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Last updated: June 12, 2013 11:35 pm
Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old who leaked top secret details about US surveillance programmes, said on Wednesday that he intended to remain in Hong Kong and fight any extradition request in the local courts.
Speaking for the first time since his identity was disclosed on Sunday, Mr Snowden said he had faith in Hong Kong’s rule of law and denied that he was running from justice.
“My intention is to ask the courts and people of Hong Kong to decide my fate,” he said in an interview published on Wednesday by the South China Morning Post, the leading English-language newspaper in Hong Kong.
Days after a summit meeting in which US President Barack Obama pressed Xi Jinping about alleged Chinese cyber theft of information from US government and private companies, Mr Snowden said he believed the National Security Agency had “61,000 hacking operations globally”, with hundreds of targets in Hong Kong and in China.
“We hack network backbones – like huge internet routers, basically – that give us access to the communications of hundreds of thousands of computers without having to hack every single one,” he said.
Mr Snowden unveiled himself at the weekend as the source of documents detailing US government programmes to collect phone records of millions of Americans and the internet communications of terror suspects.
A former Central Intelligence Agency IT specialist, Mr Snowden had been working at the NSA as an employee of the independent contractor Booz Allen Hamilton.
Mr Snowden’s actions have generated sharply different responses. Some members of Congress have labelled him a “traitor” while civil libertarians have greeted him as a hero.
The US Department of Justice is preparing charges against Mr Snowden. Given Hong Kong’s extradition treaty with the US, lawyers in the city have said there is a high chance he will be sent back to the US.
“People who think I made a mistake in picking Hong Kong as a location misunderstand my intentions. I am not here to hide from justice; I am here to reveal criminality,” he told the newspaper.
“I have had many opportunities to flee HK, but I would rather stay and fight the United States government in the courts, because I have faith in Hong Kong’s rule of law.”
Although he earlier raised the prospect of seeking asylum in a sympathetic country, and mentioned Iceland as one possibility, Mr Snowden said on Wednesday he would stay in Hong Kong until “asked to leave”.
General Keith Alexander, the NSA director, told a congressional hearing on Wednesday that the government’s surveillance methods had helped prevent “dozens” of terrorist attacks at home and abroad.
He said Mr Snowden’s claim that he had the ability at the NSA to tap the phone or email of most Americans was “false”. “I know of no way to do that,” he said.
Asked to explain the legal basis for the government collecting the phone records of millions of Americans, Gen Alexander said he would provide a written response that he hoped would be made publicly available.
Senior members of Congress have largely expressed support for the controversial and secret surveillance programmes. However, there are some indications that unease is growing among politicians of both parties about the activities of the NSA.
“Right now, we have a situation where the executive branch is getting a billion records a day, and we’re told they will not query that data except pursuant to very clear standards,” said Brad Sherman, a Democratic member of the House of Representatives from California. “But we don’t have the courts making sure that those standards are always followed.”
Members of Congress have also criticised the way that such a young man was given the security clearance he enjoyed. “I’m just stunned that an individual who did not even graduate with a high-school diploma, who did not successfully complete his military service and who is only age 29, had access to some of the most highly classified information in our government. That’s astonishing to me, and it suggests real problems with the vetting,” said Susan Collins, Republican senator from Maine.
Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democrat who is also the Senate majority whip, also said that the vetting process for intelligence officers such as Mr Snowden needs to be re-examined. “I want to know more about this man, but what I’ve learnt so far is troubling,” he said.
Additional reporting by Richard McGregor
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