The whistle-blower who leaked information on the National Security Agency’s (NSA) secret phone and Internet surveillance programs went public in an interview with The Guardian published Sunday.
"I don't want to live in a society that does these sorts of things,” said Edward Snowden, a 29-year old Booz Allen Hamilton infrastructure analyst working with the NSA, who said he leaked the information because he personally objected to the agency’s intelligence practices.
According to the video interview conducted in Hong Kong with The Guardian, Snowden previously served in a number of roles in the intelligence community, including as a former technical assistant with the CIA and with numerous outside contractors.
The Guardian said that Snowden had requested that his identity be revealed.
Snowden’s leaks led to the disclosure of a secret NSA program that used metadata from Verizon phone customers to identify possible terror threats and a second program, PRISM, that gained information from tech companies on foreign Internet users.
"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," Snowden said explaining his concerns. "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 added.
Snowden's decision to reveal himself came a day after the Obama administration said it would search for the source of the leaks and bring criminal charges.
On Sunday, the Justice Department confirmed it had opened a criminal investigation.
"The Department of Justice is in the initial stages of an investigation into the unauthorized disclosure of classified information by an individual with authorized access,” said DOJ spokeswoman Nanda Chitre in a statement to The Hill.
“Consistent with long standing Department policy and procedure and in order to protect the integrity of the investigation, we must decline further comment," she added.
Almost immediately there were calls for Snowden's arrest.
"If Edward Snowden did in fact leak the NSA data as he claims, the United States government must prosecute him to the fullest extent of the law and begin extradition proceedings at the earliest date," Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the former chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement.
"The United States must make it clear that no country should be granting this individual asylum. This is a matter of extraordinary consequence to American intelligence," he added.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest declined to comment on Snowden on Sunday, according to a White House pool report. The White House said it would not have a comment on Sunday.
A statement from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence directed all inquiries about the matter to the Justice Department.
“The Intelligence Community is currently reviewing the damage that has been done by these recent disclosures. 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 added.
Snowden’s former employers, Booz Allen Hamilton, called the leak of security secrets “shocking” and pledged to assist investigators.
“If accurate, this action represents a grave violation of the code of conduct and core values of our firm,” the company said in a statement Sunday.
In the interview, Snowden defended his actions, saying that it would be hypocritical for the United States government to label him a criminal for leaking the information on the intelligence gathering program.
"We have seen enough criminality on the part of government. It is hypocritical to make this allegation against me," Snowden said. "They have narrowed the public sphere of influence."
Before Snowden revealed himself, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) earlier Sunday called the NSA disclosures “dangerous” and said they could cost American lives. Rogers and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said they would support efforts to prosecute the whistle-blower.
Snowden added that he does not expect to come back to the United States again without being arrested.
"I could not do this without accepting the risk of prison," Snowden said. "You can't come up against the world's most powerful intelligence agencies and not accept the risk. If they want to get you, over time they will."
President Obama, counterterrorism officials, and both Feinstein and Rogers have defended the NSA programs as necessary for national security. Supporters say the programs were carried out in accordance with the law and with approval from the FISA court. But many civil libertarians said they went too far by tracking data from Americans not suspected of wrongdoing.
Snowden said that Obama was defending an "unjustifiable" program in comments the president made Thursday.
"My immediate reaction was he was having difficulty in defending it himself," Snowden. "He was trying to defend the unjustifiable and he knew it."
Snowden said he had known about the surveillance program since before Obama was first elected to the presidency.
"A lot of people in 2008 voted for Obama," Snowden said. "I did not vote for him. I voted for a third party. But I believed in Obama's promises. I was going to disclose it [but waited because of his election]. He continued with the policies of his predecessor."
This story was first published at 3:16 p.m. and has been updated.