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Edward Snowden on a screen with an American flag in the background. (Photo: picture alliance/dpa)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Few revelations

Regina Mennig / gsw
January 28, 2014

For many viewers, US whistleblower Edward Snowden's first televised interview was light on surprising new information. Why might he have chosen evasiveness at key junctures in the questioning?


Viewers were met with a dramatic presentation as Edward Snowden's first televised interview was broadcast in Germany on Sunday (26.01.2014). Piercing drum beats accompanied images of Moscow's snow-covered roofs before an off-screen voice said, "This is the beginning of a world-exclusive interview with Edward Snowden. Under top secret conditions, journalist Hubert Seipel meets with Snowden."

The man asking the questions made a name for himself partly thanks to his coverage of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"[Seipel's] stubbornness and his connection to Putin's people helped him get this interview," says his colleague Hans Leyendecker, who heads the investigative team for the "Süddeutsche Zeitung" daily. That publication is among the German media outlets that worked directly with the data Edward Snowden released.

Surprises still possible?

In the interview, Snowden offers a detailed description concerning the extent of the surveillance activities of the US National Security Agency (NSA), his former employer. He also discusses surveillance of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, economic espionage and collaboration between the NSA and German intelligence services. These are all details that had already come to light gradually in the past months, spurred on by journalists to whom Snowden entrusted his cache of material.

Edward Snowden being interviewed by Hubert Seipel. (Photo: NDR/Knut Sodemann)
Snowden bluntly summed up the scope of the NSA's activitiesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

In German-language media, the response to Snowden's interview focused on the concrete clues about economic espionage that he mentioned as well as his insinuation that the chancellor is hardly the only politician in Germany affected by the NSA's surveillance activities.

Asked what new revelations Snowden's interview brought forth, investigative journalist Hans Leyendecker pointed to the dimensions the affair has already taken on. "We have a problem in this discussion that people were saying very early on that everything is under complete surveillance," Leyendecker said.

Given that tendency, the journalist explained, it's difficult to bring forth information that will still surprise people.

In some ways, the response to the interview in Germany supports that view. Debates conducted on social media focused less on the content of what Snowden said and far more on questions about why the interview was broadcast at a relatively obscure time late on Sunday evening.

Evasive maneuvers

Snowden speaks with an insistent tone in the interview, but at certain junctures, he seems unsure how much he should reveal. When asked whether governments before those led by Angela Merkel were also under surveillance, he responded by merely raising a question himself, "The question is how reasonable is it to assume that she is the only German official that was monitored, how reasonable is it to believe that she's the only prominent German face who the National Security Agency was watching."

When the interviewer asks whether German intelligence authorities have actively passed on German citizens' data to the NSA, Snowden remained evasive, saying, "Whether it's provided, I can't speak to until it's been reported because it would be classified. And I prefer that journalists make the distinctions and the decisions about what is public interest and what should be published."

Journalist Hans Leyendecker sees one reason for Snowden's restraint in the fact that he does not have a complete overview of the data he took from the NSA.

"These documents are getting rolled like a ball around the world, but Snowden himself does not have them physically in front of him," Leyendecker told DW.

Investigative journalist Hans Leyendecker (c) dpa
Investigative journalist Hans LeyendeckerImage: dpa

Giving up the documents was one condition for him receiving asylum in Moscow.

German government rejects asylum proposal

Furthermore, Leyendecker says he believes that Snowden wants to leave Moscow and "is searching relatively frantically for a place where he could be taken in."

In August, his right of residence in Russia expires. In the German television interview, he expressed hope of reaching an agreement with officials in the US. American Attorney General Eric Holder has told domestic media he is open to looking for a solution for Snowden's case, but he categorically rejects granting the intelligence leaker amnesty.

In Germany, Snowden also has little hope of receiving protection and asylum. The Green party parliamentarian Christian Ströbele told DW he is in strong support of bringing Snowden to Germany and offering him protection while a parliamentary committee questions him.

However, deputy government spokeswoman Christiane Wirtz has ruled out doing so, saying, "Conditions under which Mr. Snowden could receive asylum here do not exist, and that's how it's going to remain."

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