By Mark Hosenball and Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An ex-CIA employee working as a contractor at the U.S. National Security Agency said he was the source who 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 code-named PRISM, saying he had done so because he felt the United States was building an unaccountable and secret espionage machine that spied on every American.
His whereabouts were not immediately known on Monday, but staff at a luxury hotel in Hong Kong told Reuters that Snowden had checked out at noon.
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 Barack 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," he told the Guardian newspaper, which published a video interview with him on its website. The interview was dated June 6.
Both the Guardian and the Washington Post said 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 naming Snowden on Sunday, the newspapers said he had sought to be identified.
"The NSA has built an infrastructure that allows it to intercept almost everything," 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.
WORKED AT NSA FOR FOUR YEARS
The Guardian said 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, while a spokesman for the Director of National Intelligence would not comment directly about Snowden himself but said the intelligence community was reviewing damage done by the recent 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," said the spokesman, Shawn Turner.
The NSA has requested a criminal probe into the leaked information. On Sunday, the U.S. Justice Department said it was in the initial stages of a criminal investigation following the leaks.
Booz Allen, a U.S. management and technology consultancy, said reports of the leaked information were "shocking and if accurate, this action represents a grave violation" of company policy.
It said Snowden had been employed by the company for less than three months and that it would cooperate with any investigations.
A spokesman for Dell Inc declined to comment on reports that Snowden had been employed at that company. In 2009, Dell acquired Perot Systems, a U.S. government contractor that did work for U.S. intelligence agencies.
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 placed a bright light on Obama's extensive use of secret surveillance.
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 dramatically in since the September 11 attacks on Washington and New York in 2001.
U.S. officials say the agency operates within the law. Some members of Congress have indicated support for the NSA activities, while others pushed for tougher oversight and possible changes to the law authorizing the surveillance.
WHY HONG KONG?
One legal expert was puzzled as to why Snowden fled to Hong Kong, because it has an extradition treaty with the United States while mainland China does not.
In routine criminal cases, unlike this one, Hong Kong had shown a willingness in recent years to extradite people to face charges in the United States, he said.
In the video, Snowden said that "Hong Kong has a strong tradition of free speech."
Hong Kong returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997, but still enjoys some autonomy in business and governmental functions.
However, under Hong Kong's Fugitives Offenders Ordinance, Beijing can issue an "instruction" to the city's leader to take or not take action on extraditions where the interests of China "in matters of defense or foreign affairs would be significantly affected."
Typically, U.S. visitors in Hong Kong are granted a 90-day visa. According to the Guardian, Snowden left Hawaii for Hong Kong on May 20.
Hong Kong's Security Bureau, which is charged with law enforcement and immigration matters, had no immediate response when asked about the case.
Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian newspaper journalist who broke the story and interviewed Snowden last week, told the local South China Morning Post newspaper he was not aware of the former CIA man's current whereabouts.
The U.S. Consulate declined to comment on the case.
Douglas McNabb, a Houston lawyer who specializes in extradition, said it would not be difficult for the United States to provide justification for its request. "This guy came out and said, 'I did it,'" he said. "His best defense would probably be that this is a political case instead of a criminal one."
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."
In the video interview, the bespectacled, lightly bearded Snowden looked relaxed. He said he was ultimately hoping that Iceland, which values internet freedom, might grant him asylum.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Osborn and Peter Graff in London; David Morgan, John Shiffman, David Ingram and Andrea Shalal-Esa in Washington; James Pomfret, Anne-Marie Roantree, Grace Li, Lavinia Mo and Venus Wu in Hong Kong; Jim Finkle in Boston; Editing by Peter Graff, Christopher Wilson and Raju Gopalakrishnan)