Lunch with the FT: Edward Snowden, the world’s most famous whistleblower

Edward Snowden has room service with Alan Rusbridger in a Moscow hotel to talk about the ‘surveillance free-for-all’ — and the possible role of a Rubik’s Cube in his spiriting away of the NSA files
© James Ferguson
Edward Snowden has rounded on his hosts, attacking the Kremlin’s human rights record and implicating Russia in two of the US government’s latest major security hacks.
In a Lunch with the FT — carried below — he complained Moscow had “gone very far, in ways that are completely unnecessary, costly and corrosive to individual and collective rights” and added that his greatest loyalty was still to the US.
He described the leak last month of NSA espionage tools, potentially by Russia as an “implicit threat” to the US government. Efforts by hackers called the Shadow Brokers to auction off NSA computer code used to break into foreign networks were an attempt to show Washington how vulnerable it was, he added.
Snowden insisted that all dealings with Russian officials were conducted by his lawyer. “I don’t have a lot of ties to Russia and that’s by design because, as crazy as it sounds, I still plan to leave.”
Edward Snowden is not the easiest lunch date. The former National Security Agency operative doesn’t fancy talking in a Moscow restaurant so — via an intermediary — we settle on meeting in my hotel and risk the room service. He will present himself at the agreed time. That’s all I need to know.
In the end he’s 20 minutes late, dressed casually in black jeans and black V-neck, buttoned-up T-shirt carrying a pair of unbranded dark glasses. He eyes up the small, dimly lit room 203 of the Golden Apple “boutique” hotel — half an hour’s gentle stroll from the Kremlin — with the look of a man who has spent too much time in such places.
How does it compare with room 1014 of the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong, where in June 2013 — having shared many of the NSA’s most closely guarded secrets with a few handpicked journalists — Snowden spent a week as the most wanted man in the world?
“A bit smaller, but not dissimilar,” he says. “The Hong Kong room had a glass bathroom wall here,” he adds, pointing to a bland wall featuring an obligatory hotel watercolour.
The interior of the Mira hotel room is about to become much better known with the US release next week of Oliver Stone’s biopic about Snowden, which stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the whistleblower’s role. Much of the tensest, most claustrophobic action is filmed in a reconstruction of room 1014 built inside a hangar-like studio in Munich.
During that intense week three years ago, Snowden and two Guardian reporters worked on those first stories disclosing the full capabilities that intelligence agencies can now deploy against populations. When he revealed himself as the source, he was acclaimed as a hero by some — others recommended the electric chair. I had never met him and was entirely reliant on the judgment of our veteran reporter, Ewen MacAskill, who rang to report (in pre-arranged code owing something to Hollywood) that “the Guinness is good”.
I first saw his face about an hour before the rest of the world, when MacAskill filed hisvideo interview to New York. Like everyone else there I was struck by his stubbled youth and impressed by his thoughtful articulacy. Today, at 33, there’s a touch less stubble, and the hair is a smidgen longer. He says he moves freely around Moscow, seldom recognised, which is surprising since he has changed little since that first picture of him etched itself on our consciousness.
Reading the laminated room-service menu card, complete with English translations, he is tempted by the spicy chicken curry with rice and chilli sauce. I go for the risotto with white mushrooms and a “vinaigrette” salad with herring. Snowden — skinny thin — decides he can’t resist the crab cakes, too. We telephone the order for the food, with mineral water.
I work for the US but they don’t realise it
He has been unwillingly marooned in Moscow since 2013 when — the subject of agiant manhunt — he was forced to leave Hong Kong. How’s his Russian coming on? He confirms it’s up to ordering in a restaurant, but is reluctant to elaborate. “All my work’s in English. Everybody I talk to I speak to in English,” he says. “I sleep in Russia but I live all around the world. I don’t have a lot of ties to Russia. That’s by design because, as crazy as it sounds, I still plan to leave.”
He lives “mainly” on Eastern Standard Time and spends most of his waking hours online — “but it always has been so”. He admits he misses the “sense of home” represented by America, “but technology overcomes most of that divide. For me, I’m a little bit of an outlier to begin with because, remember, I signed up to go work overseas for the CIA and overseas for the NSA. So it’s really not that much different from the postings that I had for the US.
“The only difference is that I’m still posted overseas and I work for the US but they don’t realise it.” As anyone who follows him on Twitter knows (he follows just one account: the NSA) he is capable of a very dry wit.
He has seen a version of the Stone movie on one of the director’s trips to Moscow, during which Snowden says he would talk to Stone’s co-writer, Kieran Fitzgerald, about “trying to keep the film a little bit closer to being reality”.
“But,” he shrugs, “I know it’s a drama, not a documentary.”
How would he score it out of 10? He avoids a rating. “On the policy questions, which I think are the most important thing for the public understanding, it’s as close to real as you can get in a film.”
He met Gordon-Levitt in Moscow and thought him “an amazing guy … we had lunch together, talked for several hours just about everything, our personal lives — what we think about, what we care about. At the time I thought it was just a social visit but, after the fact, he told me that he was actually scoping me out, trying to get my mannerisms.”
Having interviewed Gordon-Levitt’s “Snowden” as part of my own cameo in the film, I can vouch for how well he captures the real thing. Snowden was impressed, too: “His characterisation of me makes me uncomfortable, with the super-deep gravelly voice, but that’s because you never hear your own voice the way other people do, right?”
Was he moved by the film, which in flashback revisits the episodes in his life that led to what he calls his “tortured” decision to engineer the biggest leak of classified documents in history? “There’s always going to be something emotional about seeing something that you did retold as a story by other people. It shows a reflection of how your choices matter to them. Three years later, seeing what we thought was going to be a five-day story still being reported on [makes me think] that I wasn’t crazy.”
There’s a knock on the door — which would have caused a spasm of paranoid anxiety in the Mira in 2013. Now it’s just room service. The floor is so small the waiter balances the tray on the bed and Snowden has to perch his chicken curry on his knee. The water is missing. My vinaigrette salad turns out to be cubed beetroot. I avoid the herrings.
Once he nods at the iPhone recording our interview and expands on a point “in case someone is listening”. The first time I met him — to see how he was surviving in his new circumstances in spring 2014 — my iPhone had displayed a giant red thermometer, a sign of alarming overheating. Snowden had observed mildly it was because so many different people were trying to listen in.
He confirms he received no money from the movie, adding of his tangential experience of Hollywood: “When I was told that there was going to be a film made about me, it was a scary thing, one of the most terrifying things I can imagine. But, looking back, I hope it helps, I’m cautiously optimistic that it will.”
He looks back over the period since the revelations and reflects that all three branches of government in the US — Congress, courts, president — have changed their position on mass surveillance. “We can actually start to impose more oversight on spies, rather than giving them a free pass to do whatever simply because we’re scared, which is understandable but clearly not ethical.”
What of subsequent developments in the UK, where the government’s response has been to propose laws that not only sanction, post hoc, the intelligence activities that were revealed to be happening, but extend them? He says it was not his intention to tell the world how to structure their laws, but to give people a voice in the process. “The laws have gotten worse in some countries. France has gone very far, so too, of course, countries like Russia, China. In Britain there’s an authoritarian trend.
“We don’t allow police to enter and search any home. We don’t typically reorder the operation of a free society for the convenience of the police — because that is the definition of a police state,” he says, mopping up the last of the rice. “And yet some spies and officials are trying to persuade us that we should. Now, I would argue there’s no real question that police in a police state would be more effective than those in a free and liberal society where the police operate under tighter constraints. But which one would you rather live in?”
He has finished his curry and pronounces it “quite good”. The crab cakes are abandoned after a bite. “Less good,” he says. We order ice cream — vanilla, strawberry and chocolate for him, sorbet for me. The voice on the phone launches into a complicated explanation of why, with five scoops in all, we can have a discount.
Does he never lose sleep at night wondering whether Isis terrorists might not have gained some useful advantage from the information he disclosed?
I can’t fix the human rights situation in Russia, and realistically my priority is to fix my own country first
Well, firstly, he says, in all the recent European attacks the suspects were known to the authorities, who thus had the ability to target them without having to scoop up everyone else’s data as well. Secondly, he points out, Osama bin Laden stopped using a mobile phone in 1998 — not because of leaks to newspapers but because “there is an aggressive form of Darwinism in terrorist circles. Long before we, the public, know about any of these surveillance measures, they have already known for years because, if they had not, they are already dead.
“But,” he goes on, “let’s say that the newspapers had decided this should not be public. Let’s say the intelligence services had been able to continue using these programs in secret. Would it have stopped any of the terrorist attacks that have occurred in the last three years? There’s no public evidence that that’s the case. In fact, there’s no classified evidence that that’s the case, or else we’d be reading it in the newspapers.”
We move on to talking about stories alleging Russian hacking of the NSA itself and of the Democratic party’s governing body, the Democratic National Committee. The former involved a group calling itself the Shadow Brokers, who threatened to auction very sophisticated alleged NSA surveillance tools. The latter was a collection of DNC emails published — to general embarrassment — by WikiLeaks in July.
The Shadow Broker leak, says Snowden, “doesn’t strike me as a whistleblower: that strikes me as a warning. It’s political messaging being carried out through information disclosure.” And the DNC hack, where, as he observes, the conventional wisdom is that it was the Russians? “This is part of the problem of this surveillance free-for-all that we’re allowing to occur by refusing to moderate our own behaviour. We’ve set a kind of global precedent that anything is possible and nothing is prohibited.
“Now, the fact the DNC got hacked is not surprising and interesting. We’re hacking political parties around the world, so is every country. What makes it interesting is that some of the things taken from this server were published afterwards. That’s quite novel. I think.”
Which makes him think what? “That it’s for political effect.”
He says — as someone who used to try and do this sort of thing to the Chinese — that it would be easy to attribute the hack to whoever had done it. “But this creates a problem because, let’s say, the NSA has the smoking gun that says the Russians hacked the DNC, and they tell us the Russians hacked the DNC, how can we be sure? It presumes a level of trust that no longer exists.”
The ice creams arrive along with an espresso, replacing the first set of dishes on the bed. Snowden spills a bit of chicken curry on the duvet and apologetically mops it up with a towel.
Aren’t we beginning to discover that no digital databases are secure? “We are living through a crisis in computer security the likes of which we’ve never seen,” he says. “But until we solve the fundamental problem, which is that our policy incentivises offence to a greater degree than defence, hacks will continue unpredictably and they will have increasingly larger effects and impacts.”
The answer, he thinks, is that there ought to be some form of liability for negligence in software architecture, such as would apply in the food industry. He adds, drily: “People from my tribe will be extraordinarily mad at me for suggesting regulation in the terms of negligence for software security.”
He has finished his ice cream and declines coffee. Life in Moscow is getting better, he says: “I’m more open now than I’ve been since 2013.” He sees few people — such meetings as this are rare — and divides his time between public speaking (which pays the bills) and devising tools to protect the digital security of journalists. He would rather not go into “the family stuff” or how often he sees Lindsay Mills, his partner, who was left behind in Hawaii when he quit his job for the NSA there and disappeared to Hong Kong.
His American lawyer, Ben Wizner at the American Civil Liberties Union, is reported to be preparing to launch a petition to President Barack Obama to grant Snowden a pardon before he steps down. Snowden will only say: “Of course I hope they’re successful but this has never really been about what happens to me. No matter how the outcome shakes out, it’s something I can live with.”
His chances of a happy ending under President Donald Trump would be zero, I observe. What about under President Hillary Clinton? “You’re trying to drag me into a political quagmire,” he protests. He collects himself, looking intensely at the ground, before sidestepping the question: “I think we should have better choices. We’re a country of 330m people and we seem to be being asked to make a choice between individuals whose lives are defined by scandal. I simply think we should be capable of more.”
If he’s tough on the options in US politics, his willingness to tweet criticism of Russian politics to his 2.3m followers has not gone unnoticed. “A lot of people who care about me tell me to shut up, but if I was married to my own self-interest, I never would have left Hawaii.
“I can’t fix the human rights situation in Russia, and realistically my priority is to fix my own country first, because that’s the one to which I owe the greatest loyalty. But though the chances are it will make no difference, maybe it’ll help.”
He gathers up his dark glasses: it’s time for him to melt into the Moscow crowds. A final question: the Stone film shows him spiriting his trove of secrets out of the NSA on a micro-SD card hidden in a Rubik’s Cube. True or false?
“Oliver confirmed in an interview recently that that’s a touch of the dramatic licence, but that’s only because I wouldn’t confirm or deny how it really happened. I will say that I gave Rubik’s Cubes to everyone in my office, it’s true. I really did that.” And with that he is gone.
Alan Rusbridger was editor of the Guardian from 1995-2015. It won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for the revelations
Illustration by James Ferguson
This article will be open for comments on Monday at 11am when we will also publish the full transcript of the interview
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