Edward Snowden, the former government contractor who exposed secret intelligence programs, said he won't return to the U.S. because of gaps in federal whistle-blower laws that he said would leave him unprotected.
Snowden, who fled to Hong Kong and then to Russia after leaking classified documents on the government's Internet and telephone data spy programs, said Congress needs to broaden the Whistleblower Protection Act so that national security contractors can more easily fight for changes from within the intelligence system.
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"Returning to the U.S., I think, is the best resolution for the government, the public, and myself, but it's unfortunately not possible in the face of current whistle-blower protection laws," Snowden wrote Thursday in an Internet question-and-answer session.
While the authenticity of Snowden's identity couldn't be independently verified, two advocates who have advised Snowden -- Jesselyn Radack of the Government Accountability Project and Ben Wizner of the American Civil Liberties Union -- said by e-mail they could confirm Snowden's participation.
The session was conducted by the Courage Foundation, which describes itself as a trust formed to help defend journalistic sources such as Snowden, who gave classified National Security Agency documents to media organizations including the U.K.-based Guardian newspaper and The Washington Post.
It marked at least the second time Snowden has used an Internet chat to communicate with the public about his efforts to change U.S. surveillance laws. A similar session was conducted in June on the Guardian's website.
Some members of Congress, including House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, have called Snowden a traitor for disclosing intelligence programs meant to prevent terrorism.
Snowden on Thursday defended his actions as an act of civil disobedience and said he's aware of threats that have been made against his life.
"I'm not going to be intimidated," he said. "Doing the right thing means having no regrets."
Snowden spoke the same day that a U.S. privacy-policy board issued a 238-page report urging the abolition of the bulk collection of Americans' phone records. The five-member Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, created by lawmakers under post-Sept. 11 anti-terrorism laws, said the program has provided only "minimal" help in thwarting terrorist attacks.
"I don't see how Congress could ignore it, as it makes clear there is no reason at all to maintain the 215 program," Snowden said, referring to the phone-records collection.
"There is simply no justification for continuing an unconstitutional policy with a zero percent success rate," he said. "In light of another independent confirmation of this fact, I think Americans should look to the White House and Congress to close the book entirely" on the bulk collection program.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and head of the Senate intelligence committee, rejected Snowden's explanation for his behavior during an interview Jan. 19 on NBC's "Meet the Press" program.
"This isn't somebody who comes upon something and says, 'This isn't the right thing for the government to do; I want to go out and talk to people about it.' He came there with the intent to take as much material down as he possibly could," Feinstein said, referring to Snowden's former access to the NSA.
Speaking on the same program, Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House intelligence committee, called Snowden "a thief who we believe had some help," possibly from Russia.
Rogers, a Michigan Republican, said the vast majority of the material Snowden took related to military operations and "had nothing to do with privacy."
"Our Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines have been incredibly harmed by the data that he has taken with him and we believe now is in the hands of nation-states," he said.
Snowden, in an interview with the New Yorker magazine published earlier this week, said he worked alone in releasing classified documents and denied assertions made by U.S. lawmakers that he was an agent for a foreign government.
"The American people are smarter than politicians think they are," Snowden said in the interview, emphasizing he "clearly and unambiguously acted alone, with no assistance from anyone, much less a government."
During Thursday's web chat, he said that gaps in whistle-blower laws that exempt certain contractors mean he could have been charged with a felony for reporting what he considered to be wrongdoing. Snowden worked at the NSA while employed by government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp.
"My case clearly demonstrates the need for comprehensive Whistleblower Protection Act reform," he said. "If we had a real process in place, and reports of wrongdoing could be taken to real, independent arbiters rather than captured officials, I might not have had to sacrifice so much to do what at this point even the president seems to agree needed to be done."
He said the lack of adequate legal protections is "especially frustrating, because it means there's no chance to have a fair trial, and no way I can come home and make my case to a jury."