The source of a series of top secret leaks from the National Security Agency has stepped out of the shadows and identified himself as ex-CIA technical assistant Edward Snowden, saying he was standing up against the U.S. government's "horrifying" surveillance capabilities.
"I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded," the 29-year-old told the British newspaper The Guardian, which broke the first in a series of headline-grabbing articles on NSA surveillance late last week. "That is not something I am willing to support or live under."
According to The Guardian, Snowden has been working with the NSA for the last four years as an "employee of various outside contractors," including the technology consulting firm Booz Allen and the computer giant Dell. Before that, he served as a computer specialist for years with the CIA, which he left in 2009.
Snowden says he was motivated by principle to pull back the veil on one of the government's most secretive entities and its programs to track Americans' phone records and internet usage.
"The government has granted itself power it is not entitled to," he said in a written interview with The Guardian. "There is no public oversight. The result is people like myself have the latitude to go further than they are allowed to."
Snowden claims that the documents he has leaked show that the NSA "routinely lies in response to congressional inquiries about the scope of surveillance in America."
Snowden said he's spent the last few days in Hong Kong, in apparent fear of U.S. recrimination.
"[Hong Kong has] a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent," he said.
The Guardian report revealing Snowden is written by Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, Guardian D.C. Bureau Chief Ewen MacAskill and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras. Poitras had co-authored a related NSA story for The Washington Post, but until the shared credit for today's story, the connection between Greenwald and Poitras was only an obscure six-month-old advocacy group, as reported by ABC News earlier today.
The organization, called the Freedom of the Press Foundation, has no offices and a shoestring budget. Its board is led by one of the most famous whistleblowers in American history, Daniel Ellsberg, whose leak of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 exposed the secret history of the run-up to war in Vietnam on the front page of The New York Times. Two of the group's board members now appear to be involved in a story that's following a similar model.
Greenwald, the author of reports in The Guardian about the National Security Agency's collection of phone records and a follow-up scoop involving the leak of a secret document about U.S. cyber warfare efforts, is one of a handful of journalists who sit on the board alongside activists, Hollywood actors and other patrons.
Poitras, another board member, is a documentary filmmaker who shared a byline on The Washington Post report about a secret program to scour the Internet for clues about terrorist activities.
In the case of Greenwald's phone monitoring report, The Guardian published a Top Secret order by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which was extraordinary in part because it was the first known leak in the super secret court's 35-year history, according to insiders.
Before Snowden came forward, Greenwald appeared on ABC News "This Week" Sunday and compared the leaked information and the government's response to the Pentagon Papers and said to expect more reports on government programs based on leaked information.
"I am not going to confirm that there is only one [source] -- there could be one or more than one," Greenwald said on "This Week." "[S]ince the government hides virtually everything that they do at the threat of criminal prosecution, the only way for us to learn about them is through these courageous whistle-blowers -- who deserve our praise and gratitude, and not imprisonment and prosecution."
Cindy Cohn, an attorney for the Freedom of the Press Foundation, is also one of several employees of a similar press freedom organization -- the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). Several employees of EFF founded the press freedom organization in December, and the two groups share a board member. In addition to representing the foundation, Cohn is the attorney of record in a lawsuit seeking to stop warrantless wiretapping and hold the government and government officials behind the program accountable. Cohn said the foundation has not yet received nonprofit status from the IRS, and so is operating under the sponsorship of the left-leaning nonprofit media group that publishes Mother Jones.
According to The Guardian, Snowden has a sticker on his computer that reads, "I Support Online Rights: Electronic Frontier Foundation."
Late last week, U.S. officials told ABC News they suspected a single person could be behind the NSA leaks and were attempting to identify him or her.
"It's completely reckless and illegal," one senior law enforcement source said of the leaker. "It's more than just unauthorized. He's no hero."
Former FBI Deputy Director Tim Murphy said then that the leaker should be punished for such an egregious breach.
"You have an obligation when you have a clearance not to leak this kind of information," he said.
Snowden told The Guardian he has no illusions about what could be coming his way when it comes to the U.S. government's response to his disclosures.
"I could not do this without accepting the risk of prison. You can't come up against the world's most powerful intelligence agencies and not accept the risk. If they want you to get you, over time they will," he said. "I think the sense of outrage [over the NSA programs] that has been expressed is justified. It has given me hope that, no matter what happens to me, the outcome will be positive for America.
"I do not expect to see home again, though that is what I want," he said.
It appears that Snowden donated a total of $500 to Ron Paul's 2012 presidential campaign in two installments. The contributions of $250 each were on March 18, 2012, and May 6, 2012 -- both well after Paul was out of contention for the GOP nomination.
The CIA declined to comment about Snowden's claim of past employment. In a statement, Booz Allen confirmed that Snowden has been an employee for them for less than three months.
"News reports that this individual has claimed to have leaked classified information are shocking, and if accurate, this action represents a grave violation of the code of conduct and core values of our firm," the company said.
A spokesman for the Director of National Intelligence referred questions to the Justice Department for "any further specifics of the unauthorized disclosure of classified information by a person with authorized access."
"The Intelligence Community is currently reviewing the damage that has been done by these recent disclosures," DNI spokesman Shawn Turner said. "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 the ongoing investigation.
"The Department of Justice is in the initial stages of an investigation into the unauthorized disclosure of classified information by an individual with authorized access," Justice spokeswoman Nanda Chitre said. "Consistent with long standing Department policy and procedure and in order to protect the integrity of the investigation, we must decline further comment."
[Editor's Note: This story has been updated to clarify that the Freedom of the Press Foundation operates under the sponsoship of the nonprofit group the Foundation for National Progress, which publishes Mother Jones.]