By Nathan Lee, TLE Correspondent
Edward Snowden, the man responsible for the biggest leak of top secret intelligence files the world has ever seen, lives in James Bond-esque secrecy in Russia. Ahead of tonight’s BBC Panorama documentary Peter Taylor has had no direct communication with the man responsible for rising the debate over privacy and national security to a new level – framing the agenda for this autumn’s parliamentary debate over controversial new legislation previously criticised as “the snoopers’ charter”. His instructions have simply been to travel to Moscow, check into a hotel and provide a number of the room. Snowden would come and knock on the door.
NSA, Snowden’s former employer, is a behemoth intelligence organization with a reputed budget of over $10 billion a year and over 30,000 employees. Its mission is to gather intelligence in order to gain a decision advantage “for the Nation and our allies” under all circumstances. But in 2013, Snowden outed them on a colossal scale for mass surveillance of innocent citizens. Along with GCHQ, termed a “subsidiary of the NSA” by Snowden in tonight’s documentary, the organisations snooped on communications from across the web “in the absence of any suspicion of wrong doing”. All of which was occurring “without our knowledge” or “without our consent”.
But there is a huge amount of debate about the effect of blowing the whistle on such organisations. Agencies say Snowden’s revelations have caused huge damage and in particular alerted terrorists, criminals and paedophile rings to the ways in which their communications are being intercepted. Mark Giuliano, the Deputy Director of the FBI, says he regards Edward Snowdon to be a “traitor” who has caused “irreparable damage to our ability, other agencies ability to protect the people we are sworn to protect”. He adds that Snowdon is “probably a hero” amongst terrorist groups, but it’s a claim the man himself is quick to refute.
“Whenever we hear these claims of damage from government officials, universally they’ve occurred without any evidence, there’s never been a specific case of an individual whose harmed as a result of these disclosures, there’s never been a specific case of a terrorist that got away or an attack that occurred,” he says. Asked whether he is a traitor, he responds, “who did I betray?”
Edward Snowden will be following the Parliamentary debate that he has helped inform, from afar. But what is likely to happen to him? Is he doomed to stay in Russia forever or will he return to the United States, stand trial and go to gaol as the price for what he has done? For Snowden, the key question is whether he will face a fair trial. The Espionage Act “finds anyone guilty who provides any information to the public regardless of whether it’s right or wrong,” he says, “you aren’t even allowed to explain to a Jury what your motivations were for revealing this information.”
Snowden would be prepared to face a jail sentence if he returned to stand trial in the US, he says, but he would be looking for assurances from the US government if he was to return. “So far they’ve said they won’t torture me which is a start, I think. But we haven’t gotten much further than that.” Many believe he will live out the rest of his days in Moscow, but whatever his fate, he has no regrets about what he has done. “I have paid a price but I feel comfortable with the decisions I’ve made. If I’m gone tomorrow, I’m happy with what I had, I feel blessed.”
Edward Snowden: Spies and the Law, will be shown on BBC One at 8:30pm tonight