Edward J. Snowden, in an hour-long television interview broadcast Wednesday night, portrayed himself as a “patriot” who broke the law in an act of “civil disobedience” directed at “massive” constitutional violations by the U.S. government.
While Snowden said he would love to return to the United States from Russia, where he sought and obtained asylum last summer after leaking thousands of documents detailing the extent of the National Security Agency’s sprawling surveillance program, he said he did not want to “walk into a jail cell.”
That, he said, would serve as a “bad example for other people in government who see something happening, some violation of the Constitution, and think they need to say something about it.”
The government has charged the one-time contractor of the National Security Agency with theft and violations of the 1917 Espionage Act for disclosing details of the government’s electronic spying program to news organizations, including The Washington Post and the Guardian, both of which won the Pulitzer Prize for stories derived from the materials. He could face a significant jail term were he to be found guilty of those crimes.
Asked directly by NBC’s Brian Williams whether he was looking for “clemency or amnesty,” Snowden said, “I don’t think there’s ever been any question that I’d like to go home. I mean, I’ve from day one said that I’m doing this to serve my country. Now, whether amnesty or clemency ever becomes a possibility is not for me to say.
“That’s a debate for the public and the government to decide,” Snowden said in the interview, which was conducted in Moscow last week, roughly a year after the Post and the Guardian published their first stories.
Attorney General Eric Holder has said that granting Snowden clemency “would be going too far,” but the United States would “engage in a conversation” about a resolution if Snowden accepted responsibility for the leaks.
Snowden conceded in his interview with Williams that he broke the law.
“There are times that what is right is not the same thing as what is legal,” Snowden said. “Sometimes to do what’s right you have to break the law.”
He called his disclosure of the documents an act of patriotism. “Being a patriot doesn’t mean prioritizing service to government above all else,” Snowden told Williams. “Being a patriot means knowing when to protect your country and knowing when to protect the Constitution against the encroachment of adversaries. Adversaries don’t have to be foreign countries. They can be bad policies.”
Asked about his relationship with the Russian government, which Snowden criticized for its “deeply unfair” crackdown on press, the fugitive said he has none. “I’ve never met the Russian president. I’m not supported by the Russian government. I’m not taking money from the Russian government. I’m not a spy, which is the real question.”
He had some critical words for Russia’s government as well.
“It’s really frustrating — for someone who’s working so hard to expand the domain of our rights and our privacy, to end up stuck in a place where those rights are — are being challenged in ways that I would consider deeply unfair. The recent blogger’s registration law in Russia, I can’t think of any basis for a law like that, not just in Russia but in any country.
” … The government,” he said, “shouldn’t be regulating the operations of a free press whether it’s NBC or whether it’s some blogger in their living room. … there’s so much that needs to be defended here in Russia, but I’m limited by my inability to speak Russian and so on and so forth that it’s — it’s an isolating and a frustrating thing.”
On Wednesday, after advance excerpts of the NBC interview were released, Secretary of State John Kerry characterized Snowden’s actions as “betrayal,” telling him to “man up” and return home. “The bottom line is this is a man who has betrayed his country, who is sitting in Russia, an authoritarian country where he has taken refuge… If he has a complaint about what’s wrong with American surveillance, come back here and stand in our system of justice.”
While this was his first American television interview, Snowden has answered questions in Internet chats before. And in December, he gave 14 hours of interviews to The Washington Post’s Barton Gellman, the lead reporter on the Post’s NSA stories, in which he referred to himself as “an indoor cat” in Russia.
But on television Wednesday night, Snowden appeared relaxed, dressed in a blue button-down shirt with an open collar, and cracked a few jokes.
Snowden, who now describes himself as a “spy,” said he spends his time in Russia, where he does not speak the language, watching the television show “The Wire,” though the “second season’s not so great.”
He said he didn’t bring any documents to Russia because he thought that would make him look like “Tweety Bird to Sylvester the Cat. I [would] look like a little walking chicken leg with all these documents.”
The course that ultimately led him there, Snowden said, began on Sept. 11, 2001, with the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. “I remember the tension of that day,” he said. “I remember hearing on the radio the planes hitting. And I remember thinking my grandfather, who worked for the F.B.I. at the time, was in the Pentagon when the plane hit.”
The attack, he claimed, changed him.
Snowden said that Sept. 11 was manipulated by the government to embark on sweeping surveillance services. “The government sort of exploited 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.”
“Constitution” was a word he returned to 22 times in his interview. He said his concern over it grew as he, in his words, “rose to higher and higher levels in the intelligence communities. I gained more and more access, as I saw more and more classified information … I simply realized that so many of the things that were told by the government simply aren’t true.”
His disillusion was confirmed, he said, after he learned more of the country’s surveillance activities. He claimed he told the NSA’s legal team of his worries. “The NSA has the records,” he said, calling on authorities to publicize his dispatches. “And the response more or less, in bureaucratic language, was, ‘You should stop asking questions.’”
He didn’t, however, and said the ease with which he stole the national documents amounts to governmental negligence. “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.”
The moment he decided to fork over the documents to journalists was “intimidating,” he said. But he doesn’t regret it, he said, even though he potentially faces a long prison sentence. “I may have lost my ability to travel,” he said. “But I’ve gained the ability to go to sleep at night.”