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Edward Snowden Says Disclosures Bolstered Individual Privacy

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Snowden: ‘Being Patriotic Doesn’t Mean Simply Agreeing’

Edward J. Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor who lives in exile in Russia, in an interview with The New York Times in a Google Hangout, discussed his view of patriotism.

Publish Date September 16, 2016. . Watch in Times Video »

ATHENS — Edward J. Snowden, the former American intelligence contractor who leaked documents about surveillance programs, said on Friday that his disclosures had improved privacy for individuals in the United States, and he declared that “being patriotic doesn’t mean simply agreeing with your government.”

Mr. Snowden also said he was grateful for a campaign, led by human rights and civil liberties groups, calling on President Obama to pardon him, a move that would allow him to return to the United States without facing the prospect of many years in jail. Russia provided him asylum after the United States annulled his passport.

If he is not pardoned, he could face charges on two counts under the 1917 Espionage Act, which does not allow for a “public interest” or “whistle-blower” defense, making it almost impossible for him to explain his motivations or present a proper defense, Mr. Snowden said.

“I am legally prohibited from even speaking to the jury about my motivation, and this brings up the question of, ‘Can there be a fair trial when you can’t put forward a defense?’ ” he said. One can speak to the judge during sentencing, he said, but not to the jury, and “that’s not very democratic.”

Mr. Snowden said he would consider serving a jail sentence as part of a plea bargain arranged before he leaves Russia.

A pardon appears unlikely, however; the Obama administration has rejected the idea in earlier petition campaigns and has said that Mr. Snowden should face trial in the United States. On Thursday, lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee unanimously signed a letter asking the president not to pardon him.

Speaking via an internet connection from Russia to a session of the Athens Democracy Forum, sponsored by The New York Times, Mr. Snowden said he would maintain his focus on United States surveillance policies in the digital age.

Watch the full interview of Edward Snowden speaking to The Times about privacy and security. Video by New York Times Conferences

“I would argue that being willing to disagree, particularly in a risky manner, is actually what we need more of today,” he said, adding that he remained a patriot. “When ge have this incredible, often fact-free environment, where politicians can simply make a claim, and then it’s reported, without actual critical analysis of what that means, what the effect would be — how do we actually steer democracy?”

Most people think of privacy in terms of their settings on Facebook, Mr. Snowden said. “But privacy is the fountainhead of all our rights, from which all rights are derived. It’s what makes you an individual.”

Freedom of speech, he said, “doesn’t have much room if you don’t have the protected space.” And privacy is most important, he continued, for ordinary citizens, those without the protections enjoyed by the privileged and powerful.

The danger is there, he said, “when everything you’ve ever done, every purchase you’ve ever made, everywhere you’ve ever traveled with a cellphone in your pocket is suddenly available to third parties.”

Someone “may completely support who’s in charge of the N.S.A. today, but what about tomorrow?” he asked, referring to the National Security Agency. With any change of government, “in the wake of any election, whether those powers are being used in an indirect manner, it can change instantly,” he said.

Asked whether he had accomplished anything permanent with his revelations, he said: “Do I think things are fixed? No. Can any single individual fix the world? No, that’s too much. Have things improved?”

Answering his own question, Mr. Snowden said “Yes.” There have been important changes in American and European laws, some internet companies are responding with full encryption and pushing back against government pressure, and people are more aware of the issue, he said.

“It’s gotten a little better,” he said. “Some companies are resisting. Yes, this is uncomfortable for some governments. No question, this is a very positive thing.”

But the United States still distinguishes between its citizens and others when it comes to surveillance, because court approval is not necessary when American agencies want to monitor noncitizens outside the United States.

Mr. Snowden said he was fully aware of Russia’s anti-democratic traits, and he said he had spoken out against them — even though, as Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch who was also taking part in the Athens forum, noted, the Russian government is the only thing between Mr. Snowden and “a jail cell.”

Mr. Snowden denied engaging in self-censorship concerning Russia, adding that he did not think his opinions would have much influence in the country because he does not speak Russian very well.

Asked what he did all day, marooned in Russia, Mr. Snowden joked, “I speak in conferences in Athens mostly.”

But then he added: “I’ve always been a sort of an indoor cat. My life has been the internet, and perhaps this is an explanation of why I was so moved by what I witnessed at the N.S.A. What we saw in 2013 wasn’t just about surveillance, that’s sort of the reflexive reading of it, that’s the surface level. If we look a bit more deeply, it’s actually about rights, more broadly it’s about democracy.”

“Snowden,” Oliver Stone’s portrait of the whistle-blower, which was made with his cooperation, has just been released. Asked if he recognized the film version of himself as rather dull, he laughed.

“I am what I am,” he said. “I am never going to be the coolest guy on stage. But that’s O.K., because that’s not what I’m going for. As long as we can keep the internet free and open, at least as much as possible, and we can improve things bit by bit, year after year.”

Mr. Snowden, who is a director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, is also working to give journalists better tools to protect themselves against unwanted surveillance.

“I think this is a worthy cause that makes me feel good about what I am doing, even if it doesn’t get as much attention as the things I’m sort of best known for,” he said. “But even if it’s a little bit nerdy, it’s something that I enjoy very much and that I’m very comfortable with.”

Regarding the presidential election in the United States, Mr. Snowden said that he would vote by absentee ballot but he declined, “as a privacy advocate,” he said, with a rare touch of humor, to reveal his choice.

Then he was back to his focus. “I’m really disappointed that we’re not really hearing very much about the Constitution, about our rights,” in the campaign, he said.

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