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Was it only Merkel's mobile?

January 27, 2014

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden has told German public television what motivated him to go public, has asked whether NSA tapping stopped at Chancellor Merkel's phone, and has said his return to the US is unlikely.

Edward Snowden
Image: picture alliance/AP Photo

Journal - The News Program on DW

German public broadcaster ARD showed a half-hour interview with Edward Snowden on Sunday night, the ex-NSA contractor's first television interview since gaining temporary asylum in Russia last year.

The 30-year-old fugitive whistleblower said there was "no question" that the NSA conducted industrial espionage and also alluded to a recent BuzzFeed article quoting unnamed US security officials as saying they wanted Snowden dead.

Hubert Seipel, a journalist for ARD's regional member NDR who conducted the interview in a Moscow hotel room, also asked Snowden what convinced him to go public with his information on global intelligence practices.

"I would say sort of the breaking point was seeing how Director of National Intelligence James Clapper directly lied to Congress when under oath," Snowden said. "There's no saving an intelligence agency that believes it can lie to the public, and to legislators, who need to be able to trust it and regulate its actions."

'How reasonable' that tapping stopped with Merkel?

Snowden said that he no longer possessed the controversial data that first made the headlines last summer, saying he had entrusted all the material - and all decisions on what data was in the public interest and should be published - to selected journalists.

When asked about the tapping of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's phone, and whether previous governments might have been similarly monitored, Snowden said this was "a particularly difficult question for me," saying it pertained to as-yet unpublished information which he "very strongly" believed to be in the public interest.

Snowden instead formulated his answer as a series of rhetorical questions, repeatedly asking "how reasonable" it was to assume that the monitoring of Merkel would not extend to other European leaders, or to Merkel's advisors or other prominent German politicians like "heads of ministries, or even local governments."

The relationship between the NSA and its German equivalent the BND was described by Snowden as "intimate." He alluded, among other things, to the BND's ability to access the NSA's "X Key Score" database, which Snowden described as a "one-stop-shop for access to the NSA's information."

News of Merkel's phone being tapped, coupled with Germany's recent memories of secret police agencies like Adolf Hitler's Gestapo or the former East German Stasi, have contributed towards Germany being one of the more vocal international critics of present-day intelligence practices.

'Who did I betray?'

Snowden also claimed to have acted individually as he helped uncover the NSA practices, saying he had not made any deals with governments like Russia to exchange classified information for temporary asylum, a common accusation in the US.

"If I am a traitor, who did I betray? I gave all of my information to the American public, to American journalists," Snowden said.

Asked where he had applied for asylum in Europe, Snowden said he no longer remembered the entire list, but numbered Germany, France and Britain among the European countries to turn him down.

Hubert Seipel's last questions were about the possibility of Snowden returning to the United States, either as part of an amnesty arrangement or to face trial. Snowden said he was unwilling to return if he was to be tried under the 1918 Espionage Act, because he would not get the chance "to convince a jury that what I did was in their benefit."

"So it's, I would say, illustrative," Snowden said, after a lengthy pause before picking his adjective, "that the president should say, 'come and face the music,' when he knows that 'the music' is a show trial."

US President Barack Obama outlined some planned reforms to NSA practices earlier this month.

msh/jm (AFP, dpa, Reuters)

Editorial note: Some of Snowden's quotes in this article are based on NDR's German-language translations of his original comments. We have used his exact English words wherever they were clearly audible in the broadcast.