NSA Whistleblower Edward Snowden Seeks Asylum
Policy + Politics

NSA Whistleblower Edward Snowden Seeks Asylum

REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Files

Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former undercover CIA employee, unmasked himself Sunday as the principal source of recent Washington Post and Guardian disclosures about top-secret National Security Agency programs.

Snowden, who has contracted for the NSA and works for the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, denounced what he described as systematic surveillance of innocent citizens and said in an interview that "it’s important to send a message to government that people will not be intimidated."

Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. said Saturday that the NSA had initiated a Justice Department investigation into who leaked the information — an investigation supported by intelligence officials in Congress.

Snowden, whose full name is Edward Joseph Snowden, said he understands the risks of disclosing the information but felt it was important to do. "I’m not going to hide," Snowden told The Post from Hong Kong, where he has been staying. The Guardian was the first to publicly identify Snowden, at his request. "Allowing the U.S. government to intimidate its people with threats of retaliation for revealing wrongdoing is contrary to the public interest."

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Asked whether he believed his disclosures would change anything, he said: "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 said nobody was aware of his actions, including those closest to him. He said there wasn’t a single event that spurred his decision to leak the information. "It was more of a slow realization that presidents could openly lie to secure the office and then break public promises without consequence," he said.

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Snowden said President Obama hasn’t lived up to his pledges of transparency. He blamed a lack of accountability in the Bush administration for continued abuses. "It set an example that when powerful figures are suspected of wrongdoing, releasing them from the accountability of law is ‘for our own good,’" Snowden said. "That’s corrosive to the basic fairness of society." The White House did not respond to multiple e-mails seeking comment and spokesman Josh Earnest, who was traveling with the president, said the White House would have no comment Sunday.

A brief statement from a spokesperson for Clapper’s office referred media to the Justice Department for comment and said the intelligence community was "reviewing the damage" that had been done by the leaks. "Any person who has a security clearance knows that he or she has an obligation to protect classified information and abide by the law," the statement said.

Snowden also expressed hope that the NSA surveillance programs would now be open to legal challenge for the first time. Earlier this year, in Amnesty International v. Clapper, the Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit against the mass collection of phone records because the plaintiffs could not prove exactly what the program did or that they were personally subject to surveillance.

"The government can’t reasonably assert the state secrets privilege for a program it has acknowledged. The courts can now allow challenges to be heard on that basis," Snowden said.

Snowden said he is seeking "asylum from any countries that believe in free speech and oppose the victimization of global privacy," but the law appears to provide for his extradition from Hong Kong to the United States. Hong Kong is a semiautonomous territory of China, but while the United States doesn’t have an extradition agreement with China, it has had one with Hong Kong since 1998.

This means that the U.S. government could indict Snowden and seek to bring him back to American soil.

Such proceedings can take months and even years, but extradition expert Douglas McNabb said Snowden has not put himself in a favorable position. "The fact that he outed himself and basically said, from what I understand he has said, ‘I feel very comfortable with what I have done,'that’s not going to help him in his extradition contest," McNabb said. "I am very surprised by the way that he’s handled it."

Current and former U.S. intelligence officials said the revelation of Snowden’s role in the leaks would lead to a sweeping re-examination of security measures at the CIA and NSA, and described his apparent decision to come forward as a stunning conclusion to a week of disclosures that had already rattled the intelligence community. "This is significant on a number of fronts: the scope, the range. It’s major, it’s major," said John Rizzo, former general counsel of the CIA, who worked at the agency for decades. "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.’"

A half-dozen former intelligence officials, including one who now works at Booz Allen Hamilton, said they did not know Snowden or anything about his background. Still, several former officials said that he easily could have been part of a surge in the number of computer experts and technical hires brought in by the agency in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as its budget and mission swelled. "Like a lot of things after 9/11, they just went on a hiring binge and in the technical arena young smart nerds were in high demand," a former U.S. intelligence official said. "There were battalions of them."

Officials said that the CIA and other spy agencies did not relax their screening measures as the workforce expanded. Still, several officials said that the agency would undoubtedly now begin reviewing the process by which Snowden was hired, seeking to determine whether there were any missed signs that he might one day betray national secrets. More broadly, the CIA and NSA may be forced to reexamine their relationships with contractors, who were employed in roles ranging from technical support to paramilitary operations before concerns about the outsourcing of such sensitive assignments prompted a backlash in Congress and pledges from the agencies to begin thinning their contracting ranks.

Some former CIA officials said they were troubled by aspects of Snowden’s background, at least as he described it in his comments to the Guardian. Snowden said he did not even have a high school degree. One former CIA official said it was extremely unusual for the agency to have hired someone with such thin academic credentials, particularly for a technical job, and that the terms Snowden used to describe his agency positions didn’t match internal job descriptions.

Snowden’s claim to have been placed under diplomatic cover for a position in Switzerland after an apparently brief stint at the CIA as a systems administrator also raised suspicions. "I just have never heard of anyone being hired with so little academic credentials," the former CIA official said. The agency does employ technical specialists in overseas stations, the former official said, "but their breadth of experience is huge and they tend not to start out as systems administrators."

Snowden’s name surfaced as top intelligence officials in the Obama administration and Congress pushed back against the journalists responsible for revealing the existence of sensitive surveillance programs and called for an investigation into the leaks. The Guardian initially reported the existence of a program that collects data on all phone calls made on the Verizon network. Later in the week, the Guardian and The Post reported the existence of a separate program, code-named PRISM, that collects the Internet data of foreigners from major Internet companies.

Clapper, in an interview with NBC that aired Saturday night, condemned the leaker’s actions but also sought to spotlight the media who first reported the programs, calling their disclosures irresponsible and full of "hyperbole." Earlier Saturday, he had issued a statement accusing the media of a "rush to publish."

"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," Clapper said.

On Sunday morning, prior to Snowden’s unmasking, Clapper got some backup from the chairs of the House and Senate intelligence committees, who appeared jointly on ABC’s "This Week" to espouse the values of the programs. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) had harsh words for the then-unnamed leaker and for the journalist who first reported the NSA’s collection of phone records, The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald.

"[Greenwald] doesn’t have a clue how this thing works; nether did the person who released just enough information to literally be dangerous," Rogers said, adding, "I absolutely think [the leaker] should be prosecuted."

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) agreed that whoever had leaked the information should be prosecuted, and she sought to beat back media reports that suggest the Obama administration overplayed the impact of the programs. Greenwald, who appeared earlier on the same show, said the secrecy is the reason the programs must be laid bare. After opponents of the programs questioned their value last week, anonymous administration officials pointed to the thwarting of a bomb plot targeting the New York City subway system in 2009. Soon after, though, reporters noted that public documents suggested regular police work was responsible for thwarting the attack rather than a secret government intelligence program.

Feinstein confirmed that the programs were invaluable in both the New York case and another one involving an American plotting to bomb a hotel in India in 2008. "One of them is the case of David Headley, who went to Mumbai to the Taj [Mahal] Hotel and scoped it out for the terrorist attack," Feinstein said. "The second is Najibullah Zazi, who lived in Colorado, who made the decision that he was going to blow up a New York subway."

Feinstein noted that she could talk about those two cases because they have been declassified, but she suggested the surveillance programs also assisted in other terrorism-related cases. That explanation wasn’t enough to satisfy some critics of the programs.

Her Senate Intelligence Committee colleague, Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), agreed that the PRISM program has "been very effective." But he said the collection of Americans’ phone metadata has not proven so. "It’s unclear to me that we’ve developed any intelligence through the metadata program that’s led to the disruption of plots that we couldn’t obtain through other programs," Udall said Sunday on CNN’s "State of the Union."

Udall and two Democrats from Oregon — Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley — have emerged as key voices critical of the phone record collection.

Another chief critic of the efforts, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), said he is looking at filing a lawsuit against the government and called on Americans to join in. "I’m going to be asking all the Internet providers and all of the phone companies, ask your customers to join me in a class action lawsuit," Paul said on "Fox News Sunday." "If we get 10 million Americans saying we don’t want our phone records looked at, then somebody will wake up and say things will change in Washington."

This article originally appeared in The Washington Post. Greg Miller also contributed to this article.

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