(CNN) — A 29-year-old computer technician for a U.S. defense contractor leaked details of a top-secret American program that sifts through reams of data from telecommunications companies, American and British newspapers revealed Sunday.
“My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them,” the source, Edward Snowden, told Britain’s the Guardian, one of the papers that broke stories on the program last week.
The Washington Post also disclosed Sunday that Snowden was the source on its stories.
Snowden is a former technical assistant for the CIA and has been working at the National Security Agency, the U.S. electronic intelligence service, for the past four years, the newspaper reported. He said he gave up a six-figure job in Hawaii for the computer consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton and has holed up in a hotel in Hong Kong in preparation for the expected fallout from his disclosures.
“I’m 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,” he said.
The Guardian reported Wednesday that Verizon Business Network Services had been ordered to hand over telephone records detailing the time, location and telephone numbers involved in domestic calls from April 25 to July 19. An order from a U.S. court that oversees U.S. surveillance efforts backed up the demand, the newspaper reported.
Thursday, the Guardian and The Washington Post disclosed the existence of PRISM, a program they said allows NSA analysts to extract details of customer activities — including “audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents” and other materials — from computers at Microsoft, Google, Apple and other Internet firms.
Snowden said the NSA’s reach poses “an existential threat to democracy.” He said he had hoped the Obama administration would end the programs once it took office in 2009, but instead, he said, President Barack Obama “advanced the very policies that I thought would be reined in.”
“I don’t see myself as a hero, because what I’m doing is self-interested,” he said. “I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no privacy, and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity.”
U.S. officials said the program has been distorted in the reports and is a valuable tool in fighting terrorism.
“In a rush to publish, media outlets have not given the full context — including the extent to which these programs are overseen by all three branches of government,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in a statement issued Saturday.
Clapper’s office declassified some details of the programs, which it said were “conducted under authorities widely known and discussed, and fully debated and authorized by Congress.”
U.S. officials said earlier that phone-call data isn’t looked at unless investigators sense a tie to terrorism, and only then on the authority of a judge. Officials say analysts are forbidden from collecting the Internet activity of American citizens or residents, even when they travel overseas. And Obama tried to reassure Americans about the programs Friday, saying, “Nobody is listening to your telephone calls.”
Clapper’s office said PRISM was created in 2008, targets “foreign targets located outside the United States” and gets reviewed by the administration, Congress and judges. And Rep. Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told reporters Sunday that “there is not a target on Americans.”
But Glenn Greenwald, the lead author of the Guardian pieces, told ABC’s “This Week” that the articles show the NSA hasn’t leveled with members of Congress who have expressed concerns about the scope of electronic surveillance. He said Americans need an “open, honest debate about whether that’s the kind of country that we want to live in.”
“These are things that the American people have a right to know,” said Greenwald, a lawyer and civil-liberties advocate. “The only thing being damaged is the credibility of political officials and the way they exercise power in the dark.”
Colorado Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, who has long called for greater transparency in how the government collects data on Americans, said the legal authority should be reopened for debate after last week’s 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 told CNN’s State of the Union.
Udall is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, have criticized the scope of the classified programs that allow the collection of Americans’ phone records but have been limited in what they could say publicly.
Udall told CNN that claims that the monitoring has thwarted terrorist attacks are overblown.
“It’s unclear to me we’ve developed any intelligence through the metadata program that’s led to the disruption of plots that could have been attained through other means,” Udall said, pushing back on assertions by both administration officials and Rogers that a specific plot was stopped using the massive collection of phone records.
The Guardian reported that Snowden grew up in North Carolina and Maryland. He joined the Army in 2003 but was discharged after breaking both his legs in a training accident. He never completed a high-school diploma but learned computer skills at a community college in Maryland.
He started his career as a security guard for an NSA facility at the University of Maryland, then went to work for the CIA in Internet security. In 2009, he got the first of several jobs with private contractors that worked with the NSA.
Snowden told the Guardian that he left for Hong Kong on May 20 without telling his family or his girlfriend what he planned. Though it is part of communist-ruled China, the former British colony has a free press and tolerates political dissent under a semi-autonomous government.
Hong Kong’s extradition treaty with the United States has exceptions for “political” crimes and cases when handing over a criminal suspect would harm the “defense, foreign affairs or essential public interest or policy” of either party. But Snowden told the Guardian, “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,” he said. “If they want to get you, over time they will.”