WASHINGTON — A 29-year-old contractor who claims to have worked at the National Security Agency and the CIA was revealed Sunday as the source of disclosures about the U.S. government's secret surveillance programs, risking prosecution by the U.S. government.
The leaks have reopened the post-Sept. 11 debate about privacy concerns versus heightened measure to protect against terrorist attacks, and led the NSA to ask the Justice Department to conduct a criminal investigation into the leaks.
The Guardian, the first paper to disclose the documents, said it was publishing the identity of Edward Snowden, a former technical assistant for the CIA and current employee of defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, at his own request.
"My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them," Snowden told the newspaper.
Stories in The Guardian and The Washington Post published over the last week revealed two surveillance programs.
One of them is a phone records monitoring program in which the NSA gathers hundreds of millions of U.S. phone records each day, creating a database through which it can learn whether terror suspects have been in contact with people in the U.S. The Obama administration says the NSA program does not listen to actual conversations.
Separately, an Internet scouring program, code-named PRISM, allows the NSA and FBI to tap directly into nine U.S. Internet companies to gather all Internet usage — audio, video, photographs, emails and searches. The effort is designed to detect suspicious behavior that begins overseas.
Snowden said claims the programs are secure are not true.
"Any analyst at any time can target anyone. Any selector. Anywhere. Where those communications will be picked up depends on the range of those sensor networks and the authority that that analyst is empowered with," Snowden said, in accompanying video on the Guardian's website. "Not all analysts have the power to target anything. But 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."
He told the Post that he would "ask for asylum from any countries that believe in free speech and oppose the victimization of global privacy" in an interview from Hong Kong, where he is staying.
"I'm not going to hide," Snowden told the Post. "Allowing the U.S. government to intimidate its people with threats of retaliation for revealing wrongdoing is contrary to the public interest."
The Post declined to elaborate on its reporting about Snowden.
Spokespeople for the White House, the Director of National Intelligence, NSA and CIA did not have immediate comment on the disclosures, nor would they confirm whether Snowden worked at the U.S. intelligence agencies.
In a statement, Booz Allen confirmed that Snowden "has been an employee of our firm for less than 3 months, assigned to a team in Hawaii." The statement said if the news reports of what he has leaked prove accurate, "this action represents a grave violation of the code of conduct," and the company promised to work closely with authorities on the investigation.