 1935

        To me its like saying we shouldn't have police on the streets, because we love and value freedom and that our police are the same as nazis because they have guns and the power to throw us in jail.

        I live in the USA and there's a reason I am thankful I do and continue to live here. Because we have a good system of government, that is there in major part to protect its citizens. Its not perfectly functional, but I trust that its not out to get innocent citizens. I know its not cool to say government is good.

        This sort of spying will not turn the US into "the 4th reich". That would happen first by the failure of the citizens to not elect some psycho president, and vote for a bunch of really bad stuff. By then you can be concerned about governmental spying and what color or religion you are.

        I'm concerned that people become so blinded with anger about US government spying, that we lose track of why its necessary and remember who the bad guys are. If there is no government spying, then the bad guys run free.
        • Congratulations...

          You last paragraph was dead on.
        • they have guns and the power to throw us in jail.

          You get "thrown in jail" IF you break the law. The U.S. Constitution is the LAW. Violating the "Fourth Amendment" is breaking the LAW. So THAT makes the FISA Court a law-breaker, and should be investigated under the provisions in the U.S. Constitution!
          • So does any government that means anything

            The question isn't what the government *can* do, but what it actually does.

            Frankly, a government that didn't have the guns and power to throw people in jail would be more injurious to the public interest than an outright tyranny (at least the interests of tyrants overlap somewhat with those of their subjects).
            John L. Ries
        • 1935?

          Mass surveillance wont' turn us into "the 4th reich" but it sure lays the ground work for it. Remember, by time the Reichstag was burnt, the foundations for what came after had already been laid. A sociopath can hide their intentions so we have to make sure that an overnight mistake by voters doesn't lead to a dictatorship the following morning. That's the whole point of checks and balances. Mass secret spying of law abiding citizens with no oversight by the public defies any balance of power.
          • What lays the groundwork for totalitarianism

            1. Lack of public confidence in representative government or constitutionalism (often abetted by corrupt or ineffective government).

            2. Political parties and other ostensibly private organizations that usurp the functions of government, especially the power to employ force (the Nazi Party had its own private militia long before 1933, and other totalitarian movements have often done the same).

            3. Lack of tolerance for dissenting opinions (meaning any opinion at variance with one's own personal orthodoxy).

            4. A "war" mentality in which one or more group of citizens are designated as enemies to be destroyed (or at least expelled), instead of as fellow citizens to be entreated.

            I worry about the future of free government in the US, but my fears have more to do with the way our political culture is evolving than with overzealous intelligence gathering and law enforcement.
            John L. Ries
          • Forgot

            5. The organization of a large portion of the population on essentially military lines, even in peacetime. This need not be done by government.
            John L. Ries