U.S. intelligence officials on the trail of rogue contractor Edward Snowden are now treating the National Security Agency leak case as a possible foreign espionage matter, raising fears that the 29-year-old computer whiz may be attempting to defect to China with a trove of America's most sensitive secrets, according to U.S. officials.
"I think there is a real concern about that," a senior official familiar with the case told ABC News on Thursday. Another law enforcement official said it was a "very legitimate" worry.
In an interview Wednesday with Hong Kong's South China Morning Post, Snowden said his country "had been hacking into computers in Hong Kong and [in China] for years."
Those remarks alarmed intelligence officials, who considered those statements as much of a betrayal as his alleged leaking of highly classified files on the NSA's vast surveillance program to two newspapers last week, the senior official said.
Investigators are scrambling to piece together what may have been swiped by Snowden, who said he was in contact with two reporters to whom he eventually leaked Top Secret files before he took a $122,000 a year job as an NSA contractor with technology consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton in Hawaii last March.
The Guardian, the British paper that first broke stories on NSA surveillance programs allegedly based on Snowden's information, reported overnight that Snowden took four laptops filled with secrets with him when he fled from Hawaii to Hong Kong late last month. Glenn Greenwald, a columnist for The Guardian, has promised more stories exposing U.S. operations were to come.
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., told reporters today that investigators are trying to determine whether Snowden has links to any foreign nations.
"We need to ask a lot more questions about his motives, his connections, where he ended up, why he is there, how is he sustaining himself while he is there, and [if] the Chinese government [is] fully cooperating," Rogers said. "I think those would be all great questions to chase down."
Jeremy Bash, former CIA and Pentagon Chief of Staff, told ABC News today that the possibility of Snowden defecting to China, or even cooperating with Chinese officials, is a top concern for U.S. officials.
"He could do tremendous damage," Bash said during an interview for the ABC News/Yahoo Power Players series. "I think if a foreign government learned everything that was in Edward Snowden's brain, they would have a good window into the way we collect signals intelligence… He had access to highly classified information."
Piecing Together Edward Snowden's Mysterious Past
When Edward Snowden revealed himself to be the source of the NSA leaks in an interview with The Guardian Sunday, he briefly described how he went from a high school dropout to a man entrusted with some of the nation's most closely guarded secrets. An investigation by ABC News pieced together the many parts that he left out.
After Snowden quit high school, he earned his GED and then undertook a self-designed college education through a patchwork of classes at community, for-profit and online schools.
As a young man, Snowden lived on his own, according to a neighbor, and took work at a Japanese anime website based in a residential home on the Fort Meade, Maryland Army post, just one block from the National Security Agency headquarters.
During this period, it appears he designed his own syllabus, taking college courses at five different institutions without bothering to seek a diploma -- an unorthodox path to a career in the world of high-tech intelligence gathering.