ATHENS, Greece >> Edward Snowden, the former U.S. intelligence contractor who leaked documents about surveillance programs, said Friday that his disclosures had improved privacy for individuals in the United States, and he declared that “being patriotic doesn’t mean simply agreeing with your government.”
Snowden also said he was grateful for a campaign, led by human rights and civil liberties groups, calling on President Barack Obama to pardon him, a move that would allow him to return to the United States without facing the prospect of many years in jail.
In 2013, after The Guardian and The Washington Post published articles about widespread, secret National Security Agency surveillance and data collection programs, Snowden identified himself as the source of the information. He had fled to Hong Kong, with the aim of escaping to Latin America via Moscow, but his passport was annulled and he was left stranded in Russia.
If he is not pardoned, he could face charges on two counts under the 1917 Espionage Act, which does not allow for a “public interest” or “whistleblower” defense, making it almost impossible for him to explain his motivations or present a proper defense, Snowden said.
“I am legally prohibited from even speaking to the jury about my motivation, and this brings up the question of, ‘Can there be a fair trial when you can’t put forward a defense?’” he said. One can speak to the judge during sentencing, he said, but not to the jury, and “that’s not very democratic.”
Snowden said he would consider serving a jail sentence as part of a plea bargain arranged before he leaves Russia.
Opponents of Snowden have argued that his disclosures have made it more difficult for the United States to gather intelligence on terrorists and other foreign threats. The damage to national security, they say, was so extensive that he should not be granted a pardon, which appears unlikely, in any case. The Obama administration has rejected the idea in earlier petition campaigns and has said that Snowden should face trial in the United States. On Thursday, lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee unanimously signed a letter asking the president not to pardon him.
Speaking via an internet connection from Russia to a session of the Athens Democracy Forum, sponsored by The New York Times, Snowden said he would maintain his focus on U.S. surveillance policies.
“I would argue that being willing to disagree, particularly in a risky manner, is actually what we need more of today,” he said, adding that he remained a patriot. “When we have this incredible, often fact-free environment, where politicians can simply make a claim, and then it’s reported, without actual critical analysis of what that means, what the effect would be — how do we actually steer democracy?”
Most people think of privacy in terms of their settings on Facebook, Snowden said. “But privacy is the fountainhead of all our rights, from which all rights are derived. It’s what makes you an individual.”
Freedom of speech, he said, “doesn’t have much room if you don’t have the protected space.”
The danger is there, he said, “when everything you’ve ever done, every purchase you’ve ever made, everywhere you’ve ever traveled with a cellphone in your pocket is suddenly available to third parties.”
Asked whether he had accomplished anything permanent with his revelations, he said: “Do I think things are fixed? No. Can any single individual fix the world? No, that’s too much. Have things improved?”
Answering his own question, Snowden said “Yes.” There have been important changes in U.S. and European laws, some internet companies are responding with full encryption and pushing back against government pressure, and people are more aware of the issue, he said, adding, “It’s gotten a little better.”
An appeals court ruled in 2015 that the bulk data collection of Americans’ phone records that Snowden first revealed was illegal. Congress replaced that program with one in which the bulk data stays in the hands of phone companies.
But the United States still distinguishes between its citizens and others when it comes to surveillance, because court approval is not necessary when U.S. agencies want to monitor noncitizens outside the United States.
Snowden said he was fully aware of Russia’s anti-democratic traits, and he said he had spoken out against them — even though, as Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch who was also taking part in the Athens forum, noted, the Russian government is the only thing between Snowden and “a jail cell.”
Snowden denied engaging in self-censorship concerning Russia, adding that he did not think his opinions would have much influence in the country because he does not speak Russian very well.
Asked what he did all day, marooned in Russia, Snowden joked, “I speak in conferences in Athens mostly.”
But then he added: “I’ve always been a sort of an indoor cat. My life has been the internet, and perhaps this is an explanation of why I was so moved by what I witnessed at the NSA.”
“Snowden,” Oliver Stone’s portrait of the whistleblower, which was made with his cooperation, has just been released. Asked if he recognized the film version of himself as rather dull, he laughed.
“I am what I am,” he said. “I am never going to be the coolest guy on stage. But that’s OK, because that’s not what I’m going for.”
Snowden, who is a director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, is also working to give journalists better tools to protect themselves against unwanted surveillance.
“I think this is a worthy cause that makes me feel good about what I am doing, even if it doesn’t get as much attention as the things I’m sort of best known for,” he said.
Regarding the presidential election in the United States, Snowden said that he would vote by absentee ballot but declined, “as a privacy advocate,” he said, to reveal his choice.