Snowden: Daring to expose surveillance state

While lawmakers in Washington accuse him of treason, he casts himself as a truth teller

The source had instructed his media contacts to come to Hong Kong, visit a particular out-of-the-way corner of a certain hotel, and ask - loudly - for directions to another part of the hotel. If all seemed well, the source would walk past holding a Rubik’s Cube.

So three people - Glenn Greenwald, a civil-liberties writer who recently moved his blog to The Guardian, Laura Poitras, a documentary filmmaker who specializes in surveillance, and Ewen MacAskill, a Guardian reporter - flew from New York to Hong Kong about 12 days ago. They followed the directions. A man with a Rubik’s Cube appeared.

It was Edward J Snowden, who looked even younger than his 29 years - an appearance, Greenwald recalled in an interview from Hong Kong on Monday, that shocked him because he had been expecting, given the classified surveillance programmes the man had access to, someone far more senior. Snowden has now turned over archives of ‘thousands’ of documents, according to Greenwald, and ‘dozens’ are newsworthy.

Snowden’s ability to burrow deep into America’s national security apparatus and emerge clutching some of its most closely guarded secrets is partly a story of the post-Sept. 11 era, when the government’s expanding surveillance Leviathan and complex computer systems have given network specialists with technical skills tremendous power.

While some lawmakers in Washington accuse Snowden of treason, he casts himself as a truth teller. Like Pfc. Bradley Manning and Daniel Ellsberg, whom he says he admires for disclosing troves of government secrets, Snowden explained his actions in a Guardian interview by saying the American people have a right to know about government abuses that were kept hidden from them.

He portrayed himself as carefully selecting what to release, seeking to avoid the attacks that accused Manning of recklessness. Manning, who confessed to leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents made public by WikiLeaks, faces a possible life sentence in a court-martial.

“He has no regret of any kind, no sense of, 'Wow, what I have done here? I can’t go back,'” Greenwald said of Snowden. “He is so convinced that he did the right thing.” He added: “It’s not like it’s delusional - he’s completely rational. He completely understands that more likely than not, he’s going to end up like Bradley Manning or worse. Yet he has tranquility.

It is not clear how Snowden extracted the secret documents, and the portrait of his transformation from a trusted National Security Agency contractor to a leaker is still impressionistic. Last year, he donated money to the campaign of Ron Paul, the Republican presidential candidate who was long critical of government’s growing reach. People who knew Snowden as a teenager said he was enthralled by computers. Joyce Kinsey, who lived across from his apartment in Maryland a decade ago, said she would often see him through the window working at his computer at night.

Access to information

“He was always on his computer over there - always,” she said. “He was just a quiet kid, really quiet.” Snowden bounced between jobs both inside the government and as a contractor for the CIA in Switzerland and for the National Security Agency in Japan, Maryland, and Hawaii, according to his account. Eventually working for nearly $2,00,000 a year in classified facilities as a computer systems administrator, he had access to enormous amounts of secret information.

In a video interview conducted by Greenwald and taped by Poitras, Snowden recounted seeing “disturbing” things on a “frequent basis” and asking questions about what he saw as abuses, only to find that no one cared. Over time, he said, he decided his comfortable life was helping build up an “architecture of oppression.”

Snowden told The Guardian that it was during his time in Geneva working as a computer technician for the CIA that he first thought about spilling government secrets. But he said he had held off, in part because he hoped that Sen. Barack Obama’s election as president in 2008 might reverse the growth of the surveillance state.

But the fact that Obama embraced many of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism policies “hardened” him, and he told The Guardian that he had decided one could not wait for others to act. “I had been looking for leaders, but I realised that leadership is about being the first to act,” he said.

Snowden, Greenwald said, had first reached out to Poitras in January. Her work has focused on national-security issues like surveillance, including a short documentary she made for The New York Times Op-Ed page in August. She and Greenwald, along with Ellsberg, are also helping with a new organization devoted to whistle-blowers and transparency, the Freedom of the Press Foundation.

The next month, Greenwald said, Snowden contacted him with an enigmatic email identifying himself as a reader and saying he wanted to communicate about a potential story using encryption. Greenwald wrote back that he did not have such software. Snowden later sent him a homemade video with step-by-step instructions for installing it, which Greenwald watched but never completed.

Frustrated, Snowden is said to have told Poitras that he had a major story about the National Security Agency that required both technical and legal expertise, proposing that they work together with Greenwald. Poitras, who did not respond to an interview request, told Salon on Monday that she contacted Barton Gellman, a former Washington Post reporter, around that time for his opinion of the whether the purported source seemed legitimate.

In early March, Greenwald said, Poitras called and said she needed to meet in person. At a New York hotel, she shared emails from Snowden recounting, in Greenwald’s words, that “he had come to see the surveillance state as out of control and an abuse, and that he felt ready to risk his own life and liberty to expose it.” At that point, neither knew his name yet.

In the last week of May, Greenwald flew from Brazil, where he lives, to New York to meet with editors of The Guardian and review the preliminary documents.

The next day, he, Poitras, and MacAskill left for to Hong Kong. Shortly before the trip, Snowden had told Poitras his name and sent her the first of three major archives of documents, which they read through on the plane.

After the Rubik’s Cube meeting, the three followed Snowden to his hotel room and spent six hours “going over his life from start to finish, sort of like I was conducting a deposition,” recalled Greenwald, who formerly practiced law. By the end, he was persuaded that Snowden was who he claimed to be.

John Schindler, a former NSA counterintelligence officer and now a professor at the Naval War College, said that in the post-Sept. 11 age the computer “systems administrators” had access to enormous amounts of classified information, which can also pose security risks. “They can be a critical security gap because they see everything,” he said. “They’re like code clerks were in the 20th century. If a smart systems administrator went rogue, you’d be in trouble.”

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