NSA Leaker Checks Out Of Hong Kong Hotel

Investigators are trying to learn all they can about the American intelligence contractor who says he leaked sensitive documents to reporters. The 29-year-old Edward Snowden said over the weekend that he was behind the disclosure of two secret U.S. government surveillance programs. Now Snowden has reportedly checked out of his hotel.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Audie Cornish. Investigators are trying to learn all they can about the American intelligence contractor who says he leaked sensitive documents to reporters. Edward Snowden is 29 years old, a former tech specialist for the company Booz Allen Hamilton, which does a lot of government intelligence work. Over the weekend, he took responsibility for disclosing details of two U.S. government surveillance programs.

And in a video statement to The Guardian newspaper, he provided hints of a motive.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: When you're in positions of privileged access, like a systems administrator for these sort of intelligence community agencies, you're exposed to a lot more information on a broader scale than the average employee. And because of that, you see things that may be disturbing.

CORNISH: He also said he was disturbed enough that he thought the American people should see what's going on behind closed doors. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has been following the story and she's here in the studio now. Dina, what have you been learning today?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Well, law enforcement sources tell NPR that they believe that Snowden was in the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong and has since checked out. It's unclear whether he's still in Hong Kong or he's left the former British colony. For investigators, a lot about this is very puzzling. Some of the things he said in that video identifying himself on Sunday were just a bit odd.

For example, he said he came to Hong Kong because of its spirited commitment to free speech and the right to political dissent. And really, Hong Kong has neither one of those things. The island is basically a semi-autonomous part of China and Hong Kong has an extradition treaty with the U.S., so he's unlikely to find a safe haven there. You know, some Hong Kong legislators have already indicated that if the U.S. asked for Snowden, they'd hand him over. And Beijing hasn't commented on this yet.

CORNISH: Now, one of the big questions is how did Snowden get the documents he made public and even if he had top secret access, weren't there security precautions against someone copying the documents?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, some of the answer to that question is in the tape we heard from Snowden a minute ago. He was an IT guy. That means he got to see much more than a regular analyst would. There are ways to track what he accessed. You have to use something called a common access card, or CAC, to get into the NSA computers. I mean, some of the computers actually have a card slotted right into the keyboard.

And what that allows for is for compliance people, either NSA or CIA people, security, to basically track what people are looking at in the system. The problem is that if he was an infrastructure analyst, he might have been able to hide his tracks.

CORNISH: And you called him an infrastructure analyst. I mean, what does that really mean and what do we know about the jobs he had in the intelligence community?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, law enforcement officials say he started out as a security guard for the NSA in Maryland and here's why that's important. It means he passed their security clearances and that can take a really long time. So if, for example, he applied for an IT job, he might have been chosen over another candidate 'cause he already had all the security clearances.

He said in the video over the weekend that he worked for Booz Allen Hamilton as an infrastructure analyst for the NSA in Hawaii. The company said he'd only been there for three months. And he said he'd previously been a systems engineer, a systems administrator, a senior advisor for the CIA, a solutions consultant and a telecommunications information systems officer.

I mean, one former intelligence official I talked to said that Snowden is emblematic of this big change in the intelligence community. It used to be that there was just one guy who had an important piece of paper in a safe. Now, the people who can leak aren't just the key scientists or the CIA agents. They can be somebody in the IT department.

CORNISH: And, of course, the Obama administration is investigating these leaks. What kinds of things would investigators be looking for?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, I'm going to focus here on what's going on in the intelligence community, not the criminal investigation that the FBI is doing. The NSA has something called the Q Group or Q Force. They're doing an extensive forensic search of his computer trying to retrace literally every keystroke. In particular, they're curious about the first document that Snowden allegedly released.

That was a FISA court order that said that the NSA could collect data about millions of phone calls in the United States. A FISA court order - and we've never seen one of these publicly before - would be very, very closely held. They're also trying to figure out if he's actually left Hong Kong. And you can imagine that both the United States and China would love to talk to him, so clearly, the United States wants to get to him first.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston. Dina, thank you.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

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