Edward Snowden: Man at the eye of a storm

Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden is the former National Security Agency (NSA) analyst responsible for the biggest leak of top-secret intelligence documents the world has ever seen.

Russia has given him sanctuary. America wants him back. Opinion is sharply divided on what he has done.

US and British intelligence agencies and their governments say Snowden is a traitor who has jeopardised national security making us all less safe.

Gen Michael Hayden, former director of the NSA says: "He has betrayed his own oath, he's betrayed his workmates, he's betrayed his institution and he's betrayed the Secret Service of his homeland."

Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley agrees: "Edward Snowden has undermined our ability to protect the public and save lives. We've got terrorists and criminals who are better informed and more alert at finding the gaps in our capability and operating there."

Opinions are equally entrenched on the other side of the argument.

Eric King of Privacy International says: "He's a hero. To me it seems clear that what he did was in the public interest. He didn't sell the secrets to a foreign government."

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Media captionEdward Snowden says government phone-hacking capabilities were "named after Smurfs"

In the middle there's the sobering voice of David Anderson QC, the UK government's independent reviewer of terrorist legislation.

"Edward Snowden has done harm to the ability of this country to protect itself but I think you could also say that he's done us a service by ensuring that these intrusive powers will be publicly debated and properly provided for in law."

That debate, about the Investigatory Powers Bill regulating intrusive surveillance by the intelligence agencies, will get under way in a few weeks' time.

We decided that viewers could make up their own minds should the interview with the man at the eye of the storm materialise.

Claims linked to Snowden leaks:

  • US spy agency collects phone records
  • UK spy agency taps fibreoptic cables
  • US hacks China networks
  • EU offices bugged
  • Merkel phone calls intercepted
  • Embassies under surveillance
  • NSA ran a continent-wide surveillance programme in Latin America
  • NSA breaks US privacy laws hundreds of times every year
  • US collected and stored almost 200 million text messages per day across the globe

Edward Snowden: Leaks that exposed US spy programme

It took producer Howard Bradburn and I three months to try to arrange Edward Snowden's first British television interview.

We considered doing a Skype interview but decided we should try for a face-to-face meeting, as there is no substitute for interviewer and interviewee looking each other in the eye.

First, we had to persuade Edward Snowden to do the interview.

We understood he was reluctant as he was not enamoured of the way he feels he has been treated by the British media - with the exception of The Guardian, where his leaks were published.

We never spoke to him directly but worked through intermediaries, where necessary using encrypted emails.

In the end we were told he was prepared to consider an interview but only if he was part of the wider debate.

He was aware of the forthcoming parliamentary debate and wanted to engage with the issues surrounding it.

We said that we wanted to interview him as part of that debate.

He finally agreed. We were told to go Moscow, check into a hotel, provide a room number and on a set date and at a set time, Edward Snowden would come and knock on the door.

Waiting with an empty chair was the worst bit, fearing that the chair may remain empty and we would return to London without an interview.

Fit and healthy

Then, while Howard and the crew were setting up, the phone in the hotel room rang.

"Hello," said a voice. "It's Ed. I'll be with you in 15 minutes."

Image caption Assistant Commissioner Rowley takes a dim view of Snowden's actions

Then came the knock on the door.

I didn't recognise him at first as he wasn't wearing the glasses that have made him a recognisable figure the world over, almost approaching Che Guevara status.

He was carrying a rucksack and dressed in black. He looked trim, fit and healthy.

He was engaging, personable and clearly highly intelligent.

For reasons of security, given that we were working in Vladimir Putin's Russia, we never told anybody at home what we were doing.

It was only when we were safely out of Russia with the interview that we felt free to say what we had done.

The first question from just about everybody was, "What's he like?"

Such is the fascination with the man.

He looks even younger than his 32 years and shows no outward sign of all that he has been through, albeit of his own doing.

He is driven by a single conviction that his actions were right and the public should know what is done in its name.

He refuses to accept that he has done damage, something the intelligence agencies dispute.

Edward Snowden faces a future between a rock and hard place.

He can spend the rest of his days in Russia, courtesy of President Putin.

"He's going to die in Moscow. He's not coming home," says Gen Michael Hayden.

Or he can spend many years behind bars in the US.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Chelsea Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison

His fellow American leaker, Chelsea Manning, was sentenced to 35 years under the Espionage Act. Edward Snowden faces charges under the same act should he return.

"I'm a whistleblower, not a spy," he insists.

Nevertheless, he remains unrepentant about what he has done.

"I have paid a price but I'm comfortable with that and I have to say I sleep more soundly than I ever have before."

But where those nights will be spent remains to be seen.

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