Edward Snowden, a former technical assistant for the Central Intelligence Agency, speaks during an interview in Hong Kong in this handout photo provided by The Guardian. Source: The Guardian via Getty Images
Edward Snowden, the ex-CIA worker who revealed a secret U.S. electronic surveillance program, says he likes Hong Kong's independence and free speech. He may be about to learn about its extradition deal with the US.
The 29-year-old American, a former technical assistant for the Central Intelligence Agency, provided the information to journalists and revealed his identity voluntarily, according to a video interview posted on the website of the UK's Guardian newspaper. Snowden, an employee of defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp (BAH)., has been working at the National Security Agency for the past four years for various contractors, according to reports by the Guardian and the Washington Post, which said he provided them with documents.
It may be up to China to decide if Snowden could be sent to the U.S. Under an extradition treaty signed in 1996, Hong Kong and the US agreed to surrender those wanted for prosecution or for imposition of a sentence. China, which has sovereignty over Hong Kong, can refuse the transfer if it relates to its defense and foreign affairs. The Guardian said Snowden is in hiding in a Hong Kong hotel after leaving the US May 20.
The people of Hong Kong have "a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent," Snowden told the Guardian.
Snowden told the Washington Post he intends to ask for asylum from "any countries that believe in free speech and oppose the victimization of global privacy," and cited Iceland as an example. He has not contacted Iceland's Foreign Ministry to seek asylum and the ministry has no information on his whereabouts, spokeswoman Urdur Gunnarsdottir said.
A spokesman for Hong Kong's Security Bureau and a spokesman for the Department of Justice declined to comment, asking not to be named per government policy. Scott Robinson, spokesman at the US Consulate General in Hong Kong, declined to comment. Two calls to China Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang weren't answered. China marks the Dragon Boat Festival holiday though June 12.
The US Justice Department is in the "initial stages" of investigating the unauthorized disclosure of classified information in the case and won't comment further, according to a statement from Nanda Chitre, a spokeswoman. James R. Clapper, director of national intelligence, said in an interview with NBC News that release of the classified information is "extremely damaging" to U.S. security, according to a transcript.
Appearing on talk shows yesterday before Snowden's identity was revealed, lawmakers called for safeguards to protect Americans' privacy.
Snowden said in an interview with the Guardian that, while he expects a US reaction that could include prosecution, he hopes to spark a debate about privacy in an age of terrorism by going public about secret government surveillance operations gathering telephone records and Internet communications.
"I don't want to live in a society that does these sorts of things," said Snowden, who was identified as a native of Elizabeth City, North Carolina. "I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded. That is not something I am willing to support or live under."
Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, declined to comment in an e-mail. Preston Golson, a CIA spokesman, said he had no immediate comment. White House spokesman Josh Earnest also said he had no comment.
Clapper's office has seen the Guardian report, according to spokesman Shawn Turner. The matter has been referred to the Justice Department and any further information will come from there, Turner said in an e-mailed statement.
"The intelligence community is currently reviewing the damage that has been done by these recent disclosures," Turner said.
The latest disclosures of classified information came as another self-described whistle-blower, Army Private First Class Bradley Manning, 25, is on trial charged with provided a trove of classified State Department documents to WikiLeaks. Manning, who has admitted providing hundreds of thousands of documents to the anti-secrecy website, plead guilty earlier this year to charges that could bring 20 years imprisonment. The military is conducting a court-martial on charges that include aiding the enemy, which carries a potential life sentence.
Booz Allen posted a statement on its website saying the news reports on Snowden are "shocking, and if accurate, this action represents a grave violation of the code of conduct and core values of our firm." The company said it will work closely with authorities to investigate. Snowden had worked for Booz Allen for fewer than three months, according to the statement.
Snowden appeared in the video, which the Guardian said was made in Hong Kong, wearing glasses and the stubble of a goatee.
"I think that the public is owed an explanation of the motivations behind the people who make these disclosures that are outside of the democratic model," Snowden said in the video interview. "When you are subverting the power of government, that's a fundamentally dangerous thing to democracy."
He said he had recently been living in Hawaii. According to the Guardian, Snowden's family moved to a Maryland town about 10 miles from the NSA's Fort Meade headquarters, after leaving North Carolina.
In a leafy neighborhood, nobody answered the door at a condo that a neighbor said has been home to Snowden's mother, Wendy, for more than a decade. Edward Snowden lived in the gray clapboard unit, with a neatly manicured lawn, at least six years ago, said the neighbor, who asked for anonymity, saying she wasn't comfortable providing her name.
Snowden criticized the NSA's honesty with lawmakers, saying the leaked documents show "that the NSA routinely lies in response to congressional inquiries about the scope of surveillance in America," according to the Guardian. He said: "We collect more digital communications from America than we do from the Russians."
Snowden said his family members, some of whom work for the U.S. government, weren't aware of his actions and that he fears his family and friends will be targeted.
"I will have to live with that for the rest of my life," he said, according to the Guardian. "I am not going to be able to communicate with them."
The U.S. investigation of Snowden will include an inquiry into whether he may have been recruited or exploited by China, said two U.S. officials briefed on the matter who weren't authorized to speak publicly and asked for anonymity. Both said they were unaware of any evidence linking him to China.
Lawmakers in both political parties urged swift action to protect civil liberties of U.S. citizens after disclosures.
Senator Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat and member of the Senate's intelligence panel, said he'll push to change the USA Patriot Act that allows roving wiretapping and other expanded government surveillance tools. He said he wants to better ensure individual rights aren't trampled in the process, particularly where phone records of U.S. citizens are involved.
"The scale of it is what concerns me, and the American public doesn't know about it," Udall said yesterday on CNN's "State of the Union."
Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican who is exploring a 2016 presidential bid, said he wants to see a class-action lawsuit challenge the government's surveillance program of phone records at the Supreme Court. Paul spoke on "Fox News Sunday" after revelations last week that the U.S. National Security Agency is collecting data on U.S. residents' telephone calls and foreign nationals' Internet activity.
"We're talking about trolling through billions of phone records," Paul, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on the Fox broadcast. "That is unconstitutional. It invades our privacy."
While some U.S. lawmakers from both parties acknowledged last week that they were aware of the programs and backed them to combat terrorism, the disclosure is putting pressure on President Barack Obama to explain their scope.
Clapper defended the programs on June 8, calling them lawful efforts that were disclosed to lawmakers and accusing the news media of being "reckless" by distorting them in reports.
The activities are "conducted under authorities widely known and discussed, and fully debated and authorized by Congress," Clapper said in a statement. "Their purpose is to obtain foreign intelligence information, including information necessary to thwart terrorist and cyber-attacks against the United States and its allies."
In a declassified fact sheet, Clapper provided some details about the PRISM electronic surveillance program he said was created by Congress in 2008. He described it as an internal government computer system that aids the government's collection of data authorized by law and under court supervision.
Both the PRISM online data program and a program that gathers "metadata" on phone communications such as the numbers called and duration of communications -- and not conversation content -- are coming under fire.
Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA, said yesterday it's "simply not true" that the government is trolling through billions of phone records.
Hayden, who also led the NSA under Democratic President Bill Clinton and Republican President George W. Bush, said on "Fox News Sunday" that, while Democrat Obama has expanded the surveillance program "in volume," he and his predecessor acted within the law.
The number of records the U.S. has been able to compile has expanded over time and the NSA has more authority after a 2008 amendment to the intelligence surveillance law, Hayden said.
"We had two presidents doing the same thing with regard to electronic surveillance," he said. "There are no records of abuse under President Bush, under President Obama."
The Obama administration confirmed the existence of the programs on June 6 after reportsemerged of a secret court order compelling Verizon Communications Inc (VZ). to provide the NSA with data on all its customers' telephone use. Citing classified documents, the Washington Post (WPO) and the Guardian reported that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the NSA had also accessed the central servers of nine U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs.
Microsoft Corp. (MSFT), Yahoo! Inc., Google Inc., Facebook Inc. (FB), and Apple Inc. were among the technology providers involved, the newspapers reported. The companies have issued statements either denying that they had granted the government access to their servers or saying that they were unaware of the program.
Obama dismissed some of the media coverage as "hype" on June 7, saying the telephone program only collects billing data such as the telephone numbers making and receiving calls and the duration of calls. Any monitoring of telephone conversations involving U.S. residents requires a separate court order, he said.
"Nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That's not what this program's about," Obama said. The monitoring of Internet communication, which the Post reported includes e-mails and audio and video chats, "does not apply to U.S. citizens and it does not apply to people living in the United States."
The surveillance programs "make a difference to anticipate and prevent possible terrorist activity," the president said.