Aug. 13, 2014 at 7:38 AM ET
Edward Snowden may have recently received a three-year extension of his stay in Russia, but the former National Security Agency contractor says in a new interview with WIRED magazine that he still clings to hope of returning home to the United States, even if it means living behind bars.
“I told the government I’d volunteer for prison, as long as it served the right purpose,” Snowden said in the article released Wednesday. “I care more about the country than what happens to me. But we can’t allow the law to become a political weapon or agree to scare people away from standing up for their rights, no matter how good the deal. I’m not going to be part of that.”
Described by WIRED as “the most wanted man in the world,” Snowden is being sought for leaking top-secret documents that unveiled widespread surveillance programs overseen by the federal government. He currently is hiding out in an undisclosed community in Russia, where he says he goes mostly unrecognized.
The magazine includes numerous photographs of Snowden, including a previously unseen one of him with his former boss Michael Hayden, a past director of both the NSA and CIA. Other photos show Snowden in silhouette in a hotel room, or on a couch looking fatigued. In another photo, Snowden wears a T-shirt with the word “SECURITY” on the back. The one expected to draw criticism, however, is the magazine cover showing Snowden, whom many Americans consider a traitor, wrapped in an American flag.
“He thought very carefully about that moment,” WIRED editor-in-chief Scott Dadich, who wrote about the photo shoot for the magazine, told TODAY's Willie Geist. “He said, ‘I love my country. I feel like a patriot. And this is an important thing for me.’ And it was at that moment that we knew that we had the cover.”
In the WIRED article, Snowden disputed government claims that he lifted 1.7 million documents, calling the figure inflated. He also said he left a trail of digital bread crumbs so that investigators would know which documents he copied and took and which ones he only “touched.”
His intent was to act as a whistleblower, not as a spy for a foreign government, he told the magazine. Government auditors, however, failed to catch on to any of the clues he left behind.
“I figured they would have a hard time,” he said. “I didn’t figure they would be completely incapable.”
In audio released by WIRED, Snowden describes technology as “the greatest equalizer in human history” and said his actions were driven by the desire to help educate Americans about their nation and their leaders.
“I gave this information back to the public, to public hands, and the reason I did that was not to gain a label but to give you back a choice about the country you want to live in,” he said.
Snowden also told WIRED about a top-secret NSA program in the works called “Monstermind,” which would automatically retaliate against cyber attacks from foreign countries without any human involvement.
WIRED writer Jim Bamford, who spent three days interviewing Snowden for the article, explained how such a program could go awry.
“So you can have North Korea maybe attacking the United States through a cyber attack, but masquerading it through Iran or masquerading it through Russia,” he said. “And if you just turn around and automatically fire back, you may be starting an accidental war.”
The NSA told TODAY in a statement its officials would gladly speak with Snowden — but back on American ground.
"If Mr. Snowden wants to discuss his activities, that conversation should be held with the U.S. Department of Justice. He needs to return to the United States to face the charges against him," the agency said.
Bamford told TODAY he's amazed by the extent of the documents Snowden had access to.
“I've probably interviewed more NSA whistleblowers than anybody else,” said Bamford, who is a former agency whistleblower himself. "I was astonished at the accesses that Ed Snowden had. I mean, he had access to material well beyond top secret. Way over most anybody's head at NSA.”