MOSCOW — The voice on the hotel phone did not waste words. ‘‘What time does your clock say, exactly?’’ he asked.
He checked the reply against his watch and described a place to meet. ‘‘I’ll see you there,’’ he said.
Edward Joseph Snowden emerged at the appointed hour, alone, blending into locals and tourists. He cocked his arm for a handshake, then turned his shoulder to indicate a path to a secure space.
During more than 14 hours of interviews, the first he has conducted in person since arriving here in June, Snowden did not part the curtains or step outside. Russia granted him temporary asylum on Aug. 1, but Snowden remains a target of surpassing interest to the intelligence services whose secrets he spilled on an epic scale.
Late this spring, Snowden supplied three journalists with caches of top-secret documents from the National Security Agency, where he worked as a contractor. Dozens of disclosures followed, as news organizations around the world picked up the story. Congress pressed for explanations, new evidence revived old lawsuits, and the Obama administration was obliged to declassify thousands of pages it had fought for years to conceal.
Taken together, the disclosures have brought to light a global surveillance system that cast off many of its historic restraints after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Secret legal authorities empowered the NSA to sweep in the telephone, Internet, and location records of whole populations. One of the leaked presentation slides described the agency’s ‘‘collection philosophy’’ as ‘‘Order one of everything off the menu.’’
Six months after the first disclosures appeared in the Washington Post and the Guardian, Snowden agreed to reflect at length on the roots and repercussions of his choice. He was relaxed and animated over two days of nearly unbroken conversation.
Snowden offered vignettes from his intelligence career and from his recent life as ‘‘an indoor cat’’ in Russia. But he consistently steered the conversation back to surveillance, democracy, and the meaning of the documents he exposed.
‘‘For me, in terms of personal satisfaction, the mission’s already accomplished,’’ he said. ‘‘I already won. As soon as the journalists were able to work, everything that I had been trying to do was validated. Because, remember, I didn’t want to change society. I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself.’’
‘‘All I wanted was for the public to be able to have a say in how they are governed,’’ he said.
Snowden is an orderly thinker, with an engineer’s approach to problem-solving. He had come to believe a dangerous machine of mass surveillance was growing unchecked. Closed-door oversight in Congress and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court was a ‘‘graveyard of judgment,’’ he said, manipulated by the agency it was supposed to supervise. Classification rules erected walls to prevent public debate.
Toppling those walls would be a spectacular act of transgression against the norms that prevailed inside them. Someone would have to bypass security, extract the secrets, make undetected contact with journalists, and provide them with enough proof to tell the stories.
The NSA’s business is ‘‘information dominance,’’ the use of other people’s secrets to shape events. At 29, Snowden upended the agency on its own turf.
‘‘You recognize that you’re going in blind, that there’s no model,’’ Snowden said.
‘‘But when you weigh that against the alternative, which is not to act,’’ he said, ‘‘you realize that some analysis is better than no analysis. Because even if your analysis proves to be wrong, the marketplace of ideas will bear that out.’’
By his own terms, Snowden succeeded beyond plausible ambition. Accustomed to watching without being watched, the NSA faces scrutiny it has not endured since the 1970s, or perhaps ever.
The cascading effects have made themselves felt in Congress, the courts, popular culture, Silicon Valley, and world capitals. The basic structure of the Internet itself is now in question, as Brazil and EU members consider measures to keep data away from US territory and US technology giants including Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo take extraordinary steps to block the collection of data by their government.
On Dec. 16 in a lawsuit that could not have gone forward without the disclosures made possible by Snowden, US District Judge Richard Leon described the NSA’s capabilities as ‘‘almost Orwellian’’ and said its bulk collection of domestic telephone records was probably unconstitutional.
It is commonly said of Snowden that he broke an oath of secrecy, a turn of phrase that captures a sense of betrayal. NSA Director Keith Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper have used that formula.
In his interview with the Post, Snowden noted matter-of-factly that Standard Form 312, the classified-information nondisclosure agreement, is a civil contract. He signed it, but he pledged his fealty elsewhere.
‘‘The oath of allegiance is not an oath of secrecy,’’ he said. ‘‘That is an oath to the Constitution. That is the oath that I kept that Keith Alexander and James Clapper did not.’’
People who accuse him of disloyalty, he said, mistake his purpose: ‘‘I am not trying to bring down the NSA, I am working to improve the NSA.’’
What entitled Snowden to take on that responsibility?
‘‘That whole question — who elected you? — inverts the model,’’ he said. ‘‘They elected me. The overseers.’’
He named the chairmen of the Senate and House intelligence committees. ‘‘Dianne Feinstein elected me when she asked softball questions’’ in committee hearings, he said. ‘‘Mike Rogers elected me when he kept these programs hidden. . . . The FISA court elected me when they decided to legislate from the bench on things that were far beyond the mandate of what that court was ever intended to do. The system failed comprehensively, and each level of oversight, each level of responsibility that should have addressed this, abdicated their responsibility.’’