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More From Edward Snowden


If Edward Snowden returns to the United States, he faces three felony charges for leaking thousands of classified documents about the National Security Agency's surveillance programs. He's been living in Russia since 2013. Elsewhere in this program, he explains how he ended up there and maintains he's not giving information to the Russian government.

Snowden has written about his life and his motivations in a new book, "Permanent Record." When we spoke the other day, I asked him about a story in the book. He was an analyst at an NSA facility in Hawaii when he saw a video of a man in Indonesia being investigated for a possible terrorist connection. The man had a young child on his lap.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: What we're describing is a moment where I've moved into sort of the terminal phase of this investigation where I believe I understand what the government is doing now. I believe that mass surveillance is real, but I just need to confirm it because you have to understand, no one becomes a whistleblower because they want to. No one becomes a whistleblower because it gets you a happy ending. I am exiled. I can no longer return home to my country. The government refuses me even access to a fair trial, which, by the way, has been my only condition to return home. And Eric Holder, then attorney general of the United States, responded with a letter in writing saying that they couldn't do that. They would not guarantee a fair trial, but what they would guarantee...

SIMON: I don't think he put it that way. He said he couldn't guarantee a trial that would meet your particular standards of the defense you were...

SNOWDEN: No, no, it's not trials - it's not trial that meets particular standards. It is access to what is called a public interest defense. You cannot have a fair trial regarding the disclosure of information unless the jury, of course, can evaluate whether or not it was right or wrong to reveal this information.

SIMON: I don't want to lose sight of this story about what you saw in Hawaii. It seemed to be important in - well, in your life.

SNOWDEN: Yes, let me get back to this. So this was, as I say, in the terminal part of the process. And I have moved. Now I can personally use the tools of mass surveillance. And I realize I see something that's quite unusual. Normally we have documents, yes. Normally we have records, yes. Normally we have transcripts. We even have fragments of calls that have been captured. But I see a video file. It's a gentleman who I don't even believe there was suspected to be a strong nexus to terrorism. I believe he was actually a kind of engineer that was going to a university that they were monitoring for foreign intelligence. But in his lap is a very young child. This child is playing on the keyboard, and the father's just sort of enjoying the moment.

This for me was important because so much of what we talk about with surveillance and privacy when we talk about government abuses, when we talk about the changing of the boundaries of our rights in the wake of September 11, we had changed.

SIMON: If this man had figured into a terrorist act, assisted it somehow, even unwittingly - and, you know, let's note we know terrorists have children, too. Had that gotten out, wouldn't the American public have a right to say, but you had him? Why didn't you stop that plot?

SNOWDEN: If he had been a terrorist and if he had been doing these things, of course, we would have been able to prove it. Remember; I am reading his file. This man is not a terrorist. This is the whole thing. What I was reading were records that were produced in preliminary investigations of what is largely a dragnet. And we look through all of this stuff, and we go maybe this person is interesting; maybe the analyst is simply bored - they don't have anything else going on that day.

One of the most common abuses at the NSA of these kind of authorities is what analysts refer to as LOVEINT. LOVEINT is where these analysts use the government's tools, and they look after their spouses; they look after their loved ones. And they go what is this person saying when I'm not on the phone. And it's important understand that this is not a conspiracy. The government itself has said this is, in fact, happening. And these officials who have done this in many cases have been sent back to training, or they've been counseled. Or in some cases, they've been fired when what they're committing is a series of extraordinary felonies that if you or I did it, we would be facing five or 10 years per count.

But the government will not prosecute its own employees for this abuse of American and people around the world's - their rights for precisely this reason - they can't take someone into court and say you abused a system of global mass surveillance without avowing that a system of global mass surveillance exists.

SIMON: Would you accept a plea deal from American officials if it came to that?

SNOWDEN: I think the most important thing that we correct is that whistleblowers have access to a fair trial. Look; if the government offered me 10 days in jail and a slap on the wrist and a go-back, great, fine. If they offered me 20 years, you know, 50 years, five years, 10 years, you know, whatever the number, that's a conversation for lawyers.

SIMON: Well, let me ask. Mr. Snowden, I mean, there is a distinguished list of people - Martin Luther King, the Berrigan brothers, people who practice civil disobedience - who said there is something illegal that I have to do because it's to help my country, and I feel propelled by my conscience to do that. And they spent time in prison. You haven't done that.

SNOWDEN: You have to understand why these men made these decisions, what their arguments were about. Yes, these were moments of principle, but they were moments of principle that were set to catalyze a mass movement. Whistleblowing cannot be a mass movement.

If you wanted to protest the United States government's secret surveillance programs or something new, something we don't even know about yet, how would you do it? You can't replicate my example no matter if I'm standing in prison for, you know, as long as Mandela or even longer. What we have to do is correct the system. And so if I return home to the United States - again, not for a fair trial but strictly for sentencing that removes my ability to speak and buries me for the rest of my life - what message am I sending to the next person sitting at the NSA or the CIA who sees something wrong, who sees the government violating the law, the Constitution or simply our rights? And they think what is going to happen to me if I do this? They might make a very different choice if we give them the wrong set of examples.

SIMON: Edward Snowden, his book, "Permanent Record," speaking to us from Moscow. Thanks so much for being with us.

SNOWDEN: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOLIFE'S "SIAMESE SEA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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