Washington - Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who exposed the United States government's top-secret surveillance programmes, fought back against his critics on Monday and denied allegations that he was a spy for China.
Snowden told an online forum run by Britain's Guardian newspaper that he revealed the programmes in part out of disappointment with President Barack Obama, who he said had expanded “abusive” government programmes while in office.
A defiant Snowden, believed to be in hiding in Hong Kong, dismissed suggestions such as comments on Sunday from former vice-president Dick Cheney that he was a traitor who could be sharing secret information with China.
He said being called a traitor by Cheney, instrumental in the expansion of surveillance programmes, was “the highest honour” you can give an American.
“I have had no contact with the Chinese government,” said Snowden, who has vowed to stay in the Chinese-run former British colony and fight any effort to extradite him to the United States.
“This is a predictable smear that I anticipated before going public... Ask yourself: if I were a Chinese spy, why wouldn't I have flown directly into Beijing? I could be living in a palace petting a phoenix by now.”
US officials familiar with the investigations into Snowden said there was no evidence so far to suggest he had any contacts with China. In China's first substantive comments on Monday, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman rejected the suggestion that Snowden was a Chinese spy and said Washington should explain its surveillance programmes to the world.
Snowden, the former employee of contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, who worked in an NSA facility in Hawaii before providing details to the Guardian and Washington Post, said the government's “litany of lies” about the programmes helped convince him to act.
He said he was particularly disappointed in what he saw as Obama's failure to live up to the promises of his 2008 campaign.
As president, Snowden said, Obama has “closed the door on investigating systemic violations of law, deepened and expanded several abusive programmes, and refused to spend the political capital to end the kind of human rights violations like we see in Guantanamo, where men still sit without charge”.
Obama and administration officials have defended the surveillance programmes as effective tools in their effort to protect Americans from terrorism and said they were instrumental in helping to disrupt dozens of potential attacks.
Obama reiterated on PBS's Charlie Rose show on Monday that there are trade-offs between privacy and national security but said that the government conducts its surveillance programs with oversight and restraint.
“What I can say unequivocally is that if you are a US person, the NSA cannot listen to your telephone calls, and the NSA cannot target your emails... and have not,” Obama said in the interview taped on Sunday.
He also said he has “stood up”, and will meet with, a privacy and civil liberties oversight board that includes “some fierce civil libertarians”.
The Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation into Snowden's actions, and US officials promised last week to track him down and hold him accountable for the leaks.
Snowden said the government had “destroyed any possibility of a fair trial at home, openly declaring me guilty of treason and that the disclosure of secret, criminal and even unconstitutional acts is an unforgivable crime”.
“That's not justice,” he said.
The revelations of widespread monitoring of the phone and Internet data kept by big companies ignited a sharp debate about the balance between privacy rights and national security.
Since Snowden went public in a video released by the Guardian on June 9, many US lawmakers have condemned his actions and intelligence officials have said the leaks will compromise national security.
Some lawmakers have been more restrained. Republican Senator Rand Paul, a favourite of the anti-government Tea Party movement, has encouraged Americans to be part of a class-action lawsuit against the US government for the surveillance programmes.
General Keith Alexander, director of the NSA, will testify at a House of Representatives Intelligence Committee hearing on Tuesday where details could be made public of some two dozen attacks that officials say the surveillance programmes helped thwart.
Snowden answered 18 questions on the Guardian's website during the session, which lasted more than 90 minutes and drew more than 2 000 comments and questions.
He said there was no single event that led him to leak details about the surveillance, but rather “it was seeing a continuing litany of lies from senior officials to Congress - and therefore the American people - and the realisation that Congress... wholly supported the lies”.
Snowden referred to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper's testimony to Congress in March that such a programme did not exist, saying that seeing him “baldly lying to the public without repercussion is the evidence of a subverted democracy... the consent of the governed is not consent if it is not informed”.
Snowden said he was encouraged by the public debate over privacy rights in the aftermath of the disclosures.
But now, he said, the media was more concerned with “what I said when I was 17 or what my girlfriend looks like rather than, say, the largest program of suspicionless surveillance in human history”.
Snowden's father, Lonnie, said in an interview on Fox News that he hoped his son would return to the United States to fight any potential criminal charges.
“I would like to see Ed come home and face this. I shared that with the government when I spoke with them. I love my son,” he told Fox, adding “I hope, I pray” that he does not commit any acts that could be considered treason.
“I sense that you're under much stress (from) what I've read recently, and (ask) that you not succumb to that stress... and make a bad decision,” Lonnie Snowden said in an interview published on the channel's website.
He denied press reports that his son was a high school dropout, saying that after a lengthy illness at the start of his sophomore year, his son enrolled in community college and eventually got a high school equivalency degree. - Reuters