Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former C.I.A. computer technician, has come forward as the source who leaked information about top-secret National Security Agency surveillance programs, saying he wanted to inform the public "as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them."
"My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them," Snowden, who works for defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, told Britain's The Guardian, the first to publicly identify him at his own request.
The British daily had earlier reported that a secret program was collecting data on all phone calls made on the Verizon network. Then, The Washington Post reported on another such program, code-named PRISM, that collects the Internet data of foreigners from major Internet companies like Microsoft, Google, and Apple.
Officials are calling for prosecution of Snowden, who is currently in a hotel in Hong Kong. He says he's "willing to sacrifice all of that because I can't in good conscience allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, Internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they're secretly building."
Snowden, who says he did not even have a high school diploma, added that such NSA programs are "an existential threat to democracy." "I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions… 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.
"I could not do this without accepting the risk of prison. You can't come up against the world's most powerful intelligence agencies and not accept the risk. If they want to get you, over time they will."
However, he added, he doesn't see himself as a hero "because what I'm doing is self-interested. I don't want to live in a world where there's no privacy, and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity."
Snowden, who grew up in Elizabeth City, N.C., before moving with his family to Maryland, also spoke to the Post. "I'm not going to hide," he said. "Allowing the U.S. government to intimidate its people with threats of retaliation for revealing wrongdoing is contrary to the public interest."
The source, who believes President Barack Obama has not kept his promise to be transparent, added he was hopeful that his disclosures will lead to some change. "I think they already have. Everyone everywhere now understands how bad things have gotten - and they're talking about it. They have the power to decide for themselves whether they are willing to sacrifice their privacy to the surveillance state."
Snowden is seeking "asylum from any countries that believe in free speech and oppose the victimization of global privacy."
U.S. officials have claimed that data that is gathered is accessed only on the authority of a judge when investigators think it is linked to terrorism. Obama has told Americans, "Nobody is listening to your telephone calls." However, he has also defended the gathering of data, blaming it on "some trade-offs" between privacy and safety of Americans.
Sen. Mark Udall, a Democratic from Colorado, has called for the legal authority to be reopened for debate after the disclosures. "Maybe Americans think this is OK, but I think the line has been drawn too far towards 'we're going to invade your privacy,' versus 'we're going to respect your privacy,'" Udall, who has been working for greater transparency, told CNN's State of the Union.
Soon after Snowden identified himself as the source of the leaked information, Rep. Peter King, the chairman of a House Homeland Security subcommittee and a member of the Intelligence Committee, called for his prosecution.
"If Edward Snowden did in fact leak the NSA data as he claims, the United States government must prosecute him to the fullest extent of the law and begin extradition proceedings at the earliest date," King, a Republican, said in a statement. "The United States must make it clear that no country should be granting this individual asylum. This is a matter of extraordinary consequence to American intelligence."
The office of James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, says the damage done by his disclosures is being reviewed, referring all media enquiries to the Justice Department, which hasn't commented on it apart from acknowledging that its investigation is in the initial stages.
The disclosures are being seen as unprecedented in a generation. "This is significant on a number of fronts: the scope, the range. It's major, it's major," the Post quoted John Rizzo, a former general counsel of the CIA, as saying. "And then to have him out himself... I can't think of any previous leak case involving a CIA officer where the officer raised his hand and said, 'I'm the guy.'"
On why he chose to go to Hong Kong, Snowden said, "I think it is really tragic that an American has to move to a place that has a reputation for less freedom. Still, Hong Kong has a reputation for freedom in spite of the People's Republic of China. It has a strong tradition of free speech."
Washington may not find it difficult to extradite Snowden from Hong Kong, which has an extradition agreement with the United States.
Snowden told The Guardian he enlisted in an Army Special Forces training program with a desire to fight in Iraq, but he broke both legs in a training accident and was discharged. He said he also got disillusioned because his commanders, more than wanting to help Iraqis, "seemed pumped up about killing Arabs."
Snowden later took up a job as a security guard at a secret NSA facility at the University of Maryland, which led to a job at the CIA. He said he was exposed to the techniques used by the U.S. government to gather intelligence in 2007, when he was sent to Geneva, Switzerland. He left the CIA two years later to join a private contractor, who sent him to a military base in Japan to work at an NSA facility.
"I do not expect to see home again, though that is what I want," Snowden told The Guardian. But he said he had to expose the programs. "You can't wait around for someone else to act," he said. "I had been looking for leaders, but I realized that leadership is about being the first to act."