Edward Snowden talks with Jane Mayer via satellite at the 15th Annual New Yorker Festival, on October 11, 2014.

Edward Snowden talks with Jane Mayer via satellite at the 15th Annual New Yorker Festival, on October 11, 2014. Christopher Lane/AP

Mass Surveillance Distracts an Overwhelmed Intelligence Community, Snowden Says

Fugitive leaker Edward Snowden said surveilling extremists and following through on intelligence leads is a better counterterrorism tactic than mass spying. By Dustin Volz

Edward Snowden on Monday suggested that if the National Security Agency focused more on traditional intelligence gathering—and less on its mass-surveillance programs—it could have thwarted the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.

The fugitive leaker, speaking via video to a Harvard class, said that a preoccupation with collecting bulk communications data has led to resource constraints at U.S. intelligence agencies, often leaving more traditional, targeted methods of spying on the back burner.

"We miss attacks, we miss leads, and investigations fail because when the government is doing its 'collect it all,' where we're watching everybody, we're not seeing anything with specificity because it is impossible to keep an eye on all of your targets," Snowden told Harvard professor and Internet freedom activist Lawrence Lessig. "A good example of this is, actually, the Boston Marathon bombings."

Snowden said that Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev were pointed out by Russian intelligence to U.S. officials prior to the bombings last year that killed three and left hundreds wounded, but that such actionable intelligence was largely ignored. He argued that targeted surveillance on known extremists and diligent pursuit of intelligence leads provides for better counterterrorism efforts than mass spying.

Even heavily protected, heavily encrypted messages are vulnerable.
Edward Snowden

"We didn't really watch these guys and the question is, why?" Snowden asked. "The reality of that is because we do have finite resources and the question is, should we be spending 10 billion dollars a year on mass-surveillance programs of the NSA to the extent that we no longer have effective means of traditional [targeting]?"

Anti-spying activists have frequently argued that bulk data collection has no record of successfully thwarting a terrorist attack, a line of argument some federal judges reviewing the NSA's programs have also used in their legal reviews of the activities.

(Related: How Snowden Complicates the Prevention of Future Leaks)

Snowden's suggestion—that such mass surveillance has not only failed to directly stop a threat, but actually makes the U.S. less safe by distracting resource-strapped intelligence officials from performing their jobs—takes his criticism of spy programs to a new level.

"We're watching everybody that we have no reason to be watching simply because it may have value, at the expense of being able to watch specific people for which we have a specific cause for investigating, and that's something that we need to look carefully at how to balance," Snowden said.

Snowden's appearance is his second in as many weeks. He spoke with journalist Jane Mayer earlier via video at the New Yorker festival earlier this month, where he cautioned that Apple and Google's new encryption protections are not impenetrable from spies and law-enforcement officials—a warning he echoed on Monday.

"Systems are fundamentally insecure," Snowden said. "Even heavily protected, heavily encrypted messages are vulnerable."