For former National Security Agency contractor Edward J. Snowden, the decision to spill the beans wasn’t about joining the ranks of history’s most infamous whistleblowers.
In a New York Times interview, the 30-year-old said he had no faith in the internal reporting channels when he leaked thousands of classifed documents, exposing the breadth of the U.S. government's surveillance programs. Snowden said his efforts to report his concerns through the proper chain of command “would have been buried forever,” leaving him “discredited and ruined.”
“The system does not work,” said Snowden in a wide-ranging interview spanning several days last week. “You have to report wrongdoing to those most responsible for it.”
Snowden learned that lesson the hard way.
In 2008 and 2009, he was working as a telecommunications systems officer in Geneva when he wound up in what he described as a “petty e-mail spat” with his senior manager. Snowden had tried to demonstrate software flaws he found in the CIA’s personnel Web applications. While his immediate supervisor approved of his actions, a more senior superior became furious and filed a critical comment in Snowden’s file.
That incident, coupled with similar accounts he’d heard of punitive action taken against NSA employees, led Snowden to lose faith in the system. When he discovered a classified 2009 report on the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, Snowden believed voicing his concern through the NSA would only lead to punishment.
“You can’t read something like that and not realize what it means for all of these systems we have,” said Snowden. “Curiosity,” and a firm belief that Americans deserved to know what their government was up to solidified his decision to collect NSA documents with the intention of leaking them, he said.
Snowden now faces espionage charges for divulging classified information to journalists while in Hong Kong earlier this year. He later fled to Moscow, where he was granted temporary asylum.
Despite warnings from U.S. officials that Snowden’s actions may have allowed Russia, China, or other foreign intelligence agencies to get their hands on the classified information, Snowden insists that the NSA knows that’s not a possibility. His last assignment was on Chinese operations and cyber-counterintelligence, so he said he was fully capable of protecting the documents from spies. And he said he didn’t bring any of the documents with him to Russia, because doing so “wouldn’t serve the public interest.”
“There’s a zero percent change the Russians or Chinese have received any documents,” said Snowden. “NSA has not offered a single example of damage from the leaks. They haven’t said boo about it except ‘we think,’ ‘maybe,’ ‘have to assume’ from anonymous and former officials.”