The leaks, which covered two extensive NSA electronic surveillance programs, sparked an international debate and led to praise and condemnation for the former Maryland resident.
Snowden said leaving the United States “was an incredible risk” because NSA employees must declare any foreign travel 30 days in advance. He told his employers that he was taking time off for medical treatment.
“There was a distinct possibility I would be interdicted en route, so I had to travel with no advance booking to a country with the cultural and legal framework to allow me to work without being immediately detained,” he said.
While in Hong Kong, he showed documents to the South China Morning Post newspaper that said the U.S. government had hacked into hundreds of targets in Hong Kong and mainland China.
He defended his leak Monday, saying he did not reveal any operations against legitimate military targets. “I pointed out where the NSA has hacked civilian infrastructure such as universities, hospitals and private businesses because it is dangerous,” he said. “These nakedly, aggressive criminal acts are wrong no matter the target.”
He also responded to speculation by former vice president Richard B. Cheney and others that he provided classified information to the Chinese government in exchange for asylum. “I have had no contact with the Chinese government,” he said. “Ask yourself: If I were a Chinese spy, why wouldn’t I have flown directly into Beijing?”
Snowden also criticized the Obama administration for what he called “overly harsh responses to public-interest whistleblowing,” citing prosecutions of several government employees accused of leaking classified information. Among the cases he mentioned was that of Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, who faces possible life in prison in a court-martial, underway at Fort Meade in Maryland, over his leaking of documents to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.
“These draconian responses simply build better whistleblowers,” he said. “If the Obama administration responds with an even harsher hand against me, they can be assured that they’ll soon find themselves facing an equally hard public response.”