The National Security Agency (NSA) contractor who revealed the US government's top-secret monitoring of phone and internet data says he intends to stay in Hong Kong and fight any effort to bring him back to the United States to face charges.
Edward Snowden, in his first public comments since he dropped out of view in Hong Kong on Monday, said he did not travel to the former British colony to avoid punishment for leaking details of the surveillance programme.
"I am not here to hide from justice. I am here to reveal criminality," Snowden told the South China Morning Post, an English-language newspaper in Hong Kong, in an interview published on Wednesday (local time).
"My intention is to ask the courts and people of Hong Kong to decide my fate," Snowden said. "I have had many opportunities to flee Hong Kong, 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."
Snowden revealed details last week of the vast US government monitoring of phone and internet data at big companies such as Google and Facebook in leaks to Britain's Guardian newspaper and the Washington Post.
The revelations have sparked a criminal investigation and an internal Obama administration review of the potential damage to national security, as pressure has grown from lawmakers and advocacy groups to impose tighter controls on domestic surveillance.
Snowden, who had been working at an NSA facility as an employee of contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, has drawn a mix of condemnation and praise for the revelations. The controversy ignited a renewed debate about the balance between privacy rights and security concerns in the United States in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks.
"I'm neither traitor nor hero. I'm an American," Snowden told the newspaper.
Snowden said the NSA had been hacking computers in Hong Kong and in mainland China since 2009, with targets including public officials, businesses and students in the city as well as the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
He counted more than 61,000 computer hacking operations globally, including hundreds of targets in Hong Kong and mainland China, the newspaper said.
"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," Snowden said.
The NSA declined to comment on Snowden's assertions.
Hong Kong has an extradition agreement with the United States that has been exercised on numerous occasions, but so far Snowden has not been publicly charged and the United States has not filed for his extradition.
But Snowden said he believed the United States was putting pressure on the Hong Kong government to extradite him.
"Unfortunately, the US government is now bullying the Hong Kong government to prevent me from continuing my work," he said. "I do not currently feel safe due to the pressure the US government is applying to Hong Kong, but I feel that Hong Kong itself has a strong civil tradition that whistleblowers should not fear."
The 29-year-old said he has not contacted his family or his girlfriend since he revealed himself as the source of the leaks earlier this week.
In Washington, the head of the National Security Agency appeared before a US Senate panel on Wednesday (local time), offering the NSA's first public testimony since the revelations of the surveillance programmes.
General Keith Alexander, NSA director and head of US Cyber Command, briefed some senators behind closed doors on Tuesday. He was joined at the budget hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee by other cybersecurity officials.
The hearing is focused on the United States' cybersecurity preparation, and not the NSA's communications monitoring. But Alexander did express appreciation for government employees who work on intelligence matters.
"Our nation has invested a lot in these people. They do this lawfully. They take compliance oversight, protecting civil liberties, privacy and security of this nation to their heart every day," Alexander said.