WASHINGTON – Edward Snowden used the code name "Verax," truth-teller in Latin, as he made his cautious approach to Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman about disclosing some dramatic state secrets on intelligence gathering.
The 29-year-old intelligence contractor said he knew the great risks he was taking in exposing a phone records monitoring program and an Internet scouring program designed by the U.S. 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 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 Sunday night.
"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 U.S. 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 program 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 disorganized terrorist groups and rogue states without resorting to these sorts of programs," he wrote. "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 afternoon, 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 U.S. 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."