: In this handout photo provided by The Guardian, Edward Snowden speaks during an interview in Hong Kong. Snowden, a 29-year-old former technical assistant for the CIA, revealed details of top-secret surveillance conducted by the United States' National Security Agency regarding telecom data. (Photo by The Guardian via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - FBI Director James Comey says he's confused when he hears people referring to former national security contractor Edward Snowden as a "hero whistle-blower."
"I have trouble applying the 'whistle-blower' label to someone who just disagrees with the way our country is structured and operates," he told reporters Thursday.
The government program to conduct electronic surveillance through phone carriers and Internet service providers is an example of "the government operating in the way the framers intended," with all three branches of government playing a role, Comey said.
But revelations about that program - which came from documents Snowden took with him when he left a contractor for the National Security Agency - "is a small piece of the information that was stolen," Comey said. And that includes information about other operations that would not have whistle-blower protection, he said.
Snowden, charged with espionage after leaking secret documents to a number of national and international media outlets, has sought asylum in Russia. A New Year's editorial in The New York Times urged the Obama administration to offer a plea bargain to Snowden, igniting a debate over whether he deserves clemency.
Comey said Department of Justice policy is not to negotiate with fugitives except to arrange their surrender. And while he talked about the close working relationship the FBI has with Russian officials providing security for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Comey would not discuss any conversations with the Russians about Snowden's status.
But Comey said he is open to an "adult conversation" about the tools the government needs to fight and prevent terrorism. He said he was specifically concerned about a proposal from a presidential review panel on intelligence gathering to require judicial approval of national security letters.
National security letters, or NSLs, are secret FBI orders demanding information - often customer or subscriber data - about a specific target who may not have been formally accused of wrongdoing.
Comey said the letters are "one of the most highly regulated things the FBI does." And he worries that requiring judicial approval of those letters would make it harder to protect national security than it would be to investigate bank fraud. "I don't know why you would make it harder to to get an NSL than a grand jury subpoena."
But he also allowed that there was a legitimate issue with the secrecy of the letters, which recipients are permanently barred from disclosing.
"Look, I think there's a lot of important questions," said Comey, who once raced to the attorney general's hospital room in an effort to head off what he thought was an unconstitutional Bush administration program of warrantless wiretaps. "You all know my history. I'm a big fan of the rule of law," he said.