The government's "argument has been that there is no surveillance that occurs until the information is analyzed and a very small fraction of that information is analyzed," he said. "I always found that to be a very curious formulation of this."
The Guardian, a British newspaper, since June has been reporting on the digital files provided by Snowden, a former contract employee of the National Security Agency, now facing federal charges of espionage and theft and living in Russia, which granted asylum. The paper has asserted in articles that the government has monitored millions of calls and e-mails in an effort to stop terrorism.
In a nearly hour-long presentation, Ackerman defended his publication's decision to report on the secret files, gave his views on Snowden and speculated on what may happen with bulk surveillance in the future. Ackerman, who grew up in Brooklyn and graduated from Rutgers, joined the Guardian in May, one month before it began publishing articles on Snowden's files.
He had worked for Wired and the New Republic.
Speaking Saturday, he described the frustrating lack of transparency that he had witnessed in the intelligence community before landing at the Guardian.
"Now, all of a sudden," he said, "I had my hands on an extensive trove of NSA documents."
He disputed accusations that the Guardian thoughtlessly dumped documents online. "We do a lot of reporting, as much as we possibly can around the documents we see," he said.
But release of the actual documents is important, too, he said, so that the public can see the full record.
The paper at times redacted names or information either at the request of government officials or at the journalists' discretion if they believed it could hurt people "or that the risks simply outweigh the public interest," he said.
He declined to describe how the paper was keeping the Snowden data secure.
But in an October article in the New Yorker, Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor, called the room in which the documents are stored on computers not connected to the Internet "the bunker." The door is locked and guarded 24/7, the magazine reported. Only a handful of people can enter and cannot take in smartphones or other recording devices. Accessing the files requires three passwords, and no one knows more than one.
Ackerman discounted allegations that Snowden was a Russian spy. "I believe wholeheartedly and 100 percent that we should consider Edward Snowden a whistle-blower," he said.
But he acknowledged a difference of opinion: "You can think the worst of the guy and still think we should probably know our phone records have been collected by the government without suspicion of wrongdong."
He predicted a tough congressional battle over legislation that would end bulk surveillance and data collection. The NSA has indicated it would likely fight such a law in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
"This is a tremendously thorny and complex issue," he said, "that is going to intensify even if this law passes."