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From the Source’s Mouth: Still in Hiding, Snowden Does a Q&A Online

Holding an online interview is in the leaker's spirit of transparency, but it may empower the person giving the A's as much as the public asking the Q's.

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The Guardian via Getty Images

In this handout photo provided by The Guardian, Edward Snowden speaks during an interview in Hong Kong

It makes sense that a leaker whose stated cause is transparency and openness would open himself up to questioning. Today, in a 90-minute session on the Guardian website, NSA-surveillance leaker Edward Snowden did that, taking questions from readers about his data-mining revelations, why he did it, and how he felt about the aftermath. (Read the full Q&A here.) His answers–in turns polemical, detailed, and wisecracking–were another example of how news subjects and sources are increasingly going direct to the audience, though not all his answers were entirely direct.

It’s more and more common now for news figures–politicians, entertainers, authors, experts–to open up to questions in forums like Reddit’s Ask Me Anything. What’s more unusual, obviously, is for the subject to be on the run from the law, yet holding court virtually. In any of these forums—whether with Snowden or the President—it can be a chance at unmediated detail on the one hand, or an opportunity to manage p.r. on the other. It can be a way to move the discussion beyond the bubble; it can be spin with a populist, power-to-the-people fig leaf.

Snowden’s questioning wasn’t completely unmediated; the Guardian, which first broke his revelations, hosted it and selected the questions, and its reporters occasionally followed up. The questions Snowden answered came both from journalists and interested readers, and the latter tended more toward fans than detractors: if not all went so far as to begin, “I thank you for your brave service to our country,” several others began from the premise that Snowden’s revelations were worth making.

Snowden was especially forthcoming with his opinions about the surveillance programs, often turning in mid-answer to argue for a different framing of the issue. Asked whether the likes of Google and Facebook might be “compelled to lie” about co-operating, he answered, “They are legally compelled to comply and maintain their silence in regard to specifics of the program, but that does not comply them [sic] from ethical obligation.” He reiterated his statement that he had had the authority to “wiretap” any American, even the President—but went on to argue that the “U.S. persons” protection was “a distraction,” because citizens of other countries should have the same protections.

His most dramatic rhetoric, though, was reserved for the U.S.’s treatment of him: “The U.S. Government is not going to be able to cover this up by jailing or murdering me,” he declared in his first answer. But he also showed a sense of humor about life on the lam. Asked whether he had spied for China, he joked, “Ask yourself: if I were a Chinese spy, why wouldn’t I have flown directly into Beijing? I could be living in a palace petting a phoenix by now.”

Unfortunately, Snowden didn’t give a complete, clear answer to the best question of the Q&A, a two-parter from journalism professor Anthony DeRosa: “1) Define in as much detail as you can what “direct access” means. 2) Can analysts listen to content of domestic calls without a warrant?” The first Snowden prefaced with, “More detail on how direct NSA’s accesses are is coming,” without saying why he couldn’t give it now. (Is he still getting the information? Would it take too long to explain? Is it being saved for an upcoming Guardian piece?)

The second would have been the most explosive answer of the session had he given a straight “yes” (or even “no”). Instead, he said that “someone at the NSA… Snowden the content of your communications,” but prefaced that by saying the data was “collected and viewed”–making it unclear, given the rest of the answer, whether he meant voice calls (in which case he might have said “listened”) or was shifting to discuss email (as he did in elaborating on a follow-up from the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald).

The Snowden who presented himself online was ardent, well-spoken, and detailed in his description of how data-interception works. But he was also, as much or more than ever, an advocate for a particular position, steering his answers to his broader view of digital privacy and liberty. Right or wrong, he had an argument to make, and a generally friendly audience to make it to; it might have helped had the Guardian journalists been even more active, like moderators in a debate, in following up to get a pointed answer. (In the case of that second question above: “Just to be clear—does ‘communications’ and ‘content’ in your answer include the audio of phone calls?”) Snowden may have been deliberately fuzzy of unintentionally vague, but either way, it’s harder to say

Of course, you can’t expect one Q&A like this—any more than a single journalist’s interview—to answer every question definitively. And as Snowden pointed out, the substance of most questions beat more burning investigations of his pole-dancing ex-girlfriend. Still, like any public Q&A of a controversial figure, while it’s great that it empowers more people to ask the Q’s, the trick is to make it more than a platform for the person giving the A’s.