U.S. government ‘spied on human rights groups’: Whistleblower Edward Snowden appears via video link to make latest accusations as he mocks NSA claims he stole 1.7million documents
- He told Council of Europe they included Amnesty and Human Rights Watch
- NSA ‘targeted leaders or staff’ of several groups in the U.S. and beyond
- He warned of risks of authoritarian regimes listing ‘all Christians in Egypt’
- In interview with Vanity Fair he said 1.7million claims were a ‘scare number’
- He said senior officials had ‘no idea’ but were embarrassed to admit it
he U.S. government spied on major human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, the whistleblower Edward Snowden has claimed.
He told Europe’s largest human rights watchdog that the National Security Agency had ‘specifically targeted either leaders or staff members’ in a large number of groups.
Mr Snowden’s evidence – via video link from Moscow, where he has been in hiding since last year – came as he mocked claims he had taken 1.7million documents as a ‘scare number’ with no meaning.
Allegations: Edward Snowden appeared before the Council of Europe via video link from Moscow
Mr Snowden said ‘trillions’ of private communications were monitored, including those of human rights groups
The NSA whistleblower spoke for more than an hour to the Council of Europe, a human rights group with 47 member states.
He defended his decision to leak thousands of documents, saying: ‘My motivation is to improve government, not to bring it down.’
Despite the changes which had been made because of his revelations, he said: ‘I remain in a position of significant legal jeaopardy’.
He was then asked if the U.S. had tracked ‘highly sensitive and confidential communications’ of groups including – but not limited to – Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
He told council members: ‘Without question – yes, absolutely they do.
‘The NSA has in fact specifically targeted the communications of either leaders or staff members in a number of purely civil or human rights organisations of the kind described in the question, including domestically within the borders of the United States.’
In an interview before the hearing, the whistleblower – whose first claims emerged in June last year – said U.S. officials were exaggerating when they said he stole 1.7million documents.
Hearing: The hour-long session was a rare public appearance for Mr Snowden, who is hiding in Moscow
Interview: Mr Snowden’s evidence – via video link from Moscow, where he has been in hiding for almost a year – came as he mocked claims he had taken 1.7million documents as a ‘scare number’ with no meaning
Watchdog: The Council of Europe is a separate body from the EU and includes 47 member states
He told Vanity Fair magazine it was ‘simply a scare number based on an intentionally crude metric – everything that I ever digitally interacted with in my career.’
He added: ‘Every single one of those officials knows I don’t have 1.7million files, but what are they going to say?
‘What senior official is going to go in front of Congress and say, “We have no idea what he has, because the N.S.A.’s auditing of systems holding hundreds of millions of Americans’ data is so negligent that any high-school dropout can walk out the door with it?”‘
‘The N.S.A.’s auditing of systems holding hundreds of millions of Americans’ data is so negligent that any high-school dropout can walk out the door with it’
– Edward Snowden, in Vanity Fair interview
Mr Snowden, 30, left his job as an NSA contractor and fled to Hong Kong before his revelations on mass surveillance were first published last summer.
When charges were filed against him he left Hong Kong for Moscow, where he was trapped in the Russian capital’s airport for more than a month before being granted temporary asylum.
Yesterday’s hearing in Strasbourg saw several council members criticise U.S. tactics and call for an end to indiscriminate data collection.
It came on the day the European Court of Justice struck down EU data protection rules, saying they caused ‘particularly serious interference’ with the right to a personal life and personal data.
In his evidence Mr Snowden also criticised the British spy agency GCHQ, and reminded members the NSA collected countless explicit images – including from webcams.
He said ‘trillions’ of communications were intercepted, adding: ‘The vast majority had no intelligence value at all and roughly 10 per cent of images were intensely private, depicting nudity or other intimacy.’
Anger: Several members of the council used the platform to condemn mass surveillance by the U.S.
Authoritarian: Mr Snowden warned regimes could compile, for example, a list of ‘all the Christians in Egypt’
People’s sexual orientation was already being collected without their knowledge, with horrific potential consequences if an authoritarian regime obtained the same technology.
He gave the example of making a list of ‘all the Christians in Egypt’.
The court in the U.S. which approved data access was held in secret and was unaccountable to the public, he added.
‘Human rights can only be protected if we ensure that our laws have a clear meaning and the meaning of the words within those laws can not be secretly interpreted by any legal body or intelligence agency without the public’s consent,’ he said.
Dutch centre-right MP Pieter Omtzigt told Euronews: ‘The United States is always saying they want to protect human rights defenders. But if they have a special program to eavesdrop on Amnesty International or the United Nations Children’s Fund, there might be a potential problem.’
The council invited the White House to give evidence, but it declined.