A 29-year-old former CIA technical assistant revealed in the British newspaper The Guardian on Sunday that he is the source who leaked information about vast National Security Agency surveillance programs collecting data about American citizens and foreigners.
Edward Snowden, who works for defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, told The Guardian that he knows there will punishment for exposing the classified information, but said he could not in good conscience “allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, Internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they're secretly building.”
Following the report, the office of James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said it was “currently reviewing the damage that has been done by these recent disclosures” and referred any further comment to the Justice Department.
A Justice Department statement went no further than acknowledging it is in the initial stages of an investigation.
Booz Allen Hamilton confirmed that Snowden worked there less than three months. The firm called the news reports "shocking" and said it would work closely with authorities during the investigation.
The Guardian reported last week that the Obama administration had been collecting Verizon customers’ phone records in the U.S. Shortly after, The Washington Post reported on a massive NSA program called PRISM, a surveillance program that gathered vast amounts of information about foreigners abroad from the world’s largest web services.
The disclosures led President Barack Obama to declare: “Nobody is listening to your telephone calls.” Late last week, the president defended the programs and said Americans must understand that there are “some tradeoffs” between privacy concerns and keeping Americans safe.
The Post also identified Snowden as the source of its information on Sunday.
Snowden told The Guardian, "I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions," but "I will be satisfied if the federation of secret law, unequal pardon and irresistible executive powers that rule the world that I love are revealed even for an instant."
The self-identified source of documents and information pertaining to government data collection program said he has been hiding in a hotel room in Hong Kong since divulging the government secrets. For the past three weeks he has only left his room three times and fears he is being spied on, he told the newspaper.
Rep. Peter King, chair of the House Homeland Security subcommittee and a member of the Intelligence Committee, made the first public declaration to prosecute Snowden hours after he revealed himself.
"If Edward Snowden did in fact leak the NSA data as he claims, the United States government must prosecute him to the fullest extent of the law and begin extradition proceedings at the earliest date,” the New York Republican said in a statement. “The United States must make it clear that no country should be granting this individual asylum. This is a matter of extraordinary consequence to American intelligence."
Snowden grew up in Elizabeth City, N.C., later moving with his family to Maryland, according to The Guardian. Though he struggled in school, Snowden had a knack for computing, which would ultimately open the door for his access to highly sensitive information, the newspaper reported.
Snowden earned a GED but never graduated from college. In 2003, he enlisted in the U.S. Army with the hopes of joining the Special Forces, but broke both legs in a training accident and was discharged. 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, The Guardian reported. That led to a job working on IT security for the CIA.
It was in 2007, when the CIA stationed Snowden in Geneva, Switzerland that he began to question the techniques used by the U.S. government to gather intelligence.
"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 newspaper.
Snowden left the CIA in 2009, but got a job working for a private contractor that stationed him on a military base in Japan to work at an NSA facility. He said that his exposure and access to the sweeping information collection efforts by the government, along with his belief that Obama continued the invasive programs that he campaigned to end, hardened him to the national security efforts that was working to advance.
That’s why, Snowden says, three weeks ago he discreetly packed up some of his belongings and left the home in Hawaii where he was living with his girlfriend to get on a plane headed for China. Once there, he gave the information had collected to journalists he trusted, according to his interview with The Guardian. Snowden said he “carefully evaluated every single document I disclosed to ensure that each was legitimately in the public interest."
Snowden said he has been pleased so far with the fallout from making the information public, and has no regrets.
"You can't wait around for someone else to act," he said. "I had been looking for leaders, but I realized that leadership is about being the first to act."