In 2013 whistleblower Edward Snowden became arguably one of the world’s most wanted men. That year, after all, he gave journalists access to stacks of top-secret documents. And these papers seemingly exposed the shocking extent of surveillance tactics that U.S. intelligence agencies used – with the help of European governments and telecommunications firms, of course. However, Snowden later claimed that, while he had access to NSA and CIA databases, he’d also searched for the “truth” about some popular conspiracy theories – and mankind’s trip to the Moon was put under the spotlight.
To gain access to such sensitive information, though, Snowden had to be well connected. It helped, then, that in May 2013 he was working as a subcontractor and employee for the CIA. The future whistleblower had also spent more than a year working at the NSA’s regional operations center in Hawaii, which specialized in keeping tabs on North Korea and China. Snowden has described himself as an infrastructure analyst, and he claimed that he had searched for innovative methods to hack into phone and internet traffic worldwide.
Then, in 2019, Snowden spoke to NPR’s Fresh Air host Terry Gross about what had led him to become a whistleblower. And on the show, he revealed that this moment had come after he had been conducting research into the ways in which China was apparently infiltrating U.S. intelligence. The computer expert also said that he had been surprised by the extent and brazenness of Chinese espionage.
Snowden told NPR that he was “shocked by the extent of [China’s] capabilities. [He was] appalled by the aggression with which they use them. But also, in a strange way, surprised by the openness with which they use them.” The whistleblower continued, “They’re not hiding it. They’re just open and out there, saying, ‘Yeah, we’re doing this. Yeah, we’re hacking you. What are you going to do about it?’”
Soon enough, then, Snowden’s realization about China’s spying efforts led him to wonder what his own government may be doing. He explained, “I think, yes, the NSA is spying – of course they’re spying – but we’re only [doing it] overseas. We’re not spying on our guys at home. We wouldn’t do that. We have firewalls; we have trip wires for people to hit. But surely these are only affecting terrorists, because we’re not like China. [Still,] this plants the first seeds of doubt where I see if the capability is there.”
Snowden went on, “I see that we have the same capabilities as the Chinese government, and we are applying them domestically – just as they are.” Unnervingly, he also claimed that he had discovered the NSA wasn’t only collecting data on terrorists and criminals. Apparently, it was gathering information on every U.S. citizen.
Snowden alleged, “And so what happened was every time we wrote an email, every time you typed something into that Google search box, every time your phone moved, you sent a text message, you made a phone call… the boundaries of the Fourth Amendment were being changed.” He then said, “This was without even the vast majority of members of Congress knowing about it.”
Snowden also claimed that he had become despondent after allegedly discovering the U.S. government had been, in his words, “violating” the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution for close to ten years. Furthermore, he asserted that the authorities had apparently been taking part in felony crimes “billions of times a day.”
Snowden then went on to describe his stance on privacy and security in the modern world. He told NPR, “We need to be regulating the collection of data, because our phones, our devices, our laptops – even just driving down the street with all of these systems that surround us today – is producing records about our lives. It’s the modern pollution.”
Snowden alleged, too, that he had tried to raise his concerns by following established company protocols; ultimately, though, he said, he had gotten nowhere. Then, in May 2013, he quit his job in Hawaii and traveled to Hong Kong, where he met with three journalists the following month. And, incredibly, U.S. government officials believe that Snowden had downloaded as many as 1.5 million files before fleeing.
Two of the journalists – Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill – then began producing articles based on Snowden’s information. The third, Laura Poitras, made a film about it: 2014’s Citizenfour. And those stories from the two writers initially appeared in publications all over the world – not only The New York Times and The Washington Post, but also British newspaper The Guardian and Germany’s Der Spiegel. On June 6, 2013, Greenwald’s first story was in print, and in it the journalist alleged that the U.S. government had used a clandestine court order to harvest the phone records of millions of Verizon customers.
Then, a day later, The Washington Post and The Guardian both alleged that the U.S. government had created a program called PRISM. This project was said to have enabled the NSA to take personal customer data such as photographs, documents, emails and audio/video chats from terminals at tech giants including Google and Microsoft. And people seemingly took these claims seriously. FBI deputy director Sean Joyce would attempt to justify PRISM 12 days later, in fact, when he testified that it had assisted in halting terrorist attacks.
Soon enough, Snowden was facing charges of theft of government property and espionage. The U.S. authorities subsequently attempted to extradite him from Hong Kong, but he nevertheless managed to get on a plane to Russia. Then, on June 23, 2013, the whistleblower landed in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport. Snowden found himself stuck at that moment, though, as the U.S. had allegedly canceled his passport – leaving him stranded at the airport terminal for over 30 days.
In July 2013, however, Snowden applied for political asylum in Russia, and on August 1 it was announced that this request had been approved. Happily, he was able to finally leave the airport and could legally live in Russia for a minimum of 12 months. At the time of writing, Snowden is still in the country following several extensions of his first visa.
But in a 2019 interview with The Guardian, Snowden claimed that although he is in exile, he isn’t cut off from wider society. He added, “One of the things that is lost in all the problematic politics of the Russian government is the fact [that] this is one of the most beautiful countries in the world.”
Snowden also remarked that the Russian people are “friendly” and “warm” and lamented that he wouldn’t have believed this before living there. He said, “I was terrified of this place because, of course, they were the great fortress of the enemy, which is the way a CIA agent looks at Russia.” Now, though, he’s managed to carve out a life for himself – with somewhere to stay and a regular source of money.
The whistleblower additionally told Fresh Air that he still spends most of his time looking at screens. Snowden went on, “I have my own apartment. I have my own income. I live a fully independent life. People ask how I make my living, and I give lectures. I speak publicly for the American Program Bureau, and places book me to speak about the future of cybersecurity, what’s happening with surveillance and about conscience and whistleblowing.”
Snowden explained, however, that his main aim is to return to his homeland. He alleged, for instance, that he has talked with former President Barack Obama’s administration about this possibility. And, apparently, a move was indeed on the cards if Snowden was willing to undergo a trial. The whistleblower said that he would agree to these terms, too – on one condition.
“I have to be able to tell the jury why I did what I did, and the jury has to decide: was this justified or unjustified?” Snowden went on. “But in the case of telling a journalist the truth about how the government was breaking the law, [they say that] there can be no defense. There can be no justification for why you did it.”
Snowden also claimed to NPR that the jury would only be able to debate whether he had told journalists classified information. He added, “And I have said, ‘As soon as you guys say for whistleblowers [that] it is the jury who decides if it was right or wrong to expose the government’s own lawbreaking, I’ll be in court the next day.’”
But how were Snowden’s actions viewed by the general public? Well, polls conducted at around the time of the leak saw an almost 50/50 divide between those who were appalled and those who applauded his actions. In 2019, though, Snowden told The Guardian that he feels his reputation has changed somewhat.
Snowden claimed, for instance, that he knows people who don’t like him on a personal level but who do nevertheless admit that they “live in a better, freer and safer world because of the revelations of mass surveillance.” And Bernie Sanders – who at the time of writing is vying to become the presidential nominee for the Democratic Party – has gone on record as saying he wants Snowden’s exile to come to an end. In May 2019 congresswoman and fellow presidential contender Tulsi Gabbard even stated that she would be inclined to grant him a pardon.
Regarding whistleblowing more generally, academic Slavoj Žižek offered his thoughts on the subject in a 2013 piece for The Guardian. There, he said that Snowden, along with Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning, “are our new heroes – exemplary cases of the new ethics that befits our era of digitalized control.” Assange is, of course, the Australian founder of WikiLeaks – the site that became infamous after posting a number of leaks by U.S. Army intelligence analyst Manning in 2010.
Manning’s revelations exposed U.S. diplomatic documents and controversial video clips – the most famous of which was the so-called “Collateral Murder” footage. This seemingly showed two U.S. AH-64 Apache Helicopters in Iraq shooting dead over a dozen men, with journalists and civilians apparently among the casualties. Subsequently, Manning was originally sentenced to 35 years in prison; after then-President Obama eventually reversed the decision, though, she was released in 2017.
Meanwhile, Snowden’s actions are believed to have sparked some positive changes from the U.S. government. In 2015, you see, it passed the USA Freedom Act, which laid down some restrictions on the collection of citizens’ telecommunications information by the country’s data-gathering taskforce. And for its part, in 2013 the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution that both opposed unnecessary digital surveillance and championed online privacy.
September 2019 then saw the release of Snowden’s memoir Permanent Record. The book explores the whistleblower’s time as a child and young adult as well as his work with the U.S. intelligence agencies. And Patricia Eisemann – a spokesperson for publisher Metropolitan Books – said that the work aims to help people understand why Snowden chose to make the decisions he did.
Furthermore, within the pages of the book, Snowden writes about using his access to the databases of the CIA and NSA to delve into something that has long obsessed curious minds. Specifically, he claims to have searched for any conclusive proof that the United States knew of aliens but had hidden this information from the public. But sadly for all conspiracy theorists everywhere, Snowden has said that he found nothing.
“For the record, as far as I could tell, aliens have never contacted Earth – or at least they haven’t contacted U.S. intelligence,” Snowden states in the book. He then expanded on this during an appearance on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast in October 2019.
“I know, Joe, I know you want there to be aliens,” Snowden joked to the host. He then followed this by acknowledging that there may indeed be intelligent life out there in the universe somewhere. Snowden added, “I know Neil deGrasse Tyson badly wants there to be aliens. And there probably are, right?”
Nevertheless, Snowden claimed that it was very unlikely the United States government could be hiding information about alien life. He went on, “I had ridiculous access to the networks of the NSA, the CIA, the military – all these groups. I couldn’t find anything. So, if it’s hidden, and it could be hidden, it’s hidden really damn well – even from people who are on the inside.”
In Permanent Record, Snowden also gives his verdict on three other things that typically attract conspiracy theories. He wrote, “In case you were wondering: yes, man really did land on the Moon. Climate change is real. Chemtrails are not a thing.”
Of course, many of us are familiar with the iconic Apollo 11 Moon landing in 1969. After all, an incredible 650 million people watched on their television sets as astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the surface of the astronomical body. Over the years, though, many skeptics have suggested that the event was faked by NASA in order to beat the Soviet Union in the Space Race.
In 1976, for example, erstwhile U.S. Navy Officer Bill Kaysing published the book We Never Went to the Moon: America’s Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle. And in this volume, Kaysing claimed that landing a crewed spacecraft on the Moon stood a minuscule 0.0017 percent chance of success – meaning it was apparently more feasible for NASA to cook up a hoax.
Then, in 1980, the Flat Earth Society went one step further. It alleged that the landing was fabricated with the support of Hollywood – specifically The Walt Disney Company and Dr. Strangelove director Stanley Kubrick. The society even claimed that famed science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, who had co-written 2001: A Space Odyssey with Kubrick, had penned the script for NASA’s alleged elaborate hoax.
But from Snowden’s admissions, we now know that this event likely did take place. And the same is apparently true of climate change – a concern that has increasingly gripped the world thanks to the efforts of activists such as Greta Thunberg. Experts have long argued that, owing to the greenhouse gases that have been emitted since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, temperatures have risen across the planet. This global warming, it is widely agreed, has led to melting glaciers and climbing sea levels.
Some people don’t agree that climate change is the result of decisions made by human beings, though. In fact, a number even allege that the dire warnings issued by scientists are part of a worldwide conspiracy. But professor Mike Rogerson of the U.K.’s University of Hull rejects this completely.
“The idea that climate scientists must have some big conspiracy WhatsApp group or underground lair is beyond absurd,” Rogerson said in a blog on the university’s website. He then went on to challenge an assertion made by U.S. President Donald Trump. The professor explained, “Recently, Trump claimed that climate change is a Chinese-funded conspiracy. My wife turned to me and asked, ‘Well, where’s our secret Chinese check, then?’ If only!”
Another theory that Snowden attempted to debunk is that of the existence of so-called chemtrails. This claim asserts that the condensation trails left in the sky by aircraft are actually made up of biological or chemical products. And, supposedly, these compounds are used to – among other things – influence population growth, adjust the weather and psychologically maneuver the public.
But Snowden addressed these conspiracies in an offhand manner with Rogan. He said, “[In the book], I talk about aliens and chemtrails and things like that, and the fact that there’s no evidence for that. I went looking on the network.”
Snowden did give his opinion, however, on why some people are keen to believe in the aforementioned claims. In particular, he thinks that they help people to understand the world. The whistleblower added, “Everybody wants to believe in conspiracy theories because it helps life make sense. It helps us believe that somebody is in control – that somebody is calling the shots.” So, perhaps now we can look back on the Moon landings with a sense of wonder rather than distrust.