HONG KONG — NSA leaker Edward Snowden says he took his job with the National Security Agency for the sole purpose of obtaining evidence on Washington’s cyberspying networks, the South China Morning Post reported Monday.
Snowden, who was in Hong Kong before fleeing to Moscow this weekend, told the newspaper that he sought a position as an analyst with the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton so he could collect proof about the NSA’s secret surveillance program ahead of planned leaks to the media.
“My position with Booz Allen Hamilton granted me access to lists of machines all over the world the NSA hacked,” he told the Post in a June 12 interview that was published Monday. “That is why I accepted that position about three months ago.”
In his interview with the Post, Snowden divulged information that he claimed showed hacking by the NSA into computers in Hong Kong and mainland China.
“I did not release them earlier because I don’t want to simply dump huge amounts of documents without regard to their content,” he said. “I have to screen everything before releasing it to journalists.”
Asked by the Post if he specifically went to Booz Allen Hamilton as a computer systems administrator to gather evidence of surveillance, he replied: “Correct on Booz.”
His intention was to collect information about the NSA hacking into “the whole world” and “not specifically Hong Kong and China,” he said.
The documents he divulged to the Post were obtained during his tenure at Booz Allen Hamilton in April, he said.
He also signaled his intention to leak more of those documents at a later date.
“If I have time to go through this information, I would like to make it available to journalists in each country to make their own assessment, independent of my bias, as to whether or not the knowledge of U.S. network operations against their people should be published,” he said.
Snowden’s current whereabouts are a mystery after he failed to show up for a Moscow-Cuba flight to Cuba on Monday.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is assisting Snowden’s run from U.S. authorities, told reporters Monday that Snowden is “healthy and safe” in an undisclosed location awaiting word on his request for asylum by Ecuador.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday that it is the administration’s assumption “that he is in Russia.”
He also said that officials in China and Hong Kong were notified in plenty of time to block Snowden’s departure from Hong Kong. He said the incident “unquestionably” damaged U.S. relations with China.
Although Assange himself is holed up in the Ecuador embassy in Britain to avoid extradition to Sweden, he spoke to reporters Monday to offer the latest on the twists and turns of the 30-year-old analyst who has been charged in U.S. federal court with espionage after acknowledging that he was the source of materials detailing surveillance programs by the U.S. National Security Agency.
Snowden revealed an NSA program that collected telephone records for millions of Americans and a separate operation that targeted the Internet communications of non-citizens abroad who were suspected of terrorist connections.
He initially fled to Hong Kong, then flew to Russia on Sunday in an apparent roundabout trip to Ecuador.
The Russian news site RT reported that Aeroflot had earlier confirmed that two seats had been booked in Snowden’s name for Monday’s flight to Cuba. But an Aeroflot representative who wouldn’t give her name told the Associated Press that Snowden was not on Flight SU150 to Havana. AP reporters on the flight also didn’t see him.
“Snowden has gone through registration, but did not physically board the plane and has remained in the transit zone,” RIA Novosti quoted an official at Sheremetyevo airport as saying.
Assange would not be specific on Snowden’s location but said he is “unlikely to return” to the U.S., at least under the current administration.
“We are aware of where Mr. Snowden is,” Assange told reporters. “He is in a safe place and his spirits are high. Due to the bellicose threats from the U.S. administration ... we cannot reveal what country he is in at this time.”
Assange declined to say whether he has spoken personally with the former defense analyst. At the same time, he said Snowden has “expressed no regret in his decision to reveal this important information to the public.”
Assange also said that Russian officials did not have advance notice of Snowden’s arrival in Moscow and claimed that Snowden had not been debriefed by Russian security officials
Assange, also the subject a U.S. investigation into the disclosure of secret American diplomatic cables, said the charges against Snowden are “an attempt to intimidate any country to stand up for his rights to tell the truth.”
Russia is under increasing pressure from the United States to block Snowden from further travel.
Snowden, whose U.S. passport has been revoked, fled Hong Kong apparently to avoid a U.S. extradition request and to get asylum eventually in Ecuador. In June 2012. Ecuador gave refuge at its embassy in London to Assange, who is wanted in Sweden for questioning in connection with a sexual assault investigation.
Ecuador Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino has confirmed that Snowden had requested asylum in his country and pledged that his request would be considered in the shortest time possible, according to televised remarks carried by the Latin-American channel Telesur.
RIA Novosti reported at about 2 a.m. Monday morning that Ecuador’s Ambassador to Russia, Patricio Alberto Chavez Zavala, was seen leaving Sheremetyevo’s transit zone with several people getting into his car.
Interfax reported that Snowden has not been able to leave the airport because he does not have a Russian visa. He was accompanied by WikiLeaks representative Sarah Harrison, a British citizen who does have a Russian visa, according to Interfax.
Earlier the White House urged Russia to consider “all options available,” according to National Security Council Spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden.
A Russian security official indicated on Monday that Moscow had no basis to extradite Snowden.
“Snowden has not committed any unlawful act on Russian territory,” RIA Novosti quoted an unnamed security official as saying Monday morning. “Russian law enforcement has no order to detain him, so there is no basis to do so.”
A Kremlin spokesperson said Monday that the Russian government had no advance knowledge that Snowden was traveling to Moscow, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for President Vladimir Putin, told the Journal that Russia wouldn’t intervene in the Snowden matter by holding him or returning him to the U.S. to face charges.
“It is not a question for us,” Peskov told the newspaper. “We don’t know what his plans are and we were unaware he was coming here.”
The South China Morning Post meanwhile reported that Snowden had provided information to show that the NSA had hacked into the Hong Kong system of Pacnet, which runs undersea telecommunications cables around the Pacific, and into 63 computers and servers at Tsinghua University in Beijing, one of China’s most elite schools.
“The NSA does all kinds of things like hack Chinese cellphone companies to steal all of your SMS data,” Snowden told the newspaper.
Snowden, who was employed by Booz Allen Hamilton as an NSA systems analyst in Hawaii, fled to the Chinese territory of Hong Kong last month with top-secret documents and court orders on government surveillance operations.
Under Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the city is allowed a high degree of autonomy from mainland Chinese authorities until 2047. It also has its own legal and financial system, a holdover from the British colonial rule that ended in 1997.
Snowden was allowed to leave Hong Kong just hours after Obama administration officials announced they filed a formal petition with Chinese authorities seeking Snowden’s arrest and return to the United States.
A Russian lawmaker commented on Monday that the Snowden affair would have little effect on Russia-U.S. relations.
“It won’t improve these relations, but it won’t harm them,” RIA Novosti quoted Leonid Kalashnikov, first deputy head of the State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee, as saying. Kalashnikov added that Russia should give Snowden citizenship and asylum. “Why should he fly to Ecuador? This isn’t about a political refugee, but about a humanitarian one.”
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers said the U.S. government must exhaust all legal options to get Snowden back.
“Every one of those nations is hostile to the United States,” Rogers, R-Mich., said on NBC’s Meet the Press.
In New Delhi, Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that the U.S. had put several countries on notice that Snowden is wanted by the U.S. legal system on on three felony counts.
He also took a jab at China and Russia, where Snowden fled to avoid arrest.
“I wonder if Mr. Snowden chose China and Russia as assistance in his flight from justice because they are such powerful bastions of Internet freedom,” Kerry told reporters. “And I wonder if, while he was in either of those countries, did he raise the questions of Internet freedom, since that seems to be what he champions.”
China’s Foreign Ministry distanced itself from any role in Snowden’s departure from Hong Kong, saying Monday the territory had the right to make its own decision.
In a routine briefing with reporters, the spokeswoman said Beijing has “always respected” Hong Kong’s ability to deal with such matters through its legal system.
She also raised Beijing’s concerns about cybersecurity in light of Snowden’s allegations, saying that the Chinese government has brought the issue up directly with Washington.
“We are seriously concerned about the cyberattacks that the relevant U.S. government agencies carried out on China as have been recently reported,” she said. “This demonstrates again that China is a victim of cyberattacks.”
Hong Kong lawmaker and lawyer Albert Ho, whose firm had been representing Snowden in an effort to clarify his legal situation with the government, said he suspects authorities in Beijing were calling the shots.
Ho said an intermediary who claimed to represent the government relayed a message to Snowden saying he was free to leave and should do so.
Ho said he didn’t know the identity of the intermediary and wasn’t sure whether the person was acting on Hong Kong’s or Beijing’s behalf.
“The entire decision was probably made in Beijing and Beijing decided to act on its best interests,” Ho told reporters. “However, Beijing would not want to be seen on stage because it would affect Sino-U.S. relations. That’s why China has somebody acting in the background.”
Johnson reported from Washingtong; Stanglin from McLean, Va.
Contributing: Anna Arutunyan in Moscow; Associated Press