In Hong Kong, pedestrians pass a banner expressing support for Edward Snowden,… (Kin Cheung / Associated…)
WASHINGTON — Defiant and apparently unbowed by threats of prosecution, former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden vowed Monday to release more secrets about U.S. intelligence surveillance systems that he described as "nakedly, aggressively criminal."
Snowden, who has been hiding in Hong Kong, said NSA analysts routinely obtain emails and other Internet communications of Americans as part of the cyber-spying agency's surveillance of global telecommunications and Web traffic.
Writing in a chat on the website of Britain's Guardian newspaper, Snowden said U.S. communications were "collected and viewed on a daily basis" by NSA analysts operating without a specific warrant. "They excuse this as 'incidental' collection, but at the end of the day, someone at NSA still has the content of your communications."
Internal audits that show the NSA is not spying on Americans "are cursory, incomplete and easily fooled by fake justifications," Snowden said.
U.S. intelligence officials did not respond to Snowden's statements. Former NSA officials rejected his portrayal, however, saying the agency follows strict procedures to keep confidential any names of Americans caught up in monitoring efforts aimed at foreign terrorists, and sharply limit who can see the data.
"His premise is just false," said a former NSA official who asked not to be identified in discussing classified programs. "What he's saying is like a quarter true, but it's the worst kind of truth, because it's fundamentally misleading."
The former official said the name of an American inadvertently monitored would be blacked out in any intelligence report, and that the communications could be examined only for foreign intelligence relevance. Further investigation would require involvement of the FBI and probably a warrant, the former officials said.
"It's true, you could come in and search for anything that you wanted, but you have to provide a justification, and those justifications are reviewed," the former NSA operator said. "If you wanted to search a U.S. phone number, that would be an enormous red flag."
Snowden unmasked himself on June 9 as the source for news accounts that disclosed highly classified NSA programs to collect and store millions of telephone calling records, work with U.S. Internet companies to obtain data on foreign terrorism suspects operating overseas and carry out other clandestine efforts.
President Obama, in an interview taped Sunday with PBS talk show host Charlie Rose, said he has asked intelligence agencies to determine whether more details about the classified programs can be released without compromising their usefulness.
"They are in that process of doing so now, so that everything that I'm describing to you today, people, the public, newspapers … can look at," Obama said. "Because frankly, if people are making judgments just based on [what has] been leaked, they're not getting the complete story."
Justice Department officials have said they are preparing criminal charges against Snowden, 29, who worked as a systems administrator at an NSA facility near Honolulu. He flew to Hong Kong last month and began talking to reporters.
More disclosures are coming, Snowden said, regardless of his fate.
"All I can say right now is the U.S. government is not going to be able to cover this up by jailing or murdering me," he said. "Truth is coming, and it cannot be stopped."
Snowden said he had had no contact with the Chinese government, and he rejected speculation that he would spill U.S. intelligence secrets to another country in exchange for asylum.
"Ask yourself: If I were a Chinese spy, why wouldn't I have flown directly into Beijing?" Snowden said. "I could be living in a palace petting a phoenix by now."
In a separate development, the foreign minister of Ecuador said Monday that Julian Assange, the founder of the WikiLeaks anti-secrecy website, is prepared to stay inside the Ecuadorean Embassy in London for five years if necessary to avoid extradition to Sweden to face what Assange says are politically motivated allegations of sexual assault.
Assange took refuge in the embassy last June after losing repeated court appeals in Britain, which has been negotiating with the Ecuadoreans to turn him over for extradition.
Times staff writer Henry Chu in London contributed to this report.