“We should always make a distinction, that right and wrong is a very different standard than legal and illegal. The law is no substitute for morality.” ~Edward Snowden
In an exclusive interview in Russia with Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric, Edward Snowden, the fugitive whistleblower who leaked information about U.S. surveillance activities, says he is “kind of encouraged” by the idea that Russian President Vladimir Putin might return him to the U.S. to stand trial because that would show the world he’s not a spy and Russia “doesn’t own me.”
But he also acknowledged he isn’t eager to return home to face U.S. justice, saying such a prospect “would be a threat to my liberty and to my life.”
Speaking for 90 minutes in a Moscow hotel room, Snowden — calm and completely unrepentant — also took new swipes at top U.S. intelligence officials, claiming they have accused him of damaging national security only because they were “embarrassed” by his disclosures of classified National Security Agency documents and worried about their “reputations.”
Those comments drew an angry rebuke Sunday from the Obama administration’s former top counterterrorism official. “Snowden is delusional,” said Matt Olsen, the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, when read excerpts of the interview.
“It wasn’t so many years ago that people were saying, ‘This guy’s a Russian spy,’” said Snowden when asked by Couric how “nervous” he was about the possibility of losing his Russian sanctuary and being sent home to face criminal charges of theft of government property and violations of the Espionage Act.
“But countries don’t give up their spies. And if my recent criticism of the Russian government’s Internet policies, criticisms of their human rights record, have been so severe that even my greatest critics in the intelligence community are now saying, ‘Oh, yeah, he’s a liability, they wanna get him out of there,’ that’s a vindication.”
“Vindication of what?” Couric asked him.
“The fact that I’m independent, the fact that I have always worked on behalf of the United States, and the fact that Russia doesn’t own me,” Snowden replied. “In fact, the Russian government may see me as sort of a liability.”
“So you wouldn’t mind if Putin extradited you and said, ‘Here you go, President Trump’?” asked Couric.
“Well, who wouldn’t?” Snowden answered. “I mean, that would obviously be something that would bother me.
That would obviously be something that would be a threat to my liberty and to my life. … What I’m proud of is the fact that every decision that I made I can defend.”
There is no evidence that Putin is considering such a move. But Snowden’s fate is very much uncertain: His comments come at a crucial moment for him, three and a half years after he deserted his job as an NSA contractor in Hawaii and fled, initially to Hong Kong, with a thumb drive of highly classified documents that he began disclosing to journalists.
Facing what is expected to be an unyielding hard line from the new Trump administration — Kansas Congressman Mike Pompeo, who is designated to be Trump’s CIA director, has called him a “traitor” who should be subject to the death sentence — Snowden and his allies in the United States are mounting an aggressive public campaign for a pardon by President Obama. “Time is running out,” reads one of the headlines on the campaign’s website, which also cites sympathetic comments by former Attorney General Eric Holder that Snowden “performed a public service” by triggering a debate about U.S. surveillance programs that led to reforms, including the end of the bulk collection of U.S. phone records by the NSA.
But Obama has made clear, as recently as last month, that he won’t consider a pardon until after Snowden returns and his case is adjudicated. And even Snowden acknowledged he’s not expecting one. “Well, I’m not counting on it,” he told Couric when asked about a pardon.
In the meantime, Snowden’s lawyers and defenders are privately seeking to open discussion of a possible plea bargain that would allow him to return home without facing a trial that could result in a long prison sentence. A letter to Obama and Attorney General Loretta Lynch from the Pardon Snowden campaign, signed by 15 former staff members of the Church Committee — which exposed abuses by the FBI and CIA in the 1970s — urged “leniency” for Snowden, while avoiding any mention of a pardon.
In the interview, Snowden seemed to draw a parallel between the information he leaked to journalists in 2013 and the findings of the committee (headed by the late Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho), including how U.S. intelligence agencies “were secretly administering psychedelic drugs to college students to see the impacts they would have.”
Snowden went on: “They [the CIA] were engaging in assassination operations that were contrary to both American and international law, all kinds of crazy things. And these individuals who [signed the letter] are experts in what’s going on in intelligence at the classified level, who worked for the government, right? These aren’t sort of hippie reformers or anything like that. They argued that President Obama should seriously consider leniency in this case. He said that — or they said — that this case has caused far more benefits to American society, which I think is uncontroversial at this point, than any claimed harms for which we’ve never seen evidence.”
“If you had one minute to make your case face-to-face to President Obama, what would you say to convince him to pardon you?” Couric asked.
“I wouldn’t,” Snowden replied. “I would respectfully say to the president, ‘I understand you have an incredibly difficult job.’ No one wants to be a whistleblower. This is something that’s hard to do. It’s hard enough to stand up to a bully in your life, to your boss in the office, much less the combined might of the National Security Agency, the FBI and, you know, the apparatus of government.”
But any consideration of leniency for Snowden will run into fierce resistance from the U.S. intelligence community, which continues to view the former NSA contractor as an untrustworthy renegade who deceived his colleagues and endangered national security. This week, U.S. intelligence officials told Yahoo News, the office of the director of national intelligence is planning to declassify new portions of a highly critical 36-page report by the House Intelligence Committee that concluded Snowden was a “serial fabricator” who stole more than 1.5 million documents — 90 percent of which were military and defense secrets unrelated to the surveillance programs involving the privacy of U.S. citizens.
Snowden, for his part, casually dismissed claims that his disclosures to journalists did any damage to U.S. national security at all.
“Do you really think if the government can show somebody was hurt, a program was damaged, we’ve gone dark and can’t track dangerous people, they wouldn’t leak that criticism?” Snowden replied to Couric when asked about claims that the information he disclosed made it harder for U.S. agencies to monitor terrorists. “That wouldn’t be on the front page of the New York Times by the end of the day? I don’t think so. And I hope, maybe in time, you’ll think the same.”
Couric noted that even former Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on NSA documents he received from Snowden, recently wrote: “I do not share the view of some of his fans that he did no damage at all.”
“Can you at least acknowledge that damage might have been done as a result of your disclosures?” Couric asked Snowden.
“I don’t agree with him in that regard,” he replied about Gellman’s comment. “What I will say is this. Whenever we’re talking about damage without evidence — this is an intentional effort to change the conversation from the concrete harms of these programs that violated the rights of every man, woman and child in the United States and people around the world… What Barton Gellman was acknowledging there was that, yes, it’s possible that officials could have been embarrassed by this. Reputations could have been damaged by this. And the intelligence community considers this to be a matter of national security. But I would argue there’s more to national security than reputations.”
Couric pressed: “But aren’t we talking, in fairness, more than simply reputations or being embarrassed? Virtually every U.S. security official, current and former, agrees that these disclosures made it more difficult to track the movements of organizations like ISIS and other terrorist groups.”
“I don’t agree with that,” Snowden responded. “Terrorists read the newspaper too. But I’ll tell you, terrorists already knew the NSA was coming after them. And what we saw in the newspaper wasn’t anything that they didn’t already understand. What was revealed in the newspaper was only a surprise to Americans and ordinary citizens.”
It was these comments that drew a sharp response from Olsen, the former Obama administration counterterrorism director, who has said he watched in 2013 as terrorist operatives grew “dark” and changed their communication methods after the Snowden disclosures.
“Regardless of his motivation, the fact is that his theft and release of an unprecedented amount of classified information have directly aided terrorists, Russian intelligence services, and other US adversaries,” Olsen wrote Sunday in an email to Yahoo News. “His actions have resulted in the loss of intelligence sources that have saved American lives around the world.”
Olsen added: “Snowden disclosed specific information about how the US collects intelligence, who we work with, and where we have operations. These are activities that are entirely lawful and most have nothing to do with the privacy of Americans. These facts are not disputed, except by Snowden himself and perhaps his Russian hosts, with whom he has shared intelligence.”
Snowden, for his part, denied sharing any information with the Russian intelligence services. He also denied the assertion by U.S. intelligence officials that he visited the Russian Consulate in Hong Kong before flying to Moscow — en route, he claims, to Ecuador, only to be “trapped” in Russia because the U.S. had revoked his passport.
Snowden’s comments about U.S. intelligence officials being “embarrassed” by his disclosures weren’t his only remarks in the interview that have triggered sharp responses. Former U.S. intelligence officials and national security experts sought to debunk his assertion, published by Yahoo News on Sunday, that former CIA Director David Petraeus had disclosed “far more highly classified information than I ever did.” Petraeus, who is said to be under consideration for secretary of state in the Trump administration, shared top-secret information with his lover and biographer. He was forced to resign and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of mishandling classified information.
“I am not in any way defending Petraeus, but I don’t think many intelligence experts would agree with this,” tweeted Tommy Vietor, a former national security spokesman for the Obama White House.
“Snowden is apparently taking a play from Trump’s book on how to reinvent facts,” Mark Zaid, a prominent national security lawyer, wrote in a Facebook posting. “It is absurd to claim Petraeus’ actions were worse or more damaging than his. Other than giving classified information to his mistress, which is totally unacceptable (even though she had a security clearance), the information was neither stolen nor compromised. Moreover, it was never published. To the contrary, Snowden stole highly classified information and DELIBERATELY compromised it by allowing the world, which includes our enemies, to see it.”
While insisting on his independence from Putin, Snowden seemed to echo the Russian government’s line regarding charges that its intelligence services hacked into Democratic Party campaign committees to influence the 2016 election. Moscow says the Obama administration has failed to give evidence for these allegations.
While conceding it was “possible” that the Russians had hacked the Democrats, Snowden added: “What bothers me about this kind of conversation is that the last time there was a significant hack that affected the United States that we believed had an association to a nation-state, it was the Sony hack, which we said North Korea was behind. The FBI immediately released evidence that they believed proved that they were behind that attack. We haven’t seen that here. And I think if we’re gonna have this conversation, it should be evidence-based.”
Snowden deflected most questions about his activities that led up to his flight to Moscow. He refused, for example, to identify any of the 10 NSA colleagues and superiors to whom he has said he raised concerns about U.S. surveillance before he began disclosing classified documents. Asked why he has been unable to produce a single email in which he raised such concerns, Snowden replied: “I’m not an email administrator” and “These aren’t things you put in writing at NSA. Saying, ‘I think the NSA is breaking the law. I think maybe this program is violating the Constitution’ is a career-ending move. And the people that I talked to first, my supervisor, said, ‘You know, hey, we can talk about this, but you shouldn’t rock the boat, and don’t write this down.’” (The only email that has surfaced that touches on surveillance practices, released by the NSA, shows that Snowden asked one of the agency’s lawyers in April 2013 to “clarify” an issue about legal authorities in an agency training manual, but expresses no concern about the NSA’s programs or potential infringements on privacy.)
“Why hasn’t anyone come forward, though?” Couric retorted. “Why haven’t you given any names to corroborate the fact that you did, in fact, try to go through the so-called proper channels?”
“Because if I did that, they would end the careers of these individuals, right? If these individuals spoke on their own without waiting for me, they would go to jail.”
Snowden — who has consistently asserted he shared documents only with “responsible” journalists who worked for publications he knew would carefully vet them — was also challenged on why he revealed highly classified information about NSA hacking in China to a journalist for the South China Morning Post while he was in Hong Kong. He defended the disclosure, saying the institutions being hacked by the NSA were not “valid intelligence targets” but civilian ones, such as hospitals and universities. He said for the first time that he didn’t know that the reporter to whom he gave this information, Lana Lam, worked for the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post (although she was identified as one of the paper’s correspondents on its website); he says he understood she was a “freelancer” from Australia.
“So you didn’t even know that it was going to be in a newspaper in China?” Couric asked him.
“I knew it would be in a newspaper,” he said. “I didn’t know what newspaper. This was not my concern.”
Brian Rhoads, managing editor of the South China Morning Post, said in an email to Yahoo News Monday that the paper’s reporter, Lam, “made clear her status and who she was working for” when she interviewed Snowden in Hong Kong. “She was a full-time staff member of the South China Morning Post at the time, and represented herself as full-time staff throughout the interview process. We asked Snowden and the lawyers follow up questions and communicated with them about dates we were planning publication of the material.” Rhoads also emphasized that the South China Morning Post is an independent publication that “is not controlled by China” and does not share information with the country’s government.
Snowden, who lives with his longtime girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, in a Moscow apartment, and says he walks freely throughout the city unmolested and for the most part unrecognized, was asked by Couric at one point what he misses most about the United States.
“Family, of course,” he replied. “That’s always the thing. You know, they can come and see me, but you’ve got all these travel arrangements and logistics, you’ve got to go on an airplane ride. Who doesn’t miss that?”
“When you look back at the last three years, was it worth it?” Couric asked. “Absolutely. I would do it again.”
“No regrets at all.”