Snowden: Leaked documents are safe from Russia, China

In an interview, the whistle-blower explains why he fled U.S., but dumped documents before entering Russia

By Natasha Lennard

Published October 18, 2013 1:28PM (EDT)

While U.S. intelligence officials have disavowed Edward Snowden's whistle-blowing -- suggesting that his trove of top-secret NSA documents could have fallen into the hands of foreign intelligence authorities -- the former NSA contractor insists there is no such risk.

In an interview with James Risen for the New York Times, Snowden said that "There’s a zero percent chance the Russians or Chinese have received any document." Speaking from hiding in Moscow, Snowden explained that when he fled to Russia, he had already dumped the entirety of his leaked documents with journalists in Hong Kong. The whistle-blower also seemed to confirm that the U.S. has been expending considerable efforts to understand Chinese intelligence operations. Via the NYT:

He also asserted that he was able to protect the documents from China’s spies because he was familiar with that nation’s intelligence abilities, saying that as an N.S.A. contractor he had targeted Chinese operations and had taught a course on Chinese cybercounterintelligence.

“There’s a zero percent chance the Russians or Chinese have received any documents,” he said.

In the interview, which Risen writes took place over a number of days, Snowden once again stressed the public interest served by his disclosures:

He argued that he had helped American national security by prompting a badly needed public debate about the scope of the intelligence effort. “The secret continuance of these programs represents a far greater danger than their disclosure,” he said. He added that he had been more concerned that Americans had not been told about the N.S.A.’s reach than he was about any specific surveillance operation.

“So long as there’s broad support amongst a people, it can be argued there’s a level of legitimacy even to the most invasive and morally wrong program, as it was an informed and willing decision,” he said. “However, programs that are implemented in secret, out of public oversight, lack that legitimacy, and that’s a problem. It also represents a dangerous normalization of ‘governing in the dark,’ where decisions with enormous public impact occur without any public input.”

Highlighting the interview, the Guardian noted that Risen himself is also in the ill graces of U.S. officials for fighting to protect his sources:

Risen uncovered the original warrantless wiretapping of phone calls by the Bush administration,for which he won a Pulitzer prize. Risen is under intense pressure to divulge the name of one of his sources at the criminal leak trial of Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA agent who is another of the Espionage Act eight. Risen is refusing to reveal his source, and is likely to appeal right up to the US supreme court.

The interview notes how Snowden came to decide to whistle-blow gradually, but settled finally on his decision when -- through a "dirty word search" -- he came across a copy of a classified 2009 inspector general’s report on the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program during the Bush administration.

After reading about the program, which skirted the existing surveillance laws, he concluded that it had been illegal, he said. “If the highest officials in government can break the law without fearing punishment or even any repercussions at all,” he said, “secret powers become tremendously dangerous.”

He would not say exactly when he read the report, or discuss the timing of his subsequent actions to collect N.S.A. documents in order to leak them. But he said that reading the report helped crystallize his decision. “You can’t read something like that and not realize what it means for all of these systems we have,” he said.

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

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