The 29-year-old intelligence contractor said he knew the great risks he was taking in exposing a phone records monitoring programme and an internet scouring programme designed by the US government to monitor for threats of terrorism.
In their communications, he referred to Gellman as “Brassbanner”.
A series of indirect contacts preceded the first direct exchange on May 16 between Snowden and Gellman. Snowden was not ready to give his name, but he said he was certain to be exposed, the Post reported.
“I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions, and that the return of this information to the public marks my end,” he wrote in early May, before making his first direct contact. He warned that even journalists who pursued his story were at risk until they published.
The US intelligence community, he wrote, “will most certainly kill you if they think you are the single point of failure that could stop this disclosure and make them the sole owner of this information.”
To effect his plan, Snowden asked for a guarantee that the Washington Post would publish — within 72 hours — the full text of a PowerPoint presentation describing Prism, a top-secret surveillance programme that gathered intelligence from Microsoft, Facebook, Google and other Silicon Valley companies.
He also asked that the Post publish online a cryptographic key that he could use to prove to a foreign embassy that he was the document’s source.
Gellman told him the Post would not make any guarantee about what the Post published or when. The Post broke the story two weeks later, on Thursday. The Post sought the views of government officials about the potential harm to national security prior to publication and decided to reproduce only four of the 41 slides, Gellman wrote in his story about their communications.
Snowden replied succinctly, “I regret that we weren’t able to keep this project unilateral.” Snowden also made contact with Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian newspaper.
When Snowden was asked about national security concerns, he responded: “We managed to survive greater threats in our history . . . than a few disorganised terrorist groups and rogue states without resorting to these sorts of programmes.
“It is not that I do not value intelligence, but that I oppose . . . omniscient, automatic, mass surveillance . . . That seems to me a greater threat to the institutions of free society than missed intelligence reports, and unworthy of the costs.”
On Sunday, as his name was released to the world, Snowden communicated with Gellman from a Hong Kong hotel room, not far from a CIA base in the US consulate.
“There’s no precedent in my life for this kind of thing,” he wrote. “I’ve been a spy for almost all of my adult life — I don’t like being in the spotlight.”
Snowden has risked decades in jail for the disclosures — if the US can extradite him from Hong Kong where he says he has taken refuge.
The revelations have reopened the post-Sept 11 debate about individual privacy concerns versus heightened measures to protect the US against terrorist attacks. The NSA has asked the Justice Department to conduct a criminal investigation into the leaks.
President Barack Obama said the programmes are authorised by Congress and subject to strict supervision of a secret court, and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper says they do not target US citizens.
Snowden claims the programmes are open to abuse.
“Any analyst at any time can target anyone. Any selector. Anywhere,” Snowden said in a video on The Guardian’s website. “I, sitting at my desk, had the authority to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant to a federal judge to even the president if I had a personal email.”
Some lawmakers have expressed similar concerns about the wide reach of the surveillance.
“I expect the government to protect my privacy. It feels like that isn’t what’s been happening,” said Sen Mark Udall of Colorado, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Again, there’s a line, but to me, the scale of it and the fact the law was being secretly interpreted has long concerned me,” he said, adding, at the same time, he abhors leaks.
But Senate intelligence committee chairman Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California contends the surveillance does not infringe on US citizens’ privacy, and it helped disrupt a 2009 plot to bomb New York City’s subways and played a role in the case against an American who scouted targets in Mumbai, India, before a deadly terrorist attack there in 2008.
The disclosures come as the White House deals with managing fallout from revelations that it secretly seized telephone records of journalists at The Associated Press and Fox News.
Snowden says he was a former technical assistant for the CIA and a current employee of defence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton.
Snowden could face many years in prison for releasing classified information if he is successfully extradited from Hong Kong, according to Mark Zaid, a national security lawyer who represents whistleblowers.
Hong Kong, though part of China, is partly autonomous and has a Western-style legal system that is a legacy from the territory’s past as a British colony. A US-Hong Kong extradition treaty has worked smoothly in the past.
But the treaty comes with important exceptions. Key provisions allow a request to be rejected if it is deemed to be politically motivated or that the suspect would not receive a fair trial.
Snowden left for Hong Kong on May 20 and has remained there since. 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 that could and would resist the dictates of the US government.
“I feel satisfied this was all worth it. I have no regrets,” he told The Guardian.