Who is Edward Snowden? NSA leaker comes forward

Snowden is now living in Hong Kong and hopes for asylum. Photo: The Guardian/Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP/ABC7) - There is growing debate about the man who pulled the shroud of secrecy off the National Security Agency's massive data collection program. It all centers around whether his revelations helped or hurt the nation.

Edward Snowden used the code name "Verax," or truth-teller in Latin, as he made his cautious approach to Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman about disclosing some dramatic state secrets on intelligence gathering.

Some are calling him a hero while others call him a criminal.

The 29-year-old intelligence contractor grew up in Ellicott City, Md. and worked at the University of Maryland as a security guard at the University Center for Advanced Study of Language in 2005. His family still lives in the area.

Snowden said he knew the great risks he was taking in exposing a phone records monitoring program and an Internet scouring program designed by the U.S. government to monitor for threats of terrorism. In their communications, he referred to Gellman as "Brassbanner."

A series of indirect contacts preceded the first direct exchange May 16 between Snowden and Gellman. Snowden was not ready to give his name, but he said he was certain to be exposed, the Post reported Sunday night.

"I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions, and that the return of this information to the public marks my end," he wrote in early May, before making his first direct contact. He warned that even journalists who pursued his story were at risk until they published.

The U.S. intelligence community, he wrote, "will most certainly kill you if they think you are the single point of failure that could stop this disclosure and make them the sole owner of this information."

To effect his plan, Snowden asked for a guarantee that The Washington Post would publish - within 72 hours - the full text of a PowerPoint presentation describing PRISM, a top-secret surveillance program that gathered intelligence from Microsoft, Facebook, Google and other Silicon Valley companies. He also asked that The Post publish online a cryptographic key that he could use to prove to a foreign embassy that he was the document's source.

Gellman told him the Post would not make any guarantee about what the Post published or when. The Post broke the story two weeks later, on Thursday. The Post sought the views of government officials about the potential harm to national security prior to publication and decided to reproduce only four of the 41 slides, Gellman wrote in his story about their communications.

Snowden replied succinctly, "I regret that we weren't able to keep this project unilateral." Snowden also made contact with Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian newspaper.

When Snowden was asked about national security concerns, he responded:

We managed to survive greater threats in our history ... than a few disorganized terrorist groups and rogue states without resorting to these sorts of programs," he wrote. "It is not that I do not value intelligence, but that I oppose ... omniscient, automatic, mass surveillance .... That seems to me a greater threat to the institutions of free society than missed intelligence reports, and unworthy of the costs."

On Sunday afternoon, as his name was released to the world, Snowden communicated with Gellman from a Hong Kong hotel room, not far from a CIA base in the U.S. consulate.

"There's no precedent in my life for this kind of thing," he wrote. "I've been a spy for almost all of my adult life - I don't like being in the spotlight."

Snowden had been living in Honolulu with his girlfriend, making $200,000 a year working for McLean-based government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton.

Snowden hasn't lived in his Ellicott City home for years, but he often visited for holidays. Neighbors say he was always on his computer and often avoided eye contact.

“They very much kept to themselves,” says one neighbor. “You didn’t see them at all.”

Snowden's home is only a few miles from the NSA headquarters at Fort Meade. His father lives not far away in Crofton, Md., where FBI agent showed up Monday.

While the FBI questions Snowden's motives, his neighbors are just trying to make any sense out of what happened with the boy next door.

“This whole thing is so unsettling to me… I’m starting to doubt a couple of things, you know, and I don’t like that.”

President Obama was decidedly mum on the topic Monday when he met with women to promote the Equal Pay Act, but his spokesman insisted the president welcomes an open debate on the NSA’s gathering of massive phone records in the U.S.

“He believes appropriate balance has been struck, but open [is] for debate,” says Jay Carney.

Meanwhile, about 100 protestors gathered in New York City, saying Snowden should be praised.

James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, confirmed this weekend a crime report has been filed, but neither the U.S. nor Chinese government would comment on whether Snowden will be extradited if, and when, he is found.