Edward Snowden, the fugitive ex-National Security Agency contractor, has hit back at his critics in an interview with The New York Times in which he insists he couldn't have handed any US national security secrets to his Russian hosts because he didn't bring any with him on his flight to Moscow in June.
In the interview, which the Times says took place over several days this month, Mr. Snowden is quoted as saying that he gave all the NSA files he'd fled with to journalists, presumably the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, whom he met with in Hong Kong in June.
"It wouldn’t serve the public interest," to bring such documents to Russia, he said. "What would be the unique value of personally carrying another copy of the materials onward?"
"There’s a zero percent chance the Russians or Chinese have received any documents," he added.
The first direct contact between Snowden and US journalists is yet another sign that he may be ready to step back into the spotlight after remaining virtually incommunicado at his secret retreat somewhere in Russia for more than two months, since walking out of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport with Russian refugee papers that are good for a year.
Last week his father, Lon Snowden, arrived in Moscow for a family visit, and returned to the US this week saying his son is "comfortable, he’s happy, and he’s absolutely committed to what he has done".
As an NSA contract analyst, Snowden covertly copied thousands of top secret documents and spirited them away to Hong Kong, where he turned them over to journalists. Those materials have fueled an ongoing wave of revelations published by newspapers that have been given access to them, including the Guardian, The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Four US whistleblowers also visited Snowden last week to give him the Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence. The prize is named after a Vietnam-era CIA agent who tried to fight systematic under-estimations of enemy Viet Cong forces within the system, and later expressed regret that he didn't take his information to the public. A biographical review on the CIA's official website says of Sam Adams that, "in his 10-year career as a CIA analyst caused more trouble than any analyst before or since."
One of the US whistleblowers who met with Snowden last week, former Department of Justice ethics counselor Jesselyn Radack, detailed the visit in this week's The Nation. She says they found Snowden happy, healthy, in good spirits and concentrated on completing his mission to "restore the democracy he once knew" by reining in the surveillance state through public disclosure.
She said that Snowden follows the news media closely and "is pleased with reform-minded reactions to his revelations, both in America and abroad."
Snowden is also deeply worried about his own personal security, she added.
"The issue of his security is paramount.... As for who is providing for his security – WikiLeaks? FSB? – this question is borne not out of a concern for his safety, but rather a US desire to perpetuate a false narrative that Snowden is being controlled by the Russians. I can say with certainty: Edward Snowden is not being controlled by the Russians, or anyone for that matter," Ms. Radack writes.
In his own interview with the Times, Snowden disputes the main criticism of his actions offered by President Obama and other US officials, that he ought to have remained in the US and tried to correct the alleged abuses he had uncovered through internal channels.
He said the system of internal checks within the NSA "does not work.... You have to report wrongdoing to those most responsible for it." If he had tried to do that, he said, he would have been "discredited and ruined."
Snowden added that morale within the NSA is poor. "There’s a lot of dissent – palpable with some, even." People are kept silent through "fear and a false image of patriotism," which he called, "obedience to authority," according to the Times.
He added that he has never considered defecting, either to Russia or China, and insisted that he was not under Russian state control and was free to move around.