In an interview, whistleblower Edward Snowden discusses his life in Russia, the power of the intelligence apparatuses and how he will continue his battle against all-encompassing surveillance by governments.
The journey to interview Edward Snowden is a long one. For DER SPIEGEL, it began over a year ago, with numerous conversations with his lawyers in New York and Berlin. It ended two weeks ago on a Wednesday in a Moscow hotel suite with a view over Red Square.
The 34-year-old former United States intelligence worker, who exposed the global surveillance system deployed by the National Security Agency (NSA), lives somewhere in the Russian capital. Since blowing the whistle, he has been an enemy of the state in his home country. He has become an icon for defenders of civil liberties and also a man on the run. The journey to Snowden almost took even longer, when he came down with a bad cold and nearly had to delay the interview. In the end, Snowden turned up — coming across as modest and astoundingly optimistic in an interview that lasted more than three hours.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Snowden, four years ago, you appeared in a video from a hotel room in Hong Kong. It was the beginning of the biggest leak of intelligence data in history. Today, we are sitting in a hotel room in Moscow. You are not able to leave Russia because the United States government has issued a warrant for your arrest. Meanwhile, the intelligence services’ global surveillance machine is still running, probably faster than ever. Was it all really worth it?
Snowden: The answer is yes. Look at what my goals were. I wasn’t trying to change the laws or slow down the machine. Maybe I should have. My critics say that I was not revolutionary enough. But they forget that I am a product of the system. I worked those desks, I know those people and I still have some faith in them, that the services can be reformed
DER SPIEGEL: But those people see you as their biggest enemy today.
Snowden: My personal battle was not to burn down the NSA or the CIA. I even think they actually do have a useful role in society when they limit themselves to the truly important threats that we face and when they use their least intrusive means. We don’t drop atomic bombs on flies that land on the dinner table. Everybody gets this except intelligence agencies.
DER SPIEGEL: What did you achieve?
Snowden: Since summer 2013, the public has known what was until then forbidden knowledge. That the U.S. government can get everything out of your Gmail account and they don’t even need a warrant to do it if you are not an American but, say, a German. You are not allowed to discriminate between your citizens and other peoples’ citizens when we are talking about the balance of basic rights. But increasingly more countries, not only the U.S., are doing this. I wanted to give the public a chance to decide where the line should be.
DER SPIEGEL: You have called mass surveillance a violation of the law. But as far as we know, so far not a single person responsible is sitting in jail.
Snowden: That is why I call it the secret law. These NSA activities were illegal. In a just world, the people who were authorizing these programs would actually be sitting in jail today. We are talking, for example, about the countless violations found and confirmed by a parliamentary inquiry of Germany’s G10 law …
DER SPIEGEL: … which limits the intelligence services’ right to access a person’s phone calls or emails in instances covered by the mail and communications secrecy laws.
Snowden: But rather than punishment, rather than resignations, rather than changing these spying activities, all we got was a new law saying this is all OK.
SOURCE: Interview Conducted by Martin Knobbe and Jörg Schindler