HONG KONG (CNN) - The man who some U.S. officials say caused enormous national security damage by revealing details of top-secret surveillance programs hid Monday in plain sight, waiting out his fate in a Hong Kong hotel room as Justice Department officials investigated the leaks.
Edward Snowden, 29, acknowledged in an interview published Sunday by the Guardian newspaper that he was the source of leaks detailing U.S. surveillance programs that collect records on domestic telephone calls and overseas Internet activity in the global hunt for terrorists and criminals.
The former CIA employee who most recently worked for the computer consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton -- working with the National Security Agency -- said he did it to end what he sees as an excessively intrusive surveillance system, the Guardian reported.
"The government has granted itself power it is not entitled to. There is no public oversight. The result is people like myself have the latitude to go further than they are allowed to," he told the paper.
U.S. Rep. Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee's Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, called Snowden "a defector" who should be turned over to the United States with an eye toward harsh prosecution.
"This person is dangerous to the country," King said on CNN's "Starting Point" on Monday.
While Snowden has not yet been charged with a crime, the Justice Department said Sunday night that it had begun a preliminary investigation into what it called "the unauthorized disclosure of classified information by an individual with authorized access."
CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said charges are likely.
"He's in enormous trouble," Toobin said of Snowden, who himself told the Guardian he expects to be charged under the Espionage Act for giving the Guardian and Washington Post details of the telephone and Internet surveillance programs.
A major question is whether Hong Kong, where Snowden fled, would extradite him to face charges in the United States.
Although Hong Kong is part of communist-ruled China, the former British colony has a free press and tolerates political dissent under a semi-autonomous government.
Hong Kong's extradition treaty with the United States has exceptions for political crimes and cases when handing over a criminal suspect would harm the "defense, foreign affairs or essential public interest or policy" of either party.
"I think he looked around, this seemed the safest bet," said Ewen MacAskill, one of the two Guardian journalists who reported the story.
Snowden hopes to get asylum, he added, with Iceland his first choice because of the way it dealt with WikiLeaks, a group that facilitates the anonymous leaking of secret information through its website. The group reportedly once operated from there.
Kristin Arnadottir, Iceland's ambassador to China, said Icelandic law requires asylum applications to be made from inside the country.
Snowden's revelations began Wednesday when the Guardian published a top secret court order demanding that Verizon Business Network Services turn over details of phone calls published from April 25 to July 19. Intelligence officials later confirmed the program, which analysts say likely covers all U.S. carriers.
On Thursday, the Guardian and the Post disclosed the existence of PRISM, a program they said allows NSA analysts to extract the details of people's online activities -- including "audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents" and other materials -- from computers at Microsoft, Google, Apple and other Internet firms.
Intelligence officials similarly confirmed that program's existence, but said it targets only overseas residents who are not U.S. citizens.
U.S. officials argue outing the programs has armed terrorists with information to help them elude detection and endangered Americans' lives.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said the programs have been reviewed by courts, Congress and the administration, and are legal.
In Great Britain, where some have raised questions about that country's involvement in the surveillance programs, Foreign Minister William Hague argued along similar lines while crediting the partnership of the GCHQ, -- his country's electronic surveillance agency -- with U.S. intelligence officials.
"Since the 1940s GCHQ and its American equivalents, now the National Security Agency, have had a relationship that is unique in the world," Hague told the British Parliament. "This relationship has been and remains essential to the security of both nations, has stopped many terrorist and espionage plots against this country, and has saved many lives."
Before joining Booz Allen Hamilton, which provides support technology and computer support to the government, Snowden previously worked for the CIA, he told the newspaper.
He told the Guardian he held down a $200,000-a-year job at the consulting firm's Hawaii office, where he had easy access to a vast trove of sensitive data.
"The NSA has built an infrastructure that allows it to intercept almost everything," he told the newspaper. "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."
In a statement released Sunday, Booz Allen Hamilton said Snowden had worked for the company for less than three months. The report that he had leaked American secrets was "shocking" and if true, "represents a grave violation of the code of conduct and core values of our firm," the company said.
Snowden told the Guardian that he began final preparations for his disclosures three weeks ago, copying a last batch of classified documents and telling his boss that he needed time off for epilepsy treatment.
Snowden told the Guardian that he left for Hong Kong on May 20 without telling his family or his girlfriend what he planned.
"I do not expect to see home again," he told the paper, acknowledging the risk of imprisonment over his actions.
"You can't come up against the world's most powerful intelligence agencies and not accept the risk," he said. "If they want to get you, over time they will."
Snowden said the NSA's reach poses "an existential threat to democracy." He said he had hoped President Barack Obama would end the programs once he took office in 2009. Instead, he said, Obama "advanced the very policies that I thought would be reined in."
"I don't see myself as a hero, because what I'm doing is self-interested," he said. "I don't want to live in a world where there's no privacy, and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity."
On Friday, Obama said he entered office skeptical of such programs, but decided to reauthorize them after a thorough vetting and the addition of unspecified additional safeguards. He called them only "modest encroachments on privacy" that help thwart terror attacks.
The revelations have inflamed privacy advocates, who have been fighting the government to reveal, and end, such surveillance programs for years.
Snowden's actions, while opposed by many, have also brought together some liberals and conservatives to hail him as a hero.
Liberal activist and filmmaker Michael Moore tweeted that Snowden is "HERO OF THE YEAR." Conservative commentator Glenn Beck, meanwhile, called Snowden a "patriot leaker" who could help America "regain her moral compass."
In Congress, Democratic senators such as Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado have warned about the dangers of excessive surveillance as vociferously as has Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky.
On the other side, Sen. Diane Feinstein, a California Democrat, has joined Republicans like Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Rep. Mike Rogers in defending the surveillance programs.
Daniel Ellsberg, who in the 1970s leaked the Pentagon Papers documents showing the government had lied about the progress of the Vietnam War -- said Snowden had done the country an "enormous service."
"It gives us a chance, I think, from drawing back from the total surveillance state that we could say we're in the process of becoming, I'm afraid we have become," Ellsberg said Sunday on "CNN Newsroom."
Glenn Greenwald, the lead author of the Guardian pieces, said on ABC's "This Week" that Americans need an "open, honest debate about whether that's the kind of country that we want to live in."
"These are things that the American people have a right to know," said Greenwald, a lawyer and civil liberties advocate. "The only thing being damaged is the credibility of political officials and the way they exercise power in the dark."
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colorado, who has long called for greater transparency in how the government collects data on Americans, said the legal authority for such programs should be reopened for debate after last week's disclosures.
"Maybe Americans think this is OK, but I think the line has been drawn too far toward 'we're going to invade your privacy,' versus 'we're going to respect your privacy,'" Udall said on CNN's "State of the Union."
Plots disrupted, lives saved
But supporters point to successes, including charges against an Afghan-born Colorado man who pleaded guilty to conspiring to bomb targets in New York, and David Headley, who was accused of conducting advance surveillance for the Pakistani jihadists who attacked hotels and other targets in Mumbai, India, in 2008, killing 164 people.
Both men pleaded guilty.
Rep. Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told ABC that the "inflammatory nature" of the accusations doesn't fit with how the program actually operates.
"The instances where this has produced good -- has disrupted plots, prevented terrorist attacks -- is all classified," said Rogers, R-Michigan. "That's what's so hard about this."