A former CIA employee who identified himself as the source of leaked information about a vast National Security Agency surveillance program signaled the start of a game of international diplomacy Monday.
Edward Snowden, 29, faces a criminal investigation led by the Department of Justice - but is reportedly holed up in a hotel room in Hong Kong in an attempt to thwart moves to prosecute him.
He told The Guardian, whose reporters are alongside him in Hong Kong, that he had exposed huge amounts of classified information out of conscience to protect "basic liberties for people around the world."
Snowden, who is employed by defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, hinted that he may seek diplomatic protection from Iceland.
Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian reporter who broke the story, said Monday he did not believe any U.S. authorities had yet been in contact with Snowden. "To my knowledge, they do not even know where he is," he told TODAY's Savannah Guthrie from Hong Kong.
The Guardian reported last week that the Obama administration had been collecting Verizon customers’ phone records. 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.
Snowden traveled to the former British colony – now part of mainland China - on May 20 because "they have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent."
Hong Kong, which has a separate legal status from Beijing despite being part of China since 1997, has an extradition treaty with the Washington. However, Beijing has a veto over the extradition requests in cases where China’s foreign interests would be affected.
"The only thing I can do is sit here and hope the Hong Kong government does not deport me,” Snowden told The Guardian. “My predisposition is to seek asylum in a country with shared values. The nation that most encompasses this is Iceland. They stood up for people over Internet freedom. I have no idea what my future is going to be.
"They could put out an Interpol note. But I don't think I have committed a crime outside the domain of the U.S. I think it will be clearly shown to be political in nature."
Experts and Hong Kong lawmakers said it was unlikely China would defy a U.S. request.
“We work very closely with U.S. authorities,” Regina Ip, Hong Kong legislator and former security secretary, told the Wall Street Journal, adding that Snowden’s choice of location was “really being based on unfortunate ignorance.”
“It would surprise me very much if Beijing wanted to intervene on this case,” said Nicholas Belequin of Human Rights Watch, according to the WSJ.
Iceland’s embassy in Hong Kong declined to comment early Monday, according to ITV News reporter Angus Walker. Icelandic privacy campaigner and lawmaker Birgitta Jonsdottir told ITV News she had urged Reykjavik to assist Snowden with any future asylum request.
The Post also identified Snowden as the source of its information on Sunday, saying he had used the codename Verax – a Latin adjective meaning "truthful" – when speaking to its reporters.
Snowden, who grew up in Elizabeth, N.C., joins Daniel Ellsberg and Bradley Manning among America's most consequential whistleblowers.
"I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions," Snowden told The Guardian. "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."
He added: "Any analyst at any time can target anyone. Any selector. Anywhere. 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 email."
Booz Allen Hamilton confirmed Snowden, who is a U.S. citizen, had worked for the management and technology consultancy for three months and had been based in Hawaii.
Edward Snowden, a defense contractor and former CIA communications expert, has revealed himself as the man behind the leaks detailing secret National Security Agency programs monitoring phone and Internet use. The Atlantic's Steve Clemons, Maria Teresa Kumar from Voto Latino, and Washington Post Columnist Jonathan Capehart join Karen Finney to break down Snowden's reasons for the leak and what this means for the debate over privacy and national security.
“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,” it said in a statement.
Greenwald denied the leak was causing harm to America. “It harms nobody,” he told MNSBC’s Morning Joe. “The only people harmed are those in power who want to conceal their action and their wrongdoing from the people to whom they are supposed to be accountable."
He said Snowden had been more cautious than Bradley Manning by releasing only selected classified documents and doing so with the assistance of reporters. “[Snowden] spent months meticulously studying every document…he didn’t just upload them to the Internet.”
Snowden enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2003 with the hopes of joining the Special Forces, but broke both legs in a training accident and was discharged, he told The Guardian.
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 before getting a job working on IT security for the CIA, The Guardian reported.
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.