A key claim by Edward Snowden — that his unmasking of government spying programs has not hurt anyone — was immediately called into question Wednesday by a former ambassador to Russia and a former top counterterrorism official.
Snowden, defending himself during an exclusive NBC News interview with Brian Williams, said that the government had never shown “a single individual who’s been harmed in any way” by his disclosures.
But Michael McFaul, who left the ambassadorship earlier this year to teach at Stanford University, said that the revelations had damaged American diplomatic relationships with friendly countries who were upset by National Security Agency surveillance.
“That’s damage to the United States,” McFaul said. “If you’re a patriot, you don’t want to damage our relationships with our allies.”
Among other leaders, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was said to be infuriated upon learning that U.S. surveillance extended to the tapping of her own phone. The president of Brazil has also strongly condemned the reach of the NSA.
In addition, McFaul said, Snowden allowed potential enemies to be “more self-aware of what we do.”
On that point — that Snowden had essentially provided a blueprint of American counterterrorism strategy — Michael Leiter, a former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, called Snowden “naive and pretty gravely mistaken.” Leiter serves on an NSA advisory panel (any views presented to NBC News are his own personal ones.)
Simply because Snowden can’t identify a person who was harmed, Leiter said, does not mean he hasn’t gravely hurt the country’s ability to protect its own spies and to conduct surveillance against terror groups.
“I can’t give you the names of the people that have been harmed by that, but I think it’s really hard and I would venture to say impossible that there’s not a harm there,” Leiter said. “I think he’s just both mistaken and naïve.”
McFaul and Leiter are both NBC News analysts.
Several analysts suggested that the Snowden revelations had damaged the country’s image in the world, or at least compromised its standing to criticize other countries.
Andrea Mitchell, NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent, pointed out that Snowden’s revelations began to surface just before President Barack Obama planned to call out China for spying on American businesses. Instead, she said, Obama was put on the defensive.
During the interview, Snowden also claimed that he had never met Russian President Vladimir Putin and has “no relationship with the Russian government at all.” McFaul said that the assertion was “just not true.”
He cited an appearance by Snowden during a televised question-and-answer session that Putin held on April 17. Snowden, speaking by video link, asked Putin a question about surveillance.
“You don’t get to get on a call-in show with the president of Russia and have no relationship with the Russian government,” McFaul said during an NBC News webcast that followed the Snowden interview.
Snowden, addressing his decision to leak details of widespread government surveillance programs, cast himself in the interview as having acted in the public good. He told Williams that he did not believe he had harmed anyone.
Earlier in the day, Secretary of State John Kerry described at least one of Snowden’s answers to Williams as “pretty dumb.” He called Snowden a coward and traitor, far from Snowden’s classification of himself as a patriot.
Snowden said in the interview that he would rather return home than be anywhere else in the world. Kerry, clearly agitated, said the United States would be happy to put him on a plane — to face justice.
“We’d be delighted for him to come back. He should come back. That’s what a patriot would do,” Kerry said on TODAY. “A patriot would not run away and look for refuge in Russia or Cuba or some other country. A patriot would stand up in the United States and make his case to the American people.”
Pete Williams, NBC News justice correspondent, said that the government would be in no mood to grant Snowden amnesty.
Citing a federal law enforcement official, Williams reported earlier Wednesday that the government has had “preliminary discussions” with Snowden lawyers about a potential deal, but nothing of substance.
He said the government would presumably want to know what Snowden had to offer in the United States in exchange for a deal, such as details about exactly what types of documents he took and how he pulled it off.