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7 Things We Learned From Edward Snowden's First TV Interview

The former NSA contractor who leaked details of U.S. intelligence-gathering programs spoke to Brian Williams in an NBC Nightly News interview in Moscow.

Posted on May 29, 2014, at 1:30 a.m. ET

1. Snowden calls himself a "patriot" and insists he is not working with the Russian government.


"I have no relationship with the Russian government at all. I've never met the Russian president," he said. "I'm not supported by the Russian government. I'm not taking money from the Russian government. I'm not a spy, which is the real question."

The former National Security Agency contractor is currently living in Russia on a temporary grant of asylum. Last June, Snowden was charged with three felonies in federal court in Virginia: theft, "unauthorized communication of national defense information," and "willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person."

2. Snowden says he was trained "as a spy" and worked undercover overseas.


"I was trained as a spy in sort of the traditional sense of the word in that I lived and worked undercover overseas, pretending to work in a job that I'm not, and even being assigned a name that was not mine," Snowden said.

"So when [critics] say I'm a low-level systems administrator, that I don't know what I'm talking about, I'd say it's somewhat misleading," he added.

National Security Advisor Susan Rice said in a CNN interview Wednesday that Snowden never worked undercover. "No," she said flatly when asked if he was ever a spy.

3. He wants to come home.


After leaking government secrets and fleeing the country, Snowden said he would like to return to the U.S.

"I don't think there's ever been any question that I'd like to go home. I've from day one said that I'm doing this to serve my country," he said.

"Now, whether amnesty or clemency ever becomes a possibility is not for me to say. That's a debate for the public and the government to decide. But, if I could go anywhere in the world, that place would be home," Snowden said.

4. He didn't intend to end up in Russia and blames the U.S. for leaving him stranded there.


"I personally am surprised that I ended up here. The reality is I never intended to end up in Russia," Snowden said. "I had a flight booked to Cuba onward to Latin America and I was stopped because the United States government decided to revoke my passport and trap me in Moscow Airport."

"So when people ask why are you in Russia, I say, 'Please ask the State Department.'"

In response to the claim, Secretary of State John Kerry said, "Well, for a supposedly smart guy, that's a pretty dumb answer, after all."

"I think he's confused," Kerry told NBC's Today. "I think it's very sad. But this is a man who has done great damage to his country."

5. Snowden was on the military base that houses the NSA headquarters during the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.


"I've never told anybody this, no journalist. But I was on Fort Meade on Sept. 11," Snowden said, describing the National Security Agency's headquarters in Maryland.

"I was right outside the NSA. So I remember the tension 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," he recalled.

"I take the threat of terrorism seriously. And I think we all do. And I think it's really disingenuous for the government to invoke and sort of scandalize our memories, to sort of exploit the national trauma that we all suffered together and worked so hard to come through to justify programs that have never been shown to keep us safe, but cost us liberties and freedoms that we don't need to give up, and our Constitution says we should not give up."

6. Snowden says the NSA has the ability to remotely turn a cell phone on and use it for surveillance.

Getty Images

Using interviewer Brian Williams' cell phone as an example, Snowden said: "The NSA, the Russian Intelligence Service, the Chinese Intelligence Service, any intelligence service in the world that has significant funding and a real technological research team, can own that phone the minute it connects to their network. As soon as you turn it on, it can be theirs. They can turn it into a microphone, they can take pictures from it, they can take the data off of it."

Snowden said a cell phone can also be controlled remotely — even if it was turned off.

"They can absolutely turn them on with the power turned off, the device, that's pretty scary," he said. But clarified this sort of use is only "typically done on a targeted basis."

7. Snowden's motivation for leaking the documents? So he can "sleep at night."


"I may have lost my ability to travel," Snowden said. "But I've gained the ability to go to sleep at night and to put my head on the pillow and feel comfortable that I've done the right thing even when it was the hard thing. And I'm comfortable with that."

Snowden said prior to leaking documents to journalists he raised legal objections within the NSA, leaving some officials shocked by what they had learned, but nothing was done to restrain the agency's use of surveillance.

"I actually did go through channels. And that is documented," he said. "The NSA has records, they have copies of emails right now, to their Office of General Counsel, to their oversight and compliance folks, from me, raising concerns about the NSA's interpretations of its legal authorities."

Watch the full interview at NBC News.