Edward Snowden sits in a hotel room in Hong Kong. He is pale and unshaven, his voice quiet but firm. For fear of spies, he has sealed off the door with pillows. He says he's only gone outside three times in the past three weeks. When the fire alarm goes off, he suspects that someone is trying to lure him out of hiding.
Snowden is on the run. The scene, as depicted by London newspaper The Guardian , is the latest and most dramatic chapter of a spy thriller that in recent weeks has kept the United States and much of the world in suspense. Snowden is the highly sought-after man who notified the press about the infamous US surveillance program Prism -- probably one of the biggest leak scandals in the history of espionage.
Snowden didn't have to reveal the fact that he is the whistleblower behind the story. But he decided to out himself voluntarily in a 12-minute video interview that the Guardian posted on its website on Sunday night.
Snowden puts a moral spin on his protest against state data surveillance: "I don't want to live in a society that does these sort of things," says the 29-year-old former CIA technical assistant who was last employed by the defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. "I don't want to live in a world where there's no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity," he continues.
But for that, it may already be too late. The debate that Snowden hoped to initiate has revealed that the US's virtual surveillance network is nearly all-encompassing -- and that citizens are powerless against it. "Welcome to the future," writes Ross Douthat in the New York Times. "Just make sure you don't have anything to hide."
A Historical Coup in Hawaii
Snowden, too, fears this future. The US government, he says, "are intent on making every conversation and every form of behavior in the world known to them."
Snowden himself was once a cog in the gears of the intelligence apparatus. After a short stint in the US Army, he began his career in the clandestine National Security Agency (NSA), then moved to the CIA. That's where he first began to have doubts. "I realized that I was part of something that was doing far more harm than good," he says.
In 2009, Snowden entered the private sector and ended up at Booz Allen Hamilton, a billion-dollar company with close ties to American espionage circles. His most recent job, as the company confirmed with noticeable consternation, was as an IT contract worker at an NSA facility in Hawaii.
And that's where he made his historical coup. Snowden copied documents exposing two gigantic secret NSA programs -- comprising massive surveillance of telephone and internet communications -- and leaked them to the Guardian and Washington Post.
He then asked his employers for a few weeks off and flew to Hong Kong. He didn't even say anything definite about what was going on to his girlfriend.
Obama's PR Problem
Snowden has had "a very comfortable life," with an annual salary of $200,000 and a house in Hawaii. "I'm willing to sacrifice all of that," he says, "because I can't in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they're secretly building."
What is he facing now? Extradition, abduction, litigation: "All my options are bad," he says. Snowden told the Washington Post on Sunday that he is seeking "asylum from any countries that believe in free speech and oppose the victimization of global privacy."
"I do not expect to see home again," he told the Guardian.
Several times, he mentioned WikiLeaks informant Bradley Manning, who is now facing a military tribunal in one of several cases in which the administration of President Barack Obama has taken a hard line against whistleblowers.
Already Mike Rogers, a Republican congressman who serves as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has called for a criminal investigation. Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein seconded the call and suggested congressional hearings as well.
The response from the US intelligence community itself was kept to a dry statement: "The matter has been referred to the Department of Justice," a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said on Sunday.
Obama now faces a huge public relations problem. Wasn't it he who said that he welcomed the debate on government spying? And yet now he has decided to pursue the very man who triggered this debate.
One thing is certain: Snowden is sought after -- by the secret services, by the courts, by journalists. Whether hero or villain, writes Garance Franke-Ruta in the Atlantic, there is one thing the privacy-rights activist seems not to have fully considered: "He is about to become one of the most highly-scrutinized public figures in the world."