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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
And I'm Linda Wertheimer.
There's been another major revelation about the National Security Agency's secret surveillance programs. This time it's not news of another leak. It's news about the leaker. The Guardian newspaper says the insider who blew the whistle on the NSA's probing of major U.S. Internet and telecom companies is a 29-year-old analyst who's been working for the agency under a government contract. His name is Edward Snowden.
In a video on The Guardian Web site, Snowden says he shared classified information about the surveillance programs because he was so troubled about what the NSA was doing.
EDWARD SNOWDEN: I'm just another guy who sits there, day to day, in the office, watches what's happening. I goes: This is something that's not our place to decide. The public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong.
WERTHEIMER: In that interview, Snowden acknowledges that what he did could get him into trouble - a great deal of trouble.
SNOWDEN: I could have people come after me or any of their third-party partners. You know, they work closely with a number of other nations. We've got a CIA station just up the road in the consulate here in Hong Kong.
SNOWDEN: I'm sure they're going to be very busy for the next week. And that's a fear I'll live under for the rest of my life, however long that happens to be.
WERTHEIMER: Joining us now to discuss this new twist in the surveillance story is NPR's Tom Gjelten. Tom, welcome.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Good morning, Linda.
WERTHEIMER: Now, we'll get back to what might happen to Mr. Snowden. Let's go over, first, who he is and why he had access to these documents if, in fact, he did.
GJELTEN: Well, Linda, he said in that interview that he's been working as an infrastructure analyst in Hawaii for Booz Allen Hamilton. That's a big contractor that does a lot of work for the intelligence community. Though Booz Allen says he's been with them for less than three months. Before that Snowden says he worked as a systems engineer, at what he called a telecommunications information systems officer, for some of the time, allegedly, for the CIA.
You know, Linda, he seems to be what we'd normally call a geek of whom there are thousands upon thousands at the NSA, and in all these contractors who do work for the intelligence community.
WERTHEIMER: Now, very quickly, remind us of what secrets he apparently shared with The Guardian; and also with The Washington Post, the things you've heard about in the last few days.
GJELTEN: He disclosed details about to programs. The most newsworthy was a surveillance program under which the NSA collected and stored telephone data. Data about phone calls made here in the United States. We hadn't heard much about that program before. He also shared classified information about what the NSA is doing in analyzing email and online activity involving foreigners. This was a program that went by the codename PRISM. That one we actually knew something about, though his revelations shed new light on the mechanics of how it worked.
WERTHEIMER: Now, would Mr. Snowden have actually had access to this information himself?
GJELTEN: Presumably, and this goes to the nature of these surveillance operations. They both involve huge amounts of data. And making sense of that data would require an enormous analytic effort and thousands of analysts with computer skills; exactly the kind of individual like Edward Snowden. And they'd all require top-secret clearances to deal with the material that they have to analyze.
We've seen stories before about how many hundreds of thousands of individuals working on government business actually have top-secret clearances. And some of them are fairly low in the hierarchy. Think of Bradley Manning, the enlisted soldier who disclosed hundreds of thousands of classified reports to WikiLeaks. So there are many people who are in position to do this.
We should also point out that the Justice Department, last night, put out a statement, saying it was investigating, quote, "the unauthorized disclosure of classified information by an individual with authorized access." So presumably he did have that access.
WERTHEIMER: So do we know how serious these leaks are, how seriously they were guarded?
GJELTEN: Well, again, the general contours of these surveillance programs were already known. So it's hard to say what damage might have been done with these leaks. Members of Congress have had the, at least the opportunity to be briefed on these programs. We know that most members did not take advantage of that opportunity, so the detail about how these programs worked in practice is something that had not been widely known.
WERTHEIMER: Now, as we just heard from Mr. Snowden, he thinks the CIA may be coming after him.
GJELTEN: He actually suggested in that interview that the CIA might send the Mafia after him. That seems probably a little far-fetched. But he has acknowledged turning over classified information, and on the face of it that would seem to be illegal. And as I say, the Justice Department does say it's in the initial stages of what presumably would be a criminal investigation.
WERTHEIMER: Tom, thanks very much.
GJELTEN: You bet.
WERTHEIMER: NPR's Tom Gjelten. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.