A 29-year-old American who works as contract employee at the National Security Agency is the source of The Guardian's disclosures about the U.S. government's secret surveillance programs, the London newspaper reported Sunday.

The leaks have reopened the post-Sept. 11 debate about privacy concerns versus heightened measure to protect against terrorist attacks, and led the NSA to ask the Justice Department to conduct a criminal investigation.

The Guardian said it was publishing the identity of Edward Snowden, a former technical assistant for the CIA and current employee of defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, at his own request.

si-edward-snowden-04557834

Edward Snowden, who worked at the NSA's office in Hawaii, says he has 'no regrets.' (Ewen MacAskill/Associated Press, The Guardian)

"I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong," he was quoted as saying.

The director of national intelligence, James Clapper, has decried the revelation of the intelligence-gathering programs as reckless, and in the past days has taken the rare step of declassifying some details about them to respond to media reports about counterterrorism techniques employed by the government.

An internet scouring program, code-named PRISM, allows the NSA and FBI to tap directly into the servers of major U.S. Internet companies such as Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and AOL, scooping out emails, video chats, instant messages and more to track foreign nationals who are suspected of terrorism or espionage.

The NSA also is collecting the telephone records of millions of American customers, but not actual conversations.

President Barack Obama, Clapper and others have said the programs are authorized by Congress and subject to strict supervision of a secret court.

Snowden is quoted as saying that his "sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them."

The Guardian reported that Snowden was working in an NSA office in Hawaii when he copied the last of the documents he planned to disclose and told supervisors that he needed to be away for a few weeks to receive treatment for epilepsy.

Who is Edward Snowden?

  • Earned $200,000/year at the NSA's office in Hawaii.
  • Left Hawaii for Hong Kong on May 20 with photocopies of classified documents.
  • Enlisted in U.S. army in 2003 and trained for Special Forces, discharged after breaking legs in training.
  • Worked on IT security for CIA.
  • CIA stationed him in Geneva in 2007 to maintain computer network security.
  • Left CIA in 2009 and works for private contractor. Assigned to NSA facility in Japan.
  • Worked for different companies with contracts with the NSA.

-The Guardian

He left for Hong Kong on May 20 and has remained there since, according to the newspaper. Snowden is quoted as saying he chose that city because "they have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent", and because he believed it was among the spots on the globes that could and would resist the dictates of the U.S. government.

Snowden is quoted as saying he hopes the publicity the leaks have caused will provide him some protection and that he sees asylum, perhaps in Iceland, as a possibility.

"I feel satisfied that this was all worth it. I have no regrets," Snowden told the newspaper.

He was said to have worked on IT security for the CIA and by 2007, was stationed with diplomatic cover in Geneva, responsible for maintaining computer network security. That gave him clearance to a range of classified documents, according to the report.

"Much of what I saw in Geneva really disillusioned me about how my government functions and what its impact is in the world," he says. "I realized that I was part of something that was doing far more harm than good."

In the article, Snowden discusses how "most of the secrets the CIA has are about people, not machines and systems," calling the surveillance net "an existential threat to democracy."

In the end, he says he hopes the publicity will somehow protect him from any retaliatory action by the U.S. government.

"The only thing I fear is harmful effects on my family... That's what keeps me up at night."

With files from CBC News