WASHINGTON — The man who told the world about the U.S. government’s gigantic data grab also talks a lot about himself.
Mostly through his own words, a picture of Edward Snowden is emerging: fresh-faced computer whiz, high school dropout, wannabe Green Beret, disillusioned cog in a secret bureaucracy.
He’s retained an aura of secrecy despite sitting for several days of interviews with The Guardian, some posted in online video. Snowden combines an earnest, deeply serious demeanor with a flair for the dramatic.
Snowden, 29, fled the U.S. for a Hong Kong hotel last month to go public with top secret documents gathered through his work in Hawaii as a contractor through Booz Allen Hamilton with the National Security Agency, where he worked as a systems analyst. He revealed startlingly voracious spy programs that sweep up millions of Americans’ telephone records, emails and Internet data in the hunt for terrorists.
With the United States considering criminal charges against him, Snowden told the South China Morning Post he hoped to stay in the autonomous region of China because he has faith in “the courts and people of Hong Kong to decide my fate.”
He’s also talked of seeking asylum from Iceland or Russia. And he suggested the United States might hire Chinese gangs to get him. The adversaries he’s made by disclosing secrets are so powerful that “if they want to get you, they’ll get you in time,” Snowden told The Guardian newspaper of London, which first reported his revelations.
Why would a man “living in Hawaii in paradise and making a ton of money” decide to leave everything behind, he asked. Because he realized that his computer savvy was helping erect an ever-expanding “architecture of oppression” and he believed the people must be told.
From a secret location in Hong Kong, he told the newspaper: “The reality is that I have acted at great personal risk to help the public of the world, regardless of whether that public is American, European, or Asian.”
Snowden’s leaked documents have had an enormous impact. Some have questioned, however, his descriptions of his power as a Booz Allen contractor and other details of his life.
For example, he said he was earning $200,000 a year. When Booz Allen fired him, they said his salary was $122,000.
“I, sitting at my desk, had the authority to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant to a federal judge to even the president if I had a personal email,” Snowden told The Guardian on videotape.
Asked by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, about that comment, NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander said simply that it was false. “I know of no way to do that,” Alexander told senators in a hearing Wednesday.
Former NSA and CIA director retired Gen. Mike Hayden called Snowden’s claim “absurd legally and technologically.”
Snowden also raised eyebrows by declaring that in his job he “had access to the full roster of everyone working at the NSA, the entire intelligence community and undercover assets all around the world, the locations of every station we have, what their missions are and so forth.”
Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, who first reported the phone-tracking program and conducted the Snowden interviews, describes him as “very steadfast and resolute about the fact that he did the right thing.”