Snowden has answers, but NSA still holds the questions

The IT pro at the center of the NSA scandal held an online Q&A today. We'd tell you what he said, but then we'd have to kill you

I just finished doing something kind of extraordinary: a live Q&A with possibly the most wanted man in the world at this moment, Edward James Snowden.

This morning, U.S. time, the U.K. Guardian hosted Snowden in a Reddit-style Ask Me Anything session. Though anyone tuning in could ask a question via comments or Twitter, Guardian editors were clearly moderating out most of the wackier questions and playing up those from other journos, like Circa's Anthony De Rosa and Wired's Spencer Ackerman.

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But those who tried to pin Snowden down on specifics were likely disappointed. For example, De Rosa tried to get Snowden to talk more specifically about one of the most controversial claims: the NSA's alleged ability to directly access servers at Google, Facebook, Apple, and so on, and collect data on anyone it chooses. Unfortunately, Snowden's answer danced around the question entirely. You can find the whole Q&A at the Guardian website.

Question everything

Some of the choicer snippets include this one, where he basically reiterates what he said in his initial video interview -- that any agent can spy on anyone they choose, with little to no oversight:

If an NSA, FBI, CIA, DIA, etc analyst has access to query raw SIGINT databases, they can enter and get results for anything they want. Phone number, email, user ID, cell phone handset id (IMEI), and so on -- it's all the same. The restrictions against this are policy based, not technically based, and can change at any time. Additionally, audits are cursory, incomplete, and easily fooled by fake justifications.

Snowden offered a question which has been raised by others, including Bruce Schneier: Why are Americans so obsessed with terrorist attacks that some of us are willing to give up our right to privacy, when their likelihood is nearly nil?

Journalists should ask a specific question: since these programs began operation shortly after September 11th, how many terrorist attacks were prevented SOLELY by information derived from this suspicionless surveillance that could not be gained via any other source? ... Bathtub falls and police officers kill more Americans than terrorism, yet we've been asked to sacrifice our most sacred rights for fear of falling victim to it.

Then there was my favorite bit, which is sure to further tick off certain members of the Cringe constituency:

Being called a traitor by Dick Cheney is the highest honor you can give an American, and the more panicked talk we hear from people like him, Feinstein, and King, the better off we all are. If they had taught a class on how to be the kind of citizen Dick Cheney worries about, I would have finished high school.

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