Edward Snowden just answered all your big NSA questions

After Citizenfour claimed best documentary at the Academy Awards on Sunday night, the next step for filmmaker Laura Poitras was to satiate the people’s curiosity with Reddit AMA.

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and journalist Glenn Greenwald, who by proxy shared in the Oscars glory, joined Poitras for a round of questioning about the nature of U.S. surveillance and Snowden’s current legal predicament.

Snowden, who faces three felony charges in U.S., currently resides in Russia due to likely imprisonment by U.S. law enforcement. Charged under Espionage Act, he has little hope of defending himself in court. 

As noted by American Civil Liberties Union director Ben Wizner in Poitras’ film, under the Espionage Act, it doesn’t matter if the National Security Agency violated the law, or if the information disclosed by Snowden should never have been withheld in the first place. The U.S. government doesn’t even have to demonstrate that the leak caused harm to lock Snowden behind bars.

For easier access and readability, we’ve handpicked a few questions and responses from each of the AMA participants. Enjoy. 

Editors’ note: The responses below have been lightly edited to match Daily Dot punctuation style.

EDWARD SNOWDEN

moizsyed asks: “How did you guys feel about about Neil Patrick Harris’ ‘for some treason’ joke last night?”

Snowden: “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.”

“If this be treason, then let us make the most of it.”


TheJackal8 asks: “Mr. Snowden, if you had a chance to do things over again, would you do anything differently? If so, what?”

Snowden: “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. This is something we see in almost every sector of government, not just in the national-security space, but it’s very important:

“Once you grant the government some new power or authority, it becomes exponentially more difficult to roll it back. Regardless of how little value a program or power has been shown to have (such as the Section 215 dragnet interception of call records in the United States, which the government’s own investigation found never stopped a single imminent terrorist attack despite a decade of operation), once it’s a sunk cost, once dollars and reputations have been invested in it, it’s hard to peel that back.

“Don’t let it happen in your country.”


masondog13 asks: “What’s the best way to make NSA spying an issue in the 2016 Presidential Election? It seems like while it was a big deal in 2013, ISIS and other events have put it on the back burner for now in the media and general public. What are your ideas for how to bring it back to the forefront?”

Snowden: “This is a good question, and there are some good traditional answers here. Organizing is important. Activism is important.

“At the same time, we should remember that governments don’t often reform themselves. One of the arguments in a book I read recently (Bruce Schneier, Data and Goliath), is that perfect enforcement of the law sounds like a good thing, but that may not always be the case. The end of crime sounds pretty compelling, right, so how can that be?

“Well, 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.

“But even on less extremist topics, we can find similar examples. How about the prohibition of alcohol? Gay marriage? Marijuana?

“Where would we be today if the government, enjoying powers of perfect surveillance and enforcement, had—entirely within the law—rounded up, imprisoned, and shamed all of these lawbreakers?

“Ultimately, if people lose their willingness to recognize that there are times in our history when legality becomes distinct from morality, we aren’t just ceding control of our rights to government, but our futures.

“How does this relate to politics? Well, I suspect that governments today are more concerned with the loss of their ability to control and regulate the behavior of their citizens than they are with their citizens’ discontent.

“How do we make that work for us? 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, and that as the progress of science increasingly empowers communities and individuals, there will be more and more areas of our lives where—if government insists on behaving poorly and with a callous disregard for the citizen—we can find ways to reduce or remove their powers on a new—and permanent—basis.

“Our rights are not granted by governments. They are inherent to our nature. But it’s entirely the opposite for governments: their privileges are precisely equal to only that which we suffer them to enjoy.

“We haven’t had to think about that much in the last few decades because quality of life has been increasing across almost all measures in a significant way, and that has led to a comfortable complacency. But here and there throughout history, we’ll occasionally come across these periods where governments think more about what they “can” do rather than what they “should” do, and what is lawful will become increasingly distinct from what is moral.

“In such times, we’d do well to remember that at the end of the day, the law doesn’t defend us; we defend the law. And when it becomes contrary to our morals, we have both the right and the responsibility to rebalance it toward just ends.”


cahaseler asks: “We’ve now known about the scary stuff happening at the NSA for quite some time. And yet from what I’ve seen, there’s been no real effort to stop it. What are your thoughts on what we, as regular citizens, can do now?”

Snowden: “One of the biggest problems in governance today is the difficulty faced by citizens looking to hold officials to account when they cross the line. We can develop new tools and traditions to protect our rights, and we can do our best to elect new and better representatives, but if we cannot enforce consequences on powerful officials for abusive behavior, we end up in a system where the incentives reward bad behavior post-election.

“That’s how we end up with candidates who say one thing but, once in power, do something radically different. How do you fix that? Good question.”


ba_dumtshhh asks: “Mr. Snowden, what do you think about the latest News Kaspersky broke? I understand they don’t talk about victims and aggressors because it’s their business model. But do you think they should name the NSA as an aggressor when they now about?”

Snowden: “The Kaspersky report on the ‘Equation Group’ (they appear to have stopped short of naming them specifically as NSA, although authorship is clear) was significant, but I think more significant is the recent report on the joint [U.S.-U.K] hacking of Gemalto, a Dutch company that produces critical infrastructure used around the world, including here at home.

“Why? Well, although firmware exploitation is nasty, it’s at least theoretically reparable: tools could plausibly be created to detect the bad firmware hashes and re-flash good ones. This isn’t the same for SIMs, which are flashed at the factory and never touched again. When the NSA and GCHQ compromised the security of potentially billions of phones (3G/4G encryption relies on the shared secret resident on the sim), they not only screwed the manufacturer, they screwed all of us, because the only way to address the security compromise is to recall and replace every SIM sold by Gemalto.

“Our governments—particular the security branches – should never be weighing the equities in an intelligence gathering operation such that a temporary benefit to surveillance regarding a few key targets is seen as more desirable than protecting the communications of a global system (and this goes double when we are more reliant on communications and technology for our economy productivity than our adversaries).”


Laura Poitras

nitpickr asks: “Will you release more footage of the meetings held with Snowden in Hong Kong?”

Poitras: “Yes, I do plan to release more footage from Hong Kong shoot. On the first day we met Ed, Glenn conducted a long interview (4-5 hours) that is extraordinary. I also conducted a separate interview with Ed re: technical questions. The time constraints of a feature film made it impossible to include everything. I will release more.

“I also filmed incredible footage with Julian Assange/WikiLeaks that we realized in the edit room was a separate film.”


tpreusse asks: “I saw that you used GPG to encrypt the document archives and the movie stated that Laura and Glenn are using Tails to analyse documents. How to you collaborate? E.g. share a document, tag it together, share notes etc? Using tools like the overview project (AP, Knight Foundation) seems impossible when wanting to protect documents properly.”

Poitras: “It would have been impossible for us to work on the NSA stories and make Citizenfour without many encryption tools that allowed us to communicate more securely. In fact, in the credits we thank several free software projects for making it all possible. I can’t really get into our specific security process, but [one of] the The Intercept’s security experts, Micah Lee, wrote a great post about helping Glenn and I when we first got in contact with Snowden.

It’s definitely important that we support these tools so the creators can make them easier to use. They are incredibly underfunded for how important they are. You can donate to Tails, Tor and a few other projects here [through Freedom of the Press].


magic_rub asks: “Laura, are you still detained for extra screening when you fly in the US?”

Poitras: “The detentions have thankfully stopped, at least for now. Starting in 2006, after I came back from making a film about Iraq’s first election, I was stopped and detained at the US border over 40 times, often times for hours. After I went public with my experiences (Glenn broke the story in 2012), the harassment stopped. Unfortunately there are countless others who aren’t so lucky.”


MomsAgainstMarijuana asks: “I’m sure this was probably answered in an interview somewhere, but what kind of legal issues did you run into with this film if any? Was there ever the threat of the footage being seized at customs?”

Poitras: “Given the fact that I had been repeatedly detained at the U.S. border because of my work on previous films, I moved to Berlin to edit Citizenfour.

“When Ed contacted me in early 2013 I gave him my assurance I would never comply with a subpoena. Before going to Hong Kong I met with many lawyers to assess the risk. I ignored some of the warnings—for instance, the Washington Post urged me not to travel to Hong Kong. Another lawyer said not to bring my camera.

“In the end I decided I could not live with the decision to not travel to Hong Kong.”


amelbjelosevic asks: “In retrospect, the decision to publish the first video clip introducing Snowden, how important was it to show Snowden in the way you did as opposed to just announcing his name or a picture?”

Poitras: “Ed’s decision to not conceal his identity was a game changer—it was also a huge risk for him. In retrospect, going public might look like a good idea, but in the moment it was pretty terrifying. It goes against the principle to protect a source—he asked me to do the opposite and expose him.

“But once Glenn and I understood his decision, we agreed that it was important to understand his motivation. It certainly made it harder for the government to paint false narratives.

“I think Ed learned from Chelsea Manning, where the government was able to prevent her from speaking to the public at all about her leaks, and it allowed the government to control the narrative much more than they could have if she was allowed to tell her side of the story.”


Glenn Greenwald

boingeh asks: “Don’t you find it kind of depressing how little the world was actually moved by the revelations? I do. For a few days at a time it was the biggest news story ever, but barely anything has changed and people are still using Google, Apple et al. in the same ways. The news in general is just so transient, watching the documentary just brought it all back. It felt like it might actually amount to something, but as far as I can tell, even with the courts recently ruling that GCHQs actions were illegal for many years and NSA’s whole program amounting to nothing, no significant legislation has passed and for all we know they are still rapidly expanding their programs.”

Greenwald: “I think much has changed. The U.S. Government hasn’t restricted its own power, but it’s unrealistic to expect them to do so.

“There are now court cases possible challenging the legality of this surveillance—one federal court in the U.S. and a British court just recently found this spying illegal.

“Social media companies like Facebook and Apple are being forced by their users to install encryption and other technological means to prevent surveillance, which is a significant barrier.

“Nations around the world (such as Brazil and Germany) are working together in unison to prevent U.S. hegemony over the Internet and to protect the privacy of their own citizens.

“And, most of all, because people now realize the extent to which their privacy is being compromised, they can—and increasingly are—using encryption and anonymizers to protect their own privacy and physically prevent mass surveillance.

“All of these changes are very significant. And that’s to say nothing of the change in consciousness around the world about how hundreds of millions of people think about these issues. The story has been, and continues to be, huge in many countries outside the U.S.”


TheJackal8 asks: “How do you feel about the ‘nothing to hide’ argument?”

Greenwald: “I did a TED talk specifically to refute that inane argument.”


masondog13 asks: “What’s the best way to make NSA spying an issue in the 2016 Presidential Election? It seems like while it was a big deal in 2013, ISIS and other events have put it on the back burner for now in the media and general public. What are your ideas for how to bring it back to the forefront?”

Greenwald: “The key tactic D.C. uses to make uncomfortable issues disappear is bipartisan consensus. When the leadership of both parties join together—as they so often do, despite the myths to the contrary—those issues disappear from mainstream public debate.

“The most interesting political fact about the NSA controversy, to me, was how the divisions didn’t break down at all on partisan lines. Huge amount of the support for our reporting came from the left, but a huge amount came from the right. When the first bill to ban the NSA domestic metadata program was introduced, it was tellingly sponsored by one of the most conservative Tea Party members (Justin Amash) and one of the most liberal (John Conyers).

“The problem is that the leadership of both parties, as usual, are in full agreement: They love NSA mass surveillance. So that has blocked it from receiving more debate. That NSA program was ultimately saved by the unholy trinity of Obama, Nancy Pelosi and John Bohener, who worked together to defeat the Amash/Conyers bill.

“The division over this issue (like so many other big ones, such as crony capitalism that owns the country) is much more ‘insider v. outsider’ than ‘Dem v. GOP.’ But until there are leaders of one of the two parties willing to dissent on this issue, it will be hard to make it a big political issue.

“That’s why the Dem efforts to hand Hillary Clinton the nomination without contest are so depressing. She’s the ultimate guardian of bipartisan status quo corruption, and no debate will happen if she’s the nominee against some standard Romney/Bush-type GOP candidate. Some genuine dissenting force is crucial.”


ffwiffo asks: “Any hope that Citizenfour‘s success will help with repatriating its star, or will the Manning treatment forever hang over your head?”

Greenwald: “Edward Snowden should not be forced to choose between living in Russia or spending decades in a cage inside a high-security American prison.

“D.C. officials and journalists are being extremely deceitful when they say: ‘if he thinks he did the right thing, he should come back and face trial and argue that.”

“Under the Espionage Act, Snowden would be barred even from raising a defense of justification. The courts would not allow it. So he’d be barred from raising the defense they keep saying he should come back and raise.

“The goal of the U.S. government is to threaten, bully, and intimidate all whistleblowers—which is what explains the mistreatment and oppression of the heroic Chelsea Manning—because they think that climate of fear is crucial to deterring future whistleblowers.

“As long as they embrace that tactic, it’s hard to envision them letting Ed return to his country. But we as citizens should be much more interested in the question of why our government threatens and imprisons whistleblowers.”


moizsyed asks: “How did you guys feel about about Neil Patrick Harris’ ‘for some treason’ joke last night?”

Greenwald: “Here’s a little insight into how digital age media works:

“I learned of NPH’s joke after I left the stage (he said it as we were walking off). I was going to tweet something about it and decided it was too petty and inconsequential even to tweet about—just some lame word-play Oscar joke from a guy who had just been running around onstage in his underwear moments before. So I forgot about it. My reaction was similar to Ed’s, though I did think the joke was lame.

“A couple hours later at a post-Oscar event, a BuzzFeed reporter saw me and asked me a bunch of questions about the film and the NSA reporting, one of which was about that ‘treason’ joke. I laughed, said it was just a petty pun and I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it, but then said I thought it was stupid and irresponsible to stand in front of a billion people and accuse someone of ‘treason’ who hasn’t even been charged with it, let alone convicted of it.

“Knowing that would be the click-worthy comment, BuzzFeed highlighted that in a headline, making it seem like I had been on the warpath, enraged about this, convening a press conference to denounce this outrage. In fact, I was laughing about it the whole time when I said it, as the reporter noted. But all that gets washed away, and now I’m going to hear comments all day about how I’m a humorless scold who can’t take a good joke, who gets furious about everything, etc. etc.

“Nobody did anything wrong here, including BuzzFeed. But it’s just a small anecdote illustrating how the imperatives of Internet-age media and need-for-click headlines can distort pretty much everything they touch.”

Illustration by Jason Reed

Dell Cameron

Dell Cameron

Dell Cameron was a reporter at the Daily Dot who covered security and politics. In 2015, he revealed the existence of an American hacker on the U.S. government's terrorist watchlist. He is a co-author of the Sabu Files, an award-nominated investigation into the FBI's use of cyber-informants. He became a staff writer at Gizmodo in 2017.