Future Tense

Edward Snowden, the Man Behind the NSA Leaks

Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden.

Screenshot from Guardian interview.

In the past week, a series of leaked documents have exposed explosive details about the National Security Agency’s top-secret surveillance programs. Now, in an extraordinary twist, the source of the leaks has chosen to out himself.

Up until recently, 29-year-old Edward Snowden was a Hawaii-based security contractor in his fourth year working for the NSA. In an interview with the Guardian published Sunday, he explains that he decided to give up his life working for the spy agency and leak documents about its activities because he believes that what it is doing behind a veil of secrecy poses “an existential threat to democracy.” Snowden, who is currently in hiding in a Hong Kong hotel, told the newspaper that before leaking the documents he tried to raise concerns within the NSA about what he described as “abuses”—but was ignored. He alleges that the NSA “specifically targets the communications of everyone” and says as an NSA analyst he had the unrestrained power to tap into any American’s communications:

Any analyst at any time can target anyone. … Where those communications will be picked up depends on the range of the sensor networks and the authorities that that analyst is empowered with. Not all analysts have the ability to target everything. But I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone: From you or your accountant, to a federal judge, to even the president if I had a personal email.

In coming forward, Snowden exposes himself as the whistle-blower behind a series of incredible stories published by the Guardian and the Washington Post in recent days. The first disclosure came on Thursday when a secret court order was published by the Guardian showing that the NSA had ordered Verizon to turn over millions of Americans’ phone records, which it later emerged had been going on for seven years as part of a sweeping surveillance program also involving AT&T and Sprint Nextel customers. On Thursday the Post and the Guardian jointly revealed an NSA Internet surveillance system called PRISM, used to sweep up troves of private user data from the servers of companies including Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, and Facebook. On Friday, another Guardian scoop detailed a top-secret presidential directive revealing that Barack Obama has asked national security officials to draw up a list of potential overseas targets for U.S. cyber-attacks. And then on Saturday, the Guardian exposed the existence of a secret tool used by the NSA to map its sweeping international surveillance capabilities. Documents about the tool, codenamed Boundless Informant, illustrated how the agency had gathered a massive “97bn pieces of intelligence from computer networks worldwide” in March alone.

For Snowden, leaking the documents does not appear to have been an easy choice. But he says that he eventually decided that had no option but to sacrifice his “comfortable life” in Hawaii—his $200,000 salary, family, and girlfriend—because he could not in “good conscience allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, Internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.” He says he fears being tracked down by the CIA in Hong Kong—or even hunted by Triad gangsters working for the U.S. government—but decided to unmask himself because he felt that the public was owed an explanation for why he leaked the documents. “The government has granted itself power it is not entitled to—there is no public oversight,” he said. “This is the truth, this is what’s happening. You should decide whether we need to be doing this.”