What Did We Learn from NBC’s Interview with Edward Snowden? Treason or Patriotism?


Image via NBC News' interview with Edward Snowden
Image via NBC News’ interview with Edward Snowden

This story has been updated since the original time of publication. See the bottom of the article for details.

NBC’s Brian Williams had the opportunity to interview Edward Snowden for a 1 hour long segment that aired on May 28. Several new capabilities of the NSA were talked about by Snowden, some of which would cause quite a chilling effect on the American populace, if true.

Well, we all learned that he likes The Wire, which we’ll give to him as completely true.

On the more serious note, Snowden now says that he worked for both the CIA and NSA undercover overseas, and that he was not a simple low-level contractor. In fact, he claims to have been trained as a spy, in the traditional sense.

“When they say that I am a low-level systems administrator, that I don’t know what I am talking about, I’d say it’s somewhat misleading,” Snowden told NBC’s Brian Williams.

Snowden cited the NSA’s ability to know a great deal about your life simply through your cell phone. What you search, what language you use, your location, etc. can all be used to learn about a person, even how their thought process works!

He further claims that the NSA has the ability to turn on anyone’s cell phone remotely and use it as a recording device. Such a possibility is extremely concerning, as the potential for abuse can be clearly seen.

Not everyone believes that Snowden’s actions were correct, however. Other means could have been used to raise concerns about the NSA’s data mining program, but were not pursued by Snowden.

I recently had the opportunity to interview National Security Attorney Mark Zaid via email. Zaid has a law office in Washington D.C. and regularly represents intelligence, military and law enforcement officers, as well as Whistleblowers (interview has been edited for brevity).

  • SC: What other ways could Snowden have brought his concerns about this data mining?
  • MZ: There were various avenues of opportunity available to Snowden to voice his concerns about the domestic collection programs he viewed as illegal. Generally speaking, one should try to initially raise their concerns through their supervisory chain of command, if feasible. Obviously senior level officials within the agency, as well as the Office of General Counsel is available. With respect to these specific programs, there are a number of Offices of Inspector General who would have jurisdiction and should have entertained a complaint.There is also, potentially, the Office of Special Counsel which could have likely handled a narrow aspect of the concerns. There were several other Committees that have overlapping jurisdiction. In fact, he could have gone to any individual Member of Congress, and staff members who held the appropriate clearance level to hear the information. I could have brought a variety of litigation on his behalf, or even better on behalf of a Member of Congress, using his knowledge even in an unclassified manner while preserving his anonymity, at least at the outset.Now, I am by no means saying that all of these, or in fact any of these, options would have worked. Some I can say would have absolutely failed. Yet it would have given Snowden both legal and morale authority to then say “I tried everything” and that is why I pursued the very last option available – leaking.
  • SC: Should this data mining program have been revealed in the first place? Is the “threat to national security” without this program greater than the constitutional dangers presented by it?
  • MZ: The answer to this question will vary widely among people based on their own ideology and beliefs concerning privacy and national security. I do think it is fair to say that greater transparency was absolutely possible and that the level of secrecy surrounding the programs was excessive. Keep in mind that aspects of the program had been revealed years before Snowden and briefly discussed at times.In fact, I was interviewed by MSNBC’s Keith Olberman in 2007 on a related story of NSA and the telecommunication companies. But there was never any documents available to sustain the story so it faded each time. Of course, even though I am an advocate for minimizing secrecy, there are some secrets that must be kept, particularly when it pertains to sources, methods and operations. Aspects of the program did need, in my opinion, to be protected.
  • SC: Does what Snowden did qualify for prosecution under the Espionage Act? If so, should future whistleblowers who may take similar courses of action receive the same treatment?
  • MZ: Snowden’s self-admitted actions to steal and released classified information without authorization constitutes criminal violations of several different statutes including the Espionage Act. Prosecutions are discretionary in nature and these types of classified leak cases are also very political (not necessarily involving the big D or R, but political with respect to the institutional system).That means there is often an appearance of selective, and indeed unfair, prosecutions of individuals who leak classified information. As an attorney (and as one who holds an active security clearance as well), I cannot condone the unlawful disclosure of classified information, even if and especially by one of my own clients (and I
    have been involved with several Espionage Act cases involving my clients).But I have also represented many national security Whistleblowers who have never been prosecuted so the notion that it is a black or white situation, all or nothing, is simply not true. What is crucial, however, is that a future Whistleblower receive legal guidance early and by individuals who do not have partisan or personal agendas that might impact their ability to properly offer sound advice on how to proceed.
  • SC: Is it a good idea (from a legal and national security perspective) for Glenn Greenwald to release a list of those who were spied on by the NSA?
  • MZ: I do not know if Greenwald is in possession of such a list, but it would depend on what is meant by “spied on by the NSA”. If we are talking about a list of telephone numbers caught up in the metadata collection which would demonstrate that, for example, my next door neighbor’s information was retrieved, I am not sure what that actually reveals to anyone. Millions of telephone numbers were collected.The collection is not really significant, in my opinion. It is which numbers were then relied upon for investigative/intelligence searches, and that number is in the low hundreds. But those telephone numbers, which may relate to terrorist activities, have operational value that could thwart legitimate investigations that, in fact, were actually legal.
  • SC: In your professional opinion, what reforms to the NSA must be made to protect Constitutional rights to privacy?
  • MZ: For one thing, I am a believer that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court should have a Special Advocate appointed to argue against the Govt’s warrant requests in each case. I would also like to see greater Congressional oversight that extends beyond the Intelligence Committees.The Judiciary Committees, for example, should also be involved since the issues are legal in nature. It is not the existence of the NSA’s programs themselves that are troubling. It is the concern by many of whether any abuses are taking place. Frankly, there is no evidence of any abuses (assuming, of course, one does not believe the metadata collection itself is an abuse).Nothing Snowden has revealed beyond the existence of the programs has proven any abuses such that we were concerned about from the 1950s – 1970s. No targeting of government officials, dissenters, politicians, businessmen, whomever. None of that. But abuses can potentially occur if proper oversight is not in place, and that is where I would focus energy for reform.

In Zaid’s professional opinion, Snowden had many other routes to take for raising concerns about the data mining program, but none were pursued (as far as we know). Snowden claims otherwise.

Others have called Snowden a hypocrite for seeking asylum in Russia, which has a rather dismal human rights abuse record. He says it wasn’t his choice to end up there, but he is dealing with it as best as he can.

“It’s really frustrating for someone who’s working so hard to expand the domain of our rights and our privacy to end up stuck in a place where those rights are being challenged in ways that I would consider deeply unfair,” he said.

Snowden’s next move is anyone’s guess. The next set of revelations is likely to be published by Glenn Greenwald on his website, theintercept.com, where he plans on publishing a list of American citizens that the NSA spied on. 

NSA Surveillance Snowden Video

Some say Snowden is a patriot, some say he is a traitor. What cannot be denied is that his revelations do tell us that there is a developing security state in America, bordering on near Orwellian. 

Snowden did break the law by taking the documents from the NSA, there is no doubt there. But he may have done so with a much larger vision in mind. 

As he stated to Brian Williams, “Sometimes to do the right thing you have to break the law.”

Perhaps we may never know Snowden’s real intentions behind revealing the NSA’s data mining program. There seem to be more questions than answers after this most recent interview.

Was it for personal gain, or for a genuine concern about what he believed to be unconstitutional abuses of power?

Tell me what you think!


UPDATE: 5:55 p.m ET

NBC News released a video showing Twitter’s reactions to the interview with Snowden. The time lapse shows how, over a 36 hour period, people from across American reacted to the interview, tweeting either #Patriot or #Traitor. 

As of may 29 at 9 a.m., 59% tweeted #Patriot, and 41% tweeted #Traitor. 

To view the time lapse, click here.


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