WASHINGTON, June 10, 2013 – Edward Snowden, the ex-CIA employee who turned whistleblower to reveal vast US surveillance programs, says his conscience drove him to spill the beans to “protect basic liberties for people around the world”.
The 29-year-old joined the army in 2003 to fight in the Iraq War, telling British newspaper The Guardian: “I felt like I had an obligation as a human being to help free people from oppression.”
But, he said, “most of the people training us seemed pumped up about killing Arabs, not helping anyone.”
He never made it to Iraq as he broke both legs in a training accident and was discharged from the military.
Snowden’s career took a new turn when he got a job as a security guard for the NSA, one of the largest and most secretive of the US intelligence agencies.
Despite never finishing high school, the computer whiz quickly rose through the ranks, and by 2007 was in a CIA post with diplomatic cover in Geneva.
It was there he first considered going public with government secrets.
“Much of what I saw in Geneva really disillusioned me about how my government functions and what its impact is in the world,” he said.
“I realised that I was part of something that was doing far more harm than good.”
But he said he hesitated, hoping President Barack Obama’s election would mark a change.
When the reforms he hoped for failed to materialize, Snowden said he decided to take matters into his own hands: “I had been looking for leaders, but I realised that leadership is about being the first to act.”
He soon began setting in motion the steps that would lead to last week’s newspaper exposes, published first in The Guardian and then in the Washington Post.
It was one of the most significant security breaches in US history, joining the likes of Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, and Bradley Manning, who released US diplomatic cables and war logs to the WikiLeaks website.
Snowden cited both men as inspiration.
“My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them,” he said in a video posted on the Guardian’s web site Sunday.
Snowden told the Post he was not afraid, despite the intelligence authorities’ threat to hunt him down.
“I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions, and that the return of this information to the public marks my end,” he wrote in early May.
“You can’t protect the source,” he wrote, “but if you help me make the truth known, I will consider it a fair trade.”
Snowden, who most recently was working as a Booz Allen Hamilton contractor at the National Security Agency, left behind a “very comfortable life” in Hawaii, am annual salary of $200,000, a girlfriend, a stable career and a loving family.
“I’m willing to sacrifice all of that because I can’t in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, Internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world,” Snowden said in the Guardian video.
Before the whistleblower’s identity was revealed, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper vowed to “track down whoever’s doing this” and accused the leaker of causing “huge, grave damage” to US intelligence.
The Guardian said Snowden had mostly remained ensconced in his Hong Kong hotel room since boarding a flight on May 20, stepping outside for only about three times during his entire stay.
“All my options are bad,” Snowden said, with possible extradition proceedings, questioning by Chinese authorities or an extra-legal detention by the CIA hanging over his head.
Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China with its own legal system, has an extradition treaty with the United States.
Snowden staked his best hope on possible asylum in Iceland, known as an Internet freedom champion, despite the huge challenges to realizing that goal.
Though he said he was uncomfortable in the spotlight — “there’s no precedent in my life for this kind of thing,” he wrote to the Post after his identity was revealed. “I’ve been a spy for almost all of my adult life” — he thought the attention might help keep him safe.
Over many hours of interviews with The Guardian, Snowden only showed emotion when asked about the impact of his decisions on his relatives, many of whom work for the US government.
“The only thing I fear is the harmful effects on my family, who I won’t be able to help any more. That’s what keeps me up at night,” he said, as his eyes filled with tears.
Snowden grew up in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, later moving to Maryland, near the NSA’s headquarters at Fort Meade.
(AFP / NNA Nepal)