Any regrets, Edward Snowden? "I'd have come forward sooner"

The former NSA contractor turned whistleblower said during a Reddit question-and-answer session that the leaks have also improved security and encryption in Silicon Valley.

Edward Snowden answers questions on Reddit (Image: Imgur/Reddit)

Edward Snowden has just one regret.

It's not that he threw Obama's second term in office under the bus by disclosing the vast surveillance by the National Security Agency. Nor did he regret that he condemned himself to the bowels of Russia. (He rightfully pointed out the weather in Moscow has been "warmer than the east coast" this past week, where temperatures have been close to zero.)

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It was that he didn't "come forward sooner" with what he knew.

Journalist Glenn Greenwald and filmmaker Laura Poitras, and former NSA contractor turned whistleblower Edward Snowden answered questions from the Reddit community on Monday in an hour-long "ask me anything."

The question-and-answer session comes hours before the Poitras documentary, "Citizenfour," broadcasts on HBO. The film, which documents the first few days the whistleblower goes on the run in Hong Kong and the immediate aftermath of the leaks, won an Oscar on Sunday for best documentary feature.

Here are select highlights from the event, edited for clarity:

Snowden, months after he was granted political asylum in Russia, asked the country's president Vladimir Putin if his government spies on its citizens. What proof do we have that Putin is being honest?

Snowden: "There's not, and that's part of the problem world-wide. We can't just reform the laws in one country, wipe our hands, and call it a day. We have to ensure that our rights aren't just being protected by letters on a sheet of paper somewhere, or those protections will evaporate the minute our communications get routed across a border. The only way to ensure the human rights of citizens around the world are being respected in the digital realm is to enforce them through systems and standards rather than policies and procedures."

Any hope that the success of "Citizenfour"will help repatriate Snowden back to the US, or will the government continue to press for his extradition and detention?

Greenwald: "Under the Espionage Act [which Snowden has been charged under], Snowden would be barred even from raising a defense of justification. The courts would not allow it. So he'd be barred from raising the defense [government officials and journalists] keep saying he should come back and raise."

What do you think about the aftermath of the revelations? Has the world changed that much in the wake of the leaks?

Snowden: "Many of the changes that are happening are invisible because they're happening at the engineering level. Google encrypted the backhaul communications between their data centers to prevent passive monitoring. Apple was the first forward with a full disk encryption-by-default smartphone (kudos!).

The biggest change has been in awareness. Before 2013, if you said the NSA was making records of everybody's phone calls and the [British] GCHQ was monitoring lawyers and journalists, people raised eyebrows and called you a conspiracy theorist. Those days are over."

Do you have any regrets?

Snowden: "I would have come forward sooner... [But] these programs would have been a little less entrenched, and those abusing them would have felt a little less familiar with and accustomed to the exercise of those powers. This is something we see in almost every sector of government, not just in the national security space, but it's very important. Once you grant the government some new power or authority, it becomes exponentially more difficult to roll it back."

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Laura Poitras was for a while, despite being a US citizen, detained at the US border on arrival. She previously said she now lives in Berlin, where privacy is enshrined into German law and society. Is she still detained for extra screening when she flies home?

Poitras: "The detentions have thankfully stopped, at least for now. Starting in 2006, after I came back from making a film about Iraq's first election, I was stopped and detained at the US border over forty times, often times for hours. After I went public with my experiences (Glenn broke the story in 2012), the harassment stopped. Unfortunately there are countless others who aren't so lucky."

How do you all collaborate? I saw in the film that you used certain privacy tools to encrypt the document archives.

Poitras: "It would have been impossible for us to work on the NSA stories and make "Citizenfour" without many encryption tools that allowed us to communicate more securely. In fact, in the credits we thank several free software projects for making it all possible. I can't really get into our specific security process, but on the The Intercept's security experts, Micah Lee, wrote a great post about helping Glenn and I when we first got in contact with Snowden.

It's definitely important that we support these tools so the creators can make them easier to use. They are incredibly underfunded for how important they are. You can donate to Tails, Tor and a few other projects at the Freedom of the Press Foundation."

Does Edward Snowden work for the Russian intelligence agencies, as some claim he is?

Snowden: "Of course not... If I were a spy for the Russians, why the hell was I trapped in any airport for a month? I would have gotten a parade and a medal instead.

At this point, I think the reason I get away with it is because of my public profile. What can they really do to me? If I show up with broken fingers, everybody will know what happened."

What's the best way to make NSA surveillance an issue in the 2016 presidential election?

Greenwald: "The key tactic [those in Washington DC] use to make uncomfortable issues disappear is bipartisan consensus... The problem is that the leadership of both parties, as usual, are in full agreement: they love NSA mass surveillance. So that has blocked it from receiving more debate. That NSA program was ultimately saved by the unholy trinity of Obama, Nancy Pelosi and John Bohener, who worked together to defeat the Amash/Conyers bill [the first amendment in Congress to attempt to address the NSA's surveillance powers in the wake of the leaks]."