National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters
National Security Agency (NSA) headquartersReuters

Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former undercover CIA employee, unmasked himself on Sunday as the principal source of recent disclosures about top-secret National Security Agency programs, the Washington Post reported.

Snowden, who has contracted for the NSA and works for the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, denounced what he described as systematic surveillance of innocent citizens and said in an interview that “it’s important to send a message to government that people will not be intimidated.”

Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. said Saturday that the NSA had initiated a Justice Department investigation into who leaked the information, which was reported last week by both the Washington Post and the British Guardian. Clapper said the investigation is supported by intelligence officials in Congress.

Snowden, whose full name is Edward Joseph Snowden, told the Washington Post he understands the risks of disclosing the information but felt it was important to do.

“I intend to ask for asylum from any countries that believe in free speech and oppose the victimization of global privacy,” he said, speaking from Hong Kong, where he has been staying.

“I’m not going to hide,” Snowden said. “Allowing the U.S. government to intimidate its people with threats of retaliation for revealing wrongdoing is contrary to the public interest.”

Asked whether he believed his disclosures would change anything, he said, “I think they already have. Everyone everywhere now understands how bad things have gotten — and they’re talking about it. They have the power to decide for themselves whether they are willing to sacrifice their privacy to the surveillance state.”

Snowden said nobody was aware of his actions, including those closest to him. He said there wasn’t a single event that spurred his decision to leak the information.

“It was more of a slow realization that presidents could openly lie to secure the office and then break public promises without consequence,” he said.

Snowden said President Obama hasn’t lived up to his pledges of transparency. He blamed a lack of accountability in the Bush administration for continued abuses. The White House could not immediately be reached for comment.

“It set an example that when powerful figures are suspected of wrongdoing, releasing them from the accountability of law is ‘for our own good,’” Snowden told the Washington Post. “That’s corrosive to the basic fairness of society.”

Snowden also expressed hope that the NSA surveillance programs would now be open to legal challenge for the first time. Earlier this year, in Amnesty International v. Clapper, the Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit against the mass collection of phone records because the plaintiffs could not prove exactly what the program did or that they were personally subject to surveillance.

“The government can’t reasonably assert the state secrets privilege for a program it has acknowledged. The courts can now allow challenges to be heard on that basis,” Snowden said, according to the Washington Post.

Snowden’s name surfaced as top intelligence officials in the Obama administration and Congress pushed back against the journalists responsible for revealing the existence of sensitive surveillance programs and called for an investigation into the leaks.

The Guardian initially reported the existence of a program that collects data on all phone calls made on the Verizon network. Later in the week, the Guardian and The Post reported the existence of a separate program, code-named PRISM, that collects the Internet data of foreigners from major Internet companies.

Clapper, in an interview with NBC that aired Saturday night, condemned the leaker’s actions but also sought to spotlight the media who first reported the programs, calling their disclosures irresponsible and full of “hyperbole.”

Earlier Saturday, he had issued a statement accusing the media of a “rush to publish.”

On Sunday morning, prior to Snowden’s unmasking, Clapper got some backup from the chairs of the House and Senate intelligence committees, who appeared jointly on ABC’s “This Week” to espouse the values of the programs.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) had harsh words for the still-unnamed leaker and for the journalist who first reported the NSA’s collection of phone records.

“He doesn’t have a clue how this thing works; neither did the person who released just enough information to literally be dangerous,” Rogers was quoted as having said, adding, “I absolutely think [the leaker] should be prosecuted.”

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) agreed that whoever had leaked the information should be prosecuted, and she sought to beat back media reports that suggest the Obama administration overplayed the impact of the programs.

Meanwhile, reported the Washington Post, Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), agreed that the so-called PRISM program — which taps into the Internet usage of foreigners — has “been very effective.” But he said the collection of Americans’ phone metadata has not proven so.

“It’s unclear to me that we’ve developed any intelligence through the metadata program that’s led to the disruption of plots that we couldn’t obtain through other programs,” Udall said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Another chief critic of the efforts, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), said he is looking at filing a lawsuit against the government and called on Americans to join in.

“I’m going to be asking all the Internet providers and all of the phone companies, ask your customers to join me in a class action lawsuit,” Paul said on “Fox News Sunday.”

He added, “If we get 10 million Americans saying we don’t want our phone records looked at, then somebody will wake up and say things will change in Washington.”