In Surprise Call From Exile, Snowden Calls Out U.S. FBI Director

The former NSA contractor has some sobering concerns about American security.

(Photo: Fredrick Florin/Getty Images)

Nov 7, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Eliza Krigman is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post. She writes about politics, business, and lifestyle issues.

Forget surveillance: The real threat is not just an intrusion into personal privacy but government agencies with more power than the public, Edward Snowden said during a surprise interview Friday.

Surveillance is just “the mechanism of understanding,” Snowden said.

“One of the most significant things that was not well understood about the events of last year was that it’s not entirely about surveillance,” said Snowden, who spoke via livestream to a conference on digital news and security held in Washington, D.C. The bespectacled former NSA contractor shot to international fame last year after revealing the government’s bulk intelligence-gathering practices.

What it’s also about, he argued, is a shift in balance from traditional institutions such as the press and civic society to self-serving government bodies.

“We have seen a trend toward governments that are affording themselves, in secret, greater powers and more and more authority without the consent or awareness of the public,” Snowden said.

That’s why journalists shouldn’t look at the current climate and think the only answer is to find tools to hide their communications, he added.

“By accepting that as the status quo, we are back-footing the idea of the press,” Snowden said. Journalists shouldn’t need to “operate sneakily” to have an off-the-record conversation.

Instead of just using “the tactics of making communications more secure,” the media “need to push on regulations” that preserve the freedom of the press, he said.

Reporters can’t do that alone. Snowden argued that Americans need to push back on the idea that the government needs exhaustive access to private data.

The discussions about how much access government officials can have to private information “can’t simply be confined to lawyers,” Snowden said. “If we don’t demand answers from the government” and commitments to discuss these issues “with technical experts, as opposed to some appointed czars, we are not going to get the best-quality decisions.”

Pressed to comment on FBI director James Comey’s statements last month that he prefers using so-called front-door tactics to gather intelligence, as opposed to back-door tactics that provide law enforcement a secret way to access encrypted data, Snowden said that was hogwash.

“That’s rhetoric,” he said. “There is no real difference.”

The public should treat Comey’s front-door approach with skepticism, Snowden argued.

“When James Comey asks for a front door, we need to remind him that he already has it,” he said. “It’s called a warrant.”

Edward Snowden is the subject of the documentary CITIZENFOUR, which is being distributed theatrically by Radius in association with Participant Media—TakePart’s parent company—and HBO Documentary Films.