The National Security Agency contractor who came forward claiming to be the source of leaks about vast government surveillance programs set off diplomatic intrigue Monday by holing up in Hong Kong and hinting at seeking protection in Iceland.
The reporter who broke the story for the British newspaper The Guardian said that he did not believe American authorities had been in touch with the contractor, Edward Snowden, 29.
“I don’t believe they know where he is or how to communicate with him,” the reporter, Glenn Greenwald, told TODAY from Hong Kong.
The Justice Department, without naming Snowden, said it was in the early stages of an investigation, and there were already calls from some members of Congress to prosecute him.
“As long as you have laws on the books, and we do, you’ve got to enforce the laws,” Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., told CNBC. “This is somebody who — it appears, at least — leaked sensitive classified information, and I think he needs to be prosecuted.”
And FBI agents were seen Monday at Snowden's father's house in Allentown, Pennsylvania, but did not answer any reporters' questions.
The Guardian and The Washington Post, with Snowden’s consent, revealed him Sunday as the source for stories that disclosed two giant surveillance programs collecting data on Americans’ phone calls and foreigners’ Internet use.
Those disclosures led President Barack Obama to issue a striking defense — “Nobody is listening to your phone calls” — and to insist that Americans must make tradeoffs between safety and privacy.
Snowden, employed by the defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, said he traveled to Hong Kong on May 20 because “they have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent.”
He spoke to The Guardian at a Hong Kong hotel, but his whereabouts Monday were unknown.
Hong Kong, a former British colony, is part of China but has considerable autonomy. It has an extradition treaty with the United States, but China can veto extradition requests when it believes its foreign interests would be affected.
“The only thing I can do is sit here and hope the Hong Kong government does not deport me,” Snowden told The Guardian.
Experts and Hong Kong lawmakers said it was unlikely China would defy such a U.S. request. One Hong Kong legislator told The Wall Street Journal that Snowden’s choice of location was based on “unfortunate ignorance.”
Snowden told The Guardian that he wanted to seek asylum in a country “with shared values,” and mentioned that Iceland had stood up for people over Internet freedom issues.
But even Iceland, which took in the fugitive former chess champion Bobby Fischer in 2005, may not be a safe bet, either. Iceland has just elected a more conservative government seen as closer to Washington than previous governments have been.
Stefania Oskarsdottir, a lecturer in political science at the University of Iceland, told Reuters that she would be surprised if the new government wanted to engage in any disputes with the United States.
“I think what this guy is saying is based on something he is imagining or hoping for rather than actual facts,” she told Reuters.
Still, Snowden could travel to Iceland without a visa and could apply immediately for asylum.
Snowden grew up in North Carolina and enlisted in the Army in 2003 in hopes of joining the Special Forces. But he broke both legs in a training accident and was discharged, he said.
He told the paper that he joined the armed forces in hopes of helping the Iraqi people escape from oppression, but was jarred that his commanders “seemed pumped up about killing Arabs.”
After his injury, Snowden got a job as a security guard at a covert NSA facility at the University of Maryland before working on tech security for the CIA, The Guardian reported.
Snowden could join Daniel Ellsberg and Bradley Manning as among the most consequential leakers in American history. Manning, who admitted sending military documents to WikiLeaks, is being court-martialed in Maryland.
Ellsberg leaked what became known as the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times, documenting the government’s systematic misleading of the public about American involvement in Vietnam.
He said in an Op-Ed for The Guardian on Monday that he believed Snowden’s leaks to be the most important in American history, including the Pentagon Papers four decades ago.
“Snowden’s whistleblowing gives us the possibility to roll back a key part of what has amounted to an ‘executive coup’ against the U.S. Constitution,” he wrote. “Since 9/11, there has been, at first secretly but increasingly openly, a revocation of the Bill of Rights for which this country fought over 200 years ago.”
NBC News’ Ali Weinberg, Mike Kosnar and Joel Seidman, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.