WASHINGTON— The 29-year-old government contractor who turned whistleblower to reveal vast US surveillance programs says he is not afraid, despite the intelligence authorities’ threat to hunt him down.
In footage shot by The Guardian newspaper, Edward Snowden said he packed his bags for Hong Kong three weeks ago, leaving behind a “very comfortable life” in Hawaii, a salary of $200,000, a girlfriend, a stable career and a loving family.
“I’m willing to sacrifice all of that because I can’t in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, Internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world,” Snowden said.
He is behind one of the most significant security breaches in US history, joining the likes of Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg and Bradley Manning, who released US diplomatic cables and war logs to the WikiLeaks website.
Snowden cited both men as inspiration.
A former technical assistant for the CIA, Snowden worked for four years at the National Security Agency (NSA) as an employee of various outside contractors, including Dell and Booz Allen Hamilton, his current employer.
“My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them,” he said.
In the video, posted on the newspaper’s website, the bespectacled analyst appeared composed, speaking deliberately as he admitted: “I do not expect to see home again.”
“I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong,” he said. “I am not afraid, because this is the choice I’ve made.”
But Snowden admitted he was worried about possible retaliation from US authorities, who are seeking a criminal probe into the leaks.
Before the whistleblower’s identity was revealed, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has vowed to “track down whoever’s doing this” and accused the leaker of causing “huge, grave damage” to US intelligence.
The Guardian said Snowden had mostly remained ensconced in his Hong Kong hotel room since boarding a flight on May 20, stepping outside for only about three times during his entire stay.
Worried about being spied on, he has lined the door of his hotel room with pillows and places a large red hood over his head and laptop when typing passwords so that any hidden cameras can’t record them, the newspaper added.
“All my options are bad,” Snowden said, with possible extradition proceedings, questioning by Chinese authorities or an extra-legal detention by the CIA hanging over his head.
“Yes, I could be rendered by the CIA. I could have people come after me. Or any of the third-party partners. They work closely with a number of other nations. Or they could pay off the Triads. Any of their agents or assets.”
Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China with its own legal system, has an extradition treaty with the United States.
Snowden staked his best hope on possible asylum in Iceland, known as an Internet freedom champion, despite the huge challenges to realizing that goal.
Over many hours of interviews with The Guardian, Snowden only showed emotion when asked about the impact of his decisions on his relatives, many of whom work for the US government.
“The only thing I fear is the harmful effects on my family, who I won’t be able to help any more. That’s what keeps me up at night,” he said, as his eyes filled with tears.
Snowden grew up in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, later moving to Maryland, near the NSA’s headquarters at Fort Meade.
A less than stellar student, he studied computing at a Maryland community college to get the necessary credits to obtain a high school diploma, but never finished the course.
In 2003, he joined the US Army and began training with the Special Forces. But he was discharged after breaking both his legs in a training accident.
His first job with the NSA was as a security guard for one of the agency’s secret facilities at the University of Maryland. He then worked on IT security at the CIA.
Despite his lack of formal qualifications, his computer wizardry allowed him to quickly rise through intelligence ranks. By 2007, he was given a CIA post with diplomatic cover in Geneva.
Snowden left the CIA in 2009 to work for a private contractor that gave him an assignment at an NSA facility on a military base in Japan.