NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams landed a huge interview with Edward Snowden, but for as many relevant questions that he asked, nearly as many went unasked.
First the good: Williams inquired whether the National Security Agency leaker/whistleblower was trained as a spy, and not just a computer analyst. Snowden claimed the former and said he worked not just for the NSA, but also for the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency.
“I was trained as a spy, in sort of the traditional sense of the word, in that I lived and worked undercover, overseas, pretending to work in a job that I'm not, and even being assigned a name that was not mine,” Snowden said in the interview, which aired Wednesday night.
Now living in Russia under temporary asylum, Williams pressed Snowden on whether he has provided information to the Russian government. Even though he claimed he was trained as a spy, Snowden said he’s not acting as one now.
“I'm not supported by the Russian government,” he said. “I'm not taking money from the Russian government. I'm not a spy, which is the real question. The best way to make sure that, for example, the Russians can't break my fingers and compromise information or hit me with a bag of money until I give them something was not to have it at all. And the way to do that was by destroying the material that I was holding before I transited.”
But Snowden’s answers prompted many opportunities for Williams to squeeze him for more information, which unfortunately he did not take. Here are five questions that Snowden should have to answer:
1. If the Russian government isn’t supplying him with material support, who is? How is he making a living? How is he paying his legal bills?
Reports last year indicated WikiLeaks was raising money for Snowden’s legal defense. Snowden took a tech-support job with a Russian website last October, according to the Associated Press. But in November, Time magazine reported that Snowden was nearly broke.
2. Is Snowden being surveilled by Russian authorities? Have his political views led to his safety been threatened?
Williams asked Snowden whether President Vladimir Putin had “taken a run” at him. But he received an unclear answer.
“Yeah. I mean, the way — the way to think about this is, again, I already know how to deal with counterintelligence,” Snowden said. “Beyond that, I took nothing to Russia, so I could give them nothing.”
A critic of U.S. government mass surveillance, it’s ironic that Snowden ended up in Russia, a country known for human-rights and free-speech abuses. Snowden criticized the government’s free speech laws when prompted by Williams, but he said he is constrained from speaking out more publicly against them, “by my inability to speak Russian.”
3. Why was Snowden planning to travel to Latin America through Cuba?
It’s mysterious enough that Snowden ended up being able to fly from Hong Kong to Russia after having his passport revoked. But why was his original plan to travel to Latin America via Cuba, another country that has terrible human rights record?
The Washington Post, citing Russian news services, reported last August that the Cubans decided to refuse Snowden entry under pressure from U.S. officials. What, if any, type of contact did Snowden have with Cuban officials before he decided to create an escape route from Hong Kong, to Moscow, to Havana?
4. What type of covert work did Snowden perform for the NSA and CIA?
Snowden claimed that he worked undercover overseas for the NSA and CIA, but Williams never pressed him for details on what that work entailed. If Snowden wanted to dispel the notion he was a desk jockey, he should have been pressed to provide specifics of his field work.
5. Does he know of instances where the U.S. government wrongly spied on American citizens?
Snowden laid out some scary-sounding abilities he says the the NSA has, like being able to remotely turn on your cell phone or watch you type out messages online. But he was never asked, and never pointed to, any real-life examples of the government using its power to improperly spy on Americans.
He even went so far to say that people have, “unfairly demonized the NSA to a point that's too extreme.”
The average NSA operative is not “some mustache-twirling villain who's out to destroy your life. It's the fact that senior officials are investing themselves with powers that they're not entitled to, and they're doing it without asking the public for any kind of consent.”
Fair enough. But Williams should have pressed Snowden to provide actual examples of those powers being abused.