Fugitive NSA contractor Edward Snowden made his first national television appearance on Wednesday night on NBC, again saying his constitutional duty motivated him to leak massive amounts of information about U.S. government surveillance activities.
Snowden spoke with NBC News’ Brian Williams in an interview recorded in Russia, where Snowden was given asylum in 2013. NBC also reported that Snowden mentioned the Constitution 22 times during the interview.
At one point in the interview, Williams asked Snowden if he considered himself a patriot.
“I think patriot is a word that’s — that’s thrown around so much that it can be devalued nowadays. But 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 — the violations of an — and encroachments of adversaries. And those adversaries don’t have to be foreign countries,” Snowden said.
Snowden also said he didn’t see returning to the United States and agreeing to a jail term as proper motivation for other whistle blowers concerned with alleged constitutional violations.
“These are things that no individual should empower themself to — to really decide — you know, ‘I’m gonna give myself a parade.’ But neither am I going to walk into a jail cell — to serve as a bad example for other people in government who see something happening, some violation of the Constitution, and think they need to say something about it,” Snowden said.
For now, Snowden will stay in Russia, but also told Williams that his acts were “civil disobedience” and he wanted to return to the United States under certain circumstances, such as receiving amnesty, clemency or a short jail term.
Snowden pointed out his concerns about alleged Fourth Amendment privacy violations as another motivating factor.
"The Fourth Amendment as it was written -- no longer exists. ... Now all of our data can be collected without any suspicion of wrongdoing on our part, without any underlying justification,” he told Williams. “The Fourth Amendment that was so strict -- that we fought a revolution to put into place -- now no longer has the same meaning that it once did. Now we have -- a system of pervasive pre-criminal surveillance -- where the government wants to watch what you're doing just to see what you're up to, to see what you're thinking even behind closed doors.”
As a former government contractor, Snowden had access to information about National Security Agency programs that were classified, and pertained to the government’s access to phone and Internet records under a process allowed under the Patriot Act and approved by a secret government court.
He also repeated claims made in a remote appearance at the South by Southwest conference in March that the NSA was violating the Constitution in a significant way.
“The Constitution of the United States has been violated on a massive scale. Now, had that not happened, had the government not gone too far and overreached, we wouldn't be in a situation where whistleblowers were necessary,” Snowden said.
At South By Southwest, he used similar words to explains in actions, in a live video interview from Russia conducted at the conference in Texas.
“I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution. And I saw the Constitution was being violated on a massive scale,” he said in March.
Snowden faces felony and other charges in the United States after he stole millions of documents related to the NSA’s surveillance program last year and released some of the documents to news organizations. He sought and received asylum in Russia.
Secretary of State John Kerry had blunt comments for Snowden on Wednesday, before the interview aired on NBC.
"If Mr. Snowden wants to come back to the United States today, we'll have him on a flight today," Kerry said. "We'd be delighted for him to come back. And he should come back, and that's what a patriot would do."
Kerry had harsher words in an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd. “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.”
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