By Kate Tummarello - 01/23/14 04:32 PM EST
National Security Agency (NSA) leaker Edward Snowden on Thursday said he would be willing to return to the United States if he were able to mount a legal defense as a whistleblower.
"Returning to the US, I think, is the best resolution for the government, the public, and myself, but it’s unfortunately not possible in the face of current whistleblower protection laws, which through a failure in law did not cover national security contractors like myself," Snowden wrote during an online chat.
But Snowden said that, under the law he’s charged with breaking, he couldn’t make the case in court that he was acting in the public interest by revealing the NSA’s surveillance programs.
“This is especially frustrating, because it means there’s no chance to have a fair trial and no way I can come home and make my case to a jury,” he wrote.
The U.S. government has sought Snowden’s return since last summer, when he fled to Russia and was granted temporary asylum after leaking a trove of documents that revealed the NSA’s clandestine surveillance activities.
The administration has vowed that Snowden will receive a fair trial should he come back to the U.S., but The New York Times’ editorial board and some civil liberties advocates say the Obama administration should grant him clemency.
Holder on Thursday ruled out clemency as “going too far.” He called Snowden a “defendant,” saying that was “the most apt title.”
Snowden, who is facing felony charges for leaking classified information, said his actions were vindicated by a Thursday report from the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) that found the NSA’s bulk collection of phone data is illegal and ineffective.
“When even the federal government says the NSA violated the constitution at least 120 million times under a single program but failed to discover even a single ‘plot,’ it’s time to end” the program, Snowden said.
“There is simply no justification for continuing an unconstitutional policy with a zero percent success rate.”
He said he wouldn’t have had to release the NSA documents to the press had there been a whistleblower process in place for federal contractors.
“If we had had a real process in place, and reports of wrongdoing could be taken to real, independent arbiters rather than captured officials, I might not have had to sacrifice so much to do what at this point even the president seems to agree needed to be done,” Snowden said.
That claim is likely to be challenged, since Snowden has admitted he deliberately sought a position at contractor Booz Allen Hamilton with the intent of obtaining and releasing documents about NSA surveillance.
"My position with Booz Allen Hamilton granted me access to lists of machines all over the world the NSA hacked," Snowden told the South China Morning Post in June. "That is why I accepted that position about three months ago."
As he has done repeatedly in interviews, Snowden on Thursday made the case that the U.S. should end the “bulk surveillance” program that collects "metadata" about virtually all American phone calls.
“I think a person should be able to dial a number, make a purchase, send an SMS, write an email, or visit a website without having to think about what it’s going to look like on their permanent record,” he wrote.
He said intelligence agencies have the ability to sweep up information about innocent people in bulk cheaply and easily, even if it’s not necessary to protect national security.
“When we’re sophisticated enough to be able to break into any device in the world we want … there’s no excuse to wasting our time collecting the call records of grandmothers in Missouri.”
This kind of bulk surveillance is “not good for our country, it’s not good for the world, and I wasn’t going to stand by and watch it happen, no matter how much it cost me,” he said.
Supporters of Snowden say he blew the lid on government snooping and should not be punished for revealing information that people had a right to know.
And at least one high-ranking NSA official has said clemency should be an option if it's what's needed to prevent Snowden from releasing the "crown jewels" of intelligence — classified files that reveal what the U.S. knows about allies and adversaries around the globe.
“My personal view is, yes, it’s worth having a conversation about,” Richard Ledgett, who heads an NSA task force handling unauthorized disclosures, told "60 Minutes."
Members of Congress have rejected the clemency calls, with some calling Snowden a “traitor” to the United States who deserves harsh punishment.
President Obama has declined to answer questions about clemency for Snowden, citing the active criminal case.
But last Friday, when proposing a series of reforms meant to quell the global outcry about NSA surveillance, Obama emphasized that the U.S. would not be able to conduct foreign policy if individuals can leak classified information with impunity.
“If any individual who objects to government policy can take it into their own hands to publicly disclose classified information, then we will not be able to keep our people safe, or conduct foreign policy,” Obama said.
Snowden said Obama could move past the NSA controversy by reforming the agency.
“We can correct the laws, restrain the overreach of agencies, and hold the senior officials responsible for abusive programs to account.”
He also insisted he doesn’t object to all government surveillance.
“Not all spying is bad,” Snowden said.
— Mario Trujillo contributed.
— This story was updated at 6:25 p.m.