THE man behind the largest leak of classified information in the history of the US National Security Agency (NSA) has chosen to make his identity public, despite the potential consequences for himself and his loved ones.
Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old employee of defence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton and former CIA technical assistant, said he had never intended to remain anonymous.
"I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong," he said.
Snowden's revelations, which he leaked initially to Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, included the existence of a growing NSA stockpile of millions of phone records from the US public.
According to the top secret documents, the Agency's PRISM programme also gives it "direct access" to files from the servers of major tech companies such as Google and Facebook.
This vast data mining operation is supposedly designed to anticipate and prevent terror plots.
The revelation of Snowden's identity came after the US Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, said on Sunday that he had asked the Justice Department to launch a criminal investigation into the leaks, telling NBC News, "It is literally gut-wrenching to see this happening, because of the huge grave damage it does to our intelligence capabilities… this is a key tool for preserving protecting the nation's safety and security."
The Obama administration has aggressively pursued whistleblowers such as US Army Private Bradley Manning, whose trial on charges of passing classified material to the Wikileaks website began last week, three years after his arrest. Snowden, who is now in hiding in a Hong Kong hotel room, told The Guardian, "I do not expect to see home again."
Snowden was brought up in North Carolina and Maryland. In 2003 he enlisted in the US Army, intending to fight in the Iraq War, but was discharged after breaking both legs in an accident during a Special Forces training programme.
"Snowden said he wanted to fight in Iraq because he felt an obligation to "help free people from oppression", but that "most of the people training us seemed pumped up about killing Arabs, not helping anyone".
He was employed by the NSA as a security guard at one of its covert facilities, and then by the CIA, working on IT security.
Thanks to his aptitude for computer programming, he rose quickly and in 2007 was sent to join a CIA station in Geneva.
During his Swiss posting, Snowden says he became disillusioned with intelligence work, and dismayed by the dubious activities of his colleagues.
He considered turning whistleblower, but changed his mind after Barack Obama was elected President in 2008, with a promise to reform the policies of his White House predecessor.
He left the CIA for his first job with a private contractor the following year, where he was placed on a military base in Japan at an NSA facility.
Yet as the Obama presidency wore on without such reforms, Snowden says he became increasingly "hardened".
"You can't wait around for someone else to act," he said. "I had been looking for leaders, but I realised that leadership is about being the first to act."
Until three weeks ago, Snowden worked at an NSA office in Hawaii.
That was when he finished copying all of the secret documents he planned to leak to the press, and told his supervisor that he would be away from work for a fortnight while he underwent treatment for epilepsy.
He told his girlfriend, with whom he shared a home, that he would be leaving for a few weeks.
As he boarded a flight to Hong Kong on 20 May, he said goodbye to "a very comfortable life" and a salary of approximately $200,000. Since arriving in the city, he says, he rarely leaves his hotel room, the door to which he has muffled with pillows to prevent eavesdropping.
He also puts a large hood over his head and laptop when typing, to prevent hidden cameras picking out his passwords. "I could be rendered by the CIA," he claims, "I could have people come after me… That is a concern I will live with for the rest of my life, however long that happens to be."
In spite of the deprivations involved, Snowden said he felt compelled to blow the whistle. "The NSA has built an infrastructure that allows it to intercept almost everything," he said.
"With this capability, the vast majority of human communications are automatically ingested without targeting. If I wanted to see your emails or your wife's phone, all I have to do is use intercepts. I can get your emails, passwords, phone records, credit cards. I don't want to live in a society that does these sort of things … I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded. That is not something I am willing to support or live under."
A whistleblower in quotes
"I will be made to suffer for my actions, [but] I will be satisfied if the federation of secret law ... and irresistible executive powers that rule the world ... are revealed even for an instant."
"Yes, I could be rendered by the CIA ... or any of the third-party partners. They work closely with a number of other nations. Or they could pay off the Triads ... That is a concern I will live with for the rest of my life, however long that happens to be."
"I am not afraid, because this is the choice I've made. The only thing I fear is the harmful effects on my family, who I won't be able to help any more."
"I had an authority to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant to a federal judge or even the President, if I had a personal email.
"You don't have to have done anything wrong, you simply have to have eventually fall under suspicion ... and then they can use this system to go back in time and ... derive suspicion from an innocent life"
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