What entitled Snowden, now 30, to take on that responsibility?
"That whole question — who elected you? — inverts the model," he said. "They elected me. The overseers."
He named the chairmen of the Senate and House intelligence committees.
"Dianne Feinstein elected me when she asked softball questions" in committee hearings, he said. "Mike Rogers elected me when he kept these programs hidden. . . . The FISA court elected me when they decided to legislate from the bench on things that were far beyond the mandate of what that court was ever intended to do. The system failed comprehensively, and each level of oversight, each level of responsibility that should have addressed this, abdicated their responsibility."
"It wasn't that they put it on me as an individual — that I'm uniquely qualified, an angel descending from the heavens — as that they put it on someone, somewhere," he said. "You have the capability, and you realize every other [person] sitting around the table has the same capability but they don't do it. So somebody has to be the first."
Snowden grants that NSA employees by and large believe in their mission and trust the agency to handle the secrets it takes from ordinary people — deliberately, in the case of bulk records collection, and "incidentally," when the content of American phone calls and emails are swept into NSA systems along with foreign targets.
But Snowden also said he believed acceptance of the agency's operations was not universal. He began to test that proposition more than a year ago, he said, in periodic conversations with co-workers and superiors that foreshadowed his emerging plan.
Beginning in October 2012, he said, he brought his misgivings to two superiors in the NSA's Technology Directorate and two more in the NSA Threat Operations Center's regional base in Hawaii. For each of them, and 15 other co-workers, Snowden said he opened a data query tool called BOUNDLESSINFORMANT, which used color-coded "heat maps" to depict the volume of data ingested by NSA taps.