Snowden: ‘To do the right thing you have to break the law’

NSA leaker Edward Snowden has no regrets about spilling some of America’s most closely kept secrets and said he sees himself as a patriot trying to do right.

“I think the most important idea is to remember that there are times throughout American history where what is right is not the same as what is legal,” he told NBC News in his first U.S. TV interview since exposing programs at the National Security Agency a year ago.

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“Sometimes to do the right thing you have to break the law.”

Critics in Congress and federal intelligence agencies have alleged that Snowden, who has sought refuge in Russia since revealing the top-secret U.S. surveillance efforts, is playing into the Kremlin's hands and may likely be working for the Russian intelligence agency.

But the former contractor said he's never met Russian President Vladimir Putin or worked with his host government. Instead, he destroyed his documents before entering Russia to ensure that U.S. secrets did not wind up in the wrong hands, he said. 

He also criticized the Russian government’s increasing crackdown on online speech and said that he would love to return home, if he could.

“If I could go anywhere in the world, that place would be home,” he said.

He is wanted on espionage charges in the United States, and would be jailed for decades if he were to return to his home country.

According to top intelligence agency officials, Snowden’s leaks have dealt a major blow to U.S. national security and made it easier for terrorists and countries like Russia and China to learn top American secrets.

Snowden told NBC that the government needed to prove those fears if it wants them to be taken seriously.

Instead of remorse, he seemed proud that he had worked with experienced journalists to ensure that Americans’ lives were not harmed by the leaks. Many of those reporters have since won a Pulitzer Prize for their work.

“I didn’t want to take information that would basically be taken and thrown out in the press that would cause harm to individuals, that would cause people to die, that would put lives at risk,” he said.

Before allowing reporters to work with him, “I demanded that they agree to consult with the government” so that no one would be hurt, he added.

Snowden said he was near the NSA’s Maryland headquarters on Sept. 11, 2001, and joined the military ahead of the war in Iraq.

“I take the threat of terrorism seriously. I think we all do,” he said.

However, “I think it's really disingenuous for the government to invoke and scandalize our memories ... to justify programs that have never been shown to keep us safe but cost us liberties and freedoms that we don’t need to give up and that our Constitution says we don’t need to give up.”

Snowden also said that he had filed formal complaints with the NSA before leaking his documents to the public, but those had either been ignored or shoved under the rug.

"Many of these individuals were shocked by these programs," he said.

"They had never seen them themselves. And the ones who had said 'Maybe you're right ... but if you say something about this they’re going to destroy you.'"