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Why Edward Snowden Risked His Life to Expose the Surveillance State

Snowden’s new memoir reveals what led him to risk his life to expose the U.S. government’s system of surveillance.

Six years ago, Edward Snowden leaked a trove of secret documents about how the United States had built a massive surveillance apparatus to spy on Americans and people across the globe. Snowden was then charged in the U.S. for violating the Espionage Act and other laws. As he attempted to flee to Latin America, Snowden became stranded in Russia after the U.S. revoked his passport. He has lived in Moscow ever since. Snowden just published his memoir, Permanent Record, in which he writes about what led him to risk his life to expose the U.S. government’s system of mass surveillance. From Moscow, he speaks to Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman and Juan González about his life before and after becoming an NSA whistleblower.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our conversation with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who has just published his memoir. It’s called Permanent Record. Democracy Now!’s Juan González and I spoke to him from his home in Moscow, Russia.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Ed, you say that you worked for the government and now you work for the public. Could you explain that?

EDWARD SNOWDEN: Yeah. So, I think a lot of Americans, particularly younger Americans like myself, who come from a federal family — you know, my father worked for the military for 30 years before retiring, my grandfather was an admiral, my mother worked and still works for the same courts that are trying to put me in prison — you have a kind of silent association often that the government is the country, the government is the nation, the government is the people, because that’s what we are culturally being taught.

Now, there are probably a lot of your viewers who are going, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Hold up!” But I was naive. When everybody else was protesting the Iraq War, I was volunteering to fight it, because I didn’t believe that the government would lie to us. It didn’t make sense to me that a government would risk our long-term public faith in the institution of government for short-term political advantage in building support for a war.

And part of the story in Permanent Record is the evolution of a person who really has no skepticism discovering all of the contradictions in government one by one and what happens behind that veil of secrecy, top-secret classified files, that helps you understand that the government can be a good thing, it can be a bad thing, but it is always a distinct thing from the public. What the government says is in the interests of the United States is often quite different than what the people of the United States would consider to be in their interest.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to that moment or the period of time that you’re describing, your growing awareness of what was happening in the level of surveillance in the United States. Talk about where you were working and when you made your decision and the steps you took, that, well, led you to be a world-famous name today, maybe not something you intended at the time.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: Yeah. So, I think everybody wants to imagine there is this cinematic moment where you discover the golden document, and it just changes everything about who you are, and you run out of the building, and you deliver it to journalists, and then there’s the happy ending — or, in the case of whistleblowing today, often an unhappy ending. But, of course, life is so much more complicated than that. The reality is, the change in a person’s fundamental beliefs can only happen over a very long period of time.

And what I realized, first in Japan, and then, finally, in Hawaii, was that the systems that I had been building throughout my career as a technologist — right? — you don’t have to work on the policy level to have an extraordinary influence in an organization today, as Juan said. I realized that all of these different components that I had been working on, in isolation — I had been working at the CIA, connecting and routing the flow of intelligence. Then I had been working in Japan, creating a backup system that made sure all of these things we were moving around, all of these secrets we were stealing, would be saved and stored and backed up, so even if a building was blown up, nothing would ever be lost. And then, finally, working at the CIA — or, rather, working at Dell for the CIA, at a very senior technical level, where I’m sitting down with the CTOs and the CIOs of the Central Intelligence Agency, trying to solve their technology problems, I am proposing to build a new private cloud system. And what this means is, all of the information that we moved around, all of the information that we saved and stored forever, can now be reached by anyone everywhere who works at this agency.

And this is where I begin to realize that each of these cogs were actually part of a larger machine, and this machine was not for the targeted surveillance that I had always believed was the purpose of the intelligence community, right? When you think about what the CIA does, when you think about what the NSA does, you are at least supposed to think that they spy on bad guys, right? Define them how you will, but they are looking at particularized people that they have a suspicion they’re engaged in some kind of wrongdoing. Well, the systems that I had built, the systems that my generation had built, had produced a system that instead spied on everyone. And this was something that was a long time coming for me to truly understand, because you have to understand the cognitive dissonance of believing that your government simply wouldn’t do something like that.

When I was in Japan, I was invited to speak at something called the Joint Counterintelligence Training Academies, a counterintelligence conference for China. This is basically where specialists from every different part of the intelligence community get together, and they talk about how China is going after us, and we try to thwart it, right? And their briefer for technology programs on how Chinese hackers were monitoring our government and our military couldn’t make it — just a accident of history. And so I get invited to slot in and speak in his place. And I spend all night pulling all the records, because I’ve got extraordinary access as a technologist to everything on our network. And I create a presentation, and I give it.

But while I’m preparing for this, while I’m looking at all of the terrible things the Chinese government is doing and planning, the Great Firewall, and really the leading edge of the kind of mass surveillance that was technically possible but the public still largely viewed as a conspiracy theory, I was still trying to convince myself that there was a big difference, which is, the Chinese government applied it to everyone, and our surveillance was just being applied to terrorists. Then, once I discovered the Stellar Wind inspector general’s report, and once I see more and more and more programs that are indiscriminate and broadly based, I realized that our surveillance programs operate on the basis of the same principles as the worst governments on Earth, because they are not controlled most strongly by law or by policy, as by possibility. And this is what drove me forward.

Eventually, I realized the U.S. government had stopped caring about what they should do, and instead were pursuing, as aggressively as possible, what they could do. And this meant every time you made a phone call, the NSA literally got a copy of it delivered to them the next day — a record of that call, not what you said on it, but that you made it, who you made it to, when it happened, where you were, when it was made. They were tracking the locations of people around the world. Just it happened across the wire, and they happened to see it, because they were creating collection platforms that meant anything that passed by their systems was, as they called, ingested, right? It was brought into our databases.

And then, all you had to do — think about it. You have every text message. You have every email. You have every web request. You know where every cellphone in the world is, because you have access to the records of where they’re located, because every cellphone, in order to function on the network, has to be paired with these cellphone towers, right? When you look at your signal bars, what is that saying? That’s just saying how far you are from the nearest cellphone tower. And all of those towers are saying, “Oh, I see this person, at this time. They’ve got this phone number. We know their billing address. They live at this location.” And when you take all of this in aggregate, what we were building and what we were trying to store, to a greater and greater distance every year, was history’s first permanent record of everyone’s life.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, of course, you mention in the book that the government would label this “bulk collection,” terminology that obscures the reality that what it is, is massive surveillance of everyone.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: Right. If you hear the term “bulk collection,” which is what you’ll hear anybody in Congress refer to the NSA’s mass surveillance program as, “bulk collection” sounds like what a garbageman does or what’s happening at, you know, a particularly busy post office. It is a euphemism in the same way “enhanced interrogation” is a euphemism for “torture,” in the same way that “detainee” is a euphemism for “prisoner,” in the same way that we use “targeted killing” instead of “assassination.” The government loves euphemisms. And we, as a public, must always be on guard against them. When they say, for example, the word “national security,” what they’re talking about is state security. They are interested in maintaining the stability of government more so than they are interested in what we actually think it to mean, which is public safety.

Now, we know this not because of, you know, what I’m saying here. In the wake of my actually coming forward and saying, “Look, people need to know about this,” working with journalists — which we can talk about in greater detail — everyone in the White House at the time, Barack Obama, the Congress, as they always do when a whistleblower comes up which implicates the powers that be in real, serious, across-the-board wrongdoing, said, “Look, this guy’s not a patriot. He’s causing harm. Don’t listen to him. It’s a lie. They don’t understand it” — whatever, anything they can do to get you to talk about me instead of talking about what they’re doing to you.

But to Obama’s credit, he appointed two different review groups to look into what these programs actually did in terms of public safety: the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology and then the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. And when they investigated the very first one of these programs that I looked at, which was investigating an authority called Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act — this is the one about those phone records I was talking about. Your phone records, every single day, were being delivered to the NSA, and it applied to everyone, doesn’t matter how innocent you are — they don’t care. And this was, of course, authorized not by a real court, but by a secret, rubber-stamp court, the FISA court. And this was a court that, by the way, was never intended, and certainly not designed, to interpret the Constitution in new and novel ways that granted new authorities to government. They were only intended to stamp routine requests for surveillance, that didn’t implicate our rights.

But when the president looked into this — and these groups had full access to classified information. They talked to the heads of FBI, CIA, NSA, everyone. By their own words, this kind of mass surveillance — well, the “bulk collection,” as they call it — never made a concrete difference in a single counterterrorism investigation. The only time it made any difference at all was in the case of a cab driver in California wiring $8,500 back to his clan in Somalia, which happened to have ties to terrorism. That’s it. They shredded the Constitution, they destroyed our lives for — they destroyed our way of life, rather, to catch a cab driver sending money home.

And even in this case, the FBI said that they would have gotten this guy anyway without the program, in a way that I think all of us can understand. Even if you have all the world’s communications in a bucket waiting for you just to run your hands through it, you have to know what you’re looking for in order to be able to pull it out. And by the time you can type in a name, an email address, a phone number, a credit card, anything to sort through that bucket with all of these systems, you have enough information to go to a judge and get a warrant, which the judge will absolutely grant, because no judge is going to go, “Oh, no, no. I’m not going to grant this counterterrorism warrant for someone who you think is funding terrorism.” Of course they will. And then they get all the same records.

Why is it, then, that they had to violate the Constitution to do this? And why is it, then, that if these programs were so necessary, if they were so vital, and if you believe that, despite all the evidence, they were effective — why didn’t they simply ask the public? You were never asked or granted a vote.

And this is why the lesson of 2013, unfortunately, I think, still has not been learned today, which is, these revelations were never about surveillance. Surveillance was the mechanism, it was the grounds for discussion. But the actual topic that was coming into conflict was democracy. What do we do when we have a model of government where the government derives its mandate — right? — from the consent of the governed, right? That’s where it gets its legitimacy from, if they go, “We voted for this.” But we’re not told what they’re doing, and so we can’t express our opinion on what they’re doing. And this, as we are seeing, is recurring today. And it will continue to recur so long as the government prefers, for fear of political criticism, to act more in the shadows than it does in the light.

AMY GOODMAN: NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, author of the new book Permanent Record. We’ll be back with him in a minute.

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