HONG KONG (CNN) — The man behind of one of the biggest leaks in the history of U.S. intelligence is a former technical assistant for the CIA who is now holed up in a Hong Kong hotel, in danger of running out of money and hoping to find asylum somewhere in the world.
Edward Snowden, 29, was identified over the weekend by American and British newspapers as the person who exposed details of a top-secret American program that collects vast streams of phone and Internet data.
The revelations have set off a furious debate in the United States about whether the surveillance program is a disturbing form of government overreach or an important tool for intelligence agencies trying to prevent attacks against the nation.
They have also dealt a fresh blow to the Obama administration, which has found itself on the defensive early in the president’s second term amid other complaints of intrusions of privacy.
As details of the U.S. government’s widespread telecommunications surveillance emerged last week in reports by the British newspaper The Guardian and The Washington Post, speculation built about who the source of the information might be.
Could it be a disgruntled high-ranking official at the National Security Agency, the U.S. electronic intelligence service?
It turned out to be Snowden, who until recently was working as a computer technician for a U.S. defense contractor.
In an interview that the Guardian published Sunday, Snowden said he walked away from a six-figure salary in Hawaii for the computer consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton and is sitting 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.
Hidden in Hong Kong
It was unclear Monday where Snowden was staying in Hong Kong. But the two journalists who wrote the stories for The Guardian based on the information Snowden leaked — Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill — were present at the W Hotel in the city’s Kowloon district.
“From morning to night he’s in his hotel room, has his meals in his room,” MacAskill told CNN, declining to give any information about which hotel Snowden is in.
Hotel staff at the W said nobody under Snowden’s name was staying there.
Mandy Chan, an employee at the Mira Hotel in the nearby neighborhood of Tsim Sha Tsui, said somebody by the name of Edward Snowden had checked out of the Mira on Monday. She declined to provide further details on his stay.
He has only left his room three times since he arrived in Hong Kong about three weeks ago, MacAskill said, “and that was only briefly.”
The cost of living in a hotel is threatening to burn through Snowden’s remaining funds, according to MacAskill.
“His credit card is going to max out pretty quickly,” he said.
Snowden left the United States for Hong Kong without telling his family or girlfriend where he was going or why. Now, he’s concerned about the repercussions his actions could have for them.
“The terrible thing is he is worried about his family, that they’ll be victimized,” MacAskill said. “He’s basically cut off from family.”
But Snowden acted with full awareness of the possible consequences.
“He’s thought this out, he’s been thinking about this for a few years,” MacAskill said. “He’s not impetuous, and this wasn’t a hasty decision.”
Will he be extradited?
What happens next to Snowden depends on a number of factors.
If U.S. authorities decide to try to extradite him from Hong Kong, they would first have to charge him.
Though Hong Kong 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.
“I think he looked around, this seemed the safest bet,” MacAskill said. Snowden hopes to get asylum, he added, with Iceland his first choice because of the way it dealt with Wikileaks.
Iceland is one of the countries that offered a degree of legal protection to Wikileaks, a group that facilitates the anonymous leaking of secret information through its website. The group reportedly once operated from there.
But Kristin Arnadottir, Iceland’s ambassador to China, said that according to Icelandic law, a person can only submit an application for asylum once he or she is in Iceland.
The first call in the United States for Snowden’s prosecution came shortly after his identity was made public, from Rep. Peter King, the chairman of a House Homeland Security subcommittee and a member of the Intelligence Committee.
“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, R-New York, said in a written 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.”
‘An enormous service’
But freedom of information advocates take a different view.
“I think he’s done an enormous service,” said Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers.
“It gives us a chance, I think, from drawing back from the total surveillance state that we could say we’re in process of becoming, I’m afraid we have become,” Ellsberg said on CNN Newsroom on Sunday.
The Pentagon Papers showed that the government had lied to Congress and the public about the progress of the Vietnam War. Ellsberg provided all 7,000 pages to The New York Times, which published them in 1971.
In Snowden’s case, 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.
On Thursday, The Guardian and The Washington Post disclosed the existence of PRISM, a program they said allows NSA analysts to extract the 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.”
Defending the program
James Clapper, director of the Office of National Intelligence, had no direct comment on Snowden’s admission, but noted, “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 Justice Department declined to comment, citing an ongoing investigation into the leak.
Leaders of the intelligence committees in Congress defended the controversial program Sunday.
Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said it helped lead to convictions in two cases:
— Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan-born Colorado man who pleaded guilty to conspiring to bomb targets in New York.
— David Headley, who pleaded guilty to conducting advance surveillance for the Pakistani jihadists who attacked hotels and other targets in Mumbai, India, in 2008, killing 164 people.
“These programs are within the law,” Feinstein, D-California, told ABC’s “This Week.” And Rep. Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told ABC, “The inflammatory nature of the comments does not fit with what Dianne and I know this program really does.”
“The instances where this has produced good — has disrupted plots, prevented terrorist attacks — is all classified,” said Rogers, R-Michigan. “That’s what’s so hard about this.”
Clapper: Programs authorized
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.”
It said PRISM was created in 2008, targets “foreign targets located outside the United States” and gets reviewed by the administration, Congress and judges. And Rogers told reporters Sunday that “there is not a target on Americans.”
But Greenwald, the lead author of the Guardian pieces, told ABC’s “This Week” that 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.
The Obama administration is already under fire following revelations the Justice Department seized two months of phone records from Associated Press reporters and editors as part of an investigation into leaks of classified information.
‘I do not expect to see home again’
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.
In a statement issued Sunday afternoon, Booz Allen said Snowden had worked for the company for less than three months. Reports that he had leaked American secrets were “shocking” and if true, “represents a grave violation of the code of conduct and core values of our firm,” the company said.
Snowden told the Guardian that he left for Hong Kong on May 20 without telling his family or his girlfriend what he planned.
“I do not expect to see home again,” he told the paper, acknowledging the risk of imprisonment over his actions.
“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.”
CNN’s Jethro Mullen reported and wrote from Hong Kong with Matt Smith in Atlanta. CNN’s Brian Walker and Anjali Tsui in Hong Kong; and Elise Labott and Carol Cratty in Washington contributed to this report.