The man who revealed the existence of two top-secret National Security Agency surveillance programs gathered some of the information at his workplace in Hawaii before leaving several weeks ago for Hong Kong, two newspapers reported.
The Guardian newspaper identified Edward Snowden, 29, as the source of the leaks, which have touched off the latest national debate over secret government monitoring of Americans’ activities.
“I am not going to hide,” the Washington Post quoted Snowden as saying. “Allowing the U.S. government to intimidate its people with threats of retaliation for revealing wrongdoing is contrary to the public interest.”
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.”
The Post said Snowden wanted to step out of the shadows as the source of the information, and that he plans to seek asylum from any countries “that believe in free speech.”
Snowden was a former technical assistant for the CIA, but more recently worked for the NSA as a contractor with Booz Allen Hamilton, the Guardian reported.
The newspaper said he had “a very comfortable life” with a salary of about $200,000 and a home in Hawaii that he shared with a girlfriend.
At the NSA office in Hawaii where he worked, he copied the last set of documents he planned to disclose, the Guardian said.
A Hawaii real estate agent saId Snowden and his girlfriend moved out of their home in Waipahu on May 1, leaving nothing behind.
Century 21 real estate agent Kerri Jo Heim said that police came by on Wednesday to ask where the couple went. Heim told them she didn’t know.
NSA and other authorities have twice visited his home in Hawaii and contacted his girlfriend, the Guardian reported.
“I feel satisfied that this was all worth it. I have no regrets,” Snowden told the Guardian.
The Guardian and Post both wrote explosive stories about the existence of the government surveillance programs, including the revelation that Verizon provided phone user information to the government and the use of a program called PRISM that tracks Internet use.
Snowden told the Guardian that he lacked a high school diploma and enlisted in the U.S. Army until he was discharged with broken legs after a training mission.
After leaving the Army, Snowden got his foot in the door with the NSA at a covert facility at the University of Maryland, working as a security guard.
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 with what he knew about the nation’s secretive programs. He decided against it, he told the newspaper, 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 said. “I realized that I was part of something that was doing far more harm than good.”
The Guardian said Snowden has been monitoring news coverage of the leaks and asked to be identified after several days of interviews.
“I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong,” Snowden is quoted as saying.
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 has an extradition treaty with the United States that took force in 1998, according to the U.S. State Department website.
“If it’s a straight leak of classified information, the government could subject him to a 10 or 20 year penalty for each count,” with each document leaked considered a separate charge, Zaid said.
Snowden told the Guardian he believes the government could try to charge him with treason under the Espionage Act, but Zaid said that would require the government to prove he had intent to betray the United States, whereas he publicly made it clear he did this to spur debate.
The government could also make an argument that the NSA leaks have aided the enemy — as military prosecutors have claimed against Army Pvt. Bradley Manning, who faces life in prison under military law if convicted for releasing a trove of classified documents through Wikileaks.
“They could say the revelation of the (NSA) programs could instruct people to change tactics,” Zaid said. But even under the lesser charges of simply revealing classified information, “you are talking potentially decades in jail, loss of his employment and his security clearance.”
Officials said the revelations were dangerous and irresponsible. House intelligence committee member Peter King, R-NY, called for Snowden to be “extradited from Hong Kong immediately…and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” in an interview with The Associated Press.
“I believe the leaker has done extreme damage to the U.S. and to our intelligence operations,” King said, by alerting al-Qaida to U.S. surveillance, and by spooking U.S. service providers who now might fight sharing data in future with the U.S. government, now that the system has been made public.
King added that intelligence and law enforcement professionals he’d spoken to since the news broke were also concerned that Snowden might be taken into custody by Chinese intelligence agents and questioned about CIA and NSA spies and policies.
“To be a whistleblower, there would have to be a pattern of him filing complaints through appropriate channels to his supervisors,” said Ambassador John Negroponte, the first director of national intelligence, in an interview with the AP today. “For me, it’s just an outright case of betrayal of confidences and a violation of his nondisclosure agreement.”
President Barack Obama, Clapper and others have said the programs are authorized by Congress and subject to strict supervision of a secret court.
“It’s important to recognize that you can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience,” Obama said. “We’re going to have to make some choices as a society.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.