By Will Oremus
NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden says he doesn't care if people call him a traitor.Photo by Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images
A day after Citizenfour won the Oscar for best documentary feature, its subject, Edward Snowden, appeared on Reddit for an "Ask Me Anything" question-and-answer session.
Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.
One of the first things users asked the fugitive whistle-blower was what he thought of Oscars host Neil Patrick Harris's pun about him Sunday night. ("Edward Snowden couldn't be here, for some treason," NPH had quipped.) Many of Snowden's allies, including Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, slammed the one-liner as insulting and irresponsible. But Snowden himself took it in stride:
To be honest, I laughed at NPH. I don't think it was meant as a political statement, but even if it was, that's not so bad. My perspective is if you're not willing to be called a few names to help out your country, you don't care enough.
For what it's worth, Greenwald—who joined Snowden and Citizenfour director Laura Poitras on the Reddit AMA—insisted on Reddit that he had laughed it off too, despite earlier calling it "stupid and irresponsible" to a BuzzFeed reporter.
Another top question for Snowden on Monday was potentially a little more substantive. Reddit user TheJackal8 asked him: "Mr. Snowden, if you had a chance to do things over again, would you do anything differently? If so, what?"
Snowden's response displayed the sort of nimble job-interview skills that one imagines helped him land that fateful Booz Allen gig in the first place. Regrets? Sure, Snowden has one:
I would have come forward sooner. I talked to Daniel Ellsberg about this at length, who has explained why more eloquently than I can.
Had I come forward a little sooner, these programs would have been a little less entrenched, and those abusing them would have felt a little less familiar with and accustomed to the exercise of those powers. … Once you grant the government some new power or authority, it becomes exponentially more difficult to roll it back.
Don't let it happen in your country.
With that, Snowden implicitly brushed aside any notion that his time as a fugitive in Russia might have caused him to rethink the intelligence leaks that made him the target of an international manhunt. He has repeatedly said that his life in Russia is "great," though he faces charges of theft and espionage back in the United States.
So, strong answer. And if you asked Snowden to name his biggest weakness, perhaps he'd tell you that he's "principled to a fault." (In his case, that might even be accurate.)
"I would have come forward sooner."
Redditors cheered Snowden's resolve. That said, on a practical level, it's unclear how much earlier he could have realistically come forward. After all, he had only worked at Booz Allen for a few months before he began leaking documents to Greenwald, Poitras, and the Washington Post's Barton Gellman, among others.
On the other hand, many of the documents he turned over to the media actually came from his time at Dell, where he worked on the computer firm's CIA and NSA accounts from 2011 to 2013. Had he blown the whistle then, it's conceivable the programs he revealed would have been slightly less far along. Whether they would have been any easier to dismantle is another question. I tried asking Snowden myself, but my question didn't get enough upvotes from other Redditors to merit a response.
One other Snowden response worth noting: Asked how to make NSA spying an issue in the 2016 presidential election, he suggested actively fighting back against government overreach—and, if necessary, breaking the law. His answer, in part:
When we look back on history, the progress of Western civilization and human rights is actually founded on the violation of law. America was of course born out of a violent revolution that was an outrageous treason against the crown and established order of the day. History shows that the righting of historical wrongs is often born from acts of unrepentant criminality. Slavery. The protection of persecuted Jews. …
So how does that relate to our current political situation? Snowden went on:
We can devise means, through the application and sophistication of science, to remind governments that if they will not be responsible stewards of our rights, we the people will implement systems that provide for a means of not just enforcing our rights, but removing from governments the ability to interfere with those rights.
You can see the beginnings of this dynamic today in the statements of government officials complaining about the adoption of encryption by major technology providers. The idea here isn't to fling ourselves into anarchy and do away with government, but to remind the government that there must always be a balance of power between the governing and the governed …
Call Snowden what you will, but he's right about this much: The U.S. government today views its citizens' privacy as a lower priority than its own spying capabilities. You can see this, not only in the NSA's surveillance programs, but in the words of President Obama, who supports strong encryption only if it's weak enough for the government to get around it.
"Our rights are not granted by governments," Snowden said. "They are inherent to our nature. But it's entirely the opposite for governments: their privileges are precisely equal to only those which we suffer them to enjoy."
Thomas Hobbes might differ with Snowden on the sort of rights that humans would enjoy in a state of nature. But John Locke, and many others, would agree with him that "there must always be a balance of power between the governing and the governed." Snowden is convinced that balance is out of whack, and he has no regrets about allegedly breaking the law in order to realign it. Good for him.
Oh, and perhaps now we can all stop whining about that Neil Patrick Harris joke. It was one of the few funny things he said all night.
Previously in Slate:
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