Edward Snowden no longer has a copy of the secret NSA files he leaked to a handful of journalists, according to a new interview with the whistleblower published in the New York Times on Thursday. Snowden, still living in Moscow, gave the Times's James Risen an outline of how he decided to become a whistleblower in the first place, and what's happened to those documents since then. The former NSA contractor faces three felony charges, including two under the Espionage Act, for his disclosures.
"What would be the unique value of personally carrying another copy of the materials onward?” Snowden said of his decision to distribute all of his documents to journalists, without retaining copies of the documents himself. That hand-off, which apparently happened in Hong Kong, would mean that Russian officials can't access the secret documents through Snowden. "There’s a zero percent chance the Russians or Chinese have received any documents,” he added, noting that he's familiar enough with Chinese intelligence from his work at the NSA to know how to counter their attacks. Snowden believes the NSA knows the documents were secure from the Chinese, too: his final target while working for the NSA was China. He had "access to every target, every active operation” against the Chinese through his work there, he argued.
Risen is an interesting choice to interview Snowden, in part because the journalist is currently mired in his own legal proceedings pertaining to a federal whistleblower. Risen has refused to testify against CIA whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling, who is charged with leaking information on a secret CIA program later reported on by Risen. That case could go all the way to the Supreme Court after a federal appeals court refused to reconsider its opinion against him.
Snowden told Risen that he finally decided to disclose classified NSA materials to the public after stumbling upon a classified 2009 Inspector General's report on the agency's warrantless wiretapping program. According to his account, the document surfaced during a search designed to identify improperly placed files in the agency's database:
“It was too highly classified to be where it was,” he said of the report. He opened the document to make certain that it did not belong there, and after seeing what it revealed, “curiosity prevailed,” he said. After reading about the program, which skirted the existing surveillance laws, he concluded that it had been illegal, he said. “If the highest officials in government can break the law without fearing punishment or even any repercussions at all,” he said, “secret powers become tremendously dangerous.”
Snowden didn't give the Times a thorough timeline of when he read the document. Other reports have indicated that the whistleblower began accessing subsequently leaked documents as early as April 2012.
The whistleblower also disputed a recent report from the Times on a negative entry in his CIA personnel file from 2009. Snowden interpreted the incident, during which he was reprimanded for trying to access files without authorization, as an early warning against trying to work internally for reform in the U.S. intelligence community. Snowden says that the reported black mark in his file was the result of a petty dispute with a senior manager, rather than a malicious act on his part. That encounter, Snowden says, is evidence that he had to go outside of the agency with what he knew in order to bring about any concrete changes there: “you have to report wrongdoing to those most responsible for it,” he told Risen. Incidentally, the lack of outside oversight on the NSA is a major theme of the reports from Snowden's leaks.