SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Edward Snowden has been called traitor or a whistleblower since he stole data in 2013 and leaked it to several news organizations. Was he vindicated this week? The U.S. Congress passed the Freedom Act, which prohibits the government from collecting and storing all of the data from your phone calls. They'll now have to request warrants on a case-by-case basis. This replaces the Patriot Act, which passed just after the World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked in 2001. Alan Rusbridger was the editor-in-chief of The Guardian until last month, the man who decided to publish some of Edward Snowden's stolen data. It's the scoop for which he's likely to be remembered. Alan Rusbridger joins us from London. Thanks very much for being with us.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: I'm very pleased to be here.
SIMON: Thursday's New York Times, Edward Snowden had a piece in which he said, quote, "in a single month, the NSA's invasive call-tracking program was declared unlawful by the courts and disowned by Congress. This is the power of an informed public." Do you think he deserves a victory lap?
RUSBRIDGER: Well, I think he deserves some credit for that. The debate that has taken place vigorously in the United States and elsewhere is only possible because of the information that he helped put into the public domain. And as he began by saying, you can - you can like him or dislike him for what he did, but I think he deserves respect and that his role in allowing the public and legislators to be informed should be acknowledged.
SIMON: News organizations so often upbraid public officials for skirting the law. Didn't Mr. Snowden in some ways commit the same kind of act he ostensibly is warning us about, releasing a lot of information that was gained illegally?
RUSBRIDGER: Well, I suppose it depends on whether you see him as a criminal or as a whistleblower. I tend to think he's more of a whistleblower because what he revealed was clearly, I think, in the public interest. But I also think that the law ought to allow a public interest defense because that's what whistleblowing is all about. So I think you need to be able to put your case to a jury and say, I did this for the following reasons; this was the result of my actions, and I stand by them. And Edward Snowden's difficulty is that if he's charged under the Espionage Act, there is, of course, no public interest defense that he can use. And I think that is why he is unwilling at this stage to return to the United States.
SIMON: Have you seen a different reaction between the U.K. and Europe and the U.S. on this?
RUSBRIDGER: Well, they're all different from country to country. Perhaps the most vigorous debates have taken place in America and in Germany. And there are historical reasons why you can understand that the Germans are more suspicious of the state and their intrusive powers than maybe in Britain. We have an - I think a more easy, some would say complacent relationship with our own security services. So it's been a very different debate around the world. But in most countries, again, without repeating myself, I think none of that would have been possible without Edward Snowden doing what he did.
SIMON: May I ask if you've been in contact with him recently one way or the other?
RUSBRIDGER: Yeah, I went to see him about three weeks ago in Moscow because I think it's important if a newspaper has a relationship with a source like that, that you - you don't drop them. So I went and spent a day with him. And we had a long discussion and a short interview. He's fine; you know, I don't think he enjoys being in Russia. It was not, I think, what he intended. But I think he's a resilient character, and - so he's fine.
SIMON: Yeah. Do you think with the sheer mass of data that's being collected, you're going to be getting - or the people who've succeeded you at The Guardian and other news organizations - are going to be getting more and more stories that are based on the raw, and perhaps legally questionable and sometimes undiscriminating, collection of data?
RUSBRIDGER: Well, there is clearly a problem about the security of any database. And even the most secret, secret databases, you know, of the government's inner-most secrets and ambassadorial dealings and military intelligence have leaked over the last three years. So it's very difficult to keep these databases secure. Now, I think that ought to lead people to pause to think whether it's wise to allow the state to accumulate that kind of massive information on individuals if they can't keep it secure. And I think it will lead, in future, to individuals like Edward Snowden, who have anxieties about the degree to which people - not just governments, but also corporations - are keeping immense amounts of information on us. And I think this is going to be a very big and important debate over the next years. And that's why I think it was important to be able to have a debate that is informed.
SIMON: Mr. Rusbridger, with two years of hindsight, are there things you would've handled differently in printing the Snowden documents, things...
RUSBRIDGER: Not really, no. I think in 99 cases out of 100, we went to the governments in advance. We had pretty grown-up conversations with them before. And since, I think, privately when I meet people in government and intelligence services, they acknowledge that we behaved responsibly. We published a tiny proportion of the material that we had. And I think the intelligence agencies are now having a conversation that really says, thank God it was The Guardian, The New York Times, the Washington Post - because if we're not dealing with them, future Julian Assanges and Edward Snowdens would probably bypass the mainstream press and would be perfectly entitled to publish themselves. So I think there's been a lot of heat and stones cast, but - and I think the private conversations recognize that this was a debate that had to happen, was bound to happen, and that the press organizations that did handle material did so responsibly.
SIMON: Alan Rusbridger, who, until very recently, was editor-in-chief of The Guardian. Thanks very much for being with us.
RUSBRIDGER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.