Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden spoke with BBC Panorama this week, and he gave a eye-raising answer to a question about his theft of up to 1.77 million classified US files.
“Aren’t you a traitor?” Peter Taylor of the BBC asked.
“Of course not,” Snowden answered.
“The question is, ‘If I [were] a traitor, who did I betray?’ I gave all of my information to American journalists and free society generally.”
What’s puzzling about that answer is that Snowden contradicted what he has said previously, instead of talking about how he has influenced the US justice system, public opinion, and even President Barack Obama.
‘If I have time to go through this information …’
On June 12, 2013, two days after identifying himself to the world and fleeing the US, Snowden told the South China Morning Post (SCMP) that he hadn’t given everything to American journalists Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald — because he had to review the data he was leaking.
Snowden provided the Hong Kong paper with documents revealing“operational details of specific attacks on computers” in Hong Kong and mainland China, “including internet protocol (IP) addresses, dates of attacks, and whether a computer was still being monitored remotely.”
He told Lana Lam of SCMP he had held on to that information “because I don’t want to simply dump huge amounts of documents without regard to their content.”
“I have to screen everything before releasing it to journalists,” he said.
Snowden added that he possessed more NSA intelligence beyond what he provided to the American journalists and SCMP.
“If I have time to go through this information, I would like to make it available to journalists in each country to make their own assessment, independent of my bias, as to whether or not the knowledge of US network operations against their people should be published,” he said.
The events that followed imply that he did not have time to go through the information that he withheld from American journalists.
Snowden, 32, allegedly stole up to 1.77 million NSA documents while working at two consecutive jobs for US government contractors in Hawaii from March 2012 to May 2013.
The haul allegedly included 200,000 “tier 1 and 2” documents that mostly detailed the NSA’s global surveillance apparatus and were reportedly given to American journalists Greenwald and Poitras in June 2013.
The US intelligence community believes that Snowden also took up to 1.5 million “tier 3” documents. Those include 900,000 Department of Defence files and documents detailing the NSA’s offensive cyberoperations. The fate of those documents is unclear.
Advised by WikiLeaks, Snowden reportedly reached out to Russian diplomats in Hong Kong before flying to Moscow on June 23, 2013, and subsequently obtaining asylum in Russia.
‘Destroying the material that I was holding’
The answer Snowden gave to the BBC is all the more odd, considering that he’s reportedly made a similar claim before — and then his legal adviser denied it.
In October 2013, James Risen of The New York Times reported Snowden told him that “he gave all of the classified documents he had obtained to journalists he met in Hong Kong, before flying to Moscow, and did not keep any copies for himself.”
ACLU lawyer and Snowden legal adviser Ben Wizner subsequently told Business Insider that the report was inaccurate. (No correction was added to The Times story.)
Snowden subsequently told NBC’s Brian Williams in Moscow that he possessed documents while on the run in Hong Kong but “destroyed” the cache before he reached out to Russian diplomats.
“The best way to make sure that for example the Russians can’t break my fingers and — and compromise information or — or hit me with a bag of money until I give them something was not to have it at all,” he said in May 2014.
“And the way to do that was by destroying the material that I was holding before I transited through Russia,” he added.
Following Snowden’s answer, the BBC’s Peter Taylor attempted to answer Snowden’s counter question, “If I [were] a traitor, who did I betray?”
“What you betrayed, I suggest, is the American people because you betrayed the intelligence agencies whose prime responsibility is to protect the American people,” Taylor said.
“An argument could be made that I betrayed the government to protect the people,” Snowden countered. ” … The question is, how did these programs come to be, and how do we stop them from occurring in the future?”
The full BBS Panorama segment is below. The “traitor” question is at 16:29.
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