National Security Agency contractor-turned-leaker Edward Snowden told attendees at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, on Monday that they are "firefighters" against mass surveillance.
"The NSA ... they're setting fire to the future of the Internet," Snowden said. "The result has been an adversarial Internet."
Snowden spoke via teleconference from Russia — where he was granted asylum from U.S. espionage charges — through "seven proxies," organizers said. A green screen behind Snowden projected an image of the First Amendment.
"It's nothing we asked for," Snowden said of the NSA's mass surveillance. "It's not something we wanted."
Snowden dismissed U.S. lawmakers who say his leaks have threatened national security.
"These things are improving national security," Snowden said. "We rely on the ability to trust our communications."
People should be able to open emails without fear of spying, "whether they be journalists or activists," Snowden said.
"We've actually had tremendous intelligence failures because we've been monitoring everybody's communications rather than suspects," Snowden said.
He said tips that could have alerted authorities to accused Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called underwear bomber, were missed as a result.
"What did we get from bulk collections?" Snowden said. "We got nothing."
Snowden also criticized U.S. intelligence officials like James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, for "cheering" the NSA rather than holding it accountable.
"We have an oversight that could work," Snowden said. "The overseers aren't interested in oversight."
The session — billed as “A Virtual Conversation with Edward Snowden” — was moderated by Ben Wizner, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Speech, Privacy & Technology Project and Snowden’s legal advisor.
"If he were here in the United States he would be in a solitary cell," Wizner said.
Snowden's appearance at SXSW comes two days after WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange gave a similar speech to the conference from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he has been living in asylum.
Last week, U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., wrote a letter calling on SXSW conference organizers to cancel Snowden's appearance.
"I am deeply troubled to learn that you have invited Edward Snowden to address SXSW on privacy, surveillance, and online monitoring in the United States," Pompeo wrote. "Certainly an organization of your caliber can attract experts on these topics with knowledge superior to a man who was hired as a systems administrator and whose only apparent qualification is his willingness to steal from his own government and then flee to that beacon of First Amendment freedoms, the Russia of Vladimir Putin."
Snowden, though, said he did what he did to protect the First Amendment.
"Would I do this again? The answer is absolutely yes," Snowden said. "I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution and I saw that the Constitution was violated on a massive scale."
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