NBC’s Brian Williams sat down with Edward Snowden for a wide-ranging interview in a Moscow hotel, nearly one year after he revealed himself as the source of the massive leaks about top-secret U.S. intelligence programs. The conversation, which aired Thursday, was Snowden's first major interview with a U.S. television network. Snowden’s asylum in Russia is set to expire in August, though the country plans to extend it.
1. Snowden says he was trained “as a spy,” not a “low-level analyst.”
Media reports that Snowden was merely a systems analyst or outside contractor are incorrect, he said. "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," Snowden told Williams. "Now, the government might deny these things. They might frame it in certain ways, and say, ‘Oh, well, you know, 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."
2. He was at Fort Meade, outside the National Security Agency headquarters, on September 11, 2001.
“I’ve never told anybody this, no journalist. But I was on Fort Meade on September 11,” Snowden said. “I was right outside the NSA. So 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 FBI at the time, was in the Pentagon when the plane hit it.”
“I take the threat of terrorism seriously. And I think we all do. And I think it’s really disingenuous for the government to invoke and sort of scandalize our memories, to sort of exploit 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.”
3. He wants to go home but does not want to “walk into a jail cell.”
“I don’t think there’s ever been any question that I’d like to go home,” Snowden said. “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.” He also said he did not want to “walk into a jail cell.”
Attorney General Eric Holder has told MSNBC that granting Snowden clemency “would be going too far,” but that the United States “would engage in conversation” if he would return to the U.S. and enter a plea.
4. He never intended to end up in Russia, and he has never met Putin.
“I have no relationship with the Russian government at all. I’ve never met the Russian president,” Snowden said. “I’m not a spy is the real question.” (Earlier this year, The New York Times reported that “American counterintelligence officials are virtually unanimous” in believing Snowden is “under the influence of Russian intelligence services.”)
“I personally am surprised that I ended up here,” Snowden said. The reality is I never intended to end up in Russia. The reality is I had a flight booked to Cuba, onwards to Latin America.” He blames the U.S. government for stranding him in Moscow by revoking his passport: “So when people ask why are you in Russia, I say, 'Please ask the State Department.'”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry bluntly responded to that accusation in a live interview on NBC’s Today: "For a supposedly smart guy, that’s a pretty dumb answer, frankly," Kerry said. "If Mr. Snowden wants to come back to the United States today, we'll have him on a flight today.”
Kerry told CBS on Wednesday that Snowden should “man up” and “come back to the United States if he has a complaint about what’s the matter with American surveillance.”
5. He is critical of Russian policy.
“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 being challenged in ways that I would consider deeply unfair,” he said. “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 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 an isolating and a frustrating thing.”
6. Before he leaked the documents, Snowden says he raised his concerns within the NSA.
“I actually did go through channels. And that is documented,” Snowden said. “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 its legal authorities.… The response more or less, in bureaucratic language, was, ‘You should stop asking questions.’”
According to NBC, two U.S. officials have read an email sent by Snowden to the NSA’s Office of General Counsel on April 5, 2013, questioning agency policies and practices.
Five months ago, the NSA told The Washington Post in a statement that it has "not found any evidence to support Mr. Snowden's contention that he brought these matters to anyone's attention.”
7. He says breaking the law was necessary.
"I think the most important idea is to remember that there have been times throughout history where what is right is not the same as what is legal. Sometimes to do the right thing, you have to break a law. And the key there is in terms of civil disobedience," Snowden said.
8. He says he chose not to leak certain information.
“I didn’t want to take information that would basically be taken and thrown out in the press that would cause harm to individuals, that would cause people to die, that would put lives at risk.”
He says that government claims that lives are at risk based on the information Snowden stole, and that he took information about “missiles, and warheads and tanks,” is untrue, noting for evidence that “we don’t see any of that in the newspaper.”
9. He considers himself a patriot.
"I think patriot is a word that's thrown around so much that it can be devalued nowadays," he said. "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 violations of and encroachments of adversaries. And those adversaries don't have to be foreign countries."
Kerry, again responding bluntly, told NBC that "patriots don't go to Russia. They don't seek asylum in Cuba. They don't seek asylum in Venezuela. They fight their cause here."
"Edward Snowden is a coward. He is a traitor. And he has betrayed his country. And if he wants to come home tomorrow to face the music, he can do so," Kerry said.
10. He doesn’t like the second season of HBO’s The Wire.
Snowden said he’s been spending his free time watching old episodes of the show.
“I’m really enjoying it…second season’s not so great.”