Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who revealed some of the agency’s top surveillance programs, has a memoir slated to hit shelves Tuesday.
Permanent Record is part coming-of-age-with-the-Internet story, part spy tale and — his critics might say — an attempt to try to justify betraying his country.
Snowden has lived in Russia for six years, where he first received asylum and he now has permanent residence. He is under indictment in the U.S., facing charges of violating the Espionage Act, after providing journalists with highly classified documents about the government’s PRISM surveillance program in June 2013.
He remains a deeply divisive figure. Many in the national security community regard him as a traitor for revealing important spy programs, while many human rights groups say he shed the light on mass surveillance of entire populations without their knowledge.
In a phone interview from Moscow on Thursday, Snowden told NPR, “It was not my choice to be here, and this is what people forget. … It was not my choice to live in Russia.” He noted that he sought asylum in 27 countries and the U.S. government canceled his passport.
Snowden acknowledged that Russian intelligence wanted him to cooperate when he first arrived, but he insists that he rejected that offer. He pointed to the fact that he was “trapped” at the airport for 40 days upon arrival in the country. “If I had played ball, I would have left on Day 1 in a limo; I would have been living in a palace; you would have seen them giving me parades in Red Square.”
Snowden stands by his story, stressing that he has nothing to give the Russian government. “The reality is this: I had destroyed my access to all the classified material that I provided to journalists before leaving Hong Kong, precisely because I didn’t know what was going to happen next.”
Snowden was working for the NSA in Hawaii in 2013 when he traveled first to Hong Kong, sharing NSA secrets with several journalists. He was attempting to go to Ecuador for asylum but was stopped in Moscow.
Russia’s motivation for protecting him, he said, is that it is an easy way for the country to look like it’s doing something good, without any retaliation. Other countries in Europe reached out to him about possible asylum — Germany, Poland — he said, but they all feared U.S. retaliation.
He says he has been willing to criticize Russia’s human rights record. “You have to look at the basic facts. If you look at my public presence … I’m constantly criticizing the Russian government’s policy, the Russian government’s human rights record, even the Russian president by name.” He adds, “I had nothing to provide them. I have been criticizing the Russian government. What more can I do to satisfy you or any of these critics? There is nothing that will satisfy them. … It is their distrust of Russia.”
Snowden says he would come back to the U.S. for trial — but only if he could tell a jury why he leaked the information to journalists. And if he was assured that the jury could see the classified material he leaked — to assess for itself whether he did the right thing.
“You can’t have a fair trial about the disclosure of information unless the jury can evaluate whether it was right or wrong to reveal this information,” he said. By coming back for only “sentencing,” he said, he wouldn’t be setting the right example for others who might be in a similar situation.
“No one becomes a whistleblower because they want to,” he said. “No one becomes a whistleblower because it has a happy ending.”
Snowden warned that wide-scale data collection continues. He recalled the moment the light clicked: He was in a Best Buy, looking at “smart” refrigerators and stoves, when it dawned on him that the manufacturers, not the purchasers and owners, were the ones ultimately in control.
“Where this data that your refrigerator was collecting, that your phone was collecting, that the government was collecting — where all of this data was going was intentionally hidden from us,” he said. “We are no longer partner to our technology, in large part, just as we are increasingly, unfortunately, no longer partner to our government, so much as subject to them. And this is a dangerous trend.”
And he also expressed concerns about what he said was the increasing power of the executive branch of government, referencing the Amnesty v. Clapper case. “The executive branch of the government sort of hacked the Constitution,” Snowden told NPR. “The government had found a way to cut out the two branches of government that could have some check.”