WASHINGTON A 29-year-old former CIA computer technician went public on Sunday as the source behind the daily drumbeat of disclosures about the nation’s surveillance programs, saying he took the extraordinary step because “the public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong.”
During a 12-minute video interview that went online Sunday, Edward Joseph Snowden, formerly of Elizabeth City, calmly answered questions about his journey from being a well-compensated government contractor with nearly unlimited access to America’s intelligence secrets to being holed up in a Hong Kong hotel room, the subject of a U.S. investigation, with the understanding that he could spend the rest of his life in jail.
The revelation came after days of speculation that the source behind a series of leaks that have transfixed Washington must have been a high-level official at one of America’s spy agencies. Instead, the leaker is a relatively low-level employee of a giant government contractor, Booz Allen Hamilton, that has won billions of dollars in secret government contracts over the past decade, partly by aggressively marketing itself as the premier protector of America’s classified computer infrastructure.
The episode presents both international and domestic political difficulties for the Obama administration.
Assuming Snowden remains in China, the White House must first navigate getting him out of a country that has been America’s greatest adversary on many issues of computer security. Then the U.S. must set up a strategy for prosecuting a man whom many will see as a hero for provoking a debate that President Barack Obama himself has said he welcomes.
Snowden, who said he was seeking asylum abroad, gave the interview to The Guardian, the newspaper and website that during the past week has published a string of articles about classified National Security Agency programs. Both The Guardian and The Washington Post, which also published articles disclosing the surveillance programs, identified Snowden on Sunday as the source for their articles.
Congress calls for hearings
Snowden’s disclosures prompted some calls from Congress on Sunday to hold hearings about the surveillance programs or reopen debate on portions of the Patriot Act.
The disclosures also were published just as the Obama administration was grappling with the fallout from its many investigations into leaks to the news media.
After it was revealed in May that the Justice Department had secretly obtained phone logs for reporters at The Associated Press and Fox News, criticism of the administration’s leak investigation was heightened. It was amid that criticism that Obama said he was “troubled” by the developments, and ordered Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. to conduct a review of the Justice Department’s procedures for investigating reporters.
As part of that review, Holder and senior department officials have met with editors and media lawyers to try to assuage their fears that the administration is trying to silence the press. A day before The Guardian published its first article on how the government was collecting Americans’ phone data, Holder met with lawyers for several media outlets about legislation and other measures that may help protect reporters.
A White House spokesman declined to comment on Sunday. A spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence referred all questions to the Justice Department. In a statement, the department said it was in the initial stages of an investigation into the matter.
Details about Snowden’s background could not be immediately confirmed. Though Snowden was quickly gaining international recognition on Sunday, no sources contacted in Elizabeth City, located about 340 miles northeast of Charlotte, knew him. But speaking to The Guardian, Snowden described himself as a patriot who had become disillusioned by his experiences as a CIA employee overseas.
After growing up in Elizabeth City, he moved with his family to Maryland, near NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, he told The Guardian.
Though he never obtained a high school diploma, he later earned a GED and studied computing at a community college in Maryland, The Guardian reported. Snowden told The Guardian that he signed up in 2003 for an Army Special Forces training program because he wanted to fight in Iraq.
After breaking his legs during a training accident, Snowden was discharged from the Army and went on to take a job as a security guard at an NSA secret facility on the University of Maryland’s campus, according to The Guardian.
He was later hired by the CIA to work on information technology security, serving in Geneva. In 2009, he joined the NSA as a contractor at a facility in Japan, where, he said, he watched “as Obama advanced the very policies that I thought would be reined in.”
Most recently, Snowden has been part of a Booz Allen team working at an NSA facility in Hawaii. Three weeks ago, he made final preparations to disclose the classified documents, The Guardian said.
On Sunday evening, Booz Allen released a statement confirming Snowden’s employment.
“News reports that this individual has claimed to have leaked classified information are shocking, and if accurate, this action represents a grave violation of the code of conduct and core values of our firm,” the statement said.
News & Observer staff writer Anne Blythe contributed.
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