WASHINGTON — Edward Snowden, who has admitted disclosing secret U.S. surveillance operations at home and abroad, says he was "trained as a spy" and given false names and undercover assignments abroad that made him more than a low-level computer analyst.
In an interview with NBC News, Snowden said the Obama administration forced him to seek temporary asylum in Russia last summer after he fled from Hong Kong to avoid arrest and extradition to America and discovered that the State Department had revoked his passport.
"The reality is I never intended to end up in Russia," he said. "I had a flight booked to Cuba onwards to Latin America and I was stopped because the United States government decided to revoke my passport and trap me" in Moscow.
"So when people ask why are you in Russia, I say, 'Please ask the State Department.'"
Secretary of State John F. Kerry responded on NBC's "Today" show, saying Snowden "should man up" and return home to face trial. If Snowden agreed, Kerry said, "we'll have him on a flight today."
"A patriot would not run away and look for refuge in Russia or Cuba or some other country. A patriot would stand up in the United States and make his case to the American people," Kerry added.
In an interview on MSNBC, Kerry called Snowden a "coward" and a "traitor." He said Snowden's leaks to media around the world "make it harder for the United States to break up plots, harder to protect our nation" from terrorists.
In the interview, Snowden said he worked under aliases overseas for both the CIA and the National Security Agency, and gave lectures for the Defense Intelligence Agency, before he was charged with espionage last June.
Those agencies routinely issue aliases for Americans working overseas, and his work for them was previously known.
"I was trained as a spy in sort of the traditional sense of the word in that I lived and worked undercover overseas, pretending to work in a job that I'm not — and even being assigned a name that was not mine," he said.
He said he had "developed sources and methods for keeping our information and people secure in the most hostile and dangerous environments around the world."
Snowden has acknowledged taking a vast trove of digital data on NSA surveillance systems and programs from an NSA listening post in Hawaii, where he worked until last summer.
NSA officials said he may have removed 1.7 million classified documents, and called it the largest breach of classified material in U.S. history. The disclosures have sparked outrage in some countries, and forced the NSA to revise some of its intelligence-gathering programs.