WASHINGTON – A 29-year-old contractor who claims to have worked at the National Security Agency and the CIA allowed himself to be revealed Sunday as the source of disclosures about the U.S. government’s secret surveillance programs, risking prosecution by the U.S. government.
The leaks have reopened the post-Sept. 11 debate about privacy concerns versus heightened measures to protect against terrorist attacks, and led the NSA to ask the Justice Department to conduct a criminal investigation into the leaks.
The Guardian, the first paper to disclose the documents, said it was publishing the identity of Edward Snowden, a former technical assistant for the CIA and current employee of defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, at his own request.
“My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them,” Snowden told the newspaper.
Stories in the Guardian and the Washington Post published over the last week revealed two surveillance programs, and both published interviews with Snowden on Sunday.
One of them is a phone records monitoring program in which the NSA gathers hundreds of millions of U.S. phone records each day, creating a database through which it can learn whether terror suspects have been in contact with people in the U.S. The Obama administration says the NSA program does not listen to actual conversations.
Separately, an Internet scouring program, code-named PRISM, allows the NSA and FBI to tap directly into nine U.S. Internet companies to gather all Internet usage – audio, video, photographs, emails and searches. The effort is designed to detect suspicious behavior that begins overseas.
Snowden said claims the programs are secure are not true.
“Any analyst at any time can target anyone. Any selector. Anywhere. Where those communications will be picked up depends on the range of those sensor networks and the authority that that analyst is empowered with,” Snowden said, in accompanying video on the Guardian’s website. “Not all analysts have the power to target anything. But I, sitting at my desk, had the authority to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant to a federal judge to even the president if I had a personal email.”
He told the Post that he would “ask for asylum from any countries that believe in free speech and oppose the victimization of global privacy” in an interview from Hong Kong, where he is staying.
“I’m not going to hide,” Snowden told the Post. “Allowing the U.S. government to intimidate its people with threats of retaliation for revealing wrongdoing is contrary to the public interest.”
The Post declined to elaborate on its reporting about Snowden.
Shawn Turner, spokesman for the director of national intelligence, said intelligence officials are “currently reviewing the damage that has been done by these recent disclosures.” He added that “Any person who has a security clearance knows that he or she has an obligation to protect classified information and abide by the law.”
He referred further comment to the Justice Department.
“The Department of Justice is in the initial stages of an investigation into the unauthorized disclosure of classified information by an individual with authorized access,” said Nanda Chitre, Justice Department spokeswoman. “Consistent with long-standing department policy and procedure and in order to protect the integrity of the investigation, we must decline further comment.”
In a statement, Booz Allen confirmed that Snowden “has been an employee of our firm for less than 3 months, assigned to a team in Hawaii.” The statement said if the news reports of what he has leaked prove accurate, “this action represents a grave violation of the code of conduct,” and the company promised to work closely with authorities on the investigation.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has decried the revelation of the intelligence-gathering programs as reckless and said it has done “huge, grave damage.” In recent days, he took the rare step of declassifying some details about them to respond to media reports about counterterrorism techniques employed by the government.
Snowden told the Guardian that he lacked a high school diploma and enlisted in the U.S. Army until he was discharged because of an injury, and later worked as a security guard with the NSA.
He later went to work for the CIA as an information technology employee and by 2007 was stationed in Geneva, Switzerland, where he had access to classified documents.
During that time, he considered going public about the nation’s secretive programs but told the newspaper he decided against it, because he did not want to put anyone in danger and he hoped Obama’s election would curtail some of the clandestine programs.
He said he was disappointed that Obama did not rein in the surveillance programs.
“Much of what I saw in Geneva really disillusioned me about how my government functions and what its impact is in the world,” he told the Guardian. “I realized that I was part of something that was doing far more harm than good.”
Snowden left the CIA in 2009 to join a private contractor. He spent the last four years at the NSA, as a contractor with consulting giant Booz Allen Hamilton and, before that, Dell.
The Guardian reported that Snowden was working in an NSA office in Hawaii when he copied the last of the documents he planned to disclose and told supervisors that he needed to be away for a few weeks to receive treatment for epilepsy.
A sign advertising Century 21 Realtor Kerri Jo Heim sits on the grass outside the blue-and-white house where Snowden and his girlfriend lived in a quiet neighborhood in Waipahu, West Oahu.
Heim said the couple moved out on May 1, leaving nothing behind. She said police came by last Wednesday asking where they had gone, but she didn’t know.
Snowden left for Hong Kong on May 20 and has remained there since, according to the newspaper. Snowden is quoted as saying he chose that city because “they have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent” and because he believed it was among the spots on the globe that could and would resist the dictates of the U.S. government.
“I feel satisfied that this was all worth it. I have no regrets,” Snowden told the Guardian, which said he asked to be identified after several days of interviews.
Iceland’s International Modern Media Institute, a free press group, said it had yet to hear from Snowden directly. But in a statement the institute said it would do what it could to help the former intelligence worker find asylum and was already working to set up a meeting with Iceland’s newly appointed interior minister.
Snowden could face decades in a U.S. jail for revealing classified information if he is successfully extradited from Hong Kong, said Mark Zaid, a national security lawyer who represents whistleblowers. Hong Kong had an extradition treaty with the United States that took force in 1998, according to the U.S. State Department website.