‘There Is Still Hope – Even for Me’
In an interview, whistleblower Edward Snowden discusses his life in Russia, the power of the intelligence apparatuses and how he will continue his battle against all-encompassing surveillance by governments.
The journey to interview Edward Snowden is a long one. For DER SPIEGEL, it began over a year ago, with numerous conversations with his lawyers in New York and Berlin. It ended two weeks ago on a Wednesday in a Moscow hotel suite with a view over Red Square.
The 34-year-old former United States intelligence worker, who exposed the global surveillance system deployed by the National Security Agency (NSA), lives somewhere in the Russian capital. Since blowing the whistle, he has been an enemy of the state in his home country. He has become an icon for defenders of civil liberties and also a man on the run. The journey to Snowden almost took even longer, when he came down with a bad cold and nearly had to delay the interview. In the end, Snowden turned up — coming across as modest and astoundingly optimistic in an interview that lasted more than three hours.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Snowden, four years ago, you appeared in a video from a hotel room in Hong Kong. It was the beginning of the biggest leak of intelligence data in history. Today, we are sitting in a hotel room in Moscow. You are not able to leave Russia because the United States government has issued a warrant for your arrest. Meanwhile, the intelligence services’ global surveillance machine is still running, probably faster than ever. Was it all really worth it?
Snowden: The answer is yes. Look at what my goals were. I wasn’t trying to change the laws or slow down the machine. Maybe I should have. My critics say that I was not revolutionary enough. But they forget that I am a product of the system. I worked those desks, I know those people and I still have some faith in them, that the services can be reformed
DER SPIEGEL: But those people see you as their biggest enemy today.
Snowden: My personal battle was not to burn down the NSA or the CIA. I even think they actually do have a useful role in society when they limit themselves to the truly important threats that we face and when they use their least intrusive means. We don’t drop atomic bombs on flies that land on the dinner table. Everybody gets this except intelligence agencies.
DER SPIEGEL: What did you achieve?
Snowden: Since summer 2013, the public has known what was until then forbidden knowledge. That the U.S. government can get everything out of your Gmail account and they don’t even need a warrant to do it if you are not an American but, say, a German. You are not allowed to discriminate between your citizens and other peoples’ citizens when we are talking about the balance of basic rights. But increasingly more countries, not only the U.S., are doing this. I wanted to give the public a chance to decide where the line should be.
DER SPIEGEL: You have called mass surveillance a violation of the law. But as far as we know, so far not a single person responsible is sitting in jail.
Snowden: That is why I call it the secret law. These NSA activities were illegal. In a just world, the people who were authorizing these programs would actually be sitting in jail today. We are talking, for example, about the countless violations found and confirmed by a parliamentary inquiry of Germany’s G10 law …
DER SPIEGEL: … which limits the intelligence services’ right to access a person’s phone calls or emails in instances covered by the mail and communications secrecy laws.
Snowden: But rather than punishment, rather than resignations, rather than changing these spying activities, all we got was a new law saying this is all OK.
DER SPIEGEL: Were you surprised when you learned that Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, the BND, was surveilling “friends” like the Israeli prime minister or had 4,000 “selectors” directed at U.S. targets?
Snowden: I was disappointed, not surprised. It is actually the same in France as in Germany and all these other countries. All the governments just want to have more power when it comes to economic espionage, diplomatic manipulation and political influence.
DER SPIEGEL: The main purpose of surveillance is to prevent attacks against our countries. In principle, there’s nothing wrong with that.
Snowden: We don’t have any proof that these mass surveillance programs are stopping terrorist attacks. But if you can’t show us that cells have been uncovered thanks to these measures, and yet you say these are absolutely necessary, why is that? Because they are super interesting for other areas of spying. Like tapping a phone call between Kofi Annan and Hillary Clinton …
DER SPIEGEL: … which the BND did.
Snowden: This recording probably did not help to stop too many terrorist attacks.
DER SPIEGEL: So, what’s the difference between the BND and the NSA?
Snowden: The most important difference is budget. How much play money do they have to throw around the sandbox? That really dictates the sort of capabilities. But Germany has tremendous capabilities because it is so centrally located and you sit on so many favorable geographic points, like the internet nexus DE-CIX in Frankfurt. It is like shooting fish in a barrel. It doesn’t actually matter how bad you are, doesn’t matter how poor you are, if all you have to do is dip a glass in the barrel and you come up with a fish.
DER SPIEGEL: The German authorities claim they would be deaf and blind without the NSA or CIA.
Snowden: Sure, Germany may not be the U.S. splashing out around $70 billion per year on intelligence programs. But Germany is a very wealthy country. In 2013, they spent around a half-billion euros on the BND. Now it is something over 300 million euros more. When you combine that with the fact that the German public education system is already one of the best in the world, you clearly have a very talented technical base in Germany.
DER SPIEGEL: In Berlin, the NSA inquiry committee in parliament spent three-and-a-half years probing the cooperation between the NSA and BND. The final report says that you weren’t called as a witness as originally planned because, among other reasons, getting asylum in Germany was your condition.
Snowden: It’s a lie. I never at any time demanded asylum as a condition. I don’t think we have anything that even used the word asylum in it.
DER SPIEGEL: Then how would you explain the fact that it was reported everywhere?
Snowden: Politics. The parties comprising the inquiry majority took a public position that they would block my entry into Germany to appease the White House. But as the revelations of unjustified surveillance against people around the world, including Germans, piled up over the following months, this position became increasingly unpopular and made an inquiry unavoidable. At this point, political orthodoxies incentivized the majority to devise a way to prevent the inquiry from uncovering anything too embarrassing, while simultaneously demonstrating promises to the White House are Germany’s highest law. No matter what you might think of them, politicians aren’t stupid, and I suspect they knew the only justification for such an unappealing result was to claim they had no choice. So they invent an asylum demand. Historians may not be impressed, but it works for the moment. And all too often in today’s politics, ‘for the moment’ is all that matters.
DER SPIEGEL: What would the committee have learned from you? The documents you provided had already been published.
Snowden: I know, they think I was only a system administrator. It’s true I was a system administrator at many points in my career, but that was not all I did. In my last position in Hawaii, I was literally using XKeyscore all day long to track Chinese hackers. XKeyscore was the program the Germans received from the NSA and used as well.
DER SPIEGEL: You read parts of the final report on the inquiry. What is your opinion?
Snowden: We all had so much hope that this would be a reliable product, that this would be a real investigation. But the report of the majority parties is a disappointment. It was like a creative writing exercise for them. The German public was angry about their surveillance policies, so they needed to do something about it. But not that which I think the opposition heroically tried to do, which was to find out what’s actually happening, establish some accountability and ultimately shape the activities of these intelligence services to make them comport with the law. Instead, these politicians went: Let’s make the law looser so they don’t break it anymore.
DER SPIEGEL: We hear a lot of resignation.
Snowden: Not at all. I think we have made much progress as a society — we are using math and science to limit these abuses by governments.
DER SPIEGEL: You are talking about the encryption of our communications.
Snowden: Before he retired, former U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that I had accelerated the adoption of an encryption by seven years. He meant it as an insult, but I took it as a kind of a compliment. We see dynamics such as the adaption of end-to-end encryption that is turned on by default — you don’t even have to think about it. Prior to 2013, most news sites didn’t even know what encryption was. Now almost every serious editorial staff has the ability to encrypt.
DER SPIEGEL: But terrorists use encryption as well.
Snowden: When you have three terrorists in a city, one uses a laptop and gets hit by a drone, the other uses a cell phone and gets hit by a drone. The guy who only sends messages via his cousin as a courier on a motorbike that are written on paper never gets hit by a drone. They can put two and two together really quickly. They don’t need DER SPIEGEL, they don’t need me to tell them what works and what doesn’t.
DER SPIEGEL: Would you at least concede that some of the information that got published helped criminals and rogue states in that they learned how intelligence agencies do their work?
Snowden: No, this is very much a comfortable allegation for governments. Their basis for classifying this information is to say it will cause harm if it is revealed. I have sent lunch plans from the cafeteria that are classified as top secret. I’m not kidding.
DER SPIEGEL: But the files also included real secrets, programs and techniques.
Snowden: I came forward in 2013. We are now in 2017 and they have never shown any harm despite being asked by Congress and despite having spent more than two years investigating it. Even Michael Rodgers, the director of the NSA, said: The sky isn’t falling, we are still doing our work. Yes, it was disruptive, but life goes on.
DER SPIEGEL: Why aren’t there more whistleblowers like you? Are they afraid they’ll wind up in Russia?
Snowden: There is a pessimistic answer to this. People feel the consequences are too severe if they get caught. But there is an optimistic one, too. Events of 2013 put these intelligence services on notice — that they could be next.
DER SPIEGEL: We believe the pessimistic version is closer to reality.
Snowden: I think it is a mix of both. Just look at the Vault7 files that WikiLeaks has published. This was an unprecedented disclosure of very sensitive information, clearly from within the CIA’s own servers. There haven’t been any arrests yet and it has been months. There are two things to learn from that: Firstly, it’s obviously still pretty easy to expose the intelligence services. And secondly, since this was clearly not my doing, there are others out there.
DER SPIEGEL: The files you leaked are a few years old now, as are the measures they described. Do they have anything more than historical value today?
Snowden: The system is pretty much the same. It’s only if you understand the basic mechanism that is being exploited to spy on innocent people that you can start to correct it. So, the challenge is what comes next and how to deal with this.
DER SPIEGEL: And? What comes next?
Snowden: Governments are realizing that mass surveillance isn’t really effective. They are moving from mass surveillance to what intelligence agencies are hoping will be their new panacea: hacking. But it is mass hacking and not really targeted hacking as they usually say. We have seen it in these darknet market takedowns and other joint operations by the EU and U.S.
DER SPIEGEL: So, it’s all about cracking encryption now?
Snowden: Not cracking encryption — the agencies are trying to bypass the encryption. They are looking for weak points on the device you use to see what you are writing before you encrypt your message. What they actually do is take over a website, infect it with a malicious software, and when you visit that website because, for example, you received a link, you get hacked. Then they own your computer or your phone. You paid for it, but they use it. I think this is far better than mass surveillance.
DER SPIEGEL: Why?
Snowden: Mass surveillance was incredibly cheap. It operates sort of freely, invisibly, constantly — and there was no real defense other than using encryption schemes. Attacking these browsers, phones and computers is very much an expensive proposition.
DER SPIEGEL: But you just said yourself that a lack of money isn’t the main problem for intelligence services.
Snowden: But even they can’t use this to spy on everyone in the world all the time. The new approach makes life harder for the intelligence agencies in a good way. It creates a natural discipline that forces them to decide: Is this person I want to spy on really worth the cost? There was, for instance, this jihadi group that used an encryption package called Mujahedeen Secrets. That is the kind of thing that they should go after because if you are installing Mujahedeen Secrets, you are probably part of the mujahedeen, right?
‘A Systemic Failure of Rationality’
DER SPIEGEL: Even if the latitude of intelligence agencies is limited in the future, people are giving huge amounts of intimate data away for free to private corporations like Facebook, Google, YouTube and Instagram. Do we not have to accept that we have entered an era of total transparency?
Snowden: I give talks at colleges on a monthly base and get the impression that the young generation actually cares more about privacy than the older one. Simply because they are constantly sharing information voluntarily.
DER SPIEGEL: Still, an enormous amount of data is zipping around out there that can be used or also misused.
Snowden: You’re right, without ever really having had a debate about this, we have decided that this gigantic universe of third parties can own perfect histories and records of your private activities. At the same time, we see this new nexus of corporate power and politics, where we have economic leadership figures going out and giving speeches on things like economy and jobs programs and education — things that were normally topics for politicians to discuss.
DER SPIEGEL: Is it acceptable to you when authorities and companies cooperate to fight crime, terrorism or hate?
Snowden: A company should never be deputized to do the work of a government. They have entirely different goals, and when you start crossing those lines that creates unintended consequences at unforeseen costs. Of course, companies can assist the government in terrorism investigations. But to see company records for example, they should have to convince a judge. I think this is where it gets quite dangerous, when we say: Google, you are the sheriff of the internet now. You decide what the law is.
DER SPIEGEL: Which isn’t all that far from reality.
Snowden: And then we’ll see that the founder and CEO of Facebook is intending to run for president of the United States in the next cycle. Do we want the company that has the largest social media presence on earth and has clear political ambitions, to start deciding what is permissible political speech and what is not?
DER SPIEGEL: Speaking of political ambitions: Do you have an explanation for the increasing meddling on the part of the intelligence agencies with democratic elections?
Snowden: I think that is something that has always happened. What is noteworthy nowadays is that it is happening much more visibly. We know, for example, from declassified documents that the United States has interfered in elections throughout the last century. Every government that has an intelligence agency is trying to do the same thing. I would in fact be very surprised if the German government were an exception. Probably in a lighter and more polite way. But I think we are sort of tiptoeing around the Russian issue here specifically, aren’t we?
DER SPIEGEL: How did you guess?
Snowden: It wasn’t that difficult. Everybody is currently pointing at the Russians.
DER SPIEGEL: Rightfully?
Snowden: I don’t know. They probably did hack the systems of Hillary Clinton’s Democratic Party, but we should have proof of that. In the case of the hacking attack on Sony, the FBI presented evidence that North Korea was behind it. In this case they didn’t, although I am convinced that they do have evidence. The question is why?
DER SPIEGEL: Do you have an answer?
Snowden: I think the NSA almost certainly saw who the intruders were. Why wouldn’t they? But I am also convinced that they saw a lot of other attackers on there, too. There were probably six or seven groups. The Democratic National Committee is a big target and apparently their security wasn’t very good. The DNC refused to provide these servers to the FBI, which is really weird. So, I think the reality here was it was narrative shaping about the Russians.
DER SPIEGEL: Is there a way to be absolutely certain who is hacking a system? It seems to be quite easy to manipulate a time stamp, use certain servers and stage a false flag operation.
Snowden: The false flag stuff is true — I know how this works. I dealt with this in China’s case. They used to be the usual suspects, nobody was talking about the Russians at that time. China didn’t really care about covering their tracks that well. They would break the window, grab everything they could and then run off laughing. But even they never attacked directly from China. They would bounce off a server in Italy, Africa or South America. But you can follow the trail back — it’s not magic.
DER SPIEGEL: You know that there are some quite influential people, even high-level German government officials, who are trying to say that you have a close relationship with the Russians.
Snowden: Yes, especially that Hans guy from Germany.
DER SPIEGEL: You mean Hans-Georg Maassen, the head of Germany’s domestic intelligence service. He insinuated a couple of times that you could be a Russian spy. Are you?
Snowden: I’m not. He doesn’t even have the moral fiber to say, “I think this person is a spy.” Instead, he says, “Whether Mr. Snowden is a Russian agent or not cannot be proven.” You can literally say this about anyone. I thought, and I would hope, that in an open society, we had moved beyond the days when these secret police agencies were basically denouncing their critics. I’m not even mad about it. I’m just disappointed.
DER SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, many people, also here in Germany, have wondered what kind of concessions you had to make to become Russia’s guest.
Snowden: I’m glad you ask because again, this sounds right, he is in Russia, so surely he had to give something up, right? But when you start looking at it, it falls apart. I don’t have any documents or access to documents. The journalists have them and this is why the Chinese or the Russians couldn’t threaten me when I crossed the border. I couldn’t have helped them, even if they had torn my fingernails off.
DER SPIEGEL: It is still hard to believe for many that the Russians would let you in just like that.
Snowden: I know, you go: Putin that great humanitarian, of course he lets him in for free. Nobody believes that, there has got to be some deal, some quid pro quo. But they don’t understand. If you think about it for a second: I was trying to get into Latin America, but the U.S. government canceled my passport and trapped me in the Russian airport. The U.S. president was sending daily demarches to the Russian side demanding my extradition. Think about the Russian domestic political situation. Putin’s self-image, his image to the Russian people and how that would look if the Russian president would have said, “Yes, we are very sorry — here, have this guy.” And maybe there is an even simpler explanation for this, which is that the Russian government just enjoyed the rare opportunity of being able to say “no.” The real tragedy here is that I applied for asylum in Germany, France and 21 different countries around the world. And it was only after all of these countries said “no” that the Russians finally said “yes.” It seemed like they didn’t even want to say “yes,” and I certainly wasn’t asking.
DER SPIEGEL: Mike Pompeo, the new head of the CIA, has accused WikiLeaks, whose lawyers helped you, of being a mouthpiece for the Russians. Is that not harmful to your image as well?
Snowden: First, we should be fair about what the accusations are. I don’t believe the U.S. government or anybody in the intelligence community is directly accusing Julian Assange or WikiLeaks of working directly for the Russian government. The allegations I understand are that they were used as a tool basically to wash documents that had been stolen by the Russian government. And, of course, that’s a concern. I don’t see that as directly affecting me because I’m not WikiLeaks and there is no question about the provenance of the documents that I dealt with.
DER SPIEGEL: Currently, there’s another American guy out there who is accused of being too close to Putin.
Snowden: Oh (laughs).
DER SPIEGEL: Your president. Is he your president?
Snowden: The idea that half of American voters thought that Donald Trump was the best among us, is something that I struggle with. And I think we will all be struggling with it for decades to come.
DER SPIEGEL: Perhaps he will do your cause a favor by accidentally damaging the U.S. intelligence services.
Snowden: I don’t think a president alone has the capability to meaningfully damage the intelligence services. These groups are so well represented in Congress, in the media, in culture, in Hollywood. Some call it the deep state, but this is very much a pre-Trump thing. Donald Trump has nothing to do with the deep state. Donald Trump doesn’t even know what the deep state is. The deep state is this class of career government officials that survive beyond administrations.
DER SPIEGEL: Isn’t that just another conspiracy theory?
Snowden: I wish it was. Look at the election of Barack Obama, who by any measure at the time, people saw as a genuine man who wanted to pursue a reform to close Guantanamo, to end the mass surveillance of the time, to investigate Bush-era crimes and to do many other things. And within 100 days of taking office, he pivoted entirely on that promise and said, we are going to look forward not backward. The deep state realizes that while it may not elect the president, it can shape them very quickly — and this is through the same means with which they shape us.
DER SPIEGEL: Which means?
Snowden: Fear. Why do you think all these terrorism laws are passed without any meaningful debate? Why do we have an indefinite state of emergency, even in liberal places like France? I think you can also see reflections of this dynamic in Germany, which I think has a much lesser love for the intelligence services and spying in general given its history. But the inquiry into the NSA files didn’t look so deeply into mass surveillance. The majority parties pretended they could not confirm it despite the fact that evidence was literally everywhere and impossible to miss. They didn’t even bother to hear from me. All these things show that intelligence services have influence through an implicit threat. They are effective, they are persuasive. They created a new politics of fear. Whenever one of their policy choices is threatened, they feed the press and the public with all the dangers we should fear. As a society, we become terrorized.
DER SPIEGEL: But isn’t there reason to fear terrorism?
Snowden: Sure there is. Terrorism is a real problem. But when we look at how many lives it has claimed in basically any country that is outside of war zones like Iraq or Afghanistan, it is so much less than, say, car accidents or heart attacks. Even if Sept. 11 were to happen every single year in the U.S., terrorism would be a much lower threat than so many other things.
DER SPIEGEL: That’s not really comparable.
Snowden: All I am saying is that terror is an ideal example of a growing culture of fear. The intelligence community has used it to approach it with a new dynamic of mass surveillance. And the most tragic part of this is that, eventually it is the process itself that is doing the terrorizing. It becomes systemic and this leads us to where we are today. How else does one explain a President Donald Trump other than a systemic failure of rationality? We see things happening in places like Hungary and Poland with more authoritarian leaders. I think it is this new atmosphere of fear and that it won’t change until we, as a public, learn to perform a new kind of alchemy and recognize fear when it is being presented. We need to learn to eat fear, to convert it into an energy that can be used to better a society rather than to terrorize and weaken it. But not even Obama could do that.
DER SPIEGEL: Obama at least pardoned Chelsea Manning, the whistleblower who provided WikiLeaks with U.S. documents, including the diplomatic cables.
Snowden: And I applaud him for it.
DER SPIEGEL: Were you hoping for a similar act of mercy?
Snowden: I don’t think it was ever something that was likely to happen. Obama felt personally offended by these revelations because he was the one who was held accountable for them. He viewed this as a kind of attack on him and his legacy, but that’s is actually saddening.
DER SPIEGEL: Are you still hoping that you will one day be able to return to the U.S.?
Snowden: Yes, absolutely. I’m not going to judge the likelihood of it, but you mentioned before allegations against me — you hear them less and less with each passing year. And I think that means there is still hope for the future, even for me.
DER SPIEGEL: What is your current legal status in Russia?
Snowden: I’m a lawful permanent resident — it’s basically similar to the Green Card in the U.S. But it’s not asylum and every three years or so, it is indefinitely renewable, but it is not technically guaranteed. I have been quite critical of the Russian government on Twitter and in my statements, and that probably doesn’t win me any friends. They haven’t bothered me in the period until now, but who knows what that will look like in the future.
DER SPIEGEL: In “Citizenfour,” we saw the very nice scene with your girlfriend cooking. May we ask if this is how your life looks like now?
Snowden: She is still with me, yes.
DER SPIEGEL: How do you spend your time?
Snowden: I travel a lot. I have been to St. Petersburg. My parents visit me from time to time.
DER SPIEGEL: How do you make a living?
Snowden: I give talks — mostly at U.S. universities via video. Pro bono, I do a lot of stuff for the Freedom of the Press Foundation. I am the elected president of its board.
DER SPIEGEL: It seems that surveillance is an issue that will haunt you forever.
Snowden: My life is technology work. I’m an engineer, not a politician. So, public speeches or this stuff here, as nice as you guys are, this is hard for me. This is outside my comfort zone.
DER SPIEGEL: Are you afraid of the moment when the global public attention toward you begins to wane?
Snowden: No! I will love it!
DER SPIEGEL: Attention can be like a drug.
Snowden: Yeah, for certain personality types. But for me? You have to understand that my life literally is defined by a love for privacy. The worst thing in the world for me is the idea that I will go to the grocery store and someone will recognize me.
DER SPIEGEL: Does that happen?
Snowden: Just a few days ago, I was at the Tretyakov Gallery and there was a young woman there. And this woman is like, “You are Snowden.” I think she might have been German. And I said, “yeah,” and she took a selfie. And do you know what? She never published it online.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Snowden, we thank you for this interview.