Four Things to Know About Surveillance Leaker Edward Snowden

Here's what we know so far about his background, political affiliation, security clearance, and future

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Glenn Greenwald / Laura Poitras / The Guardian / Reuters

Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, in a still image taken from a video during an interview with the Guardian in his hotel room in Hong Kong on June 6, 2013

Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old defense contractor who leaked classified documents on U.S. government surveillance programs, revealed himself Sunday afternoon in interviews with the Guardian and the Washington Post.

Snowden, an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton for the past three months, moved to a Hong Kong hotel on May 20, after accessing a trove of classified information from a government office in Hawaii with the intent to reveal information on the controversial classified programs, the Guardian reported.

Last week the British paper revealed details on two classified programs — one pertaining to the seizure of all telephone metadata in the U.S. and another dealing with an effort to monitor Internet activities overseas using the resources of American technology firms. The Post revealed information about the second program, called PRISM. Both papers confirmed that Snowden passed them the information.

(MORE: Obama Administration Declassifies Details on PRISM, Blasts ‘Reckless’ Media and Leakers)

1. Snowden was previously a technical officer for the CIA and worked at the National Security Agency (NSA) as an employee of Dell, a private contractor, before being hired by Booz Allen as an infrastructure analyst for the NSA in Hawaii.
According to the Guardian, Snowden told supervisors he was seeking treatment for epilepsy and told his girlfriend he would be away for a few weeks before traveling to Hong Kong along with the government secrets he hoped to release. Snowden told the paper that he decided to come forward with the documents because “I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity.”

2. Snowden voted for a third party in 2008, he told the Guardian, but believed in Obama to put an end to some of the surveillance practices.
Instead, after a review Obama continued the program, according to administration officials, adding in additional layers of review to prevent abuse. Snowden told the Guardian that he “got hardened” after he “watched as Obama advanced the very policies that I thought would be reined in.”

3. Snowden claimed vast powers to both initiate surveillance and shut down the U.S. programs.
“I had full access to the full rosters of everyone working at the NSA, the entire intelligence community, and undercover assets all around the world,” he told the Guardian. In a video posted on the website, Snowden claimed that “any analyst at any time can target anyone … I, sitting at my desk, certainly have the authorities to wiretap anyone — from you or your accountant, to a federal judge, to even the President.”

(MORE: PRISM by the Numbers: A Guide to the Government’s Secret Internet Data-Mining Program)

Additionally he claimed he said he could shut down the entire system in an afternoon if he wanted to. The revelation that Snowden was a contractor with that wide-ranging access to some of the most closely guarded U.S. government programs is sure to provoke a re-examination of the explosion of contractors filling traditional government jobs in defense and intelligence agencies.

4. Snowden told the Post “I’m not going to hide,” but his future is uncertain.
Hong Kong and the U.S. maintain a bilateral extradition treaty, but it includes exceptions for political crimes. It is unclear how the Chinese government, which maintains significant influence in the Special Administrative Region, will react to Snowden’s presence or how it will treat him. He told the Post that he is seeking “asylum from any countries that believe in free speech and oppose the victimization of global privacy.”

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence said Sunday that the investigation has been referred to the Department of Justice. Among the possible outcomes: U.S. officials could choose to interrogate him for details on the classified information he acquired, Hong Kong could turn him over to the U.S., or he could be granted him asylum.