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Edward Snowden: What you need to know about the NSA leaker

The man who blew the lid on the National Security Agency's surveillance program has stepped out of the shadows.
This image made available by The Guardian Newspaper in London shows an undated image of Edward Snowden, 29. (AP Photo/The Guardian, Ewen MacAskill)
This image made available by The Guardian Newspaper in London shows an undated image of Edward Snowden, 29.

The man who blew the lid on the National Security Agency's surveillance program has stepped out of the shadows.

Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old defense contractor and former CIA employee, revealed himself on Sunday, speaking to both the Guardian and the Washington Post.

"I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong," Snowden told the Guardian from a hotel in Hong Kong.

"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," he added.

Since revealing documents that show the NSA was obtaining millions of Americans' phone records and another program that allowed the government to gather information about the online activities of foreigners abroad via nine leading Internet companies, a diverse list of critics--from liberal privacy advocates to conservative libertarians--have expressed outrage over the government's aggressive snooping.

Obama has defended the government’s practices. He insisted the country must strike a balance between keeping Americans safe while also meeting privacy concerns.

Meanwhile, Snowden is already being compared to world-famous whistleblowers like Daniel Ellsberg who leaked the Pentagon Papers and Bradley Manning who is on trial now. Here's what he has revealed about himself so far:

He (briefly) served in the Army: Snowden was brought up in Elizabeth City, N.C., but his family later moved to Maryland, where he attended a community college. He said he was trying to get credits to obtain a high school diploma, which he lacked. He never finished the college program, but did eventually obtained his GED.  In 2003, Snowden enlisted in the U.S. Army, wanting to join the Special Forces and fight in the Iraq war because he "felt like he had an obligation as a human being to help free people from oppression," Snowden told the Guardian. He became disenchanted, however, saying his  trainers "seemed pumped up about killing Arabs, not helping anyone." Snowden was eventually discharged after breaking both legs.

He worked in the CIA: Following his brief stint in the Army, he got a job at an NSA facility, where he worked as a security guard. He eventually went to the CIA where he worked on IT security. In 2007, Snowden was stationed in Geneva, Switzerland, and was responsible for maintaining computer security. This is, according to him, where he had access to a number of classified documents and learned about the U.S. surveillance program. Snowden left the CIA in 2009  to take a job working with the NSA as an employee of various contractors. Most recently, he was living in Hawaii with his girlfriend.

He claims he had big-time access: While working for the government, Snowden claimed: “I had full access to the full rosters of everyone working at the NSA, the entire intelligence community, and undercover assets all around the world." In a video posted on the Guardian's website, Snowden said that “any analyst at any time can target anyone," adding, "I, sitting at my desk, certainly have the authorities to wiretap anyone--from you or your accountant, to a federal judge, to even the president.”

He fled to Hong Kong: On May 20, Snowden told his superiors at Booz Allen Hamilton, a firm where he said he earned $200,000 a year working on a contract with the NSA, that he was seeking treatment for his epilepsy and would need some time off. He then flew to Hong Kong where he spoke to reporters. Snowden said he picked Hong Kong because "they have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right political dissent."

He's hoping for asylum: Snowden said he's left his hotel room about three times and is worried about being spied on. According to the Guardian, he lined the door of his hotel room with pillows to prevent anyone from listening in and wears a hood over his head while on his laptop entering passwords to prevent any hidden cameras from seeing him. His plan? "The only thing I can do is sit here and hope the Hong Kong government does not deport me," he said. "My predisposition it to seek asylum in a country with shared values. The nation that most encompasses this is Iceland."

He's disappointed in Obama: Snowden donated $500 in 2012 to Ron Paul and told the U.K. paper he voted for a third-party candidate in 2008. "I believed in Obama's promises," he said. "I was going to disclose it [but waited because of his election]. He continued with the policies of his predecessor."

Some GOPers want Snowden extradited: The White House has remained mum since Snowden outed himself. But Republican Rep. Peter King, chairman of the House's Homeland Security subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence has called for Snowden to be extradited.

"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," the New York lawmaker 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."

Rep. Mike Rogers, who heads the House Intelligence Committee said Snowden has "released enough information to literally be dangerous."

Some are heralding Snowden as a hero: Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971, tells The Daily Beast that Snowden is a "hero."

"People who respect or admire what I did, they may not realize it right now, but before this is over, they’ll recognize that he deserves great admiration," Ellsberg added. "And people who hate what I did, can hate."

An online petition, created Sunday, to pardon Snowden, has more than 10,000 signatures.