"When people in government assert that the NSA would never collect communications on an American—any American—they are lying," Edward Snowden said during a taping of the Intercepted podcast with Jeremy Scahill at South by Southwest (SXSW) this morning.
The statement came in response to a question from Scahill about whether the intelligence community "would in fact collect data or communications on lawmakers or even the president." The exiled National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower proceeded to criticize the powers that be for playing "word games" to get out of admitting it's already snooping on all of us, including elected office holders.
"In the plain use of language, what collect means to you and me—when something travels across the phone line, when something travels across the internet line, they pick it up, they save it, and they drop it in their database—that happens to everyone right now," he said. "Does not matter whether you're the president. Doesn't matter whether you're a congressman. Doesn't matter whether you're a lawyer, an accountant. Doesn't matter if it's you sitting in the room right now. These things happen by default. That's how, of course, the system of surveillance that we have works."
Officials deny as much, according to Snowden, by quietly redefining a critical word. "What's happening is these intelligence agencies, these lawyers up at [the Department of Justice] and up with the president, are saying that, to them, collect doesn't mean that we copied your communications, that we put it in the bucket, and that we saved it in case we want to look at it," he explained. "To them, collect means that they take it out of the bucket and actually look at it and read it."
Snowden added that officials also engage in an illegal practice called reverse targeting while pretending otherwise. "If you are an American citizen and they say, 'I want to look at your communications' and 'I want to listen to this person's phone calls and everyone they contacted,' this in theory is supposed to require a warrant," he said. But they get around that, because "if you're in that bucket and you don't have a U.S. passport, you're not a U.S. citizen, no social security card, you don't have a green card so you're not legally privileged as a U.S. person," you're not protected.
"So if they look at the other side of [the American's] communication, the communication that went overseas or involved a non-U.S. person in any way"—even if it was just the target of an attempted foreign cyberattack, he said—"that's entirely legal so long as I'm not targeting him officially. I'm interested in this 'known system that's affiliated with Chinese espionage' or whatever. It just happens to be Obama's Blackberry."
"That happens all day long," Snowden continued. "People at NSA are doing that right now. It's legally prohibited, but when you hit certain stop points in your investigation, you're actually coached to do this kind of thing."