Whistleblower has put his life on the line by lifting lid on US phone spying
Edward Snowden is disarmingly calm as he explains in a 12-minute film interview why he has deliberately brought the entire might of the US national security establishment down on his 29-year-old head.
The former CIA analyst and telecoms specialist, who over the past week has spilled the data-collection secrets of America's most secretive intelligence arm, the National Security Agency, contends that his conduct is fundamentally different from that of the men behind WikiLeaks or the more random and destructive hacking of the group Anonymous.
Mr Snowden is not an internet anarchist, or a mindless mischief-maker or a hater of America; he is not doing it for money – on the contrary, he has given up his girlfriend, his family and a $200,000-a-year job in Hawaii – but says he is motivated by the belief that the United States is sleep-walking towards what he calls "turnkey tyranny".
To prove his point, Mr Snowden has shone a public light on two things that were actually already widely known, if not by the public, then by Congressional committees and anyone who had followed closely the debates over the Patriot Act, the sweeping Bush-era legislation that was introduced after the September 11 attacks.
The first leak showed the NSA routinely goes "data-mining" through the records of billions of phone calls made in the US every day – not listening in to the calls, but sifting them for suspicious clusters, say to Yemen or Waziristan, that might merit further investigation, which in turn would require a warrant.
The second suggestion is that the NSA and other agencies have some arrangement with the big internet companies – Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Google, Yahoo, among others – by which they can look at the internet activities of foreigners suspected of being a threat to national security.
The companies vehemently deny the existence of a permanently open "back door" to their servers, but it is still not clear how the access works and – given that this is all top secret – it may never be. In any event, in the course of his work for the CIA and NSA, Mr Snowden had become convinced the US government is building an apparatus that tramples on constitutionally guaranteed freedoms and which – in the wrong hands – would be open to terrible abuse.
"A new leader will be elected," he posits to 'The Guardian', "they'll find the switch, say that 'because of the crisis, because of the dangers we face in the world, some new and unpredicted threat, we need more authority, we need more power'. And there will be nothing the people can do at that point to oppose it. And it will be turnkey tyranny."
Mr Snowden refers to the future, but when he talks about over-reacting to "some new and unpredicted threat" he is actually referring to the signing of the 2001 Patriot Act that authorised both a massive expansion of surveillance and a relaxation of the rules governing its use, which caused outcry among libertarians and liberals alike.
So Mr Snowden's leaks don't so much spark a new debate as re-open an old one in which – to this point at least – the American public has passed a verdict.
It is too soon to poll the reaction to these leaks, but in 2011 a Pew Research survey showed that only 34pc of Americans opposed the Patriot Act. Even at the height of controversy over warrantless wire-tapping between 2006 and 2009, public support for that programme never dropped below 48pc.
Mr Snowden anticipates the fact that mainstream public opinion may not support him. "The greatest fear that I have regarding the outcome for America of these disclosures is that nothing will change," he said. "People will see in the media all of these disclosures. But they won't be willing to take the risks necessary to stand up and fight to change things."
Those fears perhaps explain President Barack Obama's almost cocksure response to this episode. He appears sanguine not about the leaks themselves, but as to what they reveal. "It's important to recognise that you can't have 100pc security and also 100pc privacy and zero inconvenience," Mr Obama said. "I think, on balance, we have established a process and a procedure that the American people should feel comfortable about."
The heads of the Senate and House intelligence committees – one chaired by a Democrat the other by a Republican – agree with Mr Obama that the programmes are acceptable in scope and adequately monitored: "It's called protecting America," was how Dianne Feinstein, the Democrat chairman of the Senate committee, bluntly put it.
This is what Mr Snowden finds himself up against – a confident president who says he is only doing a "scrubbed" version of what George W Bush did, and an apparently compliant public who, for now, don't appear to want to man the barricades. (© Daily Telegraph, London)