WASHINGTON — Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, said in an extensive interview this month that he did not take any secret NSA documents with him to Russia when he fled there in June, assuring that Russian intelligence officials could not get access to them.
Snowden said he gave all of the classified documents he had obtained to journalists he met in Hong Kong, before flying to Moscow, and did not keep any copies for himself. He chose not to take the files to Russia “because it wouldn’t serve the public interest,” he said.
“What would be the unique value of personally carrying another copy of the materials onward?” he added.
He also asserted that he was able to protect the documents from China’s spies because he was familiar with that nation’s intelligence abilities, saying that, as an NSA contractor, he had targeted Chinese operations and had taught a course on Chinese cyber counterintelligence.
“There’s a zero percent chance the Russians or Chinese have received any documents,” he affirmed.
U.S. intelligence officials have expressed grave concern that the files might have fallen into the hands of foreign intelligence services, but Snowden said he believed that the NSA knew he had not cooperated with the Russians or the Chinese. Snowden publicly revealed that he no longer had any agency documents to explain why he was confident that Russia had not gained access to them. He had been reluctant to disclose that information previously, he said, for fear of exposing the journalists to greater scrutiny.
In a wide-ranging interview over several days last week, Snowden offered detailed responses to accusations that have been leveled against him by U.S. officials and other critics. Additionally, he provided new insights into why he became disillusioned with the NSA and decided to disclose the documents, as well as talked about the international debate over surveillance that resulted from the revelations. The interview took place through encrypted online communications.
Snowden, 30, has been praised by privacy advocates and assailed by government officials as a traitor who has caused irreparable harm, and is facing charges under the Espionage Act for leaking the NSA documents to the media. In the interview, he said he believed he was a whistle-blower acting in the nation’s best interests by revealing information about the NSA’s surveillance dragnet and huge collections of communications data, including the communications of Americans.
He argued that he had helped U.S. national security by prompting a sorely needed public debate about the scope of the intelligence effort.
“The secret continuance of these programs represents a far greater danger than their disclosure,” Snowden said.
He added that he had been more concerned that Americans had not been told about the NSA’s reach than he was about any specific surveillance operation.