Nearly a year after his explosive leaks rocked the U.S. intelligence community, Edward Snowden appeared on television Wednesday night to remind the world that his crusade against government surveillance is far from over.
The National Security Agency-contractor-turned fugitive sat down with NBC’s Brian Williams in Moscow for his most intimate and high-profile exposure yet to make his case directly to the American public that his actions were motivated by genuine concerns about the power of America’s spy agencies.
“My priority is not about myself,” Snowden said during an hour-long prime-time special. “It’s about making sure that these programs are reformed and that the family that I left behind, the country that I left behind, can be helped by my actions. I will do everything I can to continue to work in the most responsible way possible — and to prioritize causing no harm while serving the public good.”
He added, “We can’t give away our privacy; we can’t give away our rights.”
The much-hyped interview was scant on new policy details, but provided an articulate and resolute Snowden with another opportunity to keep both himself and surveillance reform relevant as Congress debates how much it should limit the government’s bulk data collection authority.
Snowden again made the case that U.S. “intelligence capabilities themselves are unregulated, uncontrolled, and dangerous.”
“It’s not the dirtiness of the business, but the dirtiness of the targeting — the lack of respect for the public,” Snowden said. He added that the government had exploited the “national trauma” of Sept. 11, 2001, to “scandalize our memories” as a means to justify its heightened surveillance powers.
Snowden responded to accusations of treason by telling Williams he had never met Russian President Vladimir Putin, and that he was only in Moscow because the State Department revoked his passport when he was en route to Latin America. The computer technician also reiterated that he attempted to bring his concerns to officials within the NSA before fleeing to Hong Kong with a trove of classified documents last May.
NBC said it had independently verified with “multiple sources” that Snowden had in fact “sent at least one email” to the NSA’s lawyers in April 2013 inquiring about the agency’s legal justification for its domestic surveillance.
“One of my final official acts in government was continuing one of these communications with a legal office,” Snowden said. “And in fact, I’m so sure that these communications exist that I’ve called on Congress to write a letter to the NSA to verify that they do.”
Snowden, 30, has been an unyielding thorn in the side of the intelligence community ever since his leaks last June exposed classified details of the NSA’s secret phone and Internet surveillance programs. Snowden became an overnight — and international — household name as publications around the world reported on an ongoing cascade of revelations, which have prompted both the president and Congress to begin steps toward surveillance reform.
Last week, the House passed with bipartisan support a bill that would essentially end the government’s current collection of bulk telephone records by instead keeping that information with private phone companies, from which intelligence agencies could request data on an as-needed basis following judicial approval. Privacy advocates and tech companies, however, have criticized the bill as “watered down,” and several dropped their support for it during the final hours of debate.
Wednesday night’s sweeping interview with Williams constitutes Snowden’s most high-profile media appearance to date, but it follows a rising trend of willful exposure deployed by the once-hermetic fugitive. While 2013 saw Snowden narrowly evading authorities as he dashed around the globe in pursuit of asylum, 2014 has witnessed increased willingness to step into the limelight. Already this year he has participated in a number of online discussions, appeared via video at events such as SXSW, and discussed Russia’s surveillance practices with Vladimir Putin at a televised news conference.
Snowden has also stayed busy by earning appointment to the board of directors of the Freedom of the Press Foundation and being elected to serve as a representative for more than 20,000 students at the University of Glasgow.
Snowden’s public appearances have predictably drawn the scorn of his detractors, who continue to suggest he is everything from a cowardly narcissist to a purposeful traitor. (NBC itself has capitalized on this aspect narrative, with an interactive campaign asking people whether Snowden is a #Patriot or #Traitor.) Secretary of State John Kerry blasted Snowden’s “pretty dumb” claims after NBC aired excerpts of his remarks because they “exposed for terrorists a lot of mechanisms which now affect operational security of those terrorists and make it harder for the United States to break up plots, harder to protect our nation.”
In response to Snowden’s comments that he is only in Russia because the U.S. government revoked his passport and essentially left him stranded last summer in a Moscow airport, Kerry said he would be “delighted” to see Snowden come home and face trial.
But Snowden and his champions have repeatedly insisted that the Obama administration’s tough prosecution of leakers make a return virtually impossible, lest Snowden resign himself to a life in a prison cell.
“Sometimes to do the right thing, you have to break the law,” Snowden said.