WASHINGTON — The man who gave classified documents to reporters, making public two sweeping U.S. surveillance programs and touching off a national debate on privacy versus security, has revealed his own identity. He risked decades in jail for the disclosures — if the U.S. can extradite him from Hong Kong where he has taken refuge.
Edward Snowden, 29, who says he worked as a contractor at the National Security Agency and the CIA, allowed The Guardian and The Washington Post newspapers to reveal his identity Sunday.
Both papers have published a series of top-secret documents outlining two NSA surveillance programs. One gathers hundreds of millions of U.S. phone records while searching for possible links to known terrorist targets abroad, and the second allows the government to tap into nine U.S. Internet companies to gather all Internet usage to detect suspicious behavior that begins overseas.
The revelations have reopened the post-Sept. 11 debate about individual privacy concerns versus heightened measures to protect the U.S. against terrorist attacks. The NSA has asked the Justice Department to conduct a criminal investigation into the leaks. Government lawyers are now "in the initial stages of an investigation into the unauthorized disclosure of classified information by an individual with authorized access," said Nanda Chitre, Justice Department spokeswoman.
President Barack Obama said the programs are authorized by Congress and subject to strict supervision of a secret court, and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper says they do not target U.S. citizens.
But Snowden claims the programs are open to abuse.
"Any analyst at any time can target anyone. Any selector. Anywhere," Snowden said in a video on the Guardian's website. "I, sitting at my desk, had the authority to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant to a federal judge to even the president if I had a personal email."
Some lawmakers have expressed similar concerns about the wide reach of the surveillance.
"I expect the government to protect my privacy. It feels like that isn't what's been happening," said Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. "Again, there's a line, but to me, the scale of it and the fact the law was being secretly interpreted has long concerned me," he said Sunday on CNN, adding that at the same time, he abhors leaks.
Senate intelligence committee chairman, Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California, contends the surveillance does not infringe on U.S. citizens' privacy, and that it helped disrupt a 2009 plot to bomb New York City's subways and played a role in the case against an American who scouted targets in Mumbai, India, before a deadly terrorist attack there in 2008. Feinstein spoke on ABC's "This Week."
Clapper has decried the revelation of the intelligence-gathering programs as reckless and said it has done "huge, grave damage."
The spokesman for the Director of National Intelligence Shawn Turner said intelligence officials are "currently reviewing the damage that has been done by these recent disclosures."
The disclosures come as the White House deals with managing fallout from revelations that it secretly seized telephone records of journalists at The Associated Press and Fox News.