Snowden says government spying worse than Orwellian


Edward Snowden in a hotel room in Moscow, Russia. (Barton Gellman/The Washington Post)
December 25, 2013

National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden invoked George Orwell and warned of the dangers of unchecked government surveillance Wednesday in a televised Christmas message to the British people that reflected his growing willingness to take a public role in the debate he ignited.

Speaking directly into the camera from Moscow, where he has taken refuge after leaking vast troves of information on NSA spying, Snowden said government surveillance methods far surpass those described in Orwell’s dystopic novel “1984.”

“The types of collection in the book — microphones and video cameras, TVs that watch us — are nothing compared to what we have available today. We have sensors in our pockets that track us everywhere we go,” he said. “Think about what this means for the privacy of the average person.”

The brief video marked Snowden’s first television appearance since he fled possible prosecution in the United States and arrived in Moscow in June. It came soon after The Washington Post published an extensive account of his comments during more than 14 hours of interviews.

Revelations from documents leaked by Snowden first appeared in June in The Post and in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, and have continued to emerge in the months since.

Post reporter Barton Gellman discusses how his exclusive interview with Edward Snowden came about and whether the former NSA contractor would ever want to return to the United States. (Jeff Simon/The Washington Post)

In the Post interview, Snowden said he had succeeded in spawning the debate he sought by bringing to light the extent of surveillance by the U.S. and British governments.

“The mission’s already accomplished,” he said. “I already won. As soon as the journalists were able to work, everything that I had been trying to do was validated. Because, remember, I didn’t want to change society. I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself.”

Snowden echoed those sentiments Wednesday, saying he sees an opportunity to “find a better balance, end mass surveillance and remind the government that if it really wants to know how we feel, asking is always cheaper than spying.”

U.S. and British authorities have accused Snowden, a 30-year-old former NSA contractor, of jeopardizing security on both sides of the Atlantic by divulging vital information about programs used to spy on hostile governments and would-be terrorists.

But Snowden’s leaks also revealed a vast web of surveillance that targets close allies and sweeps up massive quantities of telephone, Internet and location data about ordinary citizens.

A federal judge ruled this month that the NSA data-collection methods are probably unconstitutional, describing them as “almost Orwellian.”

In June, federal prosecutors charged Snowden with theft, unauthorized communication of national defense information and “willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person.”

Snowden, who is living under temporary asylum in Russia, had until this week kept a low profile there, referring to himself in the Post interview as an “indoor cat.”

His video was recorded for Britain’s Channel 4, which for two decades has broadcast the Alternative Christmas Message — an at-times irreverent counterpoint to the queen’s traditional holiday greeting.

Previous alternative messages have been delivered by then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the cast of “The Simpsons.”

In Queen Elizabeth II’s televised message Wednesday, she reflected on a year in which she marked six decades since taking the throne and welcomed the birth of her great-grandson, Prince George, who is third in the line of succession.

“My own family is a little larger this Christmas,” the queen said. “As so many of you will know, the arrival of a baby gives everyone the chance to contemplate the future with renewed happiness and hope.”

Griff Witte is The Post’s London bureau chief. He previously served as the paper’s deputy foreign editor and as the bureau chief in Kabul, Islamabad and Jerusalem.
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