Edward Snowden, the self-confessed leaker of the documents revealing the National Security Agency's top-secret phone and Internet surveillance program, appeared suddenly online Monday and began answering questions live on Britain's The Guardian newspaper's website.
The Guardian was the newspaper that first reported Snowden's revelations of NSA monitoring.
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The 29-year-old former NSA contractor, who is reportedly still in Hong Kong, began answering questions on why he revealed the agency's top-secret program at 11 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. There was no independent way for news services to determine that it was actually Snowden answering the questions.
But the commentator identified as Snowden talked about the media frenzy that has since ensued, and offered his thoughts on his now-uncertain future.
He also dismissed being called a traitor by several lawmakers as well as former Vice President Dick Cheney, who made the allegations in an interview on "Fox News Sunday."
"Being called a traitor by Dick Cheney is the highest honor you can give an American, and the more panicked talk we hear from people like him ... the better off we all are," he said.
"This is a man who gave us the warrantless wiretapping scheme as a kind of atrocity warm-up on the way to deceitfully engineer a conflict that has killed over 4,400 and maimed nearly 32,000 Americans, as well as leaving over 100,000 Iraqis dead," he said.
The live chat appeared on the the columnist page of Glenn Greenwald, the American reporter who broke the story after making contact with Snowden. Greenwald monitored the chat.
In his initial answers published on the website, Snowden avoided a specific question on the scope of documents he has in his possession, but he said he believed the federal government wants to either jail or murder him.
He also said he didn't reveal any U.S. operations "against legitimate military targets. ... I pointed out where the NSA has hacked civilian infrastructure such as universities, hospitals, and private businesses because it is dangerous."
"How many sets of the documents you disclosed did you make, and how many different people have them? If anything happens to you, do they still exist?" a questioner asked Snowden.
"All I can say right now is the U.S. government is not going to be able to cover this up by jailing or murdering me. Truth is coming, and it cannot be stopped," Snowden wrote.
Following Snowden's disclosures, the Obama administration confirmed the existence of two surveillance programs: one designed to collect phone-call records from millions of U.S. citizens and another that monitors the Internet activity of foreigners with links to terrorism.
The revelations by the former Booz Allen Hamilton employee to The Guardian and The Washington Post newspapers sparked a criminal investigation by the Justice Department, calls for the surveillance to be reined in, and a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union accusing the government of violating citizens' privacy.
Snowden fled to Hong Kong on May 20 before revealing himself as the source of the leak. Several U.S. lawmakers have called the leaks treason and urged the Justice Department to seek Snowden's extradition from Hong Kong and press charges against him.
Snowden said he fled to Hong Kong over Iceland — his preferred destination for asylum — because of travel restrictions for NSA employees.
"Leaving the U.S. was an incredible risk, as NSA employees must declare their foreign travel 30 days in advance and are monitored," Snowden wrote.
"There was a distinct possibility I would be interdicted en route, so I had to travel with no advance booking to a country with the cultural and legal framework to allow me to work without being immediately detained. Hong Kong provided that. Iceland could be pushed harder, quicker, before the public could have a chance to make their feelings known, and I would not put that past the current U.S. administration."
A questioner then asked him, "Can analysts listen to content of domestic calls without a warrant?"
Snowden replied: "NSA likes to use 'domestic' as a weasel word here for a number of reasons. The reality is that due to the FISA Amendments Act and its section 702 authorities, Americans' communications are collected and viewed on a daily basis on the certification of an analyst rather than a warrant.
"They excuse this as 'incidental' collection, but at the end of the day, someone at NSA still has the content of your communications. Even in the event of 'warranted' intercept, it's important to understand the intelligence community doesn't always deal with what you would consider a 'real' warrant like a police department would have to. The 'warrant' is more of a templated form they fill out and send to a reliable judge with a rubber stamp."
Greenwald then interjected with a question of his own: "When you say 'someone at NSA still has the content of your communications' — what do you mean? Do you mean they have a record of it, or the actual content?"
"Both. If I target, for example, an email address ... under FAA 702, and that email address sent something to you, Joe America, the analyst gets it. All of it. IPs, raw data, content, headers, attachments, everything," Snowden said.
"And it gets saved for a very long time — and can be extended further with waivers rather than warrants," he added.
Attorney General Eric Holder called Snowden's disclosures "extremely damaging" at a meeting with European Union officials in Ireland last week.
"I can assure you that we will hold accountable the person responsible for those extremely damaging leaks," Holder said.
U.S. prosecutors are in the midst of putting together charges against Snowden, according to two officials briefed on the investigation.
Snowden also defended U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning for his disclosures of documents to Wikileaks, which he called a "legitimate journalistic outlet," which "carefully redacted all of their releases in accordance with a judgment of public interest."
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He said the Wikileaks release of unredacted material was "due to the failure of a partner journalist to control a passphrase," which led to the charge against Manning that he dumped the documents, which Snowden called an attempt to smear Manning.
Manning is currently on trial at Fort Meade, the same Army base where the NSA is headquartered, on charges of aiding the enemy for releasing documents to Wikileaks.
Snowden also defended his description of his salary as being $200,000 a year, calling that a "career high," but saying he did take a pay cut to take the job at Booz Allen Hamilton, where he worked as a contractor at an NSA facility in Hawaii. When Booz Allen fired him, officials there said his salary was $122,000.
Material from Bloomberg News and The Associated Press was used in this report.
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