US whistleblower Edward Snowden has said he regrets nothing of his actions to expose surveillance programmes operated by the National Security Agency (NSA).
Mr Snowden told German journalists and a German politician yesterday that the US government was out to “destroy” him for exposing information he gathered from US intelligence agencies, not just as a computer contractor but also from active duty.
“As a consequence of having done the right thing: I regret nothing,” said Mr Snowden to the Süddeutsche Zeitung daily during a three-hour meeting in Moscow. “The US government would like to make an example of me: if you tell the truth, we will destroy you.”
He conceded the price of his decision to reveal huge amounts of NSA classified information was “the loss of real and regular contact with my family and friends”.
The whistleblower played down his role in the affair, one of the biggest leaks of classified information in US history, saying it was up to “independent journalists and experts to form their own judgment about what’s contained in the documents” he had leaked.
“I brought it about but, in the end, journalist, politicians, technical experts and normal citizens will decide how much we profit from this,” he said.
Mr Snowden told the newspaper that internal controls at the NSA did not function, leading him to go public in the hope of triggering an external inquiry into US intelligence activity.
German Green Party MP Hans-Christian Ströbele, who met Mr Snowden yesterday afternoon in Moscow, said today in Berlin that the 30 year-old's insider knowledge made him a crucial witness at a Bundestag inquiry into NSA surveillance.
The German politician has called on Chancellor Angela Merkel to offer Mr Snowden asylum to allow him testify in Berlin and gave her a letter from Mr Snowden expressing readiness to "co-operate ... in the responsible finding of fact".
Acting interior minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said today Germany would “find away to make a conversation possible, if Mr Snowden is prepared to talk to German side”.
He declined to say who would lead the talks on behalf of the German government.
“If the message is, Mr Snowden wants to give us information then we will gladly accept,” added Mr Friedrich. “All information and facts we gather are welcome.”
In the letter by Mr Snowden, distributed to journalists, Mr Snowden said he was heartened by public reaction to his revelations of “systemic violations of law” which had created a “moral duty to act”.
But the 30 year-old complained that the US government continued to “treat dissent as defection (and) criminalise political speech with felony charges”.
Mr Snowden describes himself in the one-page typed letter as "formerly employed through contracts or direct hire as a technical expert" for three intelligence bodies: the NSA, the foreign intelligence service (CIA) and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).
Mr Ströbele described him as someone who “didn’t just work with computers but had operational activity”.
“He made clear he knows a lot about internal structures and had noted institutional aberrations. He can interpret documents (with) letters, symbols and signs that mean nothing to me,” said Mr Ströbele to a packed press conference. “He can explain all of this in a way that only an NSA operative could do. He is a significant witness for Germany ... and would be prepared to share this knowledge.”
However Mr Snowden said his co-operation was dependent on the resolution of a difficult “humanitarian situation”. After he went on the run, the US lodged arrest warrants in dozens of countries around the world. In August was granted a one-year asylum in Russia in August but this would lapse automatically if he left the country for Germany or elsewhere.
“He could imagine coming to Germany if it’s assured that, afterwards, he could stay in Germany or similar country could stay and is safe,” said Mr Ströbele. An MP for Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighbourhood, the 74 year-old rose to fame in the 1970s for defending members of Germany’s left-wing RAF terrorist group.
He said he had been in contact with Mr Snowden for years but that previous attempts to meet had failed. This week’s meeting came about at short notice and the politician told neither the chancellery nor the German embassy in Moscow for fear of word leaking out.
Yesterday he met Mr Snowden at an undisclosed location in Moscow along with two German journalists. They were collected from their hotel in a minibus by security guards at 4pm local time then brought to the meeting, of which only a brief mobile phone video of a laughing Mr Snowden and a photograph of him with Mr Ströbele have emerged.
An offer from Mr Snowden to testify in Berlin presents a dilemma for the government of Angela Merkel. She has criticised NSA spying on German communications, including her own mobile phone, and has demanded a full explanation from Washington. Her top foreign adviser flew to Washington on Wednesday to meet high-ranking US officials, at which a no-spy agreement was said to have been discussed.
For Mr Snowden’s testimony to be heard in Berlin, it is likely he will have to be granted asylum to enter the country -- and her next administration would have to ignore an arrest warrant filed by the US.
For weeks, her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has been cautious about backing a full parliamentary inquiry into US surveillance in Germany. After the revelations that the NSA tapped Dr Merkel's mobile phone, however, the CDU indicated that they would not try to block any Bundestag investigation.
That move has now opened the door to Mr Snowden, a man whom Mr Ströbele described yesterday as the “principal witness” in any parliamentary investigation.
Before the letter was lodged with Dr Merkel’s office yesterday, a spokesman for Dr Merkel said it so “no reason” as yet to deal with a possible asylum application.
In July, Berlin rejected the idea of granting him asylum, saying an applicant could only seek asylum in Germany by presenting themselves at the border.
Mr Ströbele and his Green Party have been among the loudest advocates in Germany of asylum for Mr Snowden, even suggesting he should be offered a place in Germany’s witness protection programme.