WASHINGTON The computer technician who passed classified documents to reporters about two sweeping U.S. surveillance programs has revealed his identity and motives, risking decades in jail -- if the U.S. can extradite him from Hong Kong, where he is said to have taken refuge.
Edward Snowden, 29, who told The Guardian and The Washington Post he had worked as a contractor at the National Security Agency and and as an employee of the CIA, allowed the newspapers to reveal his identity Sunday.
Last week both papers had published a series of top-secret documents outlining two NSA surveillance programs. One gathers hundreds of millions of U.S. phone records while searching for possible links to known terrorist targets abroad; the second allows the government to tap into nine U.S. Internet companies to gather all domestic Internet usage to detect suspicious behavior that begins overseas.
Snowden said he instigated one of the biggest government leaks in U.S. history to inform the public of what he called "the greatest danger to our freedom and way of life."
He was a systems engineer and administrator for the CIA, and most recently worked as a contractor at the U.S. National Security Agency.
In an interview with Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, published on the Guardian website, Snowden talked about the system built to conduct surveillance of U.S. citizens:
"I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant to a federal judge or even a president," Snowden said. "Even if you're not doing anything wrong, you're being watched and recorded. You simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody, even by a wrong call, and then they can use the system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you've ever made, every friend you've ever discussed something with."
As a whistleblower, he says his life is forever changed.
"You can't come forward against the world's most powerful intelligence agencies and be completely free from risk, because they're such powerful adversaries, that no one can meaningfully oppose them. If they want to get you, they'll get you in time."
In an article published on Sunday, Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman wrote that in his earliest communications with Snowden, the NSA contractor said he understood that he would be "made to suffer for my actions, and that the return of this information to the public marks my end" -- and that the threat extended to journalists investigating the story before it becomes public.
The U.S. intelligence community, Snowden wrote to Gellman, "will most certainly kill you if they think you are the single point of failure that could stop this disclosure and make them the sole owner of this information."
But he further stated that he wanted to pursue the leak despite what had happened to whistleblowers in the past, "to embolden others to step forward," to show that "they can win."
The NSA has asked the Justice Department to conduct a criminal investigation into the leaks.
Snowden, who said he was a technical assistant for the CIA before working as an employee Booz Allen Hamilton under contract to the NSA, could face many years in prison for releasing classified information if he is successfully extradited from Hong Kong, according to Mark Zaid, a national security lawyer who represents whistleblowers.
Snowden told the Guardian newspaper he believes the government could try to charge him with treason under the Espionage Act.
Zaid told the Associated Press that, if convicted, Snowden could be subject to a 10 or 20 year penalty for each count, with each document leaked considered a separate charge.
But Zaid said that would require the government to prove he had intent to betray the United States, whereas Snowden 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 Pfc. Bradley Manning, who faces life in prison under military law if convicted for releasing a trove of classified documents through the WikiLeaks website.