Ex-Worker at C.I.A. Says He Leaked Data on Surveillance


A 29-year-old former C.I.A. 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.”

Ex-Worker at C.I.A. Says He Leaked Data on Surveillance

During a 12-minute video interview that went online Sunday, Edward Joseph Snowden 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 United States 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. If Mr. Snowden remained in China, the White House would have to navigate getting him out of a country that has been America’s greatest adversary on many issues of computer security.

Then the United States must set up a strategy for prosecuting a man whom many will see as a hero for provoking a debate that President Obama himself has said he welcomes — amid already fierce criticism of the administration’s crackdown on leaks. The court-martial of Pfc. Bradley Manning, who released a vast archive of military and diplomatic materials to WikiLeaks, resumes Monday.

Mr. Snowden, who said he was seeking asylum abroad, perhaps in Iceland, gave the interview to The Guardian, the British newspaper and global Web site that during the past week 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 Mr. Snowden on Sunday as the source for their articles.

In his interview with The Guardian, Mr. Snowden said his job had given him access to myriad secrets that the United States government guards most jealously, including the locations of Central Intelligence Agency stations overseas and the identities of undercover agents working for the United States.

But he said he had been selective in what he disclosed, releasing only what he found to be the greatest abuses of a surveillance state that he came to view as reckless and having grown beyond reasonable boundaries. He was alternately defiant and resigned, saying at one point that the C.I.A. might try to spirit him out of China, and speculating that it might even hire Asian gangs to go after him.

“If you realize that that’s the world you helped create and it is going to get worse with the next generation and the next generation and extend the capabilities of this architecture of oppression, you realize that you might be willing to accept any risks and it doesn’t matter what the outcome is,” Mr. Snowden said.

Some outside experts said the push in recent years to break down barriers between spy agencies and share information across the government had greatly expanded the universe of government employees and outside contractors with access to highly classified intelligence.

“In past years, someone like Snowden may not have had access to briefings detailing these collection programs,” said Cedric Leighton, a former deputy director of the National Security Agency, “but now with the push from a ‘need to know’ to a ‘need to share’ philosophy, it’s far more likely for an I.T. contractor like him to gain access to such documents.”

Mr. 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. Mr. Obama said he was “troubled” by those developments, and ordered Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to review the Justice Department’s procedures for investigating reporters.

As part of that review, Mr. 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, Mr. 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 James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, referred questions to the Justice Department. In a statement, the department said it was in the initial stages of an investigation into the matter, though it did not name Mr. Snowden.

In a weekend interview with NBC News, Mr. Clapper warned that the revelations could create serious risks to national security. “We’re very, very concerned about it,” he said. “For me, it is literally — not figuratively — literally gut-wrenching to see this happen, because of the huge, grave damage it does to our intelligence capabilities.”

Mr. Snowden, a native of North Carolina, told The Guardian that he signed up in 2003 for an Army Special Forces training program because he wanted to fight in Iraq.

“I felt like I had an obligation as a human being to help free people from oppression,” he said.

But he said he had quickly become disillusioned with the military.

“Most of the people training us seemed pumped up about killing Arabs, not helping anyone,” he said.

After breaking his legs during a training accident, Mr. Snowden was discharged from the Army and took a job as a security guard at an N.S.A. secret facility on the University of Maryland’s campus, according to The Guardian, which said it had confirmed his story.

Despite not having a high school degree, he was later hired by the C.I.A. to work on information technology security, serving in Geneva. In 2009, he joined the N.S.A. 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, Mr. Snowden has been part of a Booz Allen team working at an N.S.A. facility in Hawaii. Three weeks ago, he made final preparations to disclose the classified documents, The Guardian said. It said he had copied the documents and told a supervisor that he needed to take a few weeks off to deal with medical problems. He then flew to Hong Kong.

While it was not clear whether Mr. Snowden had remained in Hong Kong, if he had, his presence could complicate any possible American effort to extradite him for prosecution. A British colony until its return to China in 1997, Hong Kong retains autonomy from the mainland in its immigration system and its rule of law. Hong Kong has an independent immigration system, but it is part of China for purposes of foreign policy.

Hong Kong has an extradition agreement with the United States, in case American officials can provide a legal basis for seeking Mr. Snowden’s transfer to the United States. Hong Kong also has a very long tradition, dating back to British control, of close cooperation with the United States on criminal and criminal intelligence issues.

There was no indication in the Guardian article that Mr. Snowden had ever acquired legal residency in Hong Kong, so he would appear to be subject in principle to the 90-day limit that all American passport holders have for visa-free stays there.

Another complexity for Mr. Snowden is that the new administration of President Xi Jinping of China is pursuing better relations with the United States, including a meeting with Mr. Obama on Friday and Saturday in California, and may be more inclined than usual to put pressure on officials in Hong Kong to hand over Mr. Snowden.

On Sunday evening, Booz Allen released a statement confirming Mr. 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. “We will work closely with our clients and authorities in their investigation of this matter.”

The revelation that Mr. Snowden worked for Booz Allen is perhaps the most awkward for Mike McConnell, a former head of the N.S.A. and director of national intelligence who in 2011 was promoted to vice chairman at Booz Allen. He is now responsible for driving Booz Allen’s cybercapabilities and advancing its relationship with his former agency.

Mr. McConnell said in an interview last year that the United States was not using its full capabilities to address threats from foreign cyberattacks because of privacy concerns.

“If you harness all the capabilities of our nation, you could have a better understanding of foreign threats,” he said. “But what makes it hard is that everyone has an opinion. There’s very little appreciation for the threat, and there are so many special interests, particularly civil liberty groups with privacy concerns. That mix keeps us from getting to the crux of the national issue.”

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