Edward Snowden: The NSA whistleblower unmasks

The whistleblower who leaked Top Secret documents to the <em>Guardian</em> about NSA domestic spying practices has revealed himself to be 29-year-old Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee.

In an absolutely stunning Guardian profile, Edward Snowden describes how he leaked the documents to the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald from a Hong Kong hotel room, padding the door and keeping a hood over his head, and covering his computer's webcam, to protect himself while he made the first leak of a "Top Secret" classified document since the Pentagon Papers in 1971, in what represents one of the most serious leaks in US history and what may come to be one of the defining moments of Obama's Presidency. 

"I'm willing to sacrifice all of that 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," he told the Guardian.

Snowden says that he chose Hong Kong, a semi-autonomously governed region of China, because “they have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent”, but also, the Guardian reports, because he believed it both could and would resist the dictates of the US government.

This story comes just hours after the former director of the NSA under George W. Bush told the Guardian that surveillance has “expanded” under Obama's administration.

Obama, is en route – ironically – back to Washington from meeting the new Chinese President Xi Jinping in California, where he was scheduled to complain about Chinese cyber-hacking of American secrets. It is not known whether they mentioned the NSA surveillance scandal in their conversation – nor even whether the White House or the US security forces had any idea where the Guardian's leaks were coming from.

At time of press, the President has not yet responded to the identification of Snowden, though he did say yesterday that he “welcomes a debate” on national security – a statement it can only be imagined was given through gritted teeth, especially as Rand Paul, the libertarian Senator, said yesterday that he was considering leading a class action law suit against the government. This, it is fair to say, is not going to be a debate that the President relishes.

Before Snowden revealed his identity, the Department of Justice had said that it will seek to prosecute the perpetrators of leaks of American secrets, though Attorney General Eric Holder also said that no journalist would be prosecuted “for doing his or her job”.

Update: this piece was corrected at 9:39 PM to read "it is not known whether they mentioned the NSA surveillance" instead of the earlier, incorrect spelling of "NRA".

Edward Snowden. Photograph: The Guardian via Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Photo: Getty
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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.