Gregory Korte, USA TODAY
The criminal investigation into who leaked key documents on the government's secret electronic snooping programs had only just started when a 29-year-old federal contract employee came forward and claimed responsibility.
Now, Edward Snowden is holed up in a Hong Kong hotel room, seeking to avoid the criminal prosecution he knows is inevitable. "I am not afraid," he told the Guardian, the British newspaper he leaked documents to, "because this is the choice I've made."
The North Carolina native and high school dropout went public Sunday even after the National Security Agency said it had made a criminal referral to the Department of Justice..
The spy agency said it was still assessing the damage caused. "Any person who has a security clearance knows that he or she has an obligation to protect classified information and abide by the law," said Shawn Turner, a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Justice Department spokeswoman Nanda Chitre declined comment beyond saying the department "is in the initial stages of an investigation into the unauthorized disclosure of classified information by an individual with authorized access.''
A federal law enforcement official said a referral for criminal inquiry already had been requested before the leaker was identified Sunday. The official, who is not authorized to comment publicly on the matter, said the investigation will be overseen by the FBI counter-terrorism officials and likely will be based in the bureau's Washington field office.
And Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., the House Intelligence Committee chairman and a former FBI agent, said the leaker committed a crime.
"Taking a very sensitive classified program that targets foreign persons on foreign lands, and putting just enough out there to be dangerous, is dangerous to us, it's dangerous to our national security and it violates the oath of which that person took," Rogers said on ABC's This Week, before Snowden went public. "I absolutely think they should be prosecuted."
Snowden told the Washington Post, where he also sent stolen NSA documents, that he would "ask for asylum from any countries that believe in free speech and oppose the victimization of global privacy."
A former technical assistant for the CIA, Snowden spent the past four years working for a series of NSA contractors, most recently Booz Allen Hamilton.
Booz Allen confirmed Sunday that Snowden had been an employee for less than three months, assigned to a team in Hawaii. "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 in a written statement. It promised to cooperate with authorities.
Snowden left his job at the NSA's Hawaii office three weeks ago, taking with him the documents that he then leaked.
Snowden admitted being the source for the Washington Post and the Guardian for stories last week detailing the broad scope of government data collection:
- A sealed court order forcing Verizon to turn over millions of telephone call records;
- A presentation on PRISM, a government system to collect communications from Internet companies like Google, Facebook and Apple;
- And documents related to "Boundless Informant," a system to track, catalog and map the source of all the data that NSA brings in worldwide.
In a video accompanying the Guardian story, Snowden said the NSA "targets the communications of everyone" - including American citizens - and routinely gathers vast amounts of data on everyday communications.
"So while they may be intending to target someone associated with a foreign government, or someone that they suspect of terrorism, they're collecting your communications to do so," he said.
"Any analyst at any time can target anyone," he said. "I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authority to wiretap anyone from you or your accountant to a federal judge to even the president if I had a personal e-mail."