WASHINGTON -- NSA leaker Edward Snowden is defending his disclosure of top-secret U.S. spying programs in an online chat Monday with The Guardian, in which he rejected allegations that he is spying for the Chinese and attacked U.S. officials for calling him a traitor.
"No. I have had no contact with the Chinese government. Just like with the Guardian and the Washington Post, I only work with journalists," he said in response to a question from The Guardian's Spencer Ackerman.
Responding to a similar query, Snowden painted the spy allegations as an attempt to destroy his character:
This is a predictable smear that I anticipated before going public, as the US media has a knee-jerk "RED CHINA!" reaction to anything involving HK or the PRC, and is intended to distract from the issue of US government misconduct. Ask yourself: if I were a Chinese spy, why wouldn't I have flown directly into Beijing? I could be living in a palace petting a phoenix by now.
Snowden also appeared defiant in the face of calls for his prosecution.
"The U.S. government is not going to be able to cover this up by jailing or murdering me. Truth is coming, and it cannot be stopped," he said. He added the government "immediately and predictably destroyed any possibility of a fair trial at home," by labeling him a traitor, and indicated he would not return to the U.S. voluntarily.
Congressional leaders have called Snowden a traitor for revealing once-secret surveillance programs two weeks ago in the Guardian and The Washington Post. The National Security Agency programs collect records of millions of Americans' telephone calls and Internet usage as a counterterror tool. The disclosures revealed the scope of the collections, which surprised many Americans and have sparked debate about how much privacy the government can take away in the name of national security.
"It would be foolish to volunteer yourself to" possible arrest and criminal charges "if you can do more good outside of prison than in it," he said.
The Guardian announced its website was hosting an online chat with Snowden, in hiding in Hong Kong, with reporter Glenn Greenwald receiving and posting his questions. The Associated Press couldn't independently verify that the man answering the questions was indeed Snowden.
Snowden was working as a contractor for NSA at the time he had access to the then-secret programs. He defended his actions and said he considered what to reveal and what not to, saying he did not reveal any U.S. operations against what he called legitimate military targets, but instead showed the NSA is hacking civilian infrastructure like universities and private businesses.
"These nakedly, aggressively criminal acts are wrong no matter the target. Not only that, when NSA makes a technical mistake during an exploitation operation, critical systems crash," he said, though he gave no examples of what systems have crashed or in which countries.
"Congress hasn't declared war on the countries – the majority of them are our allies – but without asking for public permission, NSA is running network operations against them that affect millions of innocent people," he said. "And for what? So we can have secret access to a computer in a country we're not even fighting?"
Snowden was referring to PRISM, one of the programs he disclosed. The program sweeps up Internet usage data from all over the world that goes through nine major U.S.-based Internet providers. The NSA can look at foreign usage without any warrants, and says the program doesn't target Americans.
U.S. officials say the data-gathering programs are legal and operated under secret court supervision.
Snowden explained his claim that from his desk, he could "wiretap" any phone call or email – a claim top intelligence officials have denied. "If an NSA, FBI, CIA, DIA, etc. analyst has access to query raw SIGINT (signals intelligence) databases, they can enter and get results for anything they want," he wrote in the answer posted on the Guardian site. "Phone number, email, user id, cell phone handset id (IMEI), and so on – it's all the same."
The NSA did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. But Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has said that the kind of data that can be accessed and who can access it is severely limited.
Snowden said the restrictions on what could be seen by an individual analyst vary according to policy changes, which can happen "at any time," and said that a technical "filter" on NSA data gathering meant to filter out U.S. communications is "weak," such that U.S. communications often get ingested.
Snowden defended U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning for his disclosures of documents to Wikileaks, which he called a "legitimate journalistic outlet," which "carefully redacted all of their releases in accordance with a judgment of public interest." He said the Wikileaks release of unredacted material was "due to the failure of a partner journalist to control a passphrase," which led to the charge against Manning that he dumped the documents, which Snowden called an attempt to smear Manning.
Manning is currently on trial at Fort Meade – the same Army base where the NSA is headquartered – on charges of aiding the enemy for releasing documents to Wikileaks.
Snowden defended his description of his salary as being $200,000 a year, calling that a "career high," but saying he did take a pay cut to take the job at Booz Allen Hamilton, where he worked as a contractor at an NSA facility in Hawaii. When Booz Allen fired him, they said his salary was $122,000.
On the web:
Follow Associated Press reporter Kimberly Dozier on Twitter at http://twitter.com/kimberlydozier
Also on HuffPost:
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.)
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said the court order for telephone records was part of a three-month renewal of an ongoing practice, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20130606/us-nsa-phone-records-feinstein/" target="_blank">the Associated Press reported</a>. "It’s called protecting America," Feinstein said at a Capitol Hill news conference.
Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.)
Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/06/verizon-phone-records-nsa_n_3397058.html?utm_hp_ref=politics" target="_blank">said</a> "the administration owes the American public an explanation of what authorities it thinks it has."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) thought everyone "should just calm down." "Right now I think everyone should just calm down and understand this isn't anything that's brand new," Reid <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/06/verizon-phone-records-nsa_n_3397058.html?utm_hp_ref=politics" target="_blank">said</a>.
Former Vice President Al Gore
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.)
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said in a statement: "This type of secret bulk data collection is an outrageous breach of Americans’ privacy."
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he was <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/06/lindsey-graham-nsa_n_3396223.html?1370532449" target="_blank">"glad" the NSA was collecting phone records. </a> "I don’t mind Verizon turning over records to the government if the government is going to make sure that they try to match up a known terrorist phone with somebody in the United States," Graham said in an interview on "Fox and Friends."
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.)
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) also claimed that reports of the NSA collecting phone records was "nothing particularly new." "Every member of the United States Senate has been advised of this," Chambliss<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/06/verizon-phone-records-nsa_n_3397058.html?utm_hp_ref=politics" target="_blank"> said</a>. "And to my knowledge we have not had any citizen who has registered a complaint relative to the gathering of this information."
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.)
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) found the NSA collecting phone records <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/06/verizon-phone-records-nsa_n_3397058.html?utm_hp_ref=politics" target="_blank">"troubling."</a> "The fact that all of our calls are being gathered in that way -- ordinary citizens throughout America -- to me is troubling and there may be some explanation, but certainly we all as citizens are owed that, and we're going to be demanding that," Corker <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/06/verizon-phone-records-nsa_n_3397058.html?utm_hp_ref=politics" target="_blank">said</a>.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas)
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah)