What Edward Snowden said to European Parliamentarians

By Deborah Jones
Published March 8, 2014

Europe on Friday released American whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s written responses to questions by members of the European Parliament. The 12-page document, in English as a pdf, is here.

Snowden, a former contractor to the United States National Security Agency (NSA), limited his testimony to information he already released to journalists, which is already in the public domain (see Glen Greenwald’s work at The Guardian, and the New York Times topic page). He repeated his offer “to provide testimony to the United States Congress, should they decide to consider the issue of unconstitutional mass surveillance.”

And in response to questions that could be interpreted as critical, he said before that becoming a whistle-blower and fleeing the U.S. — he currently lives in Russia — he exhausted official American channels by reporting his concerns “to more than ten distinct officials, none of whom took any action to address them.” 

Snowden was asked why, as he calls for intelligence agency accountability, “do you feel this accountability does not apply to you? Do you therefore plan to return to the United States or Europe to face criminal charges and answer questions in an official capacity, and pursue the route as an official whistle blower?” He answered, “accountability cannot exist without the due process of law.”

Snowden told European politicians he would accept asylum in a European state — but claimed no state would be “allowed” by the Untied States to take him.

The transcript was released as Europe is deciding on possible changes to  a “Safe Harbour” agreement on privacy and data transmission with the United States, considered essential for American technology companies like Google to operate in Europe.

Meanwhile a major American music and media gathering, best known for launch announcements of new technologies, is focused this year partly on surveillance. The  South by Southwest conference (SXSW) underway this weekend in Austin, Texas, features video appearances by Snowden, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and journalist Greenwald.


Snowden prefaced his written answers to questions by European parliamentarians with a statement that suspicionless surveillance programs endanger the basic rights that are “the foundation of liberal societies,” and said “despite extraordinary political pressure to do so, no western government has been able to present evidence showing that such programs are necessary.”


“I believe that suspicionless surveillance not only fails to make us safe, but it actually makes us less safe. By squandering precious, limited resources on ‘collecting it all,’ we end up with more analysts trying to make sense of harmless political dissent and fewer investigators running down real leads … (and) cost lives, and history has shown my concerns are justified.”

“I could have read the private communications of any member of this committee, as well as any ordinary citizen. I swear under penalty of perjury that this is true. These are not the capabilities in which free societies invest. Mass surveillance violates our rights, risks our safety, and threatens our way of life. “

“… if even the US is willing to knowingly violate the rights of billions of innocents — and I say billions without exaggeration — for nothing more substantial than a “potential” intelligence advantage that has never materialized, what are other governments going to do? Whether we like it or not, the international norms of tomorrow are being constructed today, right now, by the work of bodies like this committee. If liberal states decide that the convenience of spies is more valuable than the rights of their citizens, the inevitable result will be states that are both less liberal and less safe.”

Questioned on the extent of cooperation, over collection of bulk citizen data, between America’s National  NSA and EU Member States:

 “The result (of cooperation with the NSA by individual Europen states ) is a European bazaar, where an EU member state like Denmark may give the NSA access to a tapping center on the (unenforceable) condition that NSA doesn’t search it for Danes, and Germany may give the NSA access to another on the condition that it doesn’t search for Germans. Yet the two tapping sites may be two points on the same cable, so the NSA simply captures the communications of the German citizens as they transit Denmark, and the Danish citizens as they transit Germany, all the while considering it entirely in accordance with their agreements. Ultimately, each EU national government’s spy services are independently hawking domestic accesses to the NSA, GCHQ, FRA, and the like without having any awareness of how their individual contribution is enabling the greater patchwork of mass surveillance against ordinary citizens as a whole.”

 “The surest way for any nation to become subject to unnecessary surveillance is to allow its spies to dictate its policy. The right to be free unwarranted intrusion into our private effects — our lives and possessions, our thoughts and communications – – is a human right. It is not granted by national governments and it cannot be revoked by them out of convenience. Just as we do not allow police officers to enter every home to fish around for evidence of undiscovered crimes, we must not allow spies to rummage through our every communication for indications of disfavored activities.”

“Technology is agnostic of nationality, and the flag on the pole outside of the building makes systems of mass surveillance no more or less effective.”

Questioned on whether the NSA has adequate procedures for staff to signal wrongdoing:

“The culture within the US Intelligence Community is such that reporting serious concerns about the legality or propriety of programs is much more likely to result in your being flagged as a troublemaker than to result in substantive reform.”

“In my personal experience, repeatedly raising concerns about legal and policy matters with my co-workers and superiors resulted in two kinds of responses. The first were well-meaning but hushed warnings not to “rock the boat,” for fear of the sort of retaliation that befell former NSA whistleblowers like Wiebe, Binney, and Drake. All three men reported their concerns through the official, approved process, and all three men were subject to armed raids by the FBI and threats of criminal sanction. Everyone in the Intelligence Community is aware of what happens to people who report concerns about unlawful but authorized operations. The second were similarly well-meaning but more pointed suggestions, typically from senior officials, that we should let the issue be someone else’s problem.”

“Do you feel you had exhausted all avenues before taking the decision to go public?”

“Yes. I had reported these clearly problematic programs to more than ten distinct officials, none of whom took any action to address them. As an employee of a private company rather than a direct employee of the U.S. government, I was not protected by U.S. whistleblower laws, and I would not have been protected from retaliation and legal sanction for revealing classified information about lawbreaking in accordance with the recommended process.”

On whether procedures for whistleblowing have been improved:

“There has not yet been any substantive whistleblower reform in the US, and unfortunately my government has taken a number of disproportionate and persecutory actions against me. US government officials have declared me guilty of crimes in advance of any trial, they’ve called for me to be executed or assassinated in private and openly in the press, they revoked my passport and left me stranded in a foreign transit zone for six weeks, and even used NATO to ground the presidential plane of Evo Morales – the leader of Bolivia – on hearing that I might attempt to seek and enjoy asylum in Latin America”

How can Europe “help you in any way, and do you seek asylum in the EU?”

“If you want to help me, help me by helping everyone: declare that the indiscriminate, bulk collection of private data by governments is a violation of our rights and must end. What happens to me as a person is less important than what happens to our common rights. As for asylum, I do seek EU asylum, but I have yet to receive a positive response to the requests I sent to various EU member states. Parliamentarians in the national governments have told me that the US, and I quote, “will not allow” EU partners to offer political asylum to me …”

Questioned over justification for surveillance and whether current surveillance is used for  economic espionage:

“Surveillance against specific targets, for unquestionable reasons of national security while respecting human rights , is above reproach. Unfortunately, we’ve seen a growth in untargeted, extremely questionable surveillance for reasons entirely unrelated to national security. Most recently, the Prime Minister of Australia, caught red-handed engaging in the most blatant kind of economic espionage, sought to argue that the price of Indonesian shrimp and clove cigarettes was a “security matter.” These are indications of a growing disinterest among governments for ensuring intelligence activities are justified, proportionate, and above all accountable.”

” In the United States, we use a secret, rubber-stamp Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that only hears arguments from the government. Out of approximately 34,000 government requests over 33 years, the secret court rejected only 11.”

“… global surveillance capabilities are being used on a daily basis for the purpose of economic espionage …Mass surveillance capabilities have even been used against a climate change summit. Recently, governments have shifted their talking points from claiming they only use mass surveillance for “national security” purposes to the more nebulous “valid foreign intelligence purposes.” 

“If we are prepared to condemn the economic spying of our competitors, we must be prepared to do the same of our allies. Lasting peace is founded upon fundamental fairness. The international community must agree to common standards of behavior, and jointly invest in the development of new technical standards to defend against mass surveillance. We rely on common systems, and the French will not be safe from mass surveillance until Americans, Argentines, and Chinese are as well.”

Could mass suspicionless surveillance have been prevented with better independent and public oversight over the intelligence agencies? What conditions would need to be fulfilled, both nationally and internationally?

“Yes, better oversight could have prevented the mistakes that brought us to this point … The oversight of intelligence agencies should always be performed by opposition parties, as under the democratic model, they always have the most to lose under a surveillance state. Additionally, we need better whistleblower protections, and a new commitment to the importance of international asylum.”

Why did you choose to go public with your information?

“Secret laws and secret courts cannot authorize unconstitutional activities by fiat, nor can classification be used to shield an unjustified and embarrassing violation of human rights from democratic accountability. If the mass surveillance of an innocent public is to occur, it should be authorized as the result of an informed debate with the consent of the public, under a framework of laws that the government invites civil society to challenge in open courts. That our governments are even today unwilling to allow independent review of the secret policies enabling mass surveillance of innocents underlines governments’ lack of faith that these programs are lawful, and this provides stronger testimony in favor of the rightfulness of my actions than any words I might write.”

Are you aware that your revelations have the potential to put at risk lives of innocents and hamper efforts in the global fight against terrorism?

“Actually, no specific evidence has ever been offered, by any government, that even a single life has been put at risk by the award-winning journalism this question attempts to implicat. … if you can show one of the governments consulted on these stories chose not to impede demonstrably fatal information from being published, I invite you to do so. The front page of every newspaper in the world stands open to you.”

Copyright © 2014 Deborah Jones

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References and further reading:
Full text of Edward Snowden’s statement to European parliamentarians (pdf)
US Presidential Panel Tells-NSA to stop Undermining Encryption, on F&O, by ProPublica
Evidence lacking in U.S. claim that NSA thwarted attacks, on F&O, by ProPublica
Wikipedia page for Edward Snowden
United States National Security Agency site
Guardian newspaper page for Glen Greenwald
New York Times newspaper topic page on surveillance

EU to review Safe Harbour data privacy rule for US companies: Financial Times
South by Southwest conference site