'Netanyahu's actions more dangerous than coronavirus'

In an exclusive interview, Edward Snowden, the man who bared the secrets of American intelligence, says he is surprised that Israelis are not furious over the use of Shin Bet anti-terrorism measures to track people infected with the virus, which he calls 'intolerable'
Ronen Bergman |
MOSCOW, Russia - Edward Snowden can’t understand why the Israelis are not furious, about the use of the Shin Bet’s mass surveillance database to track people infected by the coronavirus.
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  • The man who sparked an international tempest by exposing the American government’s vast surveillance program targeting its own citizens was sure that there would be a huge protest in Israel.
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    Ronen Bergman with Edward Snowden in Moscow
    Ronen Bergman with Edward Snowden in Moscow
    Ronen Bergman with Edward Snowden in Moscow
    (Photo: Yana Sofovich)
    “I really find it difficult to grasp how this thing has not aroused a big public storm,” he said in an exclusive interview with Ynet's sister publication Yedioth Ahronoth.
    “It is very surprising to me that the Israeli public does not understand the extent to which a pool of data such as this in the hands of the Shin Bet is dangerous. True, Israel is a country at war, but it must be remembered that a large part of the Israeli population is in Israel as the outcome of a tragedy, an intentional atrocity that was powered by the abuse of public records that were held by the Nazis in Germany.
    "So I say to the Israelis: Set aside your political feelings for the day, set aside your feelings about Netanyahu, about his opposition rivals, that is less important.”
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    Edward Snowden
    Edward Snowden
    Edward Snowden
    (Photo: AFP PHOTO / CHANNEL 4)
    So what is important?
    What is important is that what Netanyahu is doing today by using the Shin Bet database is more dangerous than the coronavirus.
    If these technologies and capabilities are not to be used against a global pandemic, when should they be used?
    In this way? Never. Humanity has never before faced a technological capability for the implementation of surveillance as it does today and we are standing by and witnessing passively the construction of the architecture of oppression. The idea that Netanyahu or any government can flip a switch to locate people infected with the coronavirus and then to come and weld their door shut or transfer them to specially designated camps is intolerable.".
    Domodedevo airport, Moscow: At first, the border policewoman smiled politely at me. But the look on her face changed suddenly when she entered my passport details into her computer.
    You don’t need experience at border posts to grasp there is something wrong. From the corner of my eye, I saw her left hand inching slowly toward a red button, and pushing it nervously. They clearly knew I was coming, I was flagged. Two minutes later, the police came.
    My passport was taken away, and I was placed under guard. A young cop ordered me to stand against the wall, took a small camera out of his pocket and photographed me over and over from very close up. Then he gave me a piece of paper and a pen and told me to write down details about myself.
    I told him that it would be better if he wrote because my handwriting is really quite illegible. He insisted. I realized they also needed a sample of my handwriting.
    Now and again, a tough-looking female officer came in, apparently commander of the shift. “No problems, no problems,” she muttered at me in a heavy Russian accent. “Only random check.” One of the guards heard this and couldn’t stop himself from chuckling.
    It was clear that this check was anything but random. I tried to inquire what the problem was. “There is a matter that has to be checked about your passport,” the commandant explained.
    I was held like this in a side room for two hours. Then all of a sudden. Ms. No Problems appeared, gave my passport back, and told me to move on. Just like that.
    For a moment our eyes met. There is nothing coincidental about the Russian security services and it was quite clear that the whole incident was a signal to me: We know why you have come here, and in particular who you have come to see.
    The person who I had come to see had received a similarly cold welcome. On June 21 2013, he landed in Moscow handed his passport to the border control officer, and was immediately escorted by police to a side room.
    That is where the similarity between the two events ends, if only because when Edward Snowden arrived in Moscow he was more or less the most famous person on Earth. And aside from a few terrorists, also the most wanted.
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    Protester in Brazil against his governemnt's decision to deny asylum to Edward Snowden
    Protester in Brazil against his governemnt's decision to deny asylum to Edward Snowden
    Protester in Brazil against his governemnt's decision to deny asylum to Edward Snowden
    (Photo: AP)
    He still occupies a high place on the wanted list. Snowden, who had worked for the CIA and then as a contractor for the NSA, had disclosed to a number of journalists that US intelligence was running indiscriminate mass surveillance of American citizens.
    He revealed that under the codename PRISM, the NSA was carrying out a top secret program that enabled it to continuously extract data from Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, YouTube, Skype, AOL and Apple: emails, photos, videos, audio conversations, internet surfing content, queries to search engines, and any other information.
    The program was also collecting all the data from all phone conversations passing through American phone companies, such as Verizon.
    In fact, every Google search by everyone on the planet was going via a NSA server that was saving copies of it all.
    It emerged that American intelligence was spying on everyone all the time, even if their name was Benjamin Netanyahu, for example, or Angela Merkel. They were both under surveillance.
    The global hoo-ha that broke out following the Snowden revelations was enormous.
    For years American intelligence denied the allegations that it was spying on American citizens. But it was doing more than that: mountains of digital information – every email, every post, every search, everything – was being kept and was accessible.
    The targets were not only members of terror cells about to blow themselves up or illicit uranium dealers but each and every innocent, patriotic, law-abiding American citizen was now a potential object of surveillance.
    In the days that followed, the journalists who broke the story released a brief video in which their source was identified. In it, the youthful, bespectacled, typical Silicon Valley geek said: “Um, my name is Ed Snowden. I’m, um, 29 years old."
    The Americans responded rapidly and harshly. Snowden was already on his way to seek asylum in Central America on a flight that stopped over in Moscow when Secretary of State John Kerry invalidated his passport.
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    A protest on Germany, calling for the governemnt to provide Ewdard Snowden with asylum
    A protest on Germany, calling for the governemnt to provide Ewdard Snowden with asylum
    A protest on Germany, calling for the governemnt to provide Ewdard Snowden with asylum
    (Photo: AP)
    An international extradition request was issued. If the Americans had got their hands on him, he would have been charged with a number of espionage offenses and likely would have spent the rest of his life in solitary confinement.
    When he landed in Moscow, the Russian spy agency tried to recruit him but, he said, he declined. Ultimately, Putin granted him political asylum, poking a finger into the eye of the world’s only superpower.
    In the meantime, the documents disclosed by Snowden were the source of a steady stream of more and more journalistic scoops all over the world.
    The damage sustained by American intelligence was claimed to be huge. "The Snowden revelations are the single greatest hemorrhaging of American secrets in the history of our country," General Michael Hayden told me.
    Hayden was head of the CIA and the NSA when Snowden was working for these agencies.
    Seven years later, Snowden’s disclosures are still making waves. His character has featured in films and computer games and he and his acts have been the subject of analysis in innumerable academic articles.
    He briefed the producers of the Homeland TV series. And in particular he became an idol in certain circles and was condemned as a despicable traitor in others.
    I once met a U.S. intelligence contractor who told me he had been assigned to go to Moscow under cover and assassinate Snowden. I have never been able to ascertain whether this was a true story.
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    A protest in front of the Bundestag in Germany, calling for the government to provide Edward Snowden with asylum
    A protest in front of the Bundestag in Germany, calling for the government to provide Edward Snowden with asylum
    A protest in front of the Bundestag in Germany, calling for the government to provide Edward Snowden with asylum
    (Photo: Reuters)
    Edward Snowden, did you ever imagine that your story would unfold the way it has?
    “It never crossed my mind that this is what would happen. I realized there was a chance I would end up in jail, or worse. But in everything concerning the repercussions of the publication I feared that exactly the opposite would happen. I reckoned the international media would report on it for a week or two and then, as often happens, move on to the next story.”
    A knock on the door of my Moscow hotel room, and Snowden comes in. Out of habit he casts a suspicious look out of the window. By chance, my room is on the sixth floor of the Metropol Hotel and it overlooks the Lubyanka, once the terrifying headquarters of the KBG and today home to that agency’s successor, the FSB.
    Innumerable Soviet citizens were murdered in the Lubyanka cellars, victim of the totalitarian state that rested on mass surveillance systems – which were far inferior to the American PRISM. This is why Snowden is concerned these days over the use of digital surveillance systems to track Israeli civilians.
    "What we're seeing here is the annihilation of the public’s freedom of choice between available options. Democracy is based entirely upon processes of debate, deliberation and the right of the public to decide for itself. And this is what they are going to wreck. "
    The main argument is that in a situation like the corona outbreak, the right to life trumps the right to privacy.
    "That is the laziest form of argument. It is always used as an excuse for poor policies. Was the decision on how to confront the corona threat made by a team of scientists and doctors and other relevant experts, or by politicians? As usual what they are saying is, ‘If you do not give us this weapon, we’ll lose the fight against corona.’”
    Well? There’s some logic in that.
    First up, we have never had this tool in a previous outbreaks. And guess what? We beat them. We beat SARS, for example, without activating members of the intelligence community. Secondly, it could have been done through the courts.
    Any judge in any country under any language would approve that order. But then it would at least have been subject to oversight.”
    During the time you were at the NSA, you were also part of what you are condemning.
    “True, I was involved in this violation, an accomplice to a crime. What was I supposed to do? How exactly should I have acted?
    Nevertheless, you stood up and did something.
    Because I reached a point where I thought, ‘Who am actually working for? For an espionage agency to which I have a contractual obligation, a piece of paper that I signed, to keep its secrets? Or for the public and the fundamental principles of my country? To which do I owe the greater loyalty? When do I reach the stage at which my obligation to the people is greater than that which I owe to the contract I signed with the CIA and the NSA.
    Snowden frequently uses a saidsentence that is worth pondering upon, precisely during the pandemic: “A nation’s freedom can be measured only by the respect that is shown to the rights of its citizens.”
    The Snowden story began on September 11 2001. Up until then, he was the computer geek across the hall, for who every minute away from the Internet was a waste of time. But after the planes crashed into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, Snowden wasn’t thinking about computers, but rather how to enlist in the U.S.’s special forces and kill the evil terrorists.
    He was accepted but suffered an injury in the course of basic training, and he decided to fight using his best weapon: his brain. He managed to get into the American intelligence community by passing the protracted and stringent security classification tests and received a position with a company that had a contract to supply various computer services to the NSA.
    Very soon, he discovered to his amazement that from many points of view the organization was functioning as if it was still in the Cold War era. Words like “digital” and “cyber” sounded like things that occupied kids with PlayStations and had nothing to do with true espionage.
    His training course was the first to drop the mandatory learning of the Morse code and in one exercise he was told to locate a satellite using a compass. After passing, he was posted to various overseas assignments, sometimes as an employee of the intelligence agencies, sometimes as a contractor for certain services, sometimes in an American embassy, sometimes inside a subterranean installation dug under Hawaiian pineapple fields.
    We are all prisoners of what we see in Hollywood movies, where American intelligence always possesses cutting-edge technology, with underground command posts full of digital gadgetry.
    "The truth is that it's extremely boring. It's like a standard government facility. Not at all like the movies. And the same goes for the situation I encountered during my first years of service. We had to learn about cables and fuses, to be able to operate the out-of-date terminals in stations all over the world, exactly as they used to do during the 50 years of the Cold War."
    You got there in a difficult period of time, after intelligence had failed to prevent 9/11.
    "Absolutely. They knew they’d failed at their most important duty – to defend America and they allowed the worst attack on the United States since Perl-Harbor to happen, on their own shift. So our bosses were putting great efforts into obtaining a gigantic budget and unprecedented powers and to use the terror threat to expand the means at their disposal far beyond what every American citizen was aware of. And they never asked the citizens for permission, or what they thought about it."
    What would have liked them to do? What did you want America to do?
    “They should have related to terror as a crime and to handle it with the means used against crime. We could have used the unprecedented international solidarity that there was at the time, a very rare thing. Think about it: In the wake of September 11, the United States had the sympathy of the entire world, even traditional adversaries.
    China and Russia. Immediately afterward, they were all lining up to help, saying anything we can do, we'll do it. We could have created a new framework, international cooperation, policing, because terrorism is a crime in every country. But instead the United States went to war.”
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    Former head of the NSA, Michael Hayden
    Former head of the NSA, Michael Hayden
    Former head of the NSA, Michael Hayden
    (Photo: MCT)
    And it needs people like you.
    "The people working in the intelligence community, those who came from the faculties of business administration or international relations, had no idea about technology, and there was a need to recruit a large number of young people with backgrounds like mine. In the pre-9/11 world, they wouldn’t even have let us into the building. "
    Snowden’s generation, computer geniuses in their 20s and 30s, some lacking any university degree, was enlisted hurriedly to join the war on terror. Money was not an issue. One of the documents Snowden uncovered was the “black budget” for the secret funding of the host of different intelligence agencies.
    In 2013, under President Obama, the black budget had a bottom line of $52.6 billion. Moreover, at the age of 22, with a systems admin diploma Snowden was given access to just about everything. No secrets, no limits. “After the whole thing blew up, they tried to say that I was a junior contact employee, without access to classified material,” said Snowden “This was a lie that was meant to undermine the credibility of the documents I disclosed. My job was at the intelligence bases of the CIA and the NSA, the same as any other employee.”
    Hayden once told me you were what he called “a hunter” who had decided in advance to collect documents in order to leak them later, and you were not motivated by any kind of values.
    "That’s an utter lie".
    What did you actually do there?
    “I was one of those responsible for connecting the communications systems of the CIA and the NSA, in other words one a few dozen people in the whole world who had clearance to see the materials of both agencies."
    Among other projects, Snowden worked on building a global backup system , “It was a gigantic secret network that ensured that even if NSA headquarters were destroyed by a nuclear bomb, no data would be lost. In those days I never realized that a technological system that was meant to store for eternity the documentation of every single person was a tragic mistake.”
    Then Snowden obtained a highly classified document, codenamed “Stellar Wind” and defined as one of NSA’s biggest secrets.
    What did Stellar Wind say?
    "That all the internet communications of American citizens was now defined as a target."
    The idea was a simple one, but alarming. The NSA developed a special program, XKeyscore, which in effect could do a search like Google, but through all the data a person had produced throughout their lifetime: emails, chats, posts, private files. Everything.
    Snowden said this program was “the closest thing I ever saw to science fiction.” How far out was it? It made it possible to watch the screen of the subject as if it was the screen of the NSA operative surveilling him or her.
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    Edward Snowden leaving Moscow airport
    Edward Snowden leaving Moscow airport
    Edward Snowden leaving Moscow airport
    (Photo: EPA)
    Some would ask, so what’s so bad about collecting info with the aim of interdicting terrorists.
    "As a child, I was taught that there are individual citizens and there are officials and elected officials that hold the power and have a great deal of influence over our lives.
    We know everything about them because they wield power in society. They have influence over our lives and we are ordinary, we are powerless. Nothing is known about us because that protects us, that insulates us from the abuses and the intrigues of these people in power who want to control and influence us for their own comfort.
    And increasingly, I saw that being inverted because of the spread of mass surveillance. We are being made transparent not just to our governments, not just to the Shin Bet and the Mossad, but to Google, to Facebook, in one of the few true far-reaching conspiracies of our time, where it was the marriage of corporate and state power."
    Did you ever see any of your colleagues misusing it?
    "I never saw anyone profiting financially from it, but there was a practice there that was called LOVEINT. Intelligence personnel would use it to gather information about girls they wanted to start up with or that they were going on a first date with, or their exes or any other person that they liked or otherwise, and wanted to listen in to their phones or read their email."
    Snowden said he knew that here and there an employee was caught making inappropriate use of the system, but they were never prosecuted, because “ the agency could not afford to allow anyone to discover that it had this capability. So they made everyone sign an undertaking not to do that kind of thing, but in the end what did they think would happen? You take 18 or 19 year-olds off the street. Take them out of high school and you've put them in front of the most powerful surveillance machine in human history, and they know that nothing will happen to them, because the real crime is being committed by the NSA. So obviously they will use it to start up with girls. And not only that.”
    In any case, Snowden said, when XKeyscore is used, you realize that all people, of any age, have two things in common: Watching porn and storing family photos or videos.
    These things led, in the bro culture that grew up in the cavern in Hawaii, to another annoying custom: “Each time someone found a picture of a nude girl on the computer he had hacked into he had to show it to everyone else, as long as there were no women around.”
    It’s serious, and has to be dealt with, but the question remains whether departures like this should cancel out this mass data collection? If someone has nothing to hide, why is it a problem that their purchases on e-bay should be stored away somewhere in the NSA’s server farm?
    “The public should be protected from things like this. If there’s a suspicion of a crime and law enforcement wants to poke around your living room or telephone they have to go to a judge and get a warrant. What the NSA was doing contradicted that totally and brazenly.
    They re-interpreted the law and tried to say that modern life and what it is creating, the whole digital range, is not subject to the constitution.But if I am a criminal or a terrorist, what can the authorities do with this info?
    They're watching everyone everywhere and storing it. What is being constructed by mass surveillance is effectively a kind of surveillance timesheet. At any time, the government will be able to search through the past communications of anyone they want to get at, looking for crimes.
    You can find something wrong that each of us has done over the years. Say speeding, or cheating on your spouse. At any time, from here to eternity, any new administration and any NSA chief that feels like it can simply find out everyone who has a phone or a computer is doing and know who he is, what he is doing with whom, and find pretexts to harass him.
    Imagine that Trump or Netanyahu or Putin said they're interested in you and they can just turn back the dial on the last month, three months, three years, eventually 30 years of your life and see where you were at any given moment.
    Who you spoke to, what you read, what you looked up. And this information gives them unlimited power, they can do anything that they want to do with you."
    But security agencies in the West, including those of the United States and Israel, contend that this is one of the ways of preventing terror, which would be impossible without it.
    "Obama also said that, but in the end he had to appoint a special panel to investigate the material I disclosed. It included Keith Alexander [NSA head at the time of the events] who said that
    there were 49 attacks that have been stopped by mass surveillance. And journalists, of course, were like, wow, this is relevant, but then they asked for details of the said attacks, and all of these tales vanished without a trace, apart from one – the apprehension of a would-be sucide bomber in New York. And tin that case too it turned out that
    he was caught through old traditional means of law enforcement investigation. Nothing to do about it; the terrorists wised up and simply do not use these communications systems anymore.
    On the other hand, it is apparently effective in fighting epidemics, like corona.
    "Look, they say there’ll be a vaccine within twelve to eighteen months, but the precedent that is being set today, the mass surveillance of the entire population, the construction of a database that can track movements of ordinary people that is in the hands of the state at the flick of a switch without the involvement of parliament, without the oversight of courts: That will last forever.
    This should really worry you. If that does not alarm people, I don't think there's anything that I could say that will persuade them, because certainly anyone in Israel knows the historic dangers of these kind of policies better than I do."
    Are you opposed to all surveillance, of any kind?
    Listen, at the end of the day you know, I signed up to work for the CIA, which is doing some surveillance. Of course, I support some intelligence collection activity. It can make the world safer. It can make wars less likely. It can make criminal acts less likely, but only if it's used in a discriminating way, against suspects not everyone.
    Because if it is used against everyone, it means that all of us are liable to be seen as criminals at a certain stage. I am also sure that most people who go to work for the Mossad or the CIA go there to do good, to fight the bad guys, to protect the public.
    But from the moment you begin to look at everyone as a suspect, and that’s what happened after 9/11, you learn that everyone has a corner that could be interpreted as being shady, that everyone commits some kind of offense sometime, and your mind, if you are an intelligence officer, becomes the mind of an inquisitor."
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    A pro-Snowden protest in Washington
    A pro-Snowden protest in Washington
    A pro-Snowden protest in Washington
    (Photo: EPA)
    I ask Snowden to talk about one moment that stands out in his memories of his time in the intelligence community. He recalls how he once took part in the surveillance of an Indonesian citizen, an engineer, who had been designated a target by the NSA. Snowden had no idea why, but guesses that the man might have been a candidate for a position in Iran.
    The system enabled him to watch the man via his computer camera. He remembers seeing him lift his infant son onto his lap, but the child burst out laughing and rolled around preventing him from working.
    Why that particular moment?
    "Because I thought straightaway of my father and I knew that if I went ahead with what I had decided to do, I would never see my family again".
    Snowden began collecting written material classified at the highest level of secrecy. The young computer genius managed to bypass all the digital defenses, to take the material out of the cave under the pineapple fields, to encrypt it all and upload it into the cloud.
    When he had collected several thousand documents, he established contacts with journalists who had in the past confronted the intelligence communities and began sending them samples. All this time, Snowden never shared his secret with anyone, not even the person closest to him, his wife to-be Lindsay.
    He said he knew that when it came out, the government would be all over her and he wanted to be sure that she knew nothing so nothing bad could happen to her.
    And the day you disappeared? Did you tell her anything?
    "I just left her a note saying “Going on assignment. I love you.”
    Did she guess anything?
    "She didn’t know anything about what I was doing. But she influenced my politics pretty significantly. I was not really very political or politically aware when I was younger. As a technologist, you don't really care. Lindsay, who was involved in several campaigns and public protest, who cares very much about what is happening and through her I learned to pay more attention and that I should be far more caring."
    It's quite a blow to a relationship when you vanish suddenly, and one day you’re on TV as the most wanted man in the world.
    "I was the worst boyfriend in the history of my country but she, this amazing, extraordinary woman, the best possible partner to go through something like this with. After it all blew up, at the FBI interrogation she was in a very difficult position because they were angry at me, but they couldn't reach me. And so they were trying to, like, paint her as part of a conspiracy.
    I hid money in the house and I kept all the details about what I was planning to do a secret from her, to allow her an opportunity to begin again, in a new life. I was sure we would never meet again. But she followed me to Russia."
    Linsey and Edward got married in Moscow.
    In his book, “The Snowden Operation”, Edward Lucas of the Economist said that it was all a classic Russian intelligence op, and that you were in fact a mole.
    "That is of course nonsense. Even the NSA itself has ruled out that I had anything to do with Russia when I worked there. My introduction to the country was landing there."
    if the whole matter of surveillance and data gathering bothered you so much, why did you not simply talk to someone at the NSA or, if you didn’t trust them, to someone in the administration or the Congress?
    "Exactly to whom was I able to turn? It was forbidden to talk to anyone from outside the agency. And if I had, what would it have helped? Would anyone really have done anything? By the way, I did try to speak with folks at the base, but although they agreed with me, the reactions were along the lines of “So what?” or “There’s nothing that can be done about it.”
    If we put aside the mater of legality, the efforts of the American intelligence community after 9/11 proved themselves. Al Qaeda was defeated, Bin Laden was eliminated.
    "I do not agree at all. People don't like to think about this, but in the United States, more people are killed by bathtub falls than by terrorists. When you look at terrorism compared to heart disease, when you compare it to traffic accidents and then you look at the disproportionate expenditure of resources on terror, on terrorism, which is at the end of the day, a criminal act even without mass surveillance and things like that. How frequently does a 9/11 happen? Once in a century?
    A larger threat is to our own values, to our own society. In our efforts to quash or to treat a fundamentally criminal act as that of a nation state, we amplified their importance, elevating them to peer.
    We're changing our legal structure, We're s destroying our system of values and rights. We have done more damage to our system and rights and values in response to terrorism than the initial terrorism itself ever could have done."
    So explain to me how to combat terror.
    "Educate people to be aware and alert. Common sense and police methods. Along with this, international cooperation with traditional adversaries who were helping us after 9/11, Russia and China. And look, now we are 20 years later, fighting the same war, and we have only exacerbated the problems and caused the deaths of another 3,000 Americans in wars across the world.
    We have actually doubled the damage of 9/11, except we did it to ourselves. Not to mention another million people killed in the course of America’s response."
    You preach about human rights and mass surveillance, but you found asylum in Moscow, not exactly the capital of rights and privacy.
    "I've criticized the Russian government openly, publicly on many occasions. If you look at my Twitter account, I mean, these things are public record. I've criticized the Russian president by name. I criticized their surveillance laws. I called for them not to be passed, but they have been passed and I called it a dark day for Russia.
    I've written against the manipulation of the Russian domestic elections. Just look at my public comments. My residence was not chosen by me. This was the decision of Secretary of State, John Kerry, when they canceled my passport, rather than allowing me to continue to Latin America.
    So, I mean, that's the sad reality. Until I'm able to travel freely, I'm stuck here. I can't control that. All I can do is control my own statements.
    I must add that from a distance you do see the harsh anti-Russian tone of the American media and public and it is not always right. This is also the reason that I refrain from contact with the people here in Moscow and almost never go out, so as not to supply more ammunition to those who want to harm me."
    Edward Snowden is very interested in Israel and the country featured in a fairly large number of the documents he leaked. The pictures emerging from this material are contradictory: Israel and the United States cooperating closely on the one hand, especially against common enemies like Iran and Hezbollah, and on the other hand the Americans are very suspicious of the Israelis, and are keeping a very close eye on them.
    These things often occur simultaneously. Documents from 2003 leaked by Snowden, for example, describe the preparations being made by National Security Agency chief Hayden for a visit by the head of Israeli Military Intelligence’s Unit 8200 at the time, Brig. Gen. Yair Cohen.
    Cohen was going to propose to Hayden that the United States fund, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, a huge 8200 intelligence project, codenamed Gladiator, for hacking into the communications systems of the global jihad.
    Before the meeting, Hayden received transcripts of phone conversations made by the intelligence attaché at the Israeli embassy in Washington, Shlomo Mofaz (“who is the brother of the Israeli minister of defense,” the memo notes) with his colleagues in Israel.
    The transcripts contained the points Cohen was expected to raise at the meeting with Hayden, and when it took place all of Israel’s persuasion and marketing tactics had already been bared. If anyone had doubts, the United States definitely does tap into the communications of its “greatest friend in the Middle East.”
    There was more. It emerges from the documents Snowden gave to the journalists that the Americans had managed to hack into the command and control systems of Israel’s fleet of remotely operated aircraft, to photograph them carrying what looks like rockets and bombs, and to extract data on their targets.
    The Snowden documents also revealed that the NSA had hacked into the email account of the Israeli prime minister, and had bugged, by means of sophisticated laser instruments, the apartment of the defense minister. The aim was apparently to get information about whether Israel was going to attack Iran, and if so when.
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    Poster supporting Edward Snowden in China
    Poster supporting Edward Snowden in China
    Poster supporting Edward Snowden in China
    (Photo: AP)
    Apropos the coronavirus surveillance, did you see in your documents any mention mass espionage carried out by the Israeli government?
    "The documents concerning Israel deal with cooperation between the NSA and Unit 8200 or the Mossad. They did not touch upon the Shin Bet. What we did see in the documents was America’s agreement to share a great deal of information with 8200 that was not focused on specific suspects and was gathered by American citizens."
    What did you think when you heard that the Israeli government had approved Shin Bet surveillance of people infected by the coronavirus?
    "That there was the same phenomenon everywhere: In any crisis, whether it is terrorism, or war, or a matter of health, governments seek justification for empowering themselves and expanding their powers. And so the Netanyahu government does not even wait to get parliamentary approval, but simply declares that it is already here and being implemented. We are going to use it, try to stop us."
    The Israeli government said it is an effective way of combating the pandemic.
    "The corona crisis was made worse by the failures of the health systems of various countries. It is already clear that epidemic was confronted too late and in a very flawed manner. That’s why the authorities prefer to use methods like this and justify them with the word “effectiveness.” But the effectiveness pretext was at the center of the growth of the worst regimes of the last century."
    What do you think will be the implications of such surveillance?
    "The corona problem is indeed a serious matter, there is no doubt. But it must be remembered that it is a problem that will go away. On the other hand, destroying human rights is a lethal threat against humanity.
    Have we lost the ability to think long term in the context of how we manage our societies. What is this place going to look like in 10 years or 20 years if we have lost our ability to grapple with the most consequential decisions in a meaningful and public way?"
    Snowden is today, perhaps more than ever, a cultural icon. There have been two full-length films about the affair: “Citizenfour,” an Oscar winning documentary by Laura Poitras, who was one of the journalists who broke the story, and the feature film “Snowden” made by Oliver Stone, in which Snowden himself appears briefly at the end.
    "It was of course a little strange to see the story in a movie, I love Joseph Gordon-Levitt," Snowden said about the actor who portrayed him.
    "He's a good guy and really supportive. I like him a lot. But it's just not me. You know, it's like a character and other things that are inserted into a film script in order to create drama, like me and Lindsay arguing all the time due to the needs to be in a conflicted relationship."
    Oliver Stone said that Snowden was “first and foremost a patriot” and that he should be pardoned immediately and named head of the NSA.
    My interview with Edward Snowden was delayed for a long period of time after he agreed to grant it, because he was busy writing his autobiography, a project that was carried out under conditions of extreme secrecy, for fear that the U.S. authorities would try to obstruct it.
    Snowden spent months with his co-author Joshua Cohen writing "Permanent Record", published last September by Metropolitan Books. In this page-turner and important book he tells his own dramatic story, and also discusses questions about the future of all of us.
    Meanwhile, in the present, the difference that Snowden has made is very evident. In the United States there is today far more oversight of the intelligence community, some of the secret plans exposed by Snowden have been cancelled, and the cellphone and Internet companies are resisting government demands to reveal data.
    Snowden himself, however, is still paying the price. He cannot leave Russia and he depends upon the good graces of President Putin.
    In retrospect, do you have regrets?
    "The only reasons not to do what I did are selfish. I'd be living in Hawaii right now. I'd be in a much higher position because I was doing very well. And the consequences that I expected to face were actually far worse than the ones that I did face. I was expecting to spend the rest of my life in prison. I knew I’d pay a high price and nevertheless I would do it all again. I have no regret, except one thing: Why didn’t I do it before?"
    Do you hope to go home one day?
    "From the beginning I have said that I have only one condition for returning to the United States: That they assure me I’ll get a fair trial. They flatly refuse to do so.
    The attorney general wrote that the only promise was that they would not torture me. Thanks a lot."
    What would you see as “a fair trial”?
    "A trial in which they would examine not only whether I broke one law or another, but also if it was justifiable. What is it like? A man is on trial for murder, and the only thing the prosecution needs to prove is that he killed someone, but what led up to it makes no difference, and there’s no possibility for him to be acquitted because it was self-defense.
    The government is not at all prepared to distinguish between a whistleblower and a spy acting in exchange for a reward."
    Yedioth Aharonoth and Ronen Bergman wish to deeply thank attorney Ben Wizner, Prof. Joshua Cohen and Samuel Nicholson for their help in setting up this interview
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