Leaker of US spying secrets says his goal is ‘transparency’
Revelations reopen debate over civil liberties
Edward Snowden: The 29-year-old former undercover CIA technical assistant, responsible for one of the biggest leaks about US government surveillance programmes, is hiding in a hotel in Hong Kong. Photograph: AP/the Guardian
Edward Snowden was so concerned about being spied on that he lined the door of his hotel room with pillows to prevent eavesdropping and placed a hood over his head and laptop to prevent hidden cameras filming his passwords.
The 29-year-old former undercover CIA technical assistant responsible for one of the biggest leaks about US government surveillance programmes is hiding in a hotel in Hong Kong after leaking secret information about phone sweeping and internet spying to the media.
The leaks have reopened a debate about whether the US government is trampling on constitutional rights and civil liberties with surveillance programmes geared to prevent further terror attacks.
Motivated by what he saw as the government’s overreaching breach of privacy, Snowden sought to be identified as the source of the leaks to the Guardian and the Washington Post. He said he didn’t want to live in “a world where there’s no privacy”.
“The government has granted itself power it is not entitled to,” Snowden told the Guardian in an interview from his hotel in Hong Kong and posted on YouTube. “There is no public oversight. The result is people like myself have the latitude to go further than they are allowed to.”
Snowden, a high school dropout with a skill for computer programming, was raised in North Carolina but his family later moved to Maryland. He joined the US army in 2003 but was discharged after a training accident. He later joined the CIA where in 2007, while stationed in Geneva, he had access to a wide range of classified documents working on computer security. Snowden left the CIA in 2009.
Secretive US state agency Since then he has worked at the National Security Agency (NSA) – the secretive US state agency in charge of surveillance – as an outside contractor, employed by computer firm Dell and Booz Allen Hamilton, a consultancy firm. He was stationed in Hawaii where he shared a house with his girlfriend.
Last month, while working at the NSA offices, he copied the final set of documents that he intended to leak and told his bosses he was taking time off to receive treatment for his epilepsy.
On May 20th he boarded a flight to Hong Kong because of their “spirited commitment to free speech”.
In initial correspondence with the Washington Post Snowden described himself as Verax, the Latin for truth-teller.
He sought a guarantee that the paper would publish in full a PowerPoint presentation describing Prism, a secret spying programme used by the US to collect information about people’s internet use. The paper refused. Snowden then leaked the information to the Guardian.
On Sunday the Guardian revealed Snowden as the source of the leaks for last week’s stories at his request. He had no intention of hiding his identity, he said, because he had done nothing wrong.
He joins the pantheon of other famous US whistleblowers such as Daniel Ellsberg, who revealed the Pentagon papers on US involvement in Vietnam, and Bradley Manning, the US army private who leaked information to WikiLeaks.
He doesn’t want the story to be about him, he said, but “what the US government is doing”.
Snowden distinguished himself from Manning, however, saying that he chose not to hand over all the documents in his possession because “harming people isn’t my goal – transparency is”.
Fearing for his safety he left his hotel about three times since arriving in Hong Kong and ultimately believes that his best chance of finding asylum will be in Iceland which is viewed as a supporter of internet freedom. Iceland offered anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks a safe haven.
Irish-American congressman Peter King, chairman of a congressional intelligence panel, has described Snowden as “a defector” and “dangerous” to the US.
The newly famous whistleblower does not fear any retribution.
He was willing to give up a comfortable life on an annual salary of $200,000 (€150,000) to expose what he sees as wrongdoing, he said.
“I’m willing to sacrifice all of that because I can’t in good conscience allow the US 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.