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Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former undercover CIA employee, unmasked himself Sunday as the principal source of recent Washington Post and Guardian disclosures about top-secret National Security Agency programs.
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 — an investigation supported by intelligence officials in Congress.
Snowden, whose full name is Edward Joseph Snowden, said he understands the risks of disclosing the information but felt it was important to do.
"I'm not going to hide," Snowden told The Post from Hong Kong, where he has been staying. The Guardian was the first to publicly identify Snowden, at his request. "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. "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 said. "That's corrosive to the basic fairness of society."
The White House did not respond to multiple e-mails seeking comment and spokesman Josh Earnest, who was traveling with the president, said the White House would have no comment Sunday.
A brief statement from a spokesperson for Clapper's office referred media to the Justice Department for comment and said the intelligence community was "reviewing the damage" that had been done by the leaks. "Any person who has a security clearance knows that he or she has an obligation to protect classified information and abide by the law," the statement said.
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.