WASHINGTON: Edward Snowden says dishonest comments to Congress by the US intelligence chief were the final straw that prompted him to flee the country and reveal a trove of national security documents.
In an interview with Wired magazine in Moscow, where he sought asylum after the revelations, Snowden said he had long been troubled by the activities of the National Security Agency (NSA), which employed him as a contractor.
But it was only when Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told lawmakers that the agency does “not wittingly” collect data on millions of American citizens that he was angry enough to act.
The magazine released the article online Wednesday, along with several new photographs of the once-elusive Snowden, including a cover shot of the technician lovingly cradling an American flag.
Snowden says he made his decision to leave his office in Hawaii and head to Hong Kong with secret documents on thumb drives after reading in March 2013 about Clapper briefing a Senate committee.
“I think I was reading it in the paper the next day, talking to coworkers, saying, can you believe this…?” Snowden said.
Following his sensational leaks about the scale of US global surveillance and how the NSA sucks up data on US users’ phone calls, Clapper apologized to the Senate for his “erroneous” remarks.
Snowden told Wired that he had already thought about “whistle-blowing” several times over the previous few years.
Snowden told Wired he had been troubled by other discoveries in his work with the agency, including that the NSA was spying on the pornography-viewing habits of political radicals.
“It’s much like how the FBI tried to use Martin Luther King’s infidelity to talk him into killing himself,” he said.
“We said those kinds of things were inappropriate back in the ’60s. Why are we doing that now?”
Snowden was also disturbed by the NSA’s effort to massively speed up data collection with a secret data storage facility which scanned billions of phone calls, faxes, emails and text messages from around the world.
He told Wired he put off his plan to leak NSA secrets at the time of the election of President Barack Obama, hoping for a more open government.
But he became disenchanted with the president and by 2013 was ready to spill the secrets he had acquired.
After Clapper’s testimony to Congress, Snowden said his colleagues did not appear shocked, but he was concerned he was getting too deep into an “evil” system.
“It’s like the boiling frog,” he said, in a reference to the fable that a frog placed in cold water over a hob fails to realize the water is heating up gradually until it is too late.
“You get exposed to a little bit of evil, a little bit of rule-breaking, a little bit of dishonesty, a little bit of deceptiveness, a little bit of disservice to the public interest, and you can brush it off, you can come to justify it,” he told the magazine.
“But if you do that, it creates a slippery slope that just increases over time… And so you see it as normal. And that’s the problem, that’s what the Clapper event was all about.”
Journalist James Bamford — who conducted the interviews under tight security — wrote that Snowden appeared “relaxed and upbeat.”
In three days of interviews over several weeks, Snowden said he was willing to end his exile in Moscow and face prison in the United States “as long as it served the right purpose.”
“I care more about the country than what happens to me,” he said.
According to the interview, Snowden said he learned that the NSA in 2012 accidentally knocked out the Internet in Syria while trying to install software to intercept communications during the country’s civil war.