In an interview that reportedly took “three months of often covert communications” to arrange, the BBC interviewed Edward Snowden in Moscow about his life as a fugitive from American justice.
During the course of this interview, Snowden claimed that he is willing to return to the United States and face jail time for his exposure of national security information, but said the Obama administration had not yet approached him with a formal plea bargain.
The full interview is streaming here, although it can only be viewed by U.K. residents. According to an Associated Press summary, Snowden said he has “volunteered to go to prison with the government many times,” and, while former Attorney General Eric Holder had publicly floated the idea of a making a deal with Snowden to bring him in, nothing was ever put on the table.
“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,” Snowden asserted.
He denied making a deal with Russian president Vladimir Putin to find sanctuary in Moscow. “I burned my life to the ground to work against surveillance,” said Snowden. “Why would I suddenly turn around, just because I am in a different geographical location?”
To demonstrate his continued commitment to working against surveillance, Snowden took the opportunity of the BBC interview to disclose the British government’s ability to hack into smart phones and gain nearly “total control” over them, using encrypted text messages.
Using this so-called “Smurf Suite” of tools—named after the famous little blue cartoon characters—Snowden said the U.K. Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) could turn phones on and off, activate the microphone and camera to spy on users, and tap into the geo-location systems commonly found in modern smart phones. According to Snowden, there is very little smart phone users can do to block these remote controls, or even determine that their phones have been manipulated, as the “Paranoid Smurf” tool masks or destroys all traces of intelligence agency presence.
Snowden also accused the U.K. government of spying on Pakistani Internet traffic by hacking into U.S.-made Cisco routers, exploiting a vulnerability that has become a matter of great concern to security experts.
Business Insider notes that one of Snowden’s assertions in the BBC interview appears to contradict his previous statements about the security of the documents he pilfered from the National Security Agency. Until now, Snowden has stated he maintained personal control over this sensitive data, carefully reviewed each item before releasing it to media organizations, and is still withholding some of the most sensitive material.
However, in his BBC interview, he claimed he could not be a traitor, contrary to accusations from U.S. officials such as Deputy FBI Director Mark Giuliano, because he has given all of his hoarded documents away. “The question is, if I was a traitor, who did I betray? I gave all of my information to American journalists and free society generally,” he asserted.
Either way, it is curious that so many people who claim to desire responsibility and accountability for intelligence agencies support Edward Snowden. One fugitive sitting in a Moscow hotel room and deciding which highly-sensitive documents he wants to expose is the exact opposite of “accountability.” It’s also the opposite of “security,” because whatever criticisms one might have of the NSA or GCHQ, our security is not enhanced by ensuring that only the world’s worst actors can have effective intelligence programs.