A Vanity Fair Exclusive
“Every person remembers some moment in their life where they witnessed some injustice, big or small, and looked away, because the consequences of intervening seemed too intimidating,” former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden tells Vanity Fair about his motivation for leaking tens of thousands of secret documents. “But there’s a limit to the amount of incivility and inequality and inhumanity that each individual can tolerate. I crossed that line. And I’m no longer alone.”
Snowden’s extensive response is part of a 20,000-word narrative in Vanity Fair’s May issue, by special correspondent Bryan Burrough and contributing editors Suzanna Andrews and Sarah Ellison. The article is the first comprehensive account—bolstered by interviews with dozens of key players—providing an inside look at how a geeky dropout from the Maryland suburbs found himself alone in a Hong Kong hotel room, releasing some of America’s most carefully guarded secrets to the world.
Told in Two
Snowden writes to Vanity Fair about the N.S.A.’s allegations that he never filed a formal complaint (and directly challenges it to deny he contacted internal oversight); about why he’s not a spy; about what he calls the “post-terror generation”’s views on defending the Constitution; about the crucial ways in which he differs from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange; about his amusement at being labeled a right-winger; and more.
Among the highlights of Snowden’s response:
Snowden challenges allegations that he never filed a formal complaint about the N.S.A. to internal oversight and compliance bodies: N.S.A. deputy director Rick Ledgett, who led the internal investigation of Snowden, claimed Snowden made no formal complaints. And if he complained personally to anyone, Ledgett tells Vanity Fair, he or she has not acknowledged it.
In response to this claim, Snowden replies, “The N.S.A. at this point not only knows I raised complaints, but that there is evidence that I made my concerns known to the N.S.A.’s lawyers, because I did some of it through e-mail. I directly challenge the N.S.A. to deny that I contacted N.S.A. oversight and compliance bodies directly via e-mail and that I specifically expressed concerns about their suspect interpretation of the law, and I welcome members of Congress to request a written answer to this question [from the N.S.A.].”
When asked about his initial reaction to the revelation that Snowden was the leak, Ledgett tellsVanity Fair there was a personal sense of betrayal, stating, “It was like getting kicked in the stomach.”
On using his personal credit card in Hong Kong to prevent spy accusations: Snowden tells Vanity Fair that when he checked into the Mira, a hotel in Hong Kong’s Kowloon district, he used his personal credit card so the government could immediately verify he was entirely self-financed, was independent, and had, over time, withdrawn enough financial resources to survive on his own without assistance. He writes, “My hope was that avoiding ambiguity would prevent spy accusations and create more room for reasonable debate. Unfortunately, a few of the less responsible members of Congress embraced the spy charges for political reasons, as they still do to this day. But I don’t think it was a bad idea, because even if they won’t say it in public, intelligence-community officials are regularly confirming to journalists off the record that they know with a certainty that I am not an agent of any foreign government.”
On rumors concerning the number of documents he has: Snowden cautions about some of the numbers that investigators have publicized, especially the 1.7 million figure, which, he tells Vanity Fair, is “simply a scare number based on an intentionally crude metric: everything that I ever digitally interacted with in my career.” He adds, “Look at the language officials use in sworn testimony about these records: ‘could have,’ ‘may have,’ ‘potentially.’ They’re prevaricating. Every single one of those officials knows I don’t have 1.7 million files, but what are they going to say? What senior official is going to go in front of Congress and say, ‘We have no idea what he has, because the N.S.A.’s auditing of systems holding hundreds of millions of Americans’ data is so negligent that any high-school dropout can walk out the door with it?’?”
“I know exactly how many documents I have,” Snowden continues. “Zero.” But for the other players involved, “I’m not sure we’ll ever know who has what,” The Guardian’s U.S. editor, Janine Gibson, says.
On what he calls the “post-terror generation’s” views on defending the Constitution:“What we’re seeing today in America is a new political movement that crosses party lines. This post-terror generation rejects the idea that we have to burn down our village in order to save it—that the only way to defend the Constitution is to tear it up.”
On allegations that he has “a doomsday cache” in his possession: In response to whispers in the intelligence community that Snowden has “a doomsday cache” in his possession, Snowden retorts, “Who would set up a system that incentivizes others to kill them?”
On the crucial ways he differs from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange: “We don’t share identical politics. I am not anti-secrecy. I’m pro-accountability. I’ve made many statements indicating both the importance of secrecy and spying, and my support for the working-level people at the N.S.A. and other agencies. It’s the senior officials you have to watch out for.”
Why he admires WikiLeaks: “They run toward the risks everyone else runs away from. No other publisher in the world is prepared to commit to protecting sources—even other journalists’ sources—the way WikiLeaks is.”
On how he’s amused by reports of his “right-wing politics” and would describe his political thought as “moderate”: Snowden tells Vanity Fair he’s amused by reports of his “right-wing politics, based on what seem to be Internet rumors and third-hand information.” He continues, “I’d describe my political thought as moderate.”
Sources close to the situation discuss Snowden’s living arrangements in Moscow and his desire to be granted asylum in Germany or another democratic state: One source close to Snowden tells Vanity Fair that he and WikiLeaks staffer Sarah Harrison moved multiple times and at one point lived with an American family outside Moscow. Snowden and Harrision’s time together “was a little bit of a love-hate thing,” says a person close to WikiLeaks. “They were stuck in close quarters there for a long time.” Snowden is fastidious and Harrison is not, this person says. Harrison moved to Berlin in November, but shortly before she did, a German politician had dinner with her and Snowden, who expressed a desire to be granted asylum in Germany or another democratic state. Mostly, the politician says, Snowden wished he could go home.