The man who exposed two sweeping US surveillance programs and touched off a debate on privacy versus security has revealed his own identity. He risks decades in prison for the disclosures to reporters — if the US can extradite him from Hong Kong where he says he has taken refuge.
Edward Snowden, 29, who says he worked as a contractor at the National Security Agency (NSA) and the CIA, allowed the Guardian and the Washington Post newspapers to reveal his identity on Sunday.
Both papers have published a series of top-secret documents outlining two NSA surveillance programs. One gathers hundreds of millions of US telephone records while searching for possible links to known terrorist targets abroad, and the second allows the government to tap into nine US Internet companies to gather all Internet usage to detect suspicious behavior that begins overseas.
The revelations have reopened the post-Sept. 11, 2001, debate about individual privacy concerns versus heightened measures to protect the US against terrorist attacks. The NSA has asked the US Department of Justice to conduct a criminal investigation into the leaks.
US President Barack Obama said the programs are authorized by the US Congress and subject to strict supervision of a secret court, and US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper says they do not target US citizens.
However, Snowden says the programs are open to abuse.
“Any analyst at any time can target anyone. Any selector. Anywhere,” Snowden said in a video on the Guardian’s Web site. “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 e-mail.”
Some lawmakers have expressed similar concerns about the wide reach of the surveillance.
“I expect the government to protect my privacy. It feels like that isn’t what’s been happening,” said Democratic US Senator Mark Udall, a member of the US Senate Intelligence Committee.
Snowden says he was a former technical assistant for the CIA and a current employee of defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, which released a statement on Sunday confirming he had been a contractor with them in Hawaii for less than three months, and promising to work with investigators.
Snowden could face many years in prison for releasing classified information if he is extradited from Hong Kong, according to Mark Zaid, a national security lawyer who represents whistleblowers.
Hong Kong has an extradition treaty with the US that took force in 1998, according to the US Department of State Web site.