Federal officials wanted to put him behind bars for up to 30 years on charges that he violated a World War I-era law known as the Espionage Act by leaking secret documents to journalists.
But as Edward Snowden — speaking from Moscow — told a crowd at Tulane University on Monday night, he views himself as a patriotic citizen who blew the whistle about illegal spying by the federal government.
“The support of a majority does not transform a wrong into a right,” Snowden said of the conclusion he came to as a secret government contractor. “I had not just a right to tell the press what was happening, but a duty.”
The documents that Snowden pilfered became sensational news when published by Britain's Guardian newspaper and The Washington Post in 2013, and they led to a rollback of government surveillance.
Retaliation by the Obama administration caused Snowden to seek asylum in Russia. He spoke to a sold-out McAlister Auditorium for 75 minutes from a large video screen via Google Hangouts.
The Tulane crowd clearly sided with Snowden from the get-go.
He bowed his head sheepishly in Moscow, where it was 4:30 a.m., as students loudly cheered his sudden appearance on the screen.
Snowden, 34, has been making similar virtual appearances on college campuses in the United States, Canada and England over the past two years.
“Questioning authority is a common theme that you’ll see on a lot of liberal arts campuses,” Nurah Lambert, a sophomore from Chicago, said in explaining why the group she chairs, the Tulane University Campus Programming Direction Committee, chose to pay Snowden an undisclosed fee to appear.
Sounding practiced, Snowden began his talk by recapping his story.
He said his parents worked for the federal government and that he sought to do his part after the 9/11 terrorist attacks by enlisting in the Army. An accident that broke his legs led to his discharge.
“I was a true believer,” he said.
But with world-class computer skills, even though he was a high school dropout, Snowden quickly found work handling low-level government secrets. Over time, he rose in the ranks, going to work for the CIA, then the National Security Agency and finally private companies working for the NSA. He earned well over $100,000 per year.
But along the way, he recounted, he became alarmed at the amount of information the NSA was collecting in the name of protecting the country from another major terrorist attack.
“In secret, the government had begun violating the rights of every man, woman and child in the U.S.,” Snowden said. “The government had constructed the greatest system of global mass surveillance — with one goal, to collect it all.”
He said he became so disillusioned that he decided to make the dramatic move of leaking some of the most secret documents held by the NSA, a federal government entity that was collecting huge amounts of data through phone calls and the internet in a program that began during the administration of President George W. Bush.
Obama administration officials responded that Snowden had damaged national security interests and endangered the lives of people fighting terrorists.
The revelations exposed a surveillance program that went far beyond what administration officials had disclosed.
Snowden told the Tulane crowd that government officials repeatedly lied, both before and in the immediate aftermath of his disclosures, to keep the information hidden from the public.
“Sometimes the moral thing to do is to break the law,” he said in a comment that prompted widespread applause.
In the wake of the revelations, companies such as Google, Microsoft and Facebook lodged vociferous complaints with federal officials, saying they had been misled about how the program functioned.
Obama, according to Snowden, railed against him but ended up supporting changes approved by Congress that limited the reach of federal spying on U.S. citizens.
Asking questions of Snowden was Ron Suskind, a journalist and author who repeatedly spoke approvingly of his efforts.
Suskind noted that his own 2004 book, "The Price of Loyalty," relied on some 19,000 internal government documents to show that Bush administration officials wanted to overthrow Saddam Hussein and invade Iraq from the time they took office, before 9/11.
Suskind called Snowden “an extraordinary actor on the global stage.”
Suskind gave Snowden the opportunity to note that he is living in Russia not by choice but because Secretary of State John Kerry revoked his passport while Snowden was en route to seek a safe haven in Latin America. Snowden’s plane landed in Russia, and he couldn’t go anywhere else.
“I can’t leave. I’ve tried,” he said, noting the irony that the anti-government whistleblower now lives in a country where the government routinely represses its critics.
“The safe play is to recognize, as bad as it sounds, Russia’s problems are not my problems,” Snowden said. “But despite that, I have been critical of the Russian government.”
“That’s an audacious thing to do,” Suskind said.
Replied Snowden, referring to President Vladimir Putin, “If he’s listening to me, I hope he’s learned a few things about constitutional rights.”
Snowden said he wants to return to the United States and understands he would face criminal charges, but can't until the Espionage Act is changed to allow him to present his defense openly.