Traitor or hero? Dateline screens the first full-length television interview with whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Tuesday, February 18, 2014 - 21:30

Edward Snowden believes that some US officials would like to see him shot dead or poisoned, but he says he can still sleep easily at night, because he did what he needed to do.

The whistleblower's thinking is revealed in his first full-length television interview, to be screened in an Australian exclusive on Dateline.

In a secret location in Moscow, he speaks candidly to Hubert Seipel from German broadcaster NDR about the far-reaching surveillance details he leaked, the treason charges he faces, and his life in exile in Russia.

But with opinions divided over his actions, is Snowden a traitor who needs to be prosecuted or a hero who needs to be protected?

Apologies, but this story is no longer available for copyright reasons, but you can still read the transcript below.

This episode of Dateline also included an explosive interview with former spy Christopher Boyce, who claims the CIA interfered in 1970s Australian politics. He's an admirer of Edward Snowden and also gives his own advice for the whistleblower.

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As you heard in Mark Davis' story before the break, Christopher Boyce believes NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden faces decades in prison if he's ever captured and returned to America. Snowden himself believes that US agents want him murdered instead. In an exclusive interview conducted in hiding in Russia, Snowden discusses the threats he's facing, the extent of the NSA surveillance of civilians in concert with Australian spies, and the commercial espionage he claims the US is engaged in. The interview is conducted by Hubert Seipel from the German public broadcaster NDR.

REPORTER: Hubert Seipel

REPORTER: Mr Snowden, did you sleep well the last couple of nights because I was reading that you asked for a kind of police protection? Are there any threats?

EDWARD SNOWDEN, WHISTLEBLOWER: There are significant threats, but I sleep - I sleep very well. There was an article that came out in an online out let called Buzzfeed where they interviewed officials from the Pentagon, from the National Security Agency, and they gave them anonymity to be able to say what they wanted, and what they told the reporter was that they wanted to murder me. These individuals, and these are acting Government officials, they said they wanted - they would be happy, they would love to put a bullet in my head, to poison me as I was returning from the grocery store, and have me die in the shower.

REPORTER: But fortunately you're still alive with us.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: Right, but I'm still alive, and I don't lose sleep because I have done what I feel I needed to do, it was the right thing to do and I am not going to be afraid.

REPORTER: The greatest fear I have, and I quote you, regarding these disclosures is nothing will change, that was one of your greatest concerns at the time.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: What we saw initially in response to the revelations, sort of a circling of the wagons of Government around the National Security Agency. Instead of circling around the public, and protecting their rights, the political class circled around the security state, and protected their rights. What's interesting is, though that was the initial response, since then we've seen a softening, we've seen the President acknowledge when he first said, "We have drawn the right balance, there are no abuses", we have seen him and his officials admit there have been abuses, there have been thousands of violations of the National Security Agency and other agencies, and authorities every single year.

Every time you pick up the phone, dial a number, write an e-mail, make a purchase, travel on the bus carrying a cell phone, swipe a card somewhere, you leave a trace, and the Government has decided that it's good idea to collect it all, everything, even if you've never been suspected of doing a crime.

Traditionally, the Government would identify a suspect, they would go to a judge, they would say, "We suspect he's committed this crime", they would get a warrant and then they would be able to use the totality of their powers in pursuit of the investigation. Nowadays what we see is they want to apply the totality of their power in advance, prior to an investigation.

REPORTER: You started this debate. Edward Snowden is in the meantime a household name for the whistleblower in the age of the Internet, you are working last summer for the NSA and during this time you collected secretly thousands of confidential documents, what was the decisive moment or was there a long period of time, or something happening, why did you do this?

EDWARD SNOWDEN: I would say sort of the breaking point, is seeing the director of National Intellegence, James Clapper, directly lie under oath to Congress. There's no saving an intelligence community that believes it can lie to the public and the legislators who need to be able to trust it and regulate its actions. Seeing that really meant for me there was no going back. Beyond that, it was the creeping realisation that no-one else was going to do this. The public had a right to know about these programmes. The public had a right to know that which the Government is doing, in its name, and that which the Government is doing against the public. But neither of these things we were allowed to discuss. We were - even the wider body of our elected representatives were prohibited from knowing or discussing these programmes. That's a dangerous thing.

When you're on the inside, when you go into work every day, when you sit down at the desk, and you realise the power you have, you can wire-tap the President of the United States, you can wire-tap a federal judge, and if you do it carefully, no-one will ever know, because the only way the NSA discovers abuses are from self-reporting.

REPORTER: We're not only talking of the NSA as far as this is concerned, there is a multi-lateral agreement for corporation amongst the services, and this alliance of intelligence operations is known as the Five Eyes, what agencies and countries belong to this alliance and what is its purpose?

EDWARD SNOWDEN: The Five Eyes alliance is sort of an artefact of the post World War II era where the Anglophone countries are the major powers to co-operate and share the costs of intelligence gathering infrastructure. So we have the UK GCHQ, we have the US NSA, we have Canada's C-Sec, we have the Australian Signals Intelligence Directorate, and we have New Zealand's DSD. What the result of this was over decades and decades was sort of a supra-national intelligence organisation that doesn't answer to the laws of its own country. One of the major programmes that faced abuse in the National Security Agency is what's called Keyscore. It's a search engine which allows them to look through all of the records they collect through worldwide, everyday.

REPORTER: What could you do if you could, so to speak, with this kind of instrument.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: You could read anyone's e-mail in the world, anybody you have got e-mail address for, any website you can watch traffic to and from it. Any computer that an individual sits at - You can watch it. Any laptop that you're tracking, you can follow it as it moves from place to place flout the world. It's a one-stop shop for access to the NSA's information. And what's more, you can tag individuals using XKeyscore where, let's say I saw you once, and I thought what you were doing was interesting, or you just have access that's interesting to me, let's say you work as a major German corporation, and I want access to that network, I can track your user name on a web site, on a forum somewhere, I can track your real name, I can track associations with your friends.

And I can build what's called a fingerprint which is network activity unique to you which means anywhere you go in the world, anywhere you try to sort of hide your online presence, hide your identity, the NSA can find you. And anyone who's allowed to use this or what the NSA shares the software with, can do the same thing. It's no secret that every country in the world has the data of their citizens in the NSA. Millions and millions and millions of data connections from Germans going about their daily lives talking on their cell phones, sending SMS messages, visiting websites, buying things online, all of this ends up at the NSA.

REPORTER: Does the NSA spy on Siemens, on Mercedes, on other successful German companies, for example, to prevail of the advantage of knowing what is going on in the scientific and economic world?

EDWARD SNOWDEN: There's no question that the US is engaged in economic spying. If there's information at Siemens that they think would be beneficial to the national interests, not the national security of the United States, they'll go after that information and they'll take it.

REPORTER: If one looks to the little public data of your life, one discovers that you obviously wanted to join in May 2004 the Special Forces to fight in Iraq. What happened to your adventure then? Did you stay long with them or what happened to you?

EDWARD SNOWDEN: No, I broke my legs when I was in training and was discharge.

REPORTER: So it was a short adventure.


REPORTER: In 2007, the CIA stationed you with diplomatic cover Switzerland, why did you join the CIA?

EDWARD SNOWDEN: In many ways I think it's a continuation of trying to do everything I could to prosecute the public good in the most effective way, and it's in line with the rest of my Government service. Where I tried to use my technical skills in the most difficult positions I could find in the world and the CIA offered that.

REPORTER: If you look back, Special Forces, CIA, NSA, it's not actually a description of human rights activist or somebody who becomes a whistleblower. What happens to you?

EDWARD SNOWDEN: I think to tell the story, and that's no matter how deeply an individual is embedded in the Government. No matter how faithful to the Government they are, no matter how strongly they believe in the causes of their Government as I did during the Iraq war, people can learn, people can discover the line between appropriate Government behaviour, and actual wrongdoing. And I think it became clear to me that that line had been crossed.

REPORTER: You worked for the NSA through a private contractor with the name - one of the big ones in the business, what is the advantage for the US Government or the CIA to work through a private contractor to outsource essential Government functions?

EDWARD SNOWDEN: The problem there is you end up in a situation where Government policies are being influenced by private corporations who have interests that are completely divorced from the public good in mind. The result of that is what we saw at Booze Hamilton where you have private individuals who have access what the Government alleges were millions and millions of records that they could walk out the door with at any time, with no accountability, no oversight, the Government didn't know they were gone.

REPORTER: At the very end you understood e-ended up in Russia. Many in the intelligence community suspect you made a deal, classified material for asylum here in Russia.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: The chief of the task force investigating me as recently as December said that their investigation had turned up no evidence or indications at all that I had any outside help or contact or made a deal of any kind to accomplish my mission. I worked alone, I didn't need anybody's help. I don't have any ties to foreign Government. I'm not a spy for Russia or China or any other country for that matter. If I'm a traitor, who did I betray? I gave all my information to American public, journalists, who are reporting on American issues. If they see that treason, people need to consider what do they think they're working for? The public is supposed to be their boss, not their enemy.

REPORTER: One of the reaction to the NSA snooping, is that countries like Germany are thinking to create national Internets, an attempt to force Internet companies to keep their data in their own country, and does this work?

EDWARD SNOWDEN: It's not going to stop the NSA, let's put it that way, the NSA goes where the data is. If the NSA can pull text messages out of a telecommunications networks in China, they can probably manage to get Facebook messages out of Germany. Ultimately the solution to that is not to stick everything in a walled garden. Although that does raise the level of sophistication and complexity of taking the information, it's much better to simply secure the information internationally against everyone rather than playing let's move the data. Moving the data isn't fixing the problem. Securing the data is the problem.

REPORTER: Obama asked the Russian President several times to extradite you but did not. It looks like you will stay for the rest of your life in Russia, how do you feel about Russia in that context and is there a solution to this problem?

EDWARD SNOWDEN: I think it's becoming increasingly clear that these leaks didn't cause harm. In fact, they served the public good. Because of that, I think it will be very difficult to maintain sort of an on-going campaign of persecution against someone who the public agrees serves the public interest. I would welcome the opportunity to talk about how we can bring this to a conclusion that serves the interests of all parties. I think it's clear there are times where what is lawful is distinct from what is rightful. There are times throughout history and it doesn't take long for either an American or a German, to think about times in the history of their country where the law provided the Government to do things which were not right.

REPORTER: President Obama at the very moment not quite convinced of that because he said you're charged with three felonies, and I quote, if you, Edward Snowden, believe in what you did, you should go back to America, appear before the Court with a lawyer and make your case. Is this the solution?

EDWARD SNOWDEN: It's interesting because he mentions three felonies, what he doesn't say is that the crimes that he's charged me with are crimes that don't allow me to make my case. They don't allow me to defend myself in an open Court to the public and convince the jury that what I did was to their benefit. The espionage act was never intended - it's from 1918, it was never intended to prosecute journalistic sources, people who are informing the newspapers about information that's of public interest. It was intended for people who are selling documents in secret to foreign Governments, who were bombing bridges, who were sabotaging communications. Not people who were serving the public good. So it's - I would say illustrative that the President would choose to say someone should face the music when he knows the music is a show trial.

Hubert Seipel

Christoph Mestmacher-Steiner
Dirk Neuhoff
Ulrich Lenze

Patricia Schlesinger

Knut Sodemann
Armin Ploger

Camera Assistant
Michael Menke

Rainer Wolf

Location Manager
Moritz Widmann

Produced by Cinecentrum and NDR

18th February 2014