"There’s a zero percent chance the Russians or Chinese have received any documents.”
That's what NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, referring to a huge trove of classified files he has made available to select journalists in the name of the "public interest," told the New York Times during an online interview that took place this month and was published late Thursday.
Acccording to the exchange, which was carried out over encrypted email, Snowden says that he relinquished his own copies of the NSA documents before he left Hong Kong for China back in June.
“If the highest officials in government can break the law without fearing punishment or even any repercussions at all, secret powers become tremendously dangerous.” –Edward Snowden
“What would be the unique value of personally carrying another copy of the materials onward?” he said to the Times.
Whether or not Snowden's efforts to evade capture and imprisonment by the U.S. government had resulted in either the Russian or Chinese intelligence services obtaining the files has been a point of contention since he first went public as the source of the files, but this is the first time he has explain the confidence with which he asserts that the files have not been compromised.
According to the Times:
American intelligence officials have expressed grave concern that the files might have fallen into the hands of foreign intelligence services, but Mr. Snowden said he believed that the N.S.A. knew he had not cooperated with the Russians or the Chinese. He said he was publicly revealing that he no longer had any agency documents to explain why he was confident that Russia had not gained access to them. He had been reluctant to disclose that information previously, he said, for fear of exposing the journalists to greater scrutiny.
In a wide-ranging interview over several days in the last week, Mr. Snowden offered detailed responses to accusations that have been leveled against him by American officials and other critics, provided new insights into why he became disillusioned with the N.S.A. and decided to disclose the documents, and talked about the international debate over surveillance that resulted from the revelations.
Among the various topics covered in the interview, Snowden speaks specifically to the argument made by some that he could have played the role of whistleblower by following internal protocols and making his concerns known to his superiors at the NSA. According to Snowden, those complaints would have go nowhere fast. Again, from the Times:
Mr. Snowden added that inside the spy agency “there’s a lot of dissent — palpable with some, even.” But he said that people were kept in line through “fear and a false image of patriotism,” which he described as “obedience to authority.”
He said he believed that if he tried to question the N.S.A.’s surveillance operations as an insider, his efforts “would have been buried forever,” and he would “have been discredited and ruined.” He said that “the system does not work,” adding that “you have to report wrongdoing to those most responsible for it.”
Mr. Snowden said he finally decided to act when he discovered a copy of a classified 2009 inspector general’s report on the N.S.A.’s warrantless wiretapping program during the Bush administration. He said he found the document through a “dirty word search,” which he described as an effort by a systems administrator to check a computer system for things that should not be there in order to delete them and sanitize the system.
“It was too highly classified to be where it was,” he said of the report. He opened the document to make certain that it did not belong there, and after he saw what it revealed, “curiosity prevailed,” he said.
After reading about the program, which skirted the existing surveillance laws, he concluded that it had been illegal, he said. “If the highest officials in government can break the law without fearing punishment or even any repercussions at all,” he said, “secret powers become tremendously dangerous.”
He would not say exactly when he read the report, or discuss the timing of his subsequent actions to collect N.S.A. documents in order to leak them. But he said that reading the report helped crystallize his decision. “You can’t read something like that and not realize what it means for all of these systems we have,” he said.