On October 6, Nation editor and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel and contributing editor Stephen F. Cohen (professor emeritus of Russian studies at New York University and Princeton) sat down in Moscow for a wide-ranging discussion with Edward Snowden.
Throughout their nearly four-hour conversation, which lasted considerably longer than planned (see below for audio excerpts), the youthful-appearing Snowden was affable, forthcoming, thoughtful and occasionally humorous.
Among other issues, he discussed the price he has paid for speaking truth to power, his definition of patriotism and accountability, and his frustration with America’s media and political system. The interview has been edited and abridged for publication, compressing lengthy conversations about technological issues that Snowden has discussed elsewhere.
The Nation: It’s very good to be here with you. We visit Moscow often for our work and to see old friends, but you didn’t choose to be in Russia. Are you able to use your time here to work and have some kind of social life? Or do you feel confined and bored?
Snowden: I describe myself as an indoor cat, because I’m a computer guy and I always have been. I don’t go out and play football and stuff—that’s not me. I want to think, I want to build, I want to talk, I want to create. So, ever since I’ve been here, my life has been consumed with work that’s actually fulfilling and satisfying.
The Nation: You have everything you need to continue your work?
Snowden: Yes. You know, I don’t spend all day running hand-on-hat from shadowy figures—I’m in exile. My government revoked my passport intentionally to leave me exiled. If they really wanted to capture me, they would’ve allowed me to travel to Latin America, because the CIA can operate with impunity down there. They did not want that; they chose to keep me in Russia.
The Nation: We understand you’re not a person who gives a high priority to social life, but do you have some here in Moscow?
Snowden: Yeah, I’ve got more than enough for my needs, let’s put it that way.
The Nation: If you feel like just getting together and chatting with people, you can?
Snowden: Yeah, I can. And I do go out. I’ve been recognized every now and then. It’s always in computer stores. It’s something like brain associations, because I’ll be in the grocery store and nobody will recognize me. Even in my glasses, looking exactly like my picture, nobody will recognize me. But I could be totally clean-shaven, hat on, looking nothing like myself in a computer store, and they’re like, “Snowden?!”
The Nation: Are they friendly? Are they generally young people?
Snowden: Yeah, yeah.
The Nation: Well, your video question at that big Putin press conference this year…
Snowden: Yeah, that was terrible! Oh, Jesus, that blew up in my face. I was hoping to catch Putin in a lie—like what happened to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper [in his congressional testimony]. So I asked Putin basically the same questions about Russian mass surveillance. I knew he’s doing the same thing, but he denied it. If a single Russian source would come forward, he would be in hot water. And in the United States, what I did appearing at that Putin press conference was not worth the price.
The Nation: So you don’t feel like a prisoner here?
Snowden: No. For example, I went to St. Petersburg—St. Petersburg is awesome.
The Nation: Do you watch television?
Snowden: I do everything on the computer. TV is obsolete technology for me.
The Nation: Do you watch any American TV?
Snowden: Yeah, I’ve been watching The Wire recently.
The Nation: So you still have an active connection with the United States through the Internet? You follow popular culture?
Snowden: [chuckles] Yeah, but I hate these questions—I don’t like talking about this stuff, because it’s so… to me, it’s so ordinary.
The Nation: But it shows you are an American watching series we’re all watching in America.
Snowden: Yeah, all that stuff—Game of Thrones and all the other series. How about House of Cards? As for Boardwalk Empire—that’s another period of government overreach, but at least they use the amendment process! In real life, the executive branch, by violating the Constitution, is using statutes in place of constitutional amendments to diminish our liberty.
The Nation: How do you do Internet interviews?
Snowden: I built my own studio. I don’t have the professional language to describe it because I’m not a videographer—but I’m a technician. So I get the camera, I get all the things that translate the camera to the computer, I set up a live session, I do the security on it, I set up a background so I can key it out, like newscasters do, and replace it with whatever I want—and I can be anywhere I need to be.
The Nation: Which leads us to ask: How did your knowledge as what you call a “technician” begin to affect your political thought?
Snowden: One concern I had while I was working actively in the intelligence community—being someone who had broad access, who was exposed to more reports than average individuals, who had a better understanding of the bigger picture—was that the post–World War II, post–Cold War directions of societies were either broadly authoritarian or [broadly] liberal or libertarian. The authoritarian one believed that an individual’s rights were basically provided by governments and were determined by states. The other society—ours—tended to believe that a large portion of our rights were inherent and couldn’t be abrogated by governments, even if this seemed necessary. And the question is: Particularly in the post-9/11 era, are societies becoming more liberal or more authoritarian? Are our competitors—for example, China, which is a deeply authoritarian nation—becoming more authoritarian or more liberal over time? Has the center of gravity shifted such that all governments have greater powers and fewer restrictions than they ever had, and are empowered by technology in a way that no government ever was in the past? How do we preserve our civil rights, our traditions as a liberal democracy, in a time when government power is expanding and is more and more difficult to check? Do we want to emulate China in the way that China emulates the West? I think, for most Americans, the answer to that question would be no.
The Nation: Your revelations sparked a debate and caused indignation across political lines. Yet we are seeing very little being done. There is something called the USA Freedom Act, which is watered down to the nth degree, but there’s very little real movement. What’s your sense of the political system, not just in the United States, but the political system needed to make the reforms commensurate with the scale of your revelations?
Snowden: There is more action in some other countries. In Germany, they’ve called for a very serious inquiry that’s discovering more and more. They’ve just discovered a significant violation of the German Constitution that had been concealed from the Parliament. In the United States, there hasn’t been much legislative change on the surveillance issue, although there are some tepid proposals.
The Nation: Jonathan Schell’s last piece for The Nation—he died in March—was about you as a dissident, as a disrupter and as a radical defender of privacy. Jonathan asked a fundamental question: What do Americans do when official channels are dysfunctional or unresponsive? Does change require truth-tellers such as yourself?
Snowden: We are a representative democracy. But how did we get there? We got there through direct action. And that’s enshrined in our Constitution and in our values. We have the right of revolution. Revolution does not always have to be weapons and warfare; it’s also about revolutionary ideas. It’s about the principles that we hold to be representative of the kind of world we want to live in. A given order may at any given time fail to represent those values, even work against those values. I think that’s the dynamic we’re seeing today. We have these traditional political parties that are less and less responsive to the needs of ordinary people, so people are in search of their own values. If the government or the parties won’t address our needs, we will. It’s about direct action, even civil disobedience. But then the state says: “Well, in order for it to be legitimate civil disobedience, you have to follow these rules.” They put us in “free-speech zones”; they say you can only do it at this time, and in this way, and you can’t interrupt the functioning of the government. They limit the impact that civil disobedience can achieve. We have to remember that civil disobedience must be disobedience if it’s to be effective. If we simply follow the rules that a state imposes upon us when that state is acting contrary to the public interest, we’re not actually improving anything. We’re not changing anything.
The Nation: When was the last time civil disobedience brought about change?