Edward Snowden, a former undercover CIA employee, unmasked himself Sunday as the principal source of recent Washington Post and Guardian disclosures about top-secret National Security Agency programs.
Snowden, 29, who has contracted for the NSA and works for the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, denounced what he described as systematic surveillance of innocent citizens and said in an interview that "it's important to send a message to government that people will not be intimidated."
Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. said Saturday that the NSA had initiated a Justice Department investigation into who leaked the information -- an investigation supported by intelligence officials in Congress.
Snowden said he understands the risks of disclosing the information but felt it was important to do.
"I'm not going to hide," Snowden told The Post from Hong Kong, where he has been staying. The Guardian was the first to publicly identify Snowden, at his request. "Allowing the U.S. government to intimidate its people with threats of retaliation for revealing wrongdoing is contrary to the public interest."
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Asked whether he believed his disclosures would change anything, he said: "I think they already have. Everyone everywhere now understands how bad things have gotten -- and they're talking about it. They have the power to decide for themselves whether they are willing to sacrifice their privacy to the surveillance state."
Snowden said nobody was aware of his actions, including those closest to him. He said there wasn't a single event that spurred his decision to leak the information.
Snowden said President Barack Obama hasn't lived up to his pledges of transparency. He blamed a lack of accountability in the Bush administration for continued abuses.
"It set an example that when powerful figures are suspected of wrongdoing, releasing them from the accountability of law is 'for our own good'?" Snowden said. "That's corrosive to the basic fairness of society."
The White House did not respond to multiple emails seeking comment. Spokesman Josh Earnest, who was traveling with the president, said the White House would have no comment Sunday.
A brief statement from a spokesperson for Clapper's office referred media to the Justice Department for comment and said the intelligence community was "reviewing the damage" that had been done by the leaks.
"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 statement said.
Snowden said he is seeking "asylum from any countries that believe in free speech and oppose the victimization of global privacy," but the law appears to provide for his extradition from Hong Kong to the United States.
Current and former U.S. intelligence officials said the revelation of Snowden's role in the leaks would lead to a sweeping re-examination of security measures at the CIA and NSA, and described his apparent decision to come forward as a stunning conclusion to a week of disclosures that had already rattled the intelligence community.
Officials said that the CIA and other spy agencies did not relax their screening measures as the workforce expanded after 9/11. Still, several officials said that the agency would undoubtedly now begin reviewing the process by which Snowden was hired, seeking to determine whether there were any missed signs that he might one day betray national secrets.