WASHINGTON — Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who has confessed to disclosing troves of highly classified documents detailing American surveillance at home and abroad, said Monday that he had not given any classified materials to the government of China.
“This is a predictable smear that I anticipated before going public,” Snowden said, adding that such speculation was “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 made his comments in an online question-and-answer session with readers and reporters that was hosted on the website of The Guardian, the British newspaper that has published most of the secret information to date. He implied that he was still in Hong Kong, where he has sought refuge from the US government, but did not describe his location specifically.
Snowden’s choice to go to Hong Kong to decry oppressive government surveillance, and his decision to tell the South China Morning Post about NSA hacking into computers in mainland China and Hong Kong last week, has fueled attacks on portraying him as a whistleblower.
On Sunday, for example, Dick Cheney, former vice president, defended the surveillance programs — including one that keeps a record of all domestic calls that he said was designed in his office — and called Snowden a traitor, hinting that he might be a spy.
“I’m deeply suspicious obviously because he went to China,” Cheney said. “That’s not a place where you ordinarily want to go if you’re interested in freedom and liberty and so forth. So, it raises questions whether or not he had that kind of connection before he did this.”
But Snowden, in his Web chat, denied any such connection. “I have had no contact with the Chinese government,” he said. “Just like with The Guardian and The Washington Post, I only work with journalists.”
Asked by a Guardian reporter why he did not go directly to Iceland, where he has said he would like to obtain asylum, Snowden said his decision to leave the United States without providing advance notice of foreign travel to the NSA was “an incredible risk,” and he needed a place where he was less likely to be immediately arrested.
“There was a distinct possibility I would be interdicted en route, so I had to travel with no advance booking to a country with the cultural and legal framework to allow me to work without being immediately detained,” he said. “Hong Kong provided that. Iceland could be pushed harder, quicker, before the public could have a chance to make their feelings known, and I would not put that past the current US administration.”
In answering questions for about 90 minutes, Snowden said there was “no single moment” in which he decided to act, but decried “a continuing litany of lies” both from senior government officials to Congress and congressional leaders. In particular, he accused James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, of “baldly lying to the public without repercussion,” saying that such actions subverted democratic accountability.
Since the disclosure that the NSA has been keeping records of nearly all domestic calls, Clapper has come under particular scrutiny.
In March, asked at a Senate hearing whether the security agency collected “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans,” Clapper replied: “No, sir. Not wittingly.” He later explained that that was the “least untruthful” answer he could give in a public setting about a classified program.
Snowden also suggested that his decision to leak the information about US government surveillance was influenced in part by the Obama administration’s harsh crackdown on leakers; the administration has filed charges in six cases, compared with three under all previous presidents combined, and several of those charged have been portrayed as heroes and martyrs by supporters.
Snowden mentioned by name two former NSA officials — Thomas A. Drake and William E. Binney — who were investigated for leaking; Binney was not prosecuted, while the prosecution of Drake collapsed.