US whistle-blower Edward Snowden says accusations from American politicians that he is a Chinese spy are a "predictable smear" designed to "distract from the issue of US government misconduct".
In only his second public comments since he admitted being behind a series of leaks exposing US cybersurveillance, Snowden told readers of a Guardian webchat: "Ask yourself: if I were a Chinese spy, why wouldn't I have flown directly into Beijing? I could be living in a palace petting a phoenix by now."
Snowden's comments last night came a day after former US vice-president Dick Cheney said China would "probably be willing to provide immunity for [Snowden] or sanctuary for him in exchange for what he presumably knows or doesn't know".
Snowden denied passing information to Beijing. "I have had no contact with the Chinese government," he wrote. "I only work with journalists."
For the first time, Snowden turned his criticism on tech giants including Google and Facebook, which have denied his claims that they gave the US intelligence agencies direct access to their servers.
"They are legally compelled to comply and maintain their silence in regard to specifics of the programme, but that does not comply them from ethical obligation," Snowden wrote. "If for example Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple refused to provide this co-operation … what do you think the government would do? Shut them down?"
Asked why he chose to fly to Hong Kong rather than direct to Iceland, where he says he wants to seek asylum, Snowden said leaving the US was an "incredible risk" because employees of the National Security Agency, where he worked as a contractor, must declare foreign travel 30 days in advance and are monitored.
"There was a distinct possibility I would be interdicted en route, so I had to travel with no advance booking to a country with the cultural and legal framework to allow me to work without being immediately detained," he wrote. "Hong Kong provided that. Iceland could be pushed harder, quicker, before the public could have a chance to make their feelings known, and I would not put that past the current US administration."
Hundreds of questions were posted for the online chat. Snowden answered 18, and did not discuss his plans or say whether he is still in Hong Kong. Asked what he would say to others who could leak information on the US intelligence apparatus and its effect on civil liberties, Snowden said: "This country is worth dying for."