Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), one of key figures of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, said National Security Agency (NSA) leaker Edward Snowden was “appealing to a higher law,” and likened him to other proponents of nonviolent protest.


In an interview published Wednesday in The Guardian, Lewis was asked if he thought Snowden had engaged in an act of civil disobedience. 

“In keeping with the philosophy and the discipline of non-violence, in keeping with the teaching of Henry David Thoreau and people like Gandhi and others, if you believe something that is not right, something is unjust, and you are willing to defy customs, traditions, bad laws, then you have a conscience,” he replied. “You have a right to defy those laws and be willing to pay the price.”

“That is what we did," Lewis continued. "I got arrested 40 times during the sixties. Since I've been in Congress I've been arrested four times. Sometimes you have to act by the dictates of your conscience. You have to do it.”

Snowden faces charges of espionage in the U.S., but was granted temporary asylum in Russia last week.

Speaking on "The Tonight Show" on Tuesday, President Obama declined to wade into the debate over what to make of Snowden. Critics and supporters of the NSA programs have argued over whether he’s a hero or a traitor for shedding light on the secret government programs.

The White House announced Wednesday that the president would no longer meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin next month, and said the country’s decision to harbor Snowden played a role in that decision.

Lewis’s comments echo those of another staunch opponent to the NSA surveillance programs: Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulTim Scott sparks buzz in crowded field of White House hopefuls Sherrod Brown calls Rand Paul 'kind of a lunatic' for not wearing mask Overnight Health Care: WHO-backed Covax gets a boost from Moderna MORE (R-Ky.), who in June likened Snowden to Martin Luther King Jr.

“On deciding when you decide to become a civil disobedient — we’ve had famous ones in our career, but some of them only had to serve, like [Henry David] Thoreau only had to serve one day in jail, Martin Luther King served 30 days in jail,” Paul said.

Lewis on Wednesday also mentioned the name of the famed civil rights leader.

"Some people say criminality or treason or whatever,” Lewis said. “He could say he was acting because he was appealing to a higher law. Many of us have some real, real, problems with how the government has been spying on people."

"We had that problem during the height of the civil rights movement,” he continued. “People spied on, and got information on Martin Luther King Junior, and tried to use it against him, on the movement, tried to plant people within different organizations — that probably led to the destruction of some of those groups."