WASHINGTON — A former CIA employee working as a contractor at the U.S. National Security Agency revealed on Sunday that he is the one who leaked details of a top-secret U.S. surveillance program.
Edward Snowden, 29, said he acted out of conscience to protect “basic liberties for people around the world.”
Mr. Snowden said he had decided to publicize details of the NSA program because he felt the United States was building an espionage machine that spied on every American.
Mr. Snowden, a former technical assistant at the CIA, said he had been working at the super-secret NSA as an employee of contractor Booz Allen.
He said he decided to leak information after becoming disenchanted with President Obama, who he said had continued the policies of predecessor George W. Bush.
“I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things. ... I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded. That is not something I am willing to support or live under,” Mr. Snowden told the British Guardian newspaper.
Both the Guardian and the Washington Post published revelations last week that U.S. security services had monitored data about phone calls from Verizon and Internet data from large companies such as Google and Facebook.
In identifying Mr. Snowden on Sunday, the papers said he had sought to be identified.
“The NSA has built an infrastructure that allows it to intercept almost everything,” Mr. Snowden said in explaining his actions.
“With this capability, the vast majority of human communications are automatically ingested without targeting. If I wanted to see your emails or your wife’s phone, all I have to do is use intercepts. I can get your emails, passwords, phone records, credit cards,” he said.
The Guardian said Mr. Snowden had been working at the NSA for four years as a contractor for outside companies.
Three weeks ago, he copied the secret documents at the NSA office in Hawaii and told his supervisor he needed “a couple of weeks” off for treatment for epilepsy, the paper said.
On May 20, he flew to Hong Kong.
The CIA and the White House declined to comment.
A spokesman for the Director of National Intelligence would not comment directly about Mr. Snowden but said the intelligence community was reviewing damage done by the leaks.
The NSA has requested a criminal investigation.
The U.S. Justice Department said Sunday it was in the initial stages of a criminal investigation of the case.
Booz Allen, a U.S. management and technology consulting firm, said reports of the leaked information were “shocking and if accurate, this action represents a grave violation” of company policy.
The company said Mr. Snowden had worked for the firm for less than three months. It said it would cooperate with any investigations.
Mr. Snowden’s decision to reveal his identity and whereabouts lifts the lid on one of the biggest security leaks in U.S. history.
Disclosure of the secret programs has triggered debate within the United States and abroad about the vast reach of the NSA, which has expanded its surveillance dramatically since the Sept. 11 attacks on Washington and New York in 2001.
U.S. officials say the agency operates within the law.
Some high-ranking members of Congress have indicated support for the NSA activities, while others Sunday pushed for tougher oversight and possible changes to the law authorizing the surveillance.
Lawmakers in both political parties called for swift action to protect civil liberties of U.S. citizens.
Sen. Mark Udall (D., Colo.), a member of the Senate’s intelligence panel, said he’ll push to change the USA Patriot Act that allows wiretapping and other expanded government surveillance tools. He said he wants to better ensure individual rights aren’t trampled in the process.
Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.), who is exploring a 2016 presidential bid, said he wants to see a class-action lawsuit challenge the government’s surveillance program of phone records at the Supreme Court.
“We’re talking about trolling through billions of phone records,” Mr. Paul, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on Fox News. “That is unconstitutional. It invades our privacy.”
Mr. Snowden, who said he had left his girlfriend in Hawaii without telling her where he was going, said he knew the risk he was taking.
“My primary fear is that they will come after my family, my friends, my partner. Anyone I have a relationship with,” he said.
He spoke of his willingness to give up a comfortable life in Hawaii, where he was paid about $200,000 a year.
“I’m willing to sacrifice all of that because I can’t 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.”