NBC’s heavily teased hour-long interview with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden—his first with an American TV network—was not particularly revelatory, but it did provide viewers with its first extensive look at the former government contractor since his massive leak of top-secret documents exposing extensive electronic government surveillance.
Snowden, in an interview with Brian Williams in Russia, where he was granted temporary asylum after his passport was revoked on his way to Latin America last year, pushed back on criticisms that his leaks damaged national security. He admitted that he was a trained spy for the CIA and NSA despite assertions from government officials that he was nothing more than a low-level hacker.
Snowden’s clandestine work has been well documented. Nevertheless, NBC focused much of its promos on the 30-year-old’s admission that he worked for the United States’ most secretive agencies.
“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, sitting comfortably and seemingly unnerved by his tenuous predicament, told Williams.
“Now the government might deny these things,” he said. “They might frame it in certain ways and say ‘oh, well you know he’s a low-level analyst,’ but what they’re tying 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 lecturer at the Joint Counterintelligence Training Academy where I developed sources and methods for keeping our information people secure in the most hostile and dangerous environments around the world.”
Snowden, who has been charged under the Espionage Act, noted how the Obama Administration has charged more people under the World War II-era law than all other past administrations combined. He said he’d prefer to return home to the United States, but does not feel the current climate is favorable to him if he is indeed prosecuted.
For nearly a year, critics have called upon Snowden to return to the United States and stand up to the government’s accusations. That rhetoric continued Thursday with Secretary of State John Kerry calling on Snowden to “man up” and make his case in court.
But, Snowden asserted that a public defense is not ideal given limitations for defendants in espionage act cases.
Much of what Snowden and Williams discussed has already been previously disclosed, including his reasoning for joining the military following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Specifically, Snowden said, he wanted to free the oppressed people of Iraq, but later became disillusioned.
“The Iraq war that I signed up for was launched on false premises,” he said.
Later, Snowden defended his actions, telling Williams: “What is right is not the same as is what is legal. Sometimes to do the right thing you have to break a law.”