In his first American television interview, Edward Snowden defended his disclosure of the American government's use of surveillance programs to spy on its own people, and described himself as a patriot for trying to stop violations of the Constitution.
"I may have lost my ability to travel," Snowden said. "But I've gained the ability to go to sleep at night and to put my head on the pillow and feel comfortable that I've done the right thing even when it was the hard thing. And I'm comfortable with that."
Snowden met for about five hours last week with "NBC Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams at a hotel in Moscow, where Snowden is living in exile while facing U.S. felony charges. An hour-long special program based on the interview aired Wednesday on NBC News at 10 p.m. Eastern and 9 p.m. Central.
Snowden walked out of the NSA with tens of thousands of documents on thumb drives, documents that he says he has released to journalists. These documents disclosed the global reach of U.S. intelligence, including descriptions of government surveillance of U.S. telephone and email records, tapping of undersea fiber-optic cables carrying internet traffic, and accessing Yahoo and Google’s internal user data without either company’s knowledge.
In the wide-ranging and provocative interview, Snowden:
- Suggested that a deal could be reached with the U.S. government for him to come home, either through a clemency, an amnesty, or an agreement to serve a short prison term. Legal sources tell NBC News that very preliminary conversations have already taken place between Snowden's attorneys and the U.S. government.
- Said he had tried to go through channels before leaking documents to journalists, repeatedly raising objections inside the NSA, in writing, to its widespread use of surveillance. But he said he was told, "more or less, in bureaucratic language, 'You should stop asking questions.'" Two U.S. officials confirmed Wednesday that Snowden sent at least one email to the NSA's office of general counsel raising policy and legal questions.
- Described his years as a member of the U.S. intelligence community, describing his training as a spy in addition to his technical work as an NSA contractor and CIA employee. U.S. intelligence officials acknowledged to NBC News on Wednesday that Snowden in fact had been a CIA employee, and had passed the routine psychological testing for employees.
- Described his arc from enthusiastic supporter of American foreign policy, who enlisted for U.S. Army special operations training during the Iraq War, to a disillusioned intelligence worker who said he came to believe that the government took advantage of the September 11 terror attack to overreach into the private lives of all Americans.
When Williams asked, "Do you see yourself as a patriot," Snowden answered immediately.
"I do," he said. "I think patriot is a word that's -- that's thrown around so much that it can devalued nowadays. But being a patriot doesn't mean prioritizing service to government above all else. Being a patriot means knowing when to protect your country, knowing when to protect your Constitution, knowing when to protect your countrymen from the -- the violations of and encroachments of adversaries. And those adversaries don't have to be foreign countries. They can be bad policies. They can be officials who, you know, need a little bit more accountability. They can be mistakes of government and — and simple overreach and — and things that — that should never have been tried, or — or that went wrong."
"Hi, I'm Ed"
The interview was arranged with great secrecy, as Snowden is living in Russia at an undisclosed location under a temporary one-year amnesty from the Russian government. Williams and Snowden met at the upscale Hotel Baltschug Kempinski in central Moscow, near the Kremlin. Snowden was joined there by the first two journalists he reached out to, Glenn Greenwald and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras.
Snowden received no compensation for the interview, and no topics were off limits. He said he agreed to sit down with NBC because it has published several reports based on the documents he disclosed: "You guys had done -- actual individual reporting on these issues. You broke some of the stories. And they were about controversial issues. So, while I don't know how this is going to show up on TV, I thought it was reasonable that, you know, you guys might give this a fair shake."
Williams said the 30-year-old with a stubbled chin and broken eyeglasses appeared to be both confident and careful. The young man said he avoided the hotel lobby, coming up a back stairway, and showed up at Williams' door by himself with a backpack over his shoulder. He held out his hand and said, "Hi, I'm Ed."
Williams said, "I'd been told he was demonstrably smart in person, and he seems to be just that. He speaks with precision -- and while he admittedly has had months to prepare for this interview and has his own set of talking points, he spoke in a steady cadence, interrupted by an occasional long pause, after which he would often apologize while he gathered his thoughts."
"We are not here to judge whether Edward Snowden deserves life in prison, or clemency," Williams told the NBC audience. "We are here to listen for the first time to why he did what he did, what his concerns were for our society. We are here to learn some of the things our government did in our name. In the end, perhaps some of us will change our minds. If we don't, at least we will have been informed."
A bid for amnesty?
Snowden said he would like to come home, and suggested that a deal could be reached with the U.S. government to eliminate or reduce the charges against him.
"I don't think there's ever been any question," Snowden said, "that I'd like to go home. I mean, I've from day one said that I'm doing this to serve my country. I'm still working for the government. 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. But if I could go anywhere in the world, that place would be home."
Attorney General Eric Holder has said that it would be "going too far" for Snowden to receive no punishment, but that the government would discuss a plea deal.
Snowden signaled that he wouldn't accept a deal that included a long prison sentence, which he said would make him a negative example for others in government who see violations of the Constitution and should become whistleblowers. He said he wouldn't say, "I'm going to give myself a parade. ... But neither am I going to walk into a jail cell — to 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."
He is facing three federal charges, each with a maximum prison sentence of 10 years, and additional counts could be added. In answering a question about whether he thought he had both done wrong and done a public service, he steered the conversation to a "short period" in jail.
"I think the most important idea is to remember that there have been times throughout American history where what is right is not the same as what is legal," Snowden said. "Sometimes to do the right thing, you have to break a law. And the key there is in terms of civil disobedience. You have to make sure that what you're risking, what you're bringing onto yourself does not serve as a detriment to anyone else. It doesn't hurt anybody else. And if you're volunteering yourself to be used as a negative example, if you're volunteering to spend a lifetime in prison rather than to send — spend — a time in prison, a short period where you'll come out, you'll advocate, you'll emerge stronger and be able to inspire other people to resist these policies, are you doing good or are you doing bad?"
But Snowden said he was not interested only in ending his fugitive status, but in making it easier for others to bring to light illegal government activities. "What I would like to see ... would be that we reform whistleblower laws in the United States to cover contractors -- we reform the Espionage Act to distinguish between people who sell secrets to foreign governments for their own gain and people who return information to public hands for the purpose of serving the public interest. If those things can happen, I -- I think overall everybody could be satisfied."
Absent some sort of a deal, Snowden said he would not come home voluntarily to face a criminal trial.
Secretary of State John Kerry challenged Snowden to come back to the United States and face justice. Speaking Wednesday on the Today show, Kerry said, "If Mr. Snowden wants to come back to the United States, we'll have him on a flight today." He said Snowden should "stand up in the United States and make his case to the American people." Later, on MSNBC, Kerry called Snowden a "traitor" and a "coward."
As Williams put the question to him, "You hear often in the United States, 'Why doesn't he come home and face the music?' "
"It's a fair question," Snowden said. "But it's also uninformed, because what has been lain against me are not normal charges. They're extraordinary charges. We've seen more charges under the Espionage Act in the last administration than we have in all other administrations in — in Americans history. The Espionage Act provides — anyone accused of it of no chance to make a public defense. You can't argue to the jury that what you did was in the public interest. You're not even allowed to make that case. They can't hear it. You are not allowed to argue — based on all the evidence in your favor because that evidence may be classified, even if it's exculpatory. And so when people say — "Why don't you go home and face the music?" I say you have to understand that the music is not an open court and a fair trial."
Government overreach after Sept. 11
While September 11 is often cited as a justification of the surveillance programs he has disclosed, Snowden said the government has exploited the terror threat to go beyond its authority. He described his reactions to the terror attack, as a son of a veteran and a grandson of a Coast Guard rear admiral who became a senior official with the FBI.
"I've never told anybody this. No journalist. But I was on Fort Meade on September 11th," he said, as an 18-year-old working for someone who lived on base. "I was right outside the NSA. ... So I remember — I remember the tension that day. 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 it. I take the threat of s — terrorism seriously. And I think we all do. And I think it's really disingenuous for — for the government to invoke — and sort of scandalize our memories, to sort of exploit the — 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."
Snowden told Williams of his zeal, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to serve in U.S. Army special forces, how he enlisted in 2004 but washed out of the training program. "I was injured very early on in the program and washed out. And you know, I — I readily admit it. I — I don't hide that... The reality is, as you can see, I'm not — I'm not a well-built guy. ... Perhaps I bit off a little bit more than I can chew on that one."
"But the fact is that I tried. You know, I — I saw what was going on in the world. I believed the government's arguments that we were going to do good things in Iraq, that we were going to free the oppressed. And I wanted to do my part to help share the national burden and create not just a better America, but a better world."
But when he began work in the intelligence services, as he "rose to higher and higher levels in the intelligence communities, I gained more and more access, as I saw more and more classified information, at the highest levels — I realized that so many of the things that were told by the government simply aren't true. Much like the — the arguments about aluminum tubes and weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Colin Powell's speech with the vial of anthrax that Saddam was going to — to bring against us. The Iraq War that I signed up for was launched on false premises. The American people were misled."
"Now, whether that was due to bad faith or simply mistakes of intelligence, I can't say for sure. But I can say it shows the problem of putting too much faith in intelligence systems without debating them in public."
Snowden emphasized that he was not contending it was wrong for American intelligence agencies to use all technological means to protect the country from enemies. The problem, he said, was not the tools, but the sloppy selection of targets, the "bulk surveillance, mass surveillance, that actually puts our country at risk for, as far as we've seen so far, no gain at all."
"You know, I don't think anybody who — who's been in the intelligence community for almost a decade as I have been — is really shocked by the specific types of general operations when they're justified. What's more shocking for anybody is not the dirtiness of the business, it's the dirtiness of the targeting. It's the dirtiness of the way these things are being used. It's the lack of respect for the public — because — and the — the — the lack of respect for the intrusiveness of surveillance."
"If we want to be free," Snowden said, "we can't become subject to surveillance. We can't — give away our privacy. We can't give away our rights. We have to be an active party. We have to be an active part of our government. And we have to say — there are some things worth dying for. And I think the country is one of them."
"The definition of a security state is any nation that prioritizes security over all other considerations," Snowden said. "I don't believe the United States is or ever should be a security state."
Using Williams' temporary "burner" cell phone as an example, Snowden said, "The NSA, the Russian Intelligence Service, the Chinese Intelligence Service, any intelligence service in the world that has significant funding and a real technological research team, can own that phone the minute it connects to their network. As soon as you turn it on, it can be theirs. They can turn it into a microphone, they can take pictures from it, they can take the data off of it."
Snowden described how the simple pattern of his phone calls -- not the content of the calls but the time and location of those calls -- could be invaluable to a security service. And how the content of even innocuous Web searches, such as a search for a hockey score, can reveal habits and be used to build a profile of personal information.
"Do you check it when you travel, do you check it when you're just at home? They'd be able to tell something called your "pattern of life." When are you doing these kind of activities? When do you wake up? When do you go to sleep? What other phones are around you when you wake up and go to sleep? Are you with someone who's not your wife? Are you doing something, are you someplace you shouldn't be, according to the government, which is arbitrary, you know — are you engaged in any kind of activities that we disapprove of, even if they aren't technically illegal?"
"And all of these things can raise your level of scrutiny, even if it seems entirely innocent to you. Even if you have nothing to hide. Even if you're doing nothing wrong. These activities can be misconstrued, misinterpreted, and used to harm you as an individual, even without the government having any intent to do you wrong. The problem is that the capabilities themselves are unregulated, uncontrolled, and dangerous."
"All because I Googled the Rangers-Canadiens final score?" Williams asked.
"Exactly," Snowden said.
He described how government analysts use electronic tools to watch a person's computer keystrokes, giving an insight into their thought process. "As you write a message, you know, an analyst at the NSA or any other service out there that's using this kind of attack against people can actually see you write sentences and then backspace over your mistakes and then change the words and then kind of pause and — and — and think about what you wanted to say and then change it. And it's this extraordinary intrusion not just into your communications, your finished messages but your actual drafting process, into the way you think."
Snowden mentioned the U.S. Constitution 22 times in the interview, saying that he believed the expansion of warrantless wiretapping had eviscerated the constitutional prohibition on unreasonable searches.
"The Fourth Amendment as it was written -- no longer exists. ... Now all of our data can be collected without any suspicion of wrongdoing on our part, without any underlying justification. All of your private records, all of your private communications, all of your transactions, all of your associations, who you talk to, who you love, what you buy, what you read -- all of those things can be seized and held by the government and then searched later for any reason, hardly -- without any justification, without any real -- oversight, without any real accountability for those who do wrong. The result is that the Fourth Amendment that was so strict -- that we fought a revolution to put into place -- now no longer has the same meaning that it once did. Now we have -- a system of pervasive pre-criminal surveillance -- where the government wants to watch what you're doing just to see what you're up to, to see what you're thinking even behind closed doors."
Snowden said the government forced him to act. "You know, the Constitution of the United States has been violated on a massive scale. Now, had that not happened, had the government not gone too far and overreached, we wouldn't be in a situation where whistleblowers were necessary. I think it's important to remember that people don't set their lives on fire, they don't say goodbye to their families, actually pack up without saying goodbye to their families, they don't walk away from their, extraordinary -- extraordinarily comfortable lives -- I mean I made a lot of money for a guy with no high school diploma -- and -- and -- and burn down everything they love, for no reason."
Tried to go through channels
Williams asked, "When the president and others have made the point the you should've gone through channels, become a whistleblower and not pursued the route you did, what's your response?"
"I actually did go through channels, and that is documented. The NSA has records, they have copies of emails right now to their office of general counsel, to their oversight and compliance folks from me raising concerns about the NSA's interpretations of it -- legal authorities. Now, I had raised these complaints not just officially in writing through email -- to these offices and -- and these individuals, but to my supervisors, to my colleagues, in more than one office. I did it in Fort Meade. I did it in Hawaii. And many, many of these individuals were shocked by these programs. They had never seen them themselves. And the ones who had, went, 'You know, you're right. These are things that are really concerning. And these aren't things that we should be doing. Maybe we were going too far here. But if you say something about this, they're going to destroy you. Do you know what happens to people who stand up and talk about this?"
"What did you report?" Williams asked. "What was the response?"
"So," Snowden said, "I reported that there were -- real problems with the way the NSA was interpreting its legal authorities. And I went even further in this -- to say that they could be unconstitutional -- that they were sort of abrogating our model of government in a way that empowered presidents to override our statutory laws. And this was made very clear. And the response more or less, in bureaucratic language, was, 'You should stop asking questions.' And these are — these are recent records. I would say one of my final official acts in government was continuing one of these — one of these communications with a legal office. 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 — to verify that they do. Write to the office of general counsel and say, "Did Mr. Snowden — ever communicate any concerns about the NSA's interpretation of its legal authorities?"
NBC News did contact the NSA and the CIA, which have declined to comment. Government officials confirmed that Snowden emailed the general counsel's office at the NSA with his concerns. We have filed requests for documents under the Freedom of Information Act, and will report on the government responses.
Responsible method of disclosure
Snowden repeatedly characterized his disclosures not as a theft or an act of espionage, but as a public service done in a responsible manner, working through mainstream news organizations, with his insistence that they consult with the government to reduce the risk of harm to individuals. He didn't steal the documents, he said, but gave them to their owners, the American people.
"I didn't want to take information that would — basically be taken and — and thrown out in the press that would cause harm to individuals, that would — that would cause people to die. That would put lives at risk. So a good gauge of what information was provided to the journalists is a representation of what you see in the press. Now the NSA and the Defense Intelligence Agency and some of these other organizations have claimed that lives are at risk, that all this military information was out there, that — you know, I — I took all this information about missiles and warheads and tanks. But we don't see any of that in the newspaper. You know, we — we — we haven't seen any stories on that. And in fact, even though we've been asking the government for a full year now to cite even a single instance of harm that was caused by this reporting, they've never been able to show it."
He said he attached a condition to the release to protect government employees and sources, requiring the journalists to ask government officials about any harm that particular disclosures could cause.
"This material was returned to public hands, to the institutions of our free press so that trusted journalists and trusted institutions like The Washington Post, The Guardian, The New York Times could make decisions about what within this is truly within the public interest that can be reported in a way that maximizes the public gains without risking any harm."
Not cooperating with Russia
Snowden pre-empted any suggestion that he was in Russia by choice.
With a laugh he said, "All right, so this is — this is a really fair concern. I personally am surprised that — I ended up here. The reality is I never intended to end up in Russia. ... I had a flight booked to Cuba, onwards to Latin America -- and I was s-- stopped because the United States government decided to revoke my passport and trap me in Moscow Airport.... So when people ask, 'Why are you in Russia?' I say, 'Please, ask the State Department.' "
He said he is not cooperating with the Russian government.
"So, I have no relationship with the Russian government at all. I'm -- 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. But I would ask this question, too, you know, I would also be skeptical."
To protect himself from Russian leverage, he said, he didn't bring any of the American documents with him as he traveled. "So the best way to make sure that for example the Russians can't break my fingers and — and compromise information or — or hit me with a bag of money until I give them something was not to have it at all. And the way to do that was by destroying the material that I was holding before I transited through Russia."
Williams asked, "If I gave you a laptop, could you access the documents?"
"No, no," Snowden said with a laugh. "I don't have any control. Let's put it this way. If I'm traveling through Russia, and I know I'm traveling through Russia and I know they've got a very aggressive, very professional service, and I look like Tweety Bird to Sylvester the Cat, if I look like a little walking chicken leg with all these documents — if I've got control over that, that's a very dangerous thing for me."
President Putin's policies
When asked a general question about the declining standing of Russian President Vladimir Putin in world opinion, Snowden gave an answer that was pointedly critical of his host's policies, particularly in regard to freedom of the press.
"It is -- 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 -- the recent blogger's registration law in Russia, I -- I can't think of any basis for a law like that, not just in Russia but in any country. ... The government 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. And I really hope that — Russia, the United States and many other countries will work to push back against this constantly increasing surveillance, against this constant erosion and abrasion of public rights."
Damage to America's security?
Snowden did not directly dispute the idea that military information was in the documents he handed over to the journalists. But he said no military information has been released by the journalists he has worked with. "I don't think there's anything in any of the documents that would be published by any of these journalists — that would not be in the national interest."
He disputed the suggestion that his disclosures have harmed American defense capabilities. Former NSA Director Keith Alexander said Snowden has done "significant and irreversible damage to the nation." Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified that the Pentagon might need to spend billions to overcome the damage done to military security by Snowden's leaks of intelligence documents.
"If, after a year," Snowden said, "they can't show a single individual who's been harmed in any way by this reporting, is it really so grave? Is it really so serious? And can we really trust those claims without scrutinizing them? I'd argue that we can't. But we should be open to it. It's fair, the possibility exists. And if this has caused some serious harm, I personally would like to know about it."
Snowden sidestepped some of Williams' tough questions. He wouldn't say when he began taking documents. And he wouldn't say how many documents he has disclosed, though he scoffed at the figure of up to 1.7 million documents that former NSA Director Alexander and other government officials have used. He said security at the NSA was so poor that it still doesn't know what's missing. "They have no idea what documents were taken at all. 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. Now, I think that's a problem. And I think that's something that needs to be resolved, and people need to be held to account for."
Having himself removed documents from the NSA and shared them with the press, Snowden urged the intelligence community to tighten its security. "While I brought this information to the free press, has it happened before? Could it happen again? And where are other people going with this? Is there somebody who's going to use this information not for the public good, but for their personal gain? I think these are questions that need to be answered. But I can't do that. That's a question for the intelligence community and the senior officials in charge of it."
He returned to the topic of NSA security with a boast: "While they've lost control of quite a bit of material, the last year has shown that myself and the journalists, we never lost control of a single document."
Snowden expressed remorse for the working people at the NSA, whom he called "good people trying to do hard work for good reasons." He said some observers are too quick to dismiss the NSA's valid role as a defender of the nation. "The problem — that we're confronted with, the — the challenge that — that we are facing is not the working-level guys — you know, some — some moustache-twirling villain who's out to destroy your life. It's the fact that senior officials are investing themselves with powers that they're not entitled to and they're doing it without asking the public for any kind of consent."
Williams asked Snowden about the government's characterization of him as a low-level systems administrator. Snowden challenged that description, naming his work as a contractor or employee for a series of agencies:
"Well, it's no secret that — the U.S. tends to get more and better intelligence out of computers nowadays than they do out of people. I was trained as a spy in sort of the traditional sense of the word in that I lived and worked undercover overseas — pretending to work in a job that I'm not — and even being assigned a name that was not mine. ... Now, the government might deny these things, they might frame it in certain ways and say, "Oh well, you know, he's — he's a low level analyst." But what they're trying to do is they're trying to use one position that I've had in a career here or there to distract from the totality of my experience, which is that I've worked for the Central Intelligence Agency undercover overseas, I've worked for the National Security Agency undercover overseas, and I've worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency as a lecturer at the Joint Counterintelligence Training Academy where I developed sources and methods for keeping our information and people secure in the most hostile and dangerous environments around the world. So when they say I'm a low-level systems administrator, that I don't know what I'm talking about, I'd say it's somewhat misleading."
In terms of his specific duties as a government employee and as a government contractor for Dell and Booz Allen Hamilton inside NSA centers in Japan and Hawaii, Snowden gave this description:
"So I don't think — anybody should talk themselves up, should rank themselves — but I can speak simply to achievements and what the government thought. The reality is — the government invited me as Dell employee — to have meetings with the C.T.O., the C.I.O., and other high-level — technical officers. Actually, the highest level — executive officers for technology in the entire Central Intelligence Agency. They were asking me to propose solutions, to solve problems that no one else could do. I developed new systems that created new capabilities — that — would protect the NSA from disastrous events around the world. For example, the site in Japan where I worked, I created a system that was then later adopted by — by the headquarters of the National Security Agency, and then rolled out — it's being rolled out now around the world, that would protect them in case any site experienced a disaster. Now this was me, as an individual, who came up with this plan, who pitched this plan — who — who — brought it to the director of the technology directorate, who signed off on it and said this was a good idea, who then said I should really push this back to — a certain internal unit. And to champion it from sort of cradle to the grave, to bring this up from nothing and I was the one, the sole one who did that. At the same time — in a completely different part of work, in — a less constructive and more adversarial position, I was monitoring the activities of foreign adversaries. And they assigned me to watch one of the most elite units of a foreign government — who nobody else could really figure out."
"Is it a large country in Asia beginning with a 'C,' " Williams asked?
"It's better if I don't comment on that," Snowden said.
Snowden spoke of feeling vindication by the twin Pulitzer Prizes for public service, which were awarded in April to two organizations he gave documents to, The Washington Post and the British newspaper The Guardian's U.S. publication. When he was asked about criticism of him by the NSA director, Keith Alexander, Snowden jabbed, "Keith Alexander isn't winning Pulitzer Prizes for public service."
"When you look at the actions that I've taken, when you look at the carefulness of the programs that have been disclosed, when you look at the way this has all been filtered through the most trusted journalistic institutions in America, when you look at the way the government has had a chance to chime in on this and to make their case and when you look at the changes that it's resulted in, we've had the first open federal court to ever review these program declare it likely unconstitutional and Orwellian. ... And now you see Congress agreeing that mass surveillance, bulk collection needs to end.
"With all of these things happening that the government agrees — all the way up to the president again — make us stronger, how can it be said that I did not serve my government? How can it be said that this harmed the country, when all three branches of government have made reforms as a result of it?"
Robert Windrem, Tom Winter and Mike Brunker of NBC News contributed to this report.