For the first time, Edward Snowden—the man who revealed innumerable surveillance programs conducted by the National Security Agency (NSA)—sat down for an extended interview with an American television network. NBC News said the questioning of Snowden by its Nightly News anchor, Brian Williams, lasted for several hours, but just 40 minutes of the discussion were broadcast.
Scores of important avenues for discussion—some that may have been asked—were left unexplored. They are the questions that, if Snowden knows the answers, could make the NSA scandal far more explosive than it already is—or far less than what many Americans believe to be the case. Here are 16 of those questions:
1. Most of the information that has been revealed from the documents you obtained dealt with the abilities, rather than the actions, of the NSA. Did you see or do you have any evidence that the agency was, in fact, spying on Americans who were not linked to terrorist organizations through what is known as the “three-hop” standard? (Under this rule, one of 22 NSA officials must give approval to an analyst who believes a “reasonable, articulable suspicion” exists that a number is directly linked to terrorists. Then the analyst is allowed to determine through searches of metadata which phone numbers were called by the first number. The NSA can then determine the numbers called by the second phone, and the numbers called by the third. The intent is to see if numbers called in the United States by phones directly connected to terrorists will reveal terrorist operatives inside the country.)
2. You have also described the capability of the NSA to infiltrate individual computers and watch what someone is typing. Again, did you see or do you have any evidence that the agency was using this to spy on Americans who have not been linked to a terrorist organization under the requirements specified by law?
3. Do you believe that the NSA is engaged in wide-scale surveillance of Americans? And for what purpose?
4. When Congress debated the laws granting modern surveillance powers to the NSA, there was extended discussion on protecting the privacy of Americans. This resulted in the 2008 adoption of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which specifically precludes targeting what it calls “United States persons” anywhere in the world. Did you see or do you have evidence of the NSA intentionally violating Section 702 on any substantive scale?
5. Did you see or do you have evidence of the NSA reading content of emails sent by Americans or listening to phone calls of Americans without meeting the standards required by the national security courts known as FISA courts?
6. We now know that, prior to the release of the documents, the FISA courts had slapped down the NSA for providing misleading, incomplete or inaccurate information when it sought approvals. Did you see or do you have evidence that those were intentional acts by the NSA? Does that suggest that the FISA courts were effective in reviewing NSA actions, or were there other areas where they failed or were deceived?
7. Technologically, the world has changed dramatically since the original adoption of FISA. With wireless and disposable phones and devices that communicate directly over the Internet, old-style wiretapping is no longer possible. The NSA maintains that, because terrorists often use phones for a single call and an email account for a single message before disposing of them, it would be impossible to identify their numbers and emails without the collection of metadata that allows for retrospective searches. Is the agency lying? And if so, what methods are you aware of that would allow for the discovery of those numbers and email addresses that do not entail the retrospective analysis of metadata?
NBC also asked about Snowden personally, but failed to probe some of the actions he took or the basis for some of his knowledge. In particular, these questions should have been asked:
8. When you were in Hong Kong, you revealed several classified American surveillance programs conducted by the NSA against the Chinese. In particular, you disclosed that the NSA engaged in computer espionage at Tsinghua University, where primary advisers to the Chinese government on arms issues work, and hacked into systems of Pacnet, an Asian provider of global telecommunications service that operates EAC-C2C—the leading fiber-optic submarine cable network in Asia, connecting Hong Kong, China, Korea, Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines and Singapore. What purpose did you have for doing that? In particular, because of the importance of Tsinghua in allowing the American government to obtain intelligence on Chinese arms activities, how did you come to believe that revealing that would not compromise United States security? Finally, regarding Pacnet, do you believe American surveillance of individuals overseas is improper?
9. You also disclosed surveillance activities involving American allies. Were you briefed on or did you see documentation on the purpose of those activities? In disclosing them, there is no question that you have damaged relationships between America and some of its allies—other governments have explicitly said so. What was the purpose of revealing that? And why do you believe that this has not harmed America’s security or its ability to work with allies?
10. Do you believe that surveillance in foreign nations is intrinsically wrong?
11. You say that you do not believe your actions damaged United States security and that the government has failed to reveal instances where it did. Two questions: What kind of analysis did you conduct to be sure that the information you were taking did not compromise security? And, secondly, given that journalists do not have security clearances, why did you think they were the best placed to determine what would compromise national security and what didn’t?
12. You say that you worked for the NSA, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency. It’s quite unusual for one individual to work for so many different intelligence groups. Why did they do that? Are the agencies in such poor communication with each other that they do not share information obtained by their employees with others? What were you asked to do for each agency?
13. Your passport was revoked while you were in Hong Kong. How did you get out and manage to fly to Russia?
14. You have discussed having sent multiple emails throughout the NSA depicting your concerns about its activities, and you say they were not taken seriously. Given all the documents that you removed from the agency, why didn’t you bring those with you as well, particularly since it would show why you chose to take the route you did?
15. Did you ever consider delivering your documents to Congress, particularly members of the intelligence committees? And if not, why not?
16. Finally, did you ever see any evidence that the NSA was lying to the intelligence committees or that these programs were not disclosed to them?