Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, stands by his decision to leak a huge collection of classified National Security Agency documents that revealed extensive, global U.S. government surveillance programs.
“There are some things worth dying for,” Snowden said in an interview with NBC News’ Brian Williams that aired late Wednesday, “I think the country is one of them.” The interview was his first with a U.S. television network since he fled from Hawaii to Hong Kong a year ago with classified materials.
Snowden has been living for the better part of a year under asylum in Russia and said if given the opportunity he’d like to go home.
“If I could go anywhere in the world, that place would be home,” he said. The leaker made similar comments in an interview in January.
Snowden told Williams he attempted to travel to Latin America to seek asylum after leaving Hong Kong, but was left stranded in Moscow airport after the U.S. revoked his passport. The Kremlin granted Snowden temporary asylum, which expires at the end of July and which Snowden says he will ask to extend. He has been charged in the United States with theft and espionage.
Secretary of State John Kerry had harsh words in response to Snowden’s statement that he’d like to return to the United States.
“Edward Snowden is a coward,” Kerry told MSNBC. “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.”
In his denunciation of Snowden, Kerry said, “Patriots don’t go to Russia,” but Snowden told NBC that he sees himself as a patriot.
“I’ve from day one said that I’m doing this to serve my country,” he said.
In his lengthy interview Wednesday, Snowden scolded his critics for exploiting the trauma of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to justify the surveillance programs he exposed. Intelligence officials have defended the programs as essential tools in the effort to combat terrorism.
“I’ve never told anybody this. No journalist,” he said. “But I was on Fort Meade on September 11th. I was right outside the NSA. So I remember — I remember the tension of that day. I remember hearing on the radio the planes hitting. And I remember thinking my grandfather, who worked for the FBI at the time, was in the Pentagon when the plane hit it. I take the threat of terrorism seriously. And I think we all do.”
Snowden fired back at assertions made by American officials that he was little more than low-level tech support for the intelligence community, saying he was “trained as a spy” and worked undercover for both the NSA and the Central Intelligence Agency. He also rejected the assertion, made to TIME by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers, that he is being controlled by Russian intelligence officials. “I have no relationship with the Russian government at all,” he said.
Despite his stated desire to come back, Snowden brushed off questions about whether or not he would make a deal with the U.S. government in order to return.
“My priority is not about myself,” he said. “It’s about making sure that these programs are reformed — and that the family that I left behind, the country that I left behind, can be helped by my actions.”