WASHINGTON — Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, said in an interview this month that he did not take any secret NSA documents with him to Russia when he fled there in June, ensuring that Russian intelligence officials could not get access to them.
Snowden said he gave all of the classified documents he had obtained to journalists he met in Hong Kong, before flying to Moscow, and did not keep copies for himself. He did not take the files to Russia “because it wouldn’t serve the public interest,” he said.
He also said he was able to protect the documents from China’s spies because he was familiar with that nation’s intelligence abilities, explaining that as an NSA contractor he had targeted Chinese operations and had taught a course on Chinese cybercounterintelligence.
“There’s a zero percent chance the Russians or Chinese have received any documents,” he said in an interview over several days in the past week. The interview took place through encrypted online communications.
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U.S. intelligence officials have expressed concern that the files might have fallen into the hands of foreign intelligence services, but Snowden said he believed the NSA knew he had not cooperated with the Russians or the Chinese.
He said he was publicly revealing that he no longer had any agency documents to explain why he was confident that Russia had not gained access to them. He had been reluctant to disclose that information previously, he said, for fear of exposing the journalists to greater scrutiny.
Snowden, 30, has been praised by privacy advocates and assailed by government officials as a traitor who has caused irreparable harm, and he is facing charges under the Espionage Act for leaking the NSA documents to the media.
In the interview, he said he believed he was a whistle-blower who was acting in the nation’s best interests by revealing information about the NSA’s surveillance dragnet and huge collections of communications data, including the communications of Americans.
Snowden said he had never considered defecting while in Hong Kong, nor in Russia, where he has been permitted to stay for one year.
He said he felt confident he had secured the documents from Chinese spies and that the NSA knew he had done so. His last target while working as an agency contractor was China, he said, adding that he had had “access to every target, every active operation” mounted by the NSA against the Chinese.
“Full lists of them,” he said.
An NSA spokeswoman did not respond Thursday to a request for comment on Snowden’s assertions.
Snowden said his decision to leak NSA documents developed gradually, dating at least to his time working as a technician in the Geneva station of the CIA. His experiences there, Snowden said, fed his doubts about the intelligence community while also convincing him that working through the chain of command would only lead to retribution.
He declined to provide details about his living conditions in Moscow, except to say that he was not under Russian government control and was free to move around.