Edward Snowden – The Joe Rogan Experience

Key Takeaways

  • Shortly after 9/11, a U.S. government mass surveillance program, known as Stellar Wind, was formed to monitor phone calls and emails for ties to Al-Qaeda
    • Eventually, the surveillance program broadened and started to be used for stuff other than terrorism. Before anyone realized it, the privacy of U.S. citizens was being compromised.
  • While working in Hawaii, Edward discovered that Stellar Wind was still in operation 
  • In 2013, Edward came forward with his findings, leading him to be charged under the Espionage Act
  • Reflecting on his decision to come forward:
    • “The system, the world, the future gets worse every day that we don’t do something about it. Every day that we stay silent about all the injustices we see, the world gets worse. Yeah, it’s risky. Yeah, it’s uncomfortable. But that’s why we do it. If we don’t, no one else will. All those years I was hoping for someone else to come forward, and no one did, I was waiting for a hero. There are no heroes; there are only heroic decisions. You are never further than one decision away from making a difference… You don’t have to save the world by yourself. In fact, you can’t. All you have to do is lay down one brick. All you have to do is make things a little bit better in a small way so that other people can lay their brick next. Together, day by day, step by step, year by year, we build a foundation of something better.”Edward Snowden
      • It might not be easy, or safe, but it doesn’t matter
        • “If you’re trying to eliminate all risk from your life, what you’re actually doing is eliminating all possibility from your life.”
  • “The movements of your phone are the movements of you as a person”Edward Snowden
    • Every smartphone is continuously connected to the nearest cell tower, giving out your location (this data is then stored)

Intro

  • Edward Snowden is an American whistleblower who copied and leaked highly classified information from the National Security Agency (NSA) in 2013 when he was a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee and subcontractor
    • This interview, for obvious reasons, was recorded remotely 

Edward’s New Book – Permanent Record

  • The book is mostly about his life, as well as the changing of U.S. government in the post-9/11 era
  • As soon as the book came out, the U.S. government hit the publisher with a lawsuit (which they’re still pursuing quite actively)
    • They want 1) the book off the shelves and 2) to confiscate any earnings
    • “They don’t want to see books like this get written. They especially don’t like to see books like this get read… My publisher wanted me to, very badly, let people know this book existed.”
      • Hence – Edward’s chat with Joe

Who is Edward Snowden?

  • “I’m the guy behind the revelations of global mass surveillance in 2013” Edward Snowden
  • Edward describes what he saw as a contractor working for the NSA:
    • “I saw something wrong. The government was violating the law and what I believed to be the Constitution of the United States, and more broadly human rights, for everyone in the United States and around the world. There were domestic surveillance programs. There were mass surveillance programs. Basically, everything that they could monitor, they were monitoring.”Edward Snowden
      • Isn’t this the way it’s supposed to be? – NO
        • Under the U.S. Constitution, the government is only supposed to be monitoring those who they suspect committed a form of wrongdoing

The Story of Stellar Wind

  • Shortly after of 9/11, a bunch of U.S. government officials got together behind closed doors (led by Dick Cheney and his personal attorney, David Addington) to discuss the formation of a mass surveillance program, now known as Stellar Wind
    • The goal of the program was to monitor the phone calls and emails of everyone in the U.S. (and around the world) for links to Al-Qaeda
      • “They started doing this in secret. It was completely unconstitutional and illegal, even under the very loose requirements of the Patriot Act, but they did it for so long that they became comfortable with it.” – Edward Snowden
    • Eventually, the surveillance program broadened and started to be used for stuff “other than terrorism”
      • “Step by step, our constitutional rights were changed. We weren’t allowed to know it. We were never granted a vote on it. Even the many members of Congress were prohibited from knowing.”Edward Snowden
        • Initially, only a handful of Congress members knew about the program’s existence 
      • “What had happened was that we, the American people, had lost our seat at the table of government. We were no longer partners to government. We had simply become subject to government.” – Edward Snowden
        • “Everybody aware of what’s going on has seen a constant shift where we the public have less say and less influence over the policy of government with each passing year.”
  • Edward wanted the public to know what was going on (this was in June 2013)
    • “People who are having their rights violated by a government should have at least an understanding of how that’s happening”Edward Snowden
    • So, Edward gathered the evidence of what he believed to be the unconstitutional activity on the part of government and gave it to journalists
    • Just how bad was it?
      • “They could get you the email history of anyone in the United States. Anybody you wanted, you could pull up their text messages. Anybody you ever wanted, you could see anything they ever typed into the Google search box… The worst thing you’ve ever typed into the Google search box, that lasts forever. They have a record of that they can get from Google.” – Edward Snowden

9/11 & The NSA

  • On the day of the attacks, the Director of the NSA – Michael Hayden, ordered the entire campus to be evacuated (the CIA did the same thing)
    • “These people have so much power and authority. At the moments we needed them most, they were the first ones in the country leaving their buildings.” – Edward Snowden
    • “The most powerful intelligence forces in the history of the species – you’re going to take the majority of their personnel off the board… simply because terrorists could attack your buildings. Someone else will get attacked… The more minutes you’re in front of that desk [the lower the chance that happens]… If they had asked the staff to stay, they all would have agreed. That’s what they signed up to do, but the Director thought otherwise.” – Edward Snowden
    • “This says so much about the bureaucratic character of how governments work. The people who rise to the top of government, it’s about risk management for them. It’s about never being criticized.” Edward Snowden

9/11 Could Have Been Prevented

  • “Looking back on 9/11… these attacks could have been prevented if information could have been shared” – Edward Snowden
    • Why wasn’t information shared?
      • There were too many restrictions/walls between the FBI, CIA, and NSA preventing them from all working on the same team
        • (The government later recognized these restrictions and unchained them, leading to the world post-9/11)
    • But…. why were those barriers respected in the case of a major terrorist plot?
      • The sad reality: “Every one of those agencies wanted to be the guy that busted the plot and got credit for it. They didn’t realize how serious it was until it was too late because they were competing with each other rather than cooperating.” – Edward Snowden
  • “Everything that has followed in the decades past came from the fact that in a moment of fear, we lost our heads, and we abandoned the traditional constitutional restraints we put on these agencies. All of the political restraints, all the social constraints, ideological systems of beliefs about the limitations the secret police should have in a free and open society… we entered this era of increasingly unlimited government as a result.”
    • In simple terms, the U.S. government realize they had screwed up and knew they needed a change
      • For lack of a better term, they changed their policy to: “I don’t care who does it, stop all crime and terrorism”
        • Dick Cheney took the lead: “He took the little dial of what the government wasn’t allowed to do and changed it all the way until it broke until there was nothing they couldn’t do anymore.” – Edward Snowden

Why Donald Trump Was Elected

  • In moments of fear, we elect leaders who say they’ll save us
    • “When we become fearful, we become vulnerable to anyone who promises they’ll make things better, even if they have no ability to make things better… If they tell you they’ll make things better, and you believe them, in a moment of fear, that typically leads to unfortunate outcomes.”Edward Snowden
  • Examples:
    • Take Vladimir Putin – he’s been the Russian president for 20 years)
      • The 90s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, were a VERY dark time – Putin came on to “save” the day
    • The story of Donald Trump and the U.S. is similar

Edward’s Career Progression

  • “As far back as it goes, my whole line of family, even generations back, was working for the government. It was expected for me to go into the same kind of work.” – Edward Snowden
    • Edward’s mother still works for the Federal Courts
      • “It’s kind of funny that she still works there. Those are the courts that are trying to throw me in jail for the rest of my life.”
    • Edward’s father used to work for the U.S. Coast Guard before retiring
  • After dropping out of high school and enrolling in community college, Edward began working with a woman on a web design business (this was in 1998)
    • The woman’s husband was an NSA Analyst 
  • After 9/11, Edward felt an obligation to serve his country and volunteered to join the U.S. Army
    • He ended up breaking both his legs in training after severe shin splints took a turn for the worst (in medical terms, Edward had bilateral tibial fractures all the way up his legs), so things didn’t quite work out
  • Edward had gotten a security clearance as part of his military training, and used it to apply for a security guard position at the University of Maryland
  • Next, in 2005, Edward ended up getting a job for a technical government subcontractor – suddenly he found himself working the night shift at CIA headquarters
    • What was he doing? – Handling systems administration for everyone in the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Area (the systems held various pieces of government data)
    • As part of his work, Edward was sent overseas (undercover) to Geneva, Switzerland as a diplomat
      • “This is where I started to get doubts”Edward Snowden
        • “What I saw was that they were way more aggressive for the lowest stakes than was reasonable or responsible. They were totally willing to destroy someone’s life on the off chance they’d get some information.”
        • “Ethically, this struct me as a bit off, but I let it pass. What I’ve learned over my life is that skepticism is something that needs to build up over time.”
  • After a brief stint working for the NSA in Japan, Edward made his way back to the CIA (he was working as the senior technical official for Dell’s sale account to the CIA)
    • “At this point, I had misgivings… but I was just trying to get by. I was trying to ignore the conflicts and inconsistencies. I think this is a state that many people in these large institutions struggle with every day. They have a job, family, and bills. They’re just trying to get by. They know that some of the things they’re doing aren’t good things or actively wrong…. but they know what happens to people who rock the boat.”Edward Snowden

The Discovery That Changed it All

  • Edward soon found his way to Hawaii working in “a rinky-dink office called the Office of Information Sharing”
    • While there, Edward would frequently help out the team that sat next to him (a systems administration team for Windows networks)
      • One of his tasks: running “dirty word searches” – Edward explains: 
        • Everything the NSA and CIA does is classified (including something as simple as lunch plans)
          • “This over-classification problem is one of the central flaws in government right now. This is why we don’t understand what they’re doing and why they can get away with breaking the law or violating our rights for so long [before we catch on].” – Edward Snowden
          • Every computer system has a limit as to what level of classified information is supposed to be stored on it
        • Within government offices (like the NSA and CIA), you’re not even supposed to know what’s happening in the office next to you (this is known as “compartmentation”)
          • “Well, in the Office of Information Sharing, and basically every part of my career before that, I had access to everything.” – Edward Snowden
            • Why? – Edward was basically a superuser because he was in charge of so many computer systems
        • “Dirty word searches are these automated queries I would set up to go across the whole network and look at all the different levels of classification, compartmentation, and exceptionally controlled information. Think of it as ‘above top secret.'” – Edward Snowden
      • One day, Edward got a hit on one of his dirty word searches for a program called Stellar Wind (this was the domestic mass surveillance program Edward mentioned earlier)
        • The program wasn’t supposed to still be in operation – it had been unveiled in a big scandal as a result of a December 2005 New York Times article

So now what? | The U.S. Government Covers Their Tracks

  • Congress passed an emergency law in 2007 called the Protect America Act
    • It retroactively immunized all the phone companies in the U.S. that had been breaking the law millions of times a day by handing public records over to the U.S. government
    • Why was it passed?
      • The phone companies basically said: “Now that journalists have shown we’ve broken the law and violated the rights of Americans, we could be sued for this, and our companies could go bankrupt. We will no longer cooperate with you [the U.S. government] unless you pass a law saying we can’t be sued for having done this.”
  • In 2008, Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (which basically made illegal surveillance activity legal)
    • “Rather than stopping all of the unlawful and unconstitutional activity the intelligence agencies were doing, the U.S. government continued it by creating a few legal hoops for them to jump through.” – Edward Snowden
    • “When the government’s response to any scandal is not to make the activities of the person caught breaking the law comply with the law, but instead to make the activities of the person breaking the law, legal… that’s a problem, and that’s what happened here.”Edward Snowden
  • “Some of the most senior officials in the United States worked together to actively undermine the rights of the American people to give themselves expanded power. They said they were seeking these powers for a noble cause…. but that’s what every government says.” – Edward Snowden
    • “If they were truly keeping us safe, why wouldn’t they simply tell us that? Why wouldn’t they have that debate in Congress and put it to a vote?”

Public vs. Private

  • Public officials are supposed to be just that – we should know their decisions, policies, and programs (AKA what they’re doing in our name)
    • Because of the transparency, we the people should be able to police their activities and fight what we disagree with
    • “They are public officials. We are private citizens. They’re not supposed to know anything about us.”Edward Snowden
  • We the public don’t need to know the names of every terrorist suspect out there, but we NEED to know about the policies the government is asserting
    • How else can we control them? How else do we know if the government is applying its authorities, granted to them by us, if we don’t know what it is they’re doing?
  • “We’re forced to live naked before power. Whether we’re talking about Facebook, whether we’re talking about Google, or whether we’re talking about the government of every country, they know EVERYTHING about us, and we know very little about them.”Edward Snowden
    • Just carrying a cell phone in your pocket is enough for your movements to be tracked (every cell phone tower you pass is keeping a record of you doing so)

Loyalty

  • “Loyalty is a good thing when it’s in the service of something good, but it’s ONLY good when it’s in the service of something good… If you’re loyal to a bad person or government, that loyalty is actively harmful.” Edward Snowden

The State of Affairs

  • We carry phones around everywhere we go, we use social media sites multiple times a day, and we have smart home devices in our living rooms listening to our every word
    • This can’t lead anywhere positive
  • Joe weighs in: “The connection of human beings via technology is both amazing and powerful and incredible in terms of our access to knowledge, but terrifying in terms of the government’s ability to track our movements, phone calls, and everything else”
    • They may be protecting us, but – “There’s no provision in the Constitution that allows any of us… They’re making up these rules as we go along.” 

Why is it so difficult to punish the people behind these surveillance programs?

  • “The only way to have the courts review the legality of the programs is to establish they exist. But the programs are classified, so you can’t establish they exist unless you have evidence. But providing that evidence to the courts, journalists, or anyone is a felony.” – Edward Snowden
    • Also, there’s no distinction, in the eyes of the government, between selling information to a foreign government for private benefit and providing information to journalists for the public’s benefit

What made Edward take the leap to let the American people know about everything? [Watch]

  • It wasn’t easy, but he finally came forward in 2013 during Obama’s 2nd term as president”
    • “For all the good he that may have been done in that White House, this is an issue where the president went through two full terms and didn’t fix the problem”– Edward Snowden
      • As background: Obama was likely notified of these surveillance programs when he was first elected (he was probably informed that they were useful and essential for national security)
        • “When it comes to this mass surveillance state, I could see a president being persuaded by somebody who comes to him and says, ‘This is why we need to do this.'” – Joe Rogan
  • Edward reflects on his decision to come forward:
    • “The system, the world, the future gets worse every day that we don’t do something about it. Every day that we stay silent about all the injustices we see, the world gets worse. Yeah, it’s risky. Yeah, it’s uncomfortable, but that’s why we do it. If we don’t, no one else will. All those years I was hoping for someone else to come forward, and no one did, I was waiting for a hero. There are no heroes; there are only heroic decisions. You are never further than one decision away from making a difference… You don’t have to save the world by yourself. In fact, you can’t. All you have to do is lay down one brick. All you have to do is make things a little bit better in a small way so that other people can lay their brick next. Together, day by day, step by step, year by year, we build a foundation of something better.”Edward Snowden
      • It might not be easy, or safe, but it doesn’t matter
        • “If you’re trying to eliminate all risk from your life, what you’re actually doing is eliminating all possibility from your life.”

The Current Life of Edward Snowden

  • He’s been in exile for ~6 years (since May 2013) after being charged under the Espionage Act
    • “At first, I was very concerned about being recognized and followed. I was concerned about terrible things happening to me. The government made it very clear that I was the most wanted man in the world.” – Edward Snowden
  • Edward’s currently based in Russia
    • “In the year’s past, my life has become more and more open. I speak openly. I live openly. I go out. I ride the metro. I go to restaurants… I’m rarely recognized.” – Edward Snowden
    • Why Russia?
      • Edward was en route to Latin America when the U.S. government canceled his passport, trapping him in Russia
    • Edward is no longer under asylum – he now has a green card
  • Would Edward return home if given a fair trial?
    • “If we’re being frank, the chance of me getting a fair shake in the eastern district of Virginia, a couple of miles from the headquarters of the CIA are probably pretty slim because that’s where they draw the jury pool from” – Edward Snowden

What’s changed about surveillance since Edward came forward in 2013? [Watch]

  • It’s all about mobile phones 
    • “Both Apple and Android devices are not especially good at protecting your privacy” – Edward Snowden
    • Edward sheds some light:
      • Every smartphone is continuously connected to the nearest cell tower giving out your location – this data is then stored
        • “The movements of your phone are the movements of you as a person” Edward Snowden
          • “This location record does not need to be kept forever, and in fact, there’s no good reason for it to be kept forever, but these companies see it as valuable information”
      • Not to mention all the apps tracking your location and what wireless access points you’re connected to (there’s actually a global map of wireless access points – just like every phone has a unique identifier, every wireless access point has a unique identifier)

So what can be done?

  • Shutting your phone off might help – “But how do you then know your phone is actually turned off?”
    • Edward wrote a paper on this subject with an MIT Ph.D. For more information, give it a read.
  • The big problem is constant connection – even putting your phone in airplane mode doesn’t knock the phone off Wi-Fi
  • “We need to make the activities of our devices, whether phones or computers, more visible and understandable to the average person”Edward Snowden
    • When your phone’s just sitting there, you have no idea what the hell it’s doing at any given time – you don’t know what apps it’s connected to nor how frequently it’s making those connections
      • Apple/Android make it impossible to see what kind of network connections are being made on their devices

Additional Notes

  • Check out the Podcast Notes from Joe’s interview with Bernie Sanders
  • “If you don’t tell your story, other people will tell it for you” – Edward Snowden
  • “I don’t think any historian is going to look at the Bush Administration and say it improved the position of the United States and the world.” – Edward Snowden
  • “There’s no question that Russia’s going to be interfering with the U.S. elections. There’s no question that America’s going to be interfering with Russian elections.” – Edward Snowden