The five things you need to know about Snowden’s first U.S. television interview

The Washington Post's Barton Gellman, who interviewed Edward Snowden in December in Moscow, decodes the NBC News exclusive interview with the former NSA contractor. "That's the first time I've heard him say, or come close to saying, that what he did was against the law," Gellman says. The Post, led by Gellman’s reporting, won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the NSA’s secret programs. (Theresa Poulson/The Washington Post)

The first U.S. television interview with former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden aired last night. NBC News' Brian Williams did five hours of interviews with Snowden, which resulted in the hour-long primetime event.

Snowden burst onto the international scene nearly a year ago after leaking documents about U.S. government surveillance programs to journalists and then fleeing to Hong Kong. Snowden later was granted temporary asylum in Russia, while the documents he secreted away from a Hawaii NSA base were revealed in media outlets around the world -- including in Pulitzer Prize-winning reports from The Washington Post and the Guardian.

Here are the highlights from the NBC interview:

Snowden didn't mean to end up in Russia

Williams asked Snowden "What are you doing in Russia?" Snowden was granted temporary asylum in Russia last year after being essentially stranded in a Moscow airport, and many have suggested that it was a little bit odd for the exiled contractor to take refuge in a country with some significant issues surrounding online privacy and freedom. Snowden told Williams the issue was a "fair concern" and that he was personally "surprised" he ended up in Russia.

"The reality is I never intended to end up in Russia," Snowden said. "I had a flight booked to Cuba, onwards to Latin America." Instead, he said, he was "trapped" in Russia when the U.S. government revoked his passport. Snowden also said he has not  met Russian President Vladimir Putin and that he has "no relationship with the Russian government at all."

Snowden also blamed the State Department for his current residence, saying he would like to come home. That drew a response from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry after a clip of the interview was released earlier this week. Kerry said Snowden should "man up" and come home during a morning TV show Wednesday.

"I was on Fort Meade on September 11"

In the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks it became a sort of therapeutic point to share where you were when the planes struck the World Trade Center towers and Pentagon. According to Snowden, he was "right outside the NSA" in Fort Meade, Md. "I remember hearing on the radio the planes hitting. And I remember thinking my grandfather, who worked for the FBI at the time, was in the Pentagon when the plane hit it," he said. Snowden said he joined a special forces recruitment program in 2004 but was injured during training.

Now, he believes the government took advantage of the attacks to justify its surveillance operations. "I think it's really disingenuous for the government to invoke and sort of scandalize our memories, to sort of exploit the national trauma that we all suffered together and worked so hard to come through to justify programs that have never been shown to keep us safe but cost us liberties and freedoms that we don't need to give up and our Constitution says we should not give up," he said.

At other points during the interview, Snowden said he considered himself a patriot. "There have been times throughout American history where what is right is not the same as what is legal," he said. "Sometimes to do the right thing you have to break a law."

Snowden says the NSA has no idea how many documents he took

"Their auditing was so poor, so negligent, that any private contractor, not even an employee of the government, could walk into the NSA building, take whatever they wanted and walk out with it, and they would never know," Snowden said of the systems protecting the NSA base where he worked. According to an October report from Reuters, Snowden's workplace had delayed the deployment of an anti-leak software suite that might have identified his activities.

The number of documents released to journalists by Snowden has been widely debated, but no one seems to have a concrete figure. In a recent interview with the Australian Financial Review, Gen. Keith Alexander, the former NSA chief, said the agency isn't sure what Snowden took with him, but that an audit of "what he touched" on NSA systems had more than a million documents. In comments to NBC, journalist Glenn Greenwald mentioned that Snowden provided "many thousands of documents."

Snowden has long maintained that he did not take any of the stolen documents to Russia, a claim he repeated to Williams. He also said he demanded that all journalists he works with "consult with the government to make sure that no individuals or specific harms could be caused" by their reporting on the documents.

Snowden wouldn't say if he took his last NSA contracting job intending to steal secrets

According to a South China Morning Post article published shortly after Snowden's identity was revealed, Snowden took his last contracting job for Booz Allen Hamilton with the intention of spiriting out documents. "My position with Booz Allen Hamilton granted me access to lists of machines all over the world the NSA hacked," he told the paper last June. "That is why I accepted that position about three months ago."

But in his interview with Williams, Snowden wouldn't comment on when he began planning to take the documents. "I think, given the ongoing investigation, that's something better not to get into in a news interview," he said, "but I'd be happy to discuss these things with the government."

Snowden says there are records of his attempts to raise concerns about NSA spying programs

 "I actually did go through channels, and that is documented," he told Williams. "The NSA has records." Snowden has said that he had raised concerns about the surveillance some 10 times. 

"They have copies of e-mails right now to their Office of General Counsel, to their oversight and compliance folks, from me raising concerns about the NSA's interpretations of its legal authorities," Snowden said.

NSA spokesperson Vanee Vines said last year that the agency hasn't found evidence to support that claim, telling The Washington Post: "After extensive investigation, including interviews with his former NSA supervisors and co-workers, we have not found any evidence to support Mr. Snowden's contention that he brought these matters to anyone’s attention."

But, according to Williams, multiple sources confirmed to NBC News that Snowden sent at least one e-mail to the general counsel's office raising policy and legal questions.  The show has also filed a Freedom of Information Act to look for any other records.

Bonus round: Snowden is currently watching "The Wire" but doesn't think season two is "so great."

Asked how his life had changed since his exile in Russia, Snowden said there was a "major cultural gap" but that the Internet meant he could still "live life as an American, more or less." Then he dropped a bombshell, revealing that he was currently watching "The Wire" -- David Simon's acclaimed HBO series about surveillance.

"I'm really enjoying it," Snowden said, with the caveat that the second season was "not so great." Interestingly, Simon -- who was a longtime police beat reporter in Baltimore -- was less than impressed by the Snowden document revelations, calling the government's bulk collection of domestic phone records "rather inevitable and understandable."

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Business
Next Story
Andrea Peterson · May 29