A senior U.S. Congressman and prominent civil rights leader has compared National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden to Mahatma Gandhi, saying civil disobedience was the common link between the two men.

Democratic Representative John Lewis (73) said this week in an interview with The Guardian newspaper that “In keeping with the philosophy and the discipline of non-violence, in keeping with the teaching of... people like Gandhi and others, if you believe something that is not right, something is unjust, and you are willing to defy customs, traditions, bad laws, then you have a conscience.”

Mr. Lewis, who President Barack Obama described as “the conscience of the U.S. Congress” in 2011, added, “You have a right to defy those laws and be willing to pay the price”. He said Mr. Snowden was continuing the tradition of civil disobedience by revealing details of the NSA’s covert, automated, mass surveillance programmes for Internet communications of millions of unsuspecting citizens.

Mr. Lewis, who is described as “one of the last surviving lieutenants of Martin Luther King”, argued that Mr. Snowden could claim that he was appealing to “a higher law” when he disclosed the classified documents on the NSA’s use of programmes such as Prism and XKeyscore, which allegedly tap into user data records of the biggest Internet companies in the world including Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Apple. Referencing his participation in civil disobedience acts, Mr. Lewis said, “That is what we did... I got arrested 40 times during the sixties. Since I’ve been in Congress I’ve been arrested four times. Sometimes you have to act by the dictates of your conscience. You have to do it.”

Mr. Lewis along with a large bloc of Democrats voted for a House of Representatives amendment last month that aimed to de-fund another of the NSA’s secret spying programmes. — the bulk collection of millions of phone records from telecom giant Verizon under authorisation of the shadowy Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court.

Although that vote was narrowly defeated the sheer scale of congressional opposition to the proposal was unprecedented and in its aftermath President Barack Obama held a meeting with leaders of Congress to discuss the FISA Court’s operations. Intelligence officials also declassified a FISA Court order authorising phone record taps and shared that publicly.

Mr. Lewis’ remarks this week came even as Mr. Snowden has accepted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s offer of a one-year political asylum, permitting him to finally exit Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. The asylum offer however appears to have exacerbated tensions in Moscow’s ties with Washington as the White House this week said it would be postponing a planned summit meeting between the two nations’ presidents.

In the U.S. opinions about Mr. Snowden’s actions continue to be polarised, with widespread condemnation of his exposés on Capitol Hill. Yet a growing minority of Americans appear to view Mr. Snowden favourably, and in a Quinnipiac national poll this month 55 per cent of the voters said Mr. Snowden was a whistleblower and not a traitor.

More In: World | International | News