The much anticipated interview between Brian Williams and Edward Snowden aired on Wednesday night. It's interesting. It's also revealing in a nuanced way, bringing flashbacks to 9/11 and vignettes of this past year's worth of NSA revelations. Most of all, though, it's a rare peek into the whistleblower's mind.
At the top of the hour, Snowden answered an important question about the harm that his leaks may or may not have caused. Snowden told Williams that he didn't know of a single instance in which his disclosures hurt an American. "If there is, I'd personally like to know about it," he said. And he's got a point.
It remains to be seen what the long-lasting repercussions of Snowden's leaks actually are. What we do know is that this 30-year-old former government contractor leaked some important documents, and they captured the world's attention. Snowden chuckled when Williams asked him if he still had access to these documents. "If I'm traveling through Russia," he said, "I look like Tweetie Bird to Sylvester the Cat with all these documents." He added, "That's a very dangerous thing to me." In other words, he doesn't want anything to do with keeping these documents close any more.
So Snowden gets it. He did not play softball. He acquired a vast cache of highly sensitive documents that could compromise national security if made public. But he also says that he tried to tell the government about the shady surveillance programs before the leak even happened. "I actually did go through channels, and that's documented," said Snowden. Brian Williams confirmed that Snowden did send at least one email to his superiors, notifying them of his concerns. Snowden's narrative of that process is worth quoting in full:
I raised these complaints, not just officially in writing through email… but to my supervisors, to my colleagues, and many of these individuals were shocked by these programs. And the ones that had [heard of them] went, 'You know these things are really concerning, but if you say something about this, they're going to destroy you.'
This is not a surprise. Snowden is not welcome at home, and if he did come home, there's a good chance that the government would throw the book at him. Nevertheless, Snowden still wants to return to the United States. "If I could go any place in the world," he told Williams, "that place would be home."
And so, this begs the question: How did Snowden's leak affect the United States? Did he really compromise national security? Did he make home less safe?
Snowden says: No. The information published in the press based on his leaks has all been specifically selected so as not to compromise national security "There's nothing that would be published that would harm the public interest," he said. "These are programs that need to be understood, that need to be known… but they're of critical public importance."
The former government contractor also conceded, "Anyone can second guess my judgment," he said, unwavering. "Again, I'm a human being. Anyone can second guess my judgment."
And the American people certainly are. So here's this whistleblower, all alone in Russia, declaring very publicly that he's done the government a service. In fact, Snowden told Williams in plain English, "I'm still working for the U.S. government." He also doesn't necessarily agree with the extent to which the NSA has been cast in a bad light. "People have unfairly demonized the nsa, to an unnecessary extreme," he said.
At the end of the day, though, Edward Snowden is human being. (Or at least, Edward Snowden wants you to know that he's a human being.) He needs his downtime, too. Snowden, stuck in Russia, says he enjoys watching television. "Right now I'm watching a show, The Wire, about surveillance," he said. "Second season's not so great."