In his first public comment since the documentary CitizenFour's Academy Award win on Sunday, Edward Snowden took questions from the public and revealed what he says is his biggest regret about becoming a whistleblower.
"I would have come forward sooner," he said. "Had I come forward a little sooner, these programs would have been a little less entrenched, and those abusing them would have felt a little less familiar with and accustomed to the exercise of those powers.
"This is something we see in almost every sector of government, not just in the national security space, but it's very important: Once you grant the government some new power or authority, it becomes exponentially more difficult to roll it back."
Snowden, along with CitizenFour director Laura Poitras and hack Glenn Greenwald, participated in a Reddit Q&A session on Monday – after some kerfuffles. Snowden was originally banned from the Reddit forum because the moderators thought he was using a fake account.
Privacy and surveillance could be a hot topic in the next presidential elections, Snowden said, but only if people put pressure on politicians via activism. Governments only change when the populace demands it, he said, and sometimes – as in the formation of the US itself – that requires extraordinary actions.
"Ultimately, if people lose their willingness to recognize that there are times in our history when legality becomes distinct from morality, we aren't just ceding control of our rights to government, but our agency in determining our futures," he opined.
"Our rights are not granted by governments. They are inherent to our nature. But it's entirely the opposite for governments: their privileges are precisely equal to only those which we suffer them to enjoy."
Greenwald pointed out that privacy legislation had got a lot of support from both sides of the political spectrum, with both Republicans and Democrats trying to legislate together on the issue. But the leadership of both parties is firmly behind the NSA and mass surveillance, he said.
"The division over this issue (like so many other big ones, such as crony capitalism that owns the country) is much more 'insider v. outsider' than 'Dem v. GOP'. But until there are leaders of one of the two parties willing to dissent on this issue, it will be hard to make it a big political issue," Greenwald said.
"That's why the Dem efforts to hand Hillary Clinton the nomination without contest are so depressing. She's the ultimate guardian of bipartisan status quo corruption, and no debate will happen if she's the nominee against some standard Romney/Bush-type GOP candidate."
With regard to Neil Patrick Harris' comment at the Oscar ceremony – "The subject of CitizenFour, Edward Snowden, could not be here tonight for some treason," the host quipped – Snowden said the remark made him laugh and that he didn't think it was a political statement.
"My perspective is if you're not willing to be called a few names to help out your country, you don't care enough," he said.
Greenwald said that he thought the joke was "lame" but no big deal. He said a comment about it to a Buzzfeed reporter had got out of hand "and now I'm going to hear comments all day about how I'm a humourless scold who can't take a good joke."
Director Laura Poitras said that the reception for CitizenFour had been much better than expected and that she has more films in the works that will delve deeper into the Snowden files and the evolving fight for privacy.
"I do plan to release more footage from [the] Hong Kong shoot [with Snowden]. On the first day we met Ed, Glenn conducted a long interview (four to five hours) that is extraordinary," she said. "I also conducted a separate interview with Ed re: technical questions. The time constraints of a feature film made it impossible to include everything. I will release more."
While saying he would like to come home, Snowden indicated that he is quite happy in Moscow, which is currently warmer than the East Cost of the US. Moscow is one of Europe's largest cities, he pointed out, and has a lot to offer.
He categorically denied claims made by some in the US that he was a Russian spy, pointing out that it made no sense. If he had been working for Putin's pals, he argued, he wouldn’t have made any files public or gone to Hong Kong originally, and he also wouldn’t have had to spend more than a month living in a Moscow airport.
"The reality is I spent so long in that damn airport because I wouldn't play ball and nobody knew what to do with me. I refused to co-operate with Russian intelligence in any way (see my testimony to EU Parliament on this one if you're interested), and that hasn't changed," he said.
One of the top questions asked was whether Snowden was dispirited by the lack of public outrage over the NSA's spying activities. He replied that people obviously care about their privacy but feel disempowered, although he said the technology community is leading the way in making changes.
"2013, for a lot of engineers and researchers, was a kind of atomic moment for computer science," he said. "Much like physics post-Manhattan project, an entire field of research that was broadly apolitical realized that work intended to improve the human condition could also be subverted to degrade it."
The answer lies less with relying on politicians to limit the power of intelligence agencies to conduct mass surveillance, Snowden said, but on inventing the software and policies to make such practices uneconomic. The technology community is making great strides in the field, he concluded. ®