Edward Snowden, the man who claims to be behind a stunning slew of top secret information leaks from the National Security Agency, mocked the idea that he was a spy for the Chinese government, saying Monday that if he had been, he'd be in Beijing "living in a palace petting a phoenix by now."
The 29-year-old former NSA contractor made the quip during an online question and answer session hosted by The Guardian and said the idea he could have sold or traded secrets to the Chinese in exchange for asylum was a "predictable smear" meant to distract from "the issue of U.S. government misconduct."
"I have had no contact with the Chinese government," Snowden said later. "I only work with journalists."
Late last week ABC News reported that U.S. officials were concerned Snowden could attempt to defect to China with a trove of America's most sensitive secrets as The Guardian had said he fled to Hong Kong from his Hawaii home late last month with four laptops, and a head, full of inside information on U.S. programs.
Snowden's online chat followed the latest in a string of alleged disclosures to media outlets, this time revealing through "top secret" slides that the United Kingdom's equivalent of the NSA had successfully spied on delegates during the 2009 G-20 summit by setting up rigged internet cafes and hacking into their blackberries. The U.K. agency, the GCHQ, told ABC News Monday it does not comment on intelligence matters.
Last week The Guardian and The Washington Post reported that information from Snowden was the basis for their headline-grabbing reports on widespread NSA telephone and internet surveillance programs, which Snowden called "horrifying."
Top U.S. officials acknowledged the programs after the reports and in an interview broadcast Monday night, President Obama said they were "transparent."
"What I've asked the intelligence community to do is see how much of this we can declassify without further compromising the program, No. 1," Obama told Charlie Rose on PBS. "And they are in that process of doing so now so that everything that I'm describing to you today, people, the public, newspapers, etc., can look at – because, frankly, if people are making judgments just based on these slides that have been leaked, they're not getting the complete story."
At a Congressional hearing today, NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander said his agency's programs have helped thwart more than 50 terrorist attacks in 20 countries since Sept. 11. Top U.S. officials provided a handful of examples – chief among them being the Najibullah Zazi case in 2009 – but said a vast majority of those cases would remain classified. Of the more than 50, Alexander said that in a majority of cases the contested NSA programs were "critical."
Obama declined to comment when asked if Snowden should be prosecuted for any alleged crimes, but in his online chat, Snowden said that wouldn't matter anyway.
"All I can say right now is the U.S. government is not going to be able to cover this up by jailing or murdering me," Snowden said. "Truth is coming, and it cannot be stopped."
One person that wants it to stop, however, is Snowden's father, Lonnie.
The elder Snowden defended his son's integrity in an interview with Fox News Monday, but pleaded with his son to not leak any more information, especially anything that could be considered treasonous.
Despite surfacing online for the more than 90-minute question and answer session Monday, Snowden remains in hiding in Hong Kong.
ABC News' Greg Krieg, Abby D. Phillip and James Gordon Meek contributed to this report.
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- National Security Agency