(Reuters) - An ex-CIA employee working as a contractor at the U.S. National Security Agency said he was the man who had leaked details of a top secret U.S. surveillance program, acting out of conscience to protect "basic liberties for people around the world".
Holed up in a hotel room in Hong Kong, Edward Snowden, 29, said he had thought long and hard before publicizing details of an NSA program codenamed PRISM, saying he had done so because he felt his country was building an unaccountable and secret espionage machine that spied on every American.
Both the Washington Post and Britain's Guardian newspaper - to whom he gave the documents he had purloined - published his identity on Sunday.
"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," he told the Guardian, which published a video interview with him on its website.
"The NSA has built an infrastructure that allows it to intercept almost everything. 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 published revelations this week that U.S. security services monitored data about phone calls from Verizon and Internet data from large companies such as Google and Facebook.
The exposure of the secret programs has triggered widespread debate within the United States and abroad about the vast reach of the NSA, which has expanded its surveillance programs dramatically in the last decade. U.S. officials say the agency operates within the law.
Snowden's decision to reveal his identity and whereabouts lifts the lid on one of the biggest security leaks in U.S. history and escalates a story that has embarrassed the administration of President Barack Obama.
His decision to go public also potentially exposes him to the wrath of the U.S. authorities. The Guardian compared him to Bradley Manning, a soldier now on trial for aiding the enemy, for passing classified military and state department files to anti-secrecy website Wikileaks.
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, but thought the publicity his revelations had garnered in the past few days had made it worth it.
"My primary fear is that they will come after my family, my friends, my partner. Anyone I have a relationship with," he said. "I will have to live with that for the rest of my life. I am not going to be able to communicate with them. They (the authorities) will act aggressively against anyone who has known me. That keeps me up at night."
He spoke of his willingness to give up a comfortable life in Hawaii, where he earned 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."
Within minutes of Snowden's name being revealed by the Guardian he had become an instant folk hero.
At left-leaning U.S. blog The Daily Kos, contributor "Corvo" wrote "It's a shame that Edward Snowden won't be 36 years of age on 20 January 2017; otherwise I should want to vote for him to be our next president."
Snowden, a former CIA technical assistant, said he had been working at the super-secret NSA as an employee of defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton and decided to break his silence after becoming disenchanted with Obama whom he said had continued the policies of predecessor George W. Bush.
"My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which was done in their name and that which is done against them," he said. "I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions. I will be satisfied if the federation of secret law, unequal pardon and irresistible executive powers that rule the world that I love are revealed even for an instant."
The Guardian said Snowden had been working at the NSA for four years as a contractor for outside companies including Booz Hamilton and Dell.
Three weeks ago, he copied the secret documents at the NSA office in Hawaii where he works 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, which he said he chose because "they have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent".
In the video interview he looked relaxed, bespectacled and wearing a light beard and a dark grey shirt. The newspaper said he had only ventured outside three times since his arrival in Hong Kong and was fearful the CIA was going to come for him.
He said he was ultimately hoping that Iceland, which values Internet freedom, might grant him asylum.
The Guardian said he had stuffed pillows beneath his hotel room door to ward off snoopers and that he cloaked himself beneath a red hood when using his computer to try to keep his passwords safe.
(Reporting by Andrew Osborn and Peter Graff; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Peter Graff)