Five questions Edward Snowden didn’t answer during his live Q&A about NSA surveillance

Edward Snowden, the former CIA staffer who recently leaked a trove of documents about an NSA surveillance program known as PRISM, hasn’t exactly been a shrinking violet since he provided the information last week: in addition to a live interview with the Guardian shortly after the documents were published, Snowden did a live question-and-answer session hosted on the newspaper’s website on Monday, in which readers submitted questions via Twitter and online comments.

As more than one person noted while the discussion was going on, however, the former spy (who is now reportedly in hiding in Hong Kong) left a number of significant questions unanswered — perhaps in part because the newspaper is holding that information back for future stories, which Guardian writer Glenn Greenwald has promised will contain further revelations.

Some unanswered questions remain


In the Q&A session, Snowden talked about why he chose to reveal certain information to journalists in Hong Kong about hacking attempts against Chinese targets, discussed alleged discrepancies related to his reported salary, and argued that “being called a traitor by (former vice-president) Dick Cheney is the highest honor that you can give an American.” But the former CIA staffer also avoided certain questions or talked around them without giving specific responses. Here are a few things he didn’t say:

Why he chose to go to Hong Kong: Asked by Greenwald why he chose Hong Kong as a place to hide, Snowden said that the U.S. government had “destroyed any possibility of a fair trial at home, openly declaring me guilty of treason” — but he didn’t really answer the question. There have been conspiracy theories about alleged collusion with the Chinese government (which Snowden denied later in the discussion) and also some theories about the upside of choosing Hong Kong.

Whether he made copies of the documents: Greenwald also asked whether Snowden had made any copies of the NSA documents he provided to the Guardian, and if so whether he gave them to a number of different people for safekeeping, or stored them somewhere else — so that they would be available if something happened to him. But Snowden didn’t answer the question.

What exactly “direct access” means: Circa editor-in-chief and former Reuters social-media editor Anthony De Rosa asked Snowden to define what “direct access” means — a term that is used in the NSA documents describing the PRISM program, and something that technology companies like Google, Facebook and Yahoo have repeatedly denied they provide. Snowden would only say that “more detail on how direct NSA’s accesses are is coming.”

Whether agents can listen to phone calls: De Rosa also asked whether NSA agents could listen to the content of domestic phone calls without a warrant — as opposed to simply collecting and filtering the “metadata” around those calls, such as the location and length of time they take to complete. There have been allegations that the NSA is able to listen to specific phone calls without a warrant, but Snowden didn’t say whether this is true or not.

What will happen to him next: Snowden didn’t talk much about what he plans to do now, except to say that he had no plans to reveal secret information to the Chinese government in return for political asylum. He talked about looking towards Iceland as a potential destination before he leaked the information, but said that country was far too susceptible to U.S. government pressure to hand him over to the authorities. And he said the U.S. was “worth dying for.”

Was the Q&A too heavily mediated?

Snowden’s discussion was criticized by some for being more of a PR exercise than anything that actually provided much information: ProPublica editor Scott Klein said that the Q&A was “handled like a Russian gymnast’s press conference,” while journalism professor Jeff Jarvis said he felt the discussion was “heavy on rhetoric and light on specifics.” Journalist Tom Watson said that the Q&A was a “journalistic farce” and accused the Guardian of “selling a story rather than telling a story.”

There’s no question that the Snowden Q&A seemed a little rehearsed, and his answers appeared to have been edited in some places (Guardian US editor Janine Gibson said there were “some very old skool processes happening to make this readable”). I think the discussion would have been more interesting if it had been completely unmediated — the way Reddit’s “Ask Me Anything” features are — but despite the lapses, it’s still remarkable that someone like Snowden is talking at all.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / Lightspring