On October 6, Nation editor and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel and contributing editor Stephen Cohen sat down in Moscow for a rare and wide-ranging conversation with Edward Snowden, whose courageous actions exposing the extent of warrantless surveillance of millions living in the United States by the NSA have sparked a critical, unprecedented and transformative debate about mass surveillance. Among other issues, they discussed the price Snowden has paid for speaking truth to power, his definition of patriotism and accountability, how his experience has changed his view of US history and his frustration over America’s political system. What follows are a few passages from their conversation. A longer edited version will be published in a forthcoming issue and at TheNation.com.
Katrina vanden Heuvel: The Nation, many years ago, did an issue on patriotism and asked about a hundred people—how do you define patriotism? You’ve been called many names, and you’ve been called a patriot, but how do you, personally, define patriotism?
Edward Snowden: So, in terms of patriotism, I would say that what defines patriotism, for me, is the idea that one elevates—or they act to benefit—the country, right? That’s distinct from acting to benefit the government, and that distinction, that’s increasingly lost today. You’re not patriotic, just because you back whoever is in power today. You’re not patriotic because you back their policies. You’re patriotic when you work to improve the lives of the people in your country, in your community, in your family, those around you.
And sometimes that means making hard choices, choices that work against your own personal interest. You know, people sometimes say I broke an “oath of secrecy,” that was one of the early charges leveled against me. But it’s a fundamental misunderstanding, because there is no oath of secrecy for people who work in the intelligence community. You’re asked to sign a civil agreement, called “Standard Form 312,” which basically says, if you disclose classified information they can sue you, they can do this, that and the other. And you stand at risk of going to jail. But you are also asked to take an oath, and that’s the oath of service. The oath of service is not to secrecy; it’s to the Constitution—to protect it against all enemies, foreign and domestic. That’s the oath that I kept, that James Clapper and Keith Alexander did not.
Stephen Cohen: You signed that?
ES: You raise your hand, and you give the oath in your class when you “on-board.” All incoming officers are made to do it when you work for the Central Intelligence Agency. At least, that’s where I took the oath—as well as another in the military.
But “whistleblowing,” as a label, calling someone a whistleblower, I think that does them—it does all of us—a disservice, because it “otherizes.” Using the language of heroism, calling Dan Ellsberg a hero, you know, all these people who made great sacrifices—what they have done is heroic—but to distinguish them from the civic duty they have performed by saying they are heroes excuses the rest of us from the same civic duty to stand up and say when we see something wrong, when we witness our government engaging in serious crimes, when we witness the people in power abusing that power, engaging in massive historic violations of the Constitution of the United States. We have to stand up and say something, or we are party to that bad action.