NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden said a “continuing litany of lies” from senior U.S. leaders prompted his public uncovering of widespread surveillance of Americans’ phone calls and alleged data sharing between large technology companies and the government.
In a two-hour online question-and-answer session on the Guardian website, Snowden was asked about a variety of topics that have surfaced since a June 6 article by the UK newspaper that revealed the extent of data collection against Americans. Snowden, a former NSA contractor in Hawaii working for Booz Allen, re-asserted a number of claims including that NSA analysts have the authority and access to wiretap anyone, that he has had no contact with the Chinese government regardless of his self-imposed exile in Hong Kong, and accused the U.S. government of eroding any chance he had a getting a fair trial by labeling him a traitor.
“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,” Snowden said. “The consent of the governed is not consent if it is not informed.”
Clapper and NSA director General Keith B. Alexander have appeared before a number of Congressional bodies since Snowden’s revelations defending the NSA’s practices and policies in the name of terrorism. Alexander last week before the Senate Appropriations Committee said that millions of records were collected under provisions outlined in Section 215 of the Patriot Act that resulted in dozens of critical events. Over the weekend, the Washington Post reported that the NSA used that information to shut down terrorist action in the U.S. and 20 other countries and that fewer than 300 phone records were checked against the data collected by the NSA.
Snowden, meanwhile, said the government is over-reaching with its authority and propping up the value of these programs, questioning how many terrorist attacks were prevented solely by PRISM, Section 215 of the Patriot Act and 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
“Ask how many individual communications were ingested to achieve that, and ask yourself if it was worth it,” Snowden said. “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.”
Snowden was asked about the access NSA analysts have to Americans’ phone call data, email, Web search data and more, and not only do analysts have access to metadata, but content, he said.
“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,” Snowden said. “If I target 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.”
Snowden said communication is collected daily under FISA section 702 authority and “viewed on a daily basis on the certification of an analyst rather than a warrant,” he said.
“They excuse this as ‘incidental’ collection, but at the end of the day, someone at NSA still has the content of your communications,” Snowden said. “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.”
In the meantime, technology companies Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple have denied giving the government direct access to servers and data at their respective companies through PRISM, and all but Google so far have been given permission by the government to share in general terms how many requests for data filter from the government to these companies. Snowden said the disclosures and business power of these companies is leading to increased transparency regarding requests for user data from the government.
“Their denials went through several revisions as it become more and more clear they were misleading and included identical, specific language across companies,” Snowden said. “They are legally compelled to comply and maintain their silence in regard to specifics of the program, but that does not comply [sic] 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?”
Snowden is no longer believed to be in Hong Kong and is reportedly in search of a nation willing to give him asylum—Iceland has been mentioned as a possible destination. Snowden said he chose Hong Kong because he would need to travel somewhere without advance booking (NSA employees must declare 30 days in advance any foreign travel) and to a country with a legal framework that would not lead him to be detained. He said the government has “destroyed any possibility of a fair trial at home,” by declaring his actions treasonous.
“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,” Snowden said. “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.”