WASHINGTON — Edward Snowden, who has admitted disclosing secret U.S. surveillance operations at home and abroad, says he was “trained as a spy” and was given false names and undercover assignments abroad that made him more than a low-level computer analyst.
Snowden’s claims were made in a television interview broadcast Wednesday evening on NBC News. They added a new twist to the yearlong public-relations battle between the administration and Snowden, who is living under asylum in Moscow to escape prosecution for leaking thousands of classified files.
“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 told NBC’s Brian Williams.
The National Security Agency (NSA), which has described Snowden as an information-technology contractor, did not comment on the new claims.
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In the interview, conducted in Moscow last week, Snowden said the Obama administration forced him to seek temporary asylum in Russia last summer after he fled from Hong Kong to avoid arrest and extradition to America, and discovered that the State Department had revoked his passport.
“The reality is I never intended to end up in Russia,” he 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 [the] Moscow airport.
“So when people ask why are you in Russia, I say, ‘Please ask the State Department.’ ”
He added: “I don’t think there’s ever been any question that I’d like to go home. 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.”
Earlier Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry had said on NBC’s “Today” show that Snowden “should man up” and return home to face trial. If Snowden agreed, Kerry said: “We’ll have him on a flight today.”
Snowden told Williams he was alarmed that the Russian government was cracking down on freedom of the press, calling it “deeply unfair.”
He said he had never met Russian President Vladimir Putin. “I have no relationship with the Russian government,” Snowden said. “I’m not supported by them.”
He added: “I am not a spy” for the Kremlin, “which is the real question.”
Even if Putin’s government asked him to hand over documents, Snowden said, he had none to give. “I didn’t take anything to Russia,” he said. When Williams asked if Snowden could remotely access any of the documents he stole, he replied: “No, I don’t have any control.”
Snowden said he still considered himself to be working on behalf of the U.S. people and government, even if the Obama administration doesn’t see it that way. “How can it be said that I did not serve my government when all three branches have made reforms as a result of it?” he asked. “Being a patriot doesn’t mean prioritizing service to government above all.”
Williams pressed Snowden about any regrets he might have almost a year after fleeing the United States
“What don’t I miss?” he said. “I miss my family. I miss my home. I miss my colleagues. I miss the work.”
But he said none of that made him regret his actions, although he would like to come home, as unlikely as that seems to be. He said he did not want his case to discourage whistle-blowers.
He said he worked under aliases overseas for the CIA and the NSA, and gave lectures for the Defense Intelligence Agency, before he was charged this past June.
Snowden has acknowledged taking a vast trove of digital data on NSA surveillance systems and programs from an NSA listening post in Hawaii, where he worked until last summer. NSA officials said he may have removed 1.7 million classified documents, and called it the largest breach of classified material in U.S. history.
Snowden said he had not been the kind of spy depicted by Hollywood. “I am a technical specialist,” he said. “I am a technical expert. I don’t work with people. I don’t recruit agents. What I do is I put systems to work for the United States.”
According to government officials and former colleagues, Snowden first went to work as a security guard at an NSA-financed language-research center at the University of Maryland. His computer skills attracted attention, and he subsequently worked overseas for the CIA in Geneva and for NSA contractors in Japan, Maryland and Hawaii.
CIA and NSA employees deployed overseas almost always work undercover, meaning they are given an official job title, usually as a diplomat, along with business cards and often a false name, to conceal their role as an intelligence officer.
Such employees undergo basic training in how to operate undercover, and Snowden would have had such training before being posted outside the United States.
Compiled from the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and The Associated Press