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Full Transcript of Q&A session with NSA leaker Edward Snowden

Full Transcript of Q&A session with NSA leaker Edward Snowden

A full transcript of the Guardian’s live online Q&A session with NSA leaker Edward Snowden is provided below.  The contents of the session were transcribed as is, without any edits or corrections to content, only formatting edits.

You can also download it via PDF.

(Note:  We cannot independently verify the identity of this person as Edward Snowden; we are relying upon The Guardian’s assertion that it is, in fact, Edward Snowden).


Question: Guardian staff, Glenn Greenwald

1)  Why did you choose Hong Kong to go to and then tell them about US hacking on their research facilities and universities?

2)  How many sets of the documents you disclosed did you make, and how many different people have them? If anything happens to you, do they still exist?


1)  First, the US Government, just as they did with other whistleblowers, immediately and predictably destroyed any possibility of a fair trial at home, openly declaring me guilty of treason and that the disclosure of secret, criminal, and even unconstitutional acts is an unforgivable crime. That’s not justice, and it would be foolish to volunteer yourself to it if you can do more good outside of prison than in it.

Second, let’s be clear: I did not reveal any US operations against legitimate military targets. I pointed out where the NSA has hacked civilian infrastructure such as universities, hospitals, and private businesses because it is dangerous. These nakedly, aggressively criminal acts are wrong no matter the target. Not only that, when NSA makes a technical mistake during an exploitation operation, critical systems crash. Congress hasn’t declared war on the countries – the majority of them are our allies – but without asking for public permission, NSA is running network operations against them that affect millions of innocent people. And for what? So we can have secret access to a computer in a country we’re not even fighting? So we can potentially reveal a potential terrorist with the potential to kill fewer Americans than our own Police? No, the public needs to know the kinds of things a government does in its name, or the “consent of the governed” is meaningless.

2)  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. Truth is coming, and it cannot be stopped.


Question: Guardian staff, ewenmacaskill

I should have asked you this when I saw you but never got round to it……..Why did you just not fly direct to Iceland if that is your preferred country for asylum?


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.


Question: ActivistGal

You have said HERE that you admire both Ellsberg and Manning, but have argued that there is one important distinction between yourself and the army private…

“I carefully evaluated every single document I disclosed to ensure that each was legitimately in the public interest,” he said. “There are all sorts of documents that would have made a big impact that I didn’t turn over, because harming people isn’t my goal. Transparency is.”

Are you suggesting that Manning indiscriminately dumped secrets into the hands of Wikileaks and that he intended to harm people?


No, I’m not. Wikileaks is a legitimate journalistic outlet and they carefully redacted all of their releases in accordance with a judgment of public interest. The unredacted release of cables was due to the failure of a partner journalist to control a passphrase. However, I understand that many media outlets used the argument that “documents were dumped” to smear Manning, and want to make it clear that it is not a valid assertion here.


Question: D. Aram Mushegian II

Did you lie about your salary? What is the issue there? Why did you tell Glenn Greenwald that your salary was $200,000 a year, when it was only $122,000 (according to the firm that fired you.)


I was debriefed by Glenn and his peers over a number of days, and not all of those conversations were recorded. The statement I made about earnings was that $200,000 was my “career high” salary. I had to take pay cuts in the course of pursuing specific work. Booz was not the most I’ve been paid.


Question: Gabrielaweb

Why did you wait to release the documents if you said you wanted to tell the world about the NSA programs since before Obama became president?


Obama’s campaign promises and election gave me faith that he would lead us toward fixing the problems he outlined in his quest for votes. Many Americans felt similarly. 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.


Question: Anthony De Rosa

1)  Define in as much detail as you can what “direct access” means.

2)  Can analysts listen to content of domestic calls without a warrant?


1)  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.

2)  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.

Glenn Greenwald follow up: When you say “someone at NSA still has the content of your communications” – what do you mean? Do you mean they have a record of it, or the actual content?

Both. 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.


Question: HaraldK

What are your thoughts on Google’s and Facebook’s denials? Do you think that they’re honestly in the dark about PRISM, or do you think they’re compelled to lie?

Perhaps this is a better question to a lawyer like Greenwald, but: If you’re presented with a secret order that you’re forbidding to reveal the existence of, what will they actually do if you simply refuse to comply (without revealing the order)?


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. If for example Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple refused to provide this cooperation with the Intelligence Community, what do you think the government would do? Shut them down?


Question:  MonaHol

Ed Snowden, I thank you for your brave service to our country.

Some skepticism exists about certain of your claims, including this:

I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone, from you, or your accountant, to a federal judge, to even the President if I had a personal email.

Do you stand by that, and if so, could you elaborate?


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.”


Question: Guardian staff, Spencer Ackerman

Edward, there is rampant speculation, outpacing facts, that you have or will provide classified US information to the Chinese or other governments in exchange for asylum. Have/will you?


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.


Question:  Kimberly Dozier

US officials say terrorists already altering TTPs because of your leaks, & calling you traitor. Respond? 


US officials say this every time there’s a public discussion that could limit their authority. US officials also provide misleading or directly false assertions about the value of these programs, as they did just recently with the Zazi case, which court documents clearly show was not unveiled by PRISM.

Journalists should ask a specific question: since these programs began operation shortly after September 11th, how many terrorist attacks were prevented SOLELY by information derived from this suspicionless surveillance that could not be gained via any other source? Then ask how many individual communications were ingested to acheive that, and ask yourself if it was worth it. Bathtub falls and police officers kill more Americans than terrorism, yet we’ve been asked to sacrifice our most sacred rights for fear of falling victim to it.


Question: Mathius1

Is encrypting my email any good at defeating the NSA survelielance? Id my data protected by standard encryption?


Encryption works. 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.


Question:  Jacob Appelbaum

Do you believe that the treatment of Binney, Drake and others influenced your path? Do you feel the “system works” so to speak? #AskSnowden


Binney, Drake, Kiriakou, and Manning are all examples of how overly-harsh responses to public-interest whistle-blowing only escalate the scale, scope, and skill involved in future disclosures. Citizens with a conscience are not going to ignore wrong-doing simply because they’ll be destroyed for it: the conscience forbids it. Instead, these draconian responses simply build better whistleblowers. If the Obama administration responds with an even harsher hand against me, they can be assured that they’ll soon find themselves facing an equally harsh public response.

This disclosure provides Obama an opportunity to appeal for a return to sanity, constitutional policy, and the rule of law rather than men. He still has plenty of time to go down in history as the President who looked into the abyss and stepped back, rather than leaping forward into it. 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.


Question: Ryan Latvaitis

What would you say to others who are in a position to leak classified information that could improve public understanding of the intelligence apparatus of the USA and its effect on civil liberties?

What evidence do you have that refutes the assertion that the NSA is unable to listen to the content of telephone calls without an explicit and defined court order from FISC?


This country is worth dying for.


Question:  AhBrightWings

My question: given the enormity of what you are facing now in terms of repercussions, can you describe the exact moment when you knew you absolutely were going to do this, no matter the fallout, and what it now feels like to be living in a post-revelation world? Or was it a series of moments that culminated in action? I think it might help other people contemplating becoming whistleblowers if they knew what the ah-ha moment was like. Again, thanks for your courage and heroism.


I imagine everyone’s experience is different, but for me, there was no single moment. 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 compelled me to act. Seeing someone in the position of James Clapper – the Director of National Intelligence – baldly lying to the public without repercussion is the evidence of a subverted democracy. The consent of the governed is not consent if it is not informed.


Question: Follow-up from the Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman

Regarding whether you have secretly given classified information to the Chinese government, some are saying you didn’t answer clearly – can you give a flat no?


No. I have had no contact with the Chinese government. Just like with the Guardian and the Washington Post, I only work with journalists.


Question: tikkamasala

So far are things going the way you thought they would regarding a public debate?


Initially I was very encouraged. 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.


Question: Final question from Glenn Greenwald

Anything else you’d like to add?


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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So many idiots, so little time…

What has become quite obvious is that nobody in our government ever gets prosecuted for breaking the law unless it embarrasses somebody.

Snowden caused lots of embarrassment.

Thanks Mandy, this was a great heads up. I thought Snowden missed an opportunity to be more specific about what is and what is not in the accumulated database. I would have loved more elaboration on the Google/Microsoft et al. denials — he implied that their statements were so uniform that they were scripted by US security officials. For example, he tells us that the Manning-Wikileaks docs were scrubbed to avoid putting lives in danger, but a media outlet screwed up on a passphrase and dumped all the text of diplomatic cables into the public domain — that’s an interesting detail, why not similarly elaborate on Google?

He gave some interesting insight on travel restrictions for NSA personnel and the relative vulnerability of Iceland border agents to US pressure versus Hong Kong’s posture. He denied giving info to the Chinese government, and stated he only works with journalists. He also said that email encryption works, but if your recipient leaves it unencrypted on his computer, it is an easy workaround for NSA.

I thought glorifying Manning was a little much, and the Dick Cheney pile-on sounded hollow, since he was quite content to sign on to the Bush-Cheney intelligence community in the first place.

I think an essential point is that the only protection citizens have versus the US intelligence community is feckless, unheeded and unenforced policy. It is troubling to see DNI Clapper lie, and admit that he lied and then suffer no consequences.

    Neo in reply to Mark30339. | June 17, 2013 at 2:25 pm

    I thought Snowden went far enough.
    What he did say is that the analysts have the means to go much further than the law allows. It will only be a matter of time before those means are used.

I thought this to be fair and a eye opening read . I also believe Showden is on the side of the people an wants America’s dirty little secret to be administrated in parallel with the Constitution.I like his awareness of ‘Conscience’ and that government could a lot more of . TY Professor

This Q&A was extremely helpful. I feel a lot better about the program, maybe it’s not as monstrous as I had previously thought, but I still think it is really bad. There is definitely a need for a full disclosure and legal analysis of the program.

    Sanddog in reply to imfine. | June 17, 2013 at 2:49 pm

    A program that is so classified, the vast majority of congress aren’t allowed to know the details, that is collecting any type of data on American citizens with little to no oversight of any type IS going to be abused, period. Nothing about an agency that is tasked with foreign surveillance that has turned it’s eye on it’s own country is going to make me feel better.

Henry Hawkins | June 17, 2013 at 2:57 pm

Dear Mr. Snowden… boxers or briefs?

It matters little how wrong/right, good/bad a surveillance program might be if it’s under the control of an administration that will abuse it. Oversight is the key, and we have a government where no branch, nor any agency within, has the confidence of the American people.

“Note: We cannot independently verify the identity of this person as Edward Snowden; we are relying upon The Guardian’s assertion that it is, in fact, Edward Snowden” and not Glenn Greenwald.

Snowden is right about one thing though. Encryption is effective, but only if it is maintained. Leaving an encrypted file open at the receiver’s end is an open invitation for those snooping to look at it.

Tom Clancy had a point in Rainbow 6: “Counter-Terrorism is a Darwinian world. The dumb ones are already dead, and the people we have to worry about are those who have learned a lot of lessons.”

Due to the nature of my law practice, I attend an awful lot of Homeland Security / Police presentations in the Borderland, and a lot of them deal with cyber-crime. There are a LOT of tools out there that the smart terrorists and smart criminals are ALREADY able to use which can defeat any signal snooping that DHS/CIA/NSA decides to throw at them.

TOR is a huge pain in the ass to Law Enforcement, because it’s hard to track (you’re bouncing a transmitted piece of data off of several IP addresses, in multiple countries). You can trace the incoming and outgoing signals if you know where to look, but if you are just seeing “traffic,” tracing it is a pain.

Stack that with a reasonably robust encryption program (KGB is kind of old, but I still like it for low level stuff, TrueCrypt or PGP Whole Disk Encryption is better for the more important stuff). It’s especially useful if you have something that can make the underlying encrypted “drives” invisible without decrypting them, so you don’t even know they are there if you are looking for them in standard ways (this one drives Law Enforcement nuts, BTW). There are ways to “hardware” hack these types of encryption, but it means that you have to have physical access to the machine that is doing the encryption/decryption which is unlikely unless there is already some suspicion of illegal activity, and requires a warrant (sneak-and-peek won’t do it, and would lead to a 4th Amendment challenge to any evidence attempted to be introduced and any derivative information as fruit of the poisonous tree).

If you stack a strong password with strong encryption and possibly an added “bio-metric” reader (fingerprint scanners are getting cheap), and your communications will be secure.

Please note: the Service Providers ALREADY have both the “authority” (you gave it to them) and the “capability” to read/intercept everything you transmit and download. Read your TERMS OF SERVICE carefully, especially the part about prohibited use of services and “piracy.” That is part of what the big fight last year about the SOPA / PIPA legislation was about, and the subsequent capitulation by the Service Providers to “monitor” user downloads for “piracy.” They CAN and DO monitor and analyze EVERYTHING that comes across their system. Re-tasking that monitoring for something that the government wants, instead of the MPAA/RIAA wants is just a matter of changing the “packet” analysis algorithm.

We’re trusting him? I’m sure China has access to his secrets by now, even if Snowden doesn’t believe it.

    I’d sooner trust this guy than the US government.

    Hell, I’d sooner trust the dirty, bearded whackjob on the corner screaming about alien invasions, than the government.

This guy clearly has much bigger balls than Bonehead Boehner. I appreciate that.

Is this the same Edward Snowden who said, “I don’t want public attention because I don’t want the story to be about me?”

Ed lost me when he gave details on our cyber war with China. While the fact that we and China are at cyber war has been in the media, the DoD doesn’t need a warrant to hack them. Think Stuxnet. Y’all liked whacking Iran’s nuclear program, right?

Snowden’s disclosure shows him to be a (deluded?) Chicom sympathizer and not a friend.

I did not reveal any US operations against legitimate military targets. I pointed out where the NSA has hacked civilian infrastructure such as universities, hospitals, and private businesses because it is dangerous.

Universities and private businesses can’t be legitimate military targets? Boundless naiveté coupled with extraordinary arrogance. This ‘reasoning’ is just one example of why fuzzy-brained, immature douche-bags shouldn’t make unilateral disclosures of classified material. Nor anyone else.

    Henry Hawkins in reply to Fabi. | June 17, 2013 at 6:43 pm

    More to the point, unilateral disclosures of classified material are what to expect when you afford national security clearances to fuzzy-brained, immature douche-bags.

    The NSA is reaping what it sowed.

      BoozAllen is a top-tier firm, so I’m very surprised at this miscreant’s autonomy and rather thin CV (from what I can glean). I remain suspicious about many of his claims, but, he is drawing flak.

There can be no justification for spying/recording of telephone calls and e-mails of innocent Americans without a warrant. 4A anyone? Want to get NSA attention and give some NSA nerd a boner?


The NSA disregards 4A; maybe they’ll start disregarding 1A. Tyranny isn’t around the corner; it’s in the room.

BannedbytheGuardian | June 17, 2013 at 7:23 pm

I got as far as ‘ indicted en route’. I have known persons who were/ are top national security & ambassadors & trade envoys to nations of first rank.

Never have I heard them talk in that language. That would only appear in official documents / communications with the assistance of embassy lawyers. The whole reply is just not what a single person would say – write. It is Committeespeek.

Hong Kong & Iceland both give a visa on entrance for stays up to 90 days. HK. Is a direct flight whereas Iceland would be Hawaii – Tokyo – Stuttgart – Scandinavia – Iceland.
The other direct flights eg Canada Australia NZ & Japan would definitely hightail him out immediately.

This looks like an inside job. Is there a civil war within the NSA ?

    BannedbytheGuardian in reply to BannedbytheGuardian. | June 17, 2013 at 7:38 pm

    Within the NSA or between other arms of national security .

    This guy is a techno geek not an analyst . Assange was a boy geek high school drop out but he also earnt a top physics degree . He had years of personal interaction with like minded travellers but his language is not this .

    Speech patterns are forensic tools because they don’t appear overnight or off the cuff . It takes layers of brain retiring .

BannedbytheGuardian | June 17, 2013 at 8:24 pm

Why The Gang Of Eight? Is this the Immigration cabal?

Is the Snowden Clique saying that they ate lying & are a direct threat to the US ? s it a lure to get a section of the Us conservative crowd on board?

Very clever.