In a live chat this afternoon, Edward Snowden gave the world a glimpse of the changes he hopes to see now that his bombshell leaks have the world fired up about government surveillance and digital privacy. But the text-based Q&A wasn't all about NSA spying. Snowden took the moment of publicity to call for whistleblower protection reform in the US and the chance for a fair trial. He made it clear he wants to come home.
"Returning to the US, I think, is the best resolution for the government, the public, and myself," Snowden said. "But it’s unfortunately not possible in the face of current whistleblower protection laws, which through a failure in law did not cover national security contractors like myself."
He pointed a finger at Capitol Hill, calling on Congress to reform the Whistleblower Protection Act in order for "Americans, no matter who they work for, to get a fair trial." The plea comes in the middle of a heated debate over whether the US should give Snowden clemency. Just today Attorney General Eric Holder said that while full clemency was going too far, he'd be willing to start a negotiation with Snowden.
Snowden also criticized the hundred-year-old law he's been charged under, the Espionage Act of 1917, which he said was never meant to be used against "people working in the public interest," and so forbids a public interest defense. "This is especially frustrating, because it means there’s no chance to have a fair trial, and no way I can come home and make my case to a jury."
He went on: "My case clearly demonstrates the need for comprehensive whistleblower protection act reform. If we had had a real process in place, and reports of wrongdoing could be taken to real, independent arbiters rather than captured officials, I might not have had to sacrifice so much to do what at this point even the President seems to agree needed to be done."
The live chat, Snowden's first since June, came a week after President Obama announced his plan to "reform" NSA surveillance and hours after an independent watchdog group unequivocally called to end bulk metadata collection, determining that the program has no legal basis and has done nothing to prevent terrorist attacks.
Weighing in on that report, Snowden said, "I don’t see how Congress could ignore it, as it makes it clear there is no reason at all to maintain the 215 program." He said it's time to “close the book entirely” on mass domestic surveillance. "There is simply no justification for continuing an unconstitutional policy with a 0% success rate."
Fielding questions coming in from Twitter via #AskSnowden, the global celebrity avoided a lot of the personal inquiries—does he have regrets, does he fear for his life, what's he been getting up to in Russia, will he be attending the Olympics, and at least a dozen questions on whether he has secret knowledge of alien life and if so will he please share it with us.
He also steered clear of the recent accusation by Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the Intelligence Committee, that he's a Russian spy, having already denied working for the FSB in an interview with the New Yorker this week ("I acted alone"). Nor did he talk about last week’s Buzzfeed report that officials in the US intelligence community "would love to put a bullet in his head."
Aside from a couple zingers—that "we’re setting a precedent that immunizes government of every two-bit dictator to perform the same kind of dragnet surveillance" with programs that "begun in response to a threat that kills fewer Americans every year than bathtub falls and police officers”—Snowden’s responses were constructive, even optimistic.
He said by holding the government accountable and fixing the law, American democracy can survive the NSA's constitutional threat, but that no one nation can fix the problem of out-of-control surveillance. Rather, global reform through technology is needed to ensure people's privacy when the law falls short—with better cryptography, standards, and research.
"I think a person should be able to dial a number, make a purchase, send an SMS, write an email, or visit a website without having to think about what it’s going to look like on their permanent record," he said. To that end, he reiterated that "strong encryption works" but we need better security at endpoints. "If someone can steal your keys (or the pre-encryption plaintext), no amount of cryptography will protect you."