The world had some hints that the source of documents unveiling the wide-ranging surveillance activities of the National Security Agency (NSA) might just come out. On Friday, for instance, Barton Gellman, a co-author of a Post story detailing the agency’s access to a vast array of Internet communications, told the Erik Wemple Blog that the then-anonymous source believed that he’d be “unmasked involuntarily.”

“Even if he thought he might be able to get away with it, he’s risking a lot,” said Gellman. “He knows that he’s going to pay a big price.”

Indeed: Today, the Guardian revealed that the leaker is 29-year-old Edward Snowden, a former CIA technical assistant and current employee of defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. In a detailed article on Snowden’s background and motivations for passing along the highly sensitive NSA documents, the Guardian reports on a meticulous set of preparations undertaken by Snowden in connection with his recent actions. (The newspaper is revealing his identity at his request.)

Three weeks ago at an NSA office in Hawaii, according to the report, Snowden copied the final documents that he hoped to share. He told his supervisor that he needed to take a break for a “couple of weeks” for treatment of epilepsy. On May 20 he left for Hong Kong, “because he believed that it was one of the few places in the world that both could and would resist the dictates of the US government,” according to the Guardian. And there he hovers, in a swank room at an unidentified hotel from which he rarely leaves, taking the utmost privacy precautions.

The Guardian story depicts Snowden as a whistleblower motivated by conscience. His objections to the surveillance state that has expanded after 9/11 are serious enough that he is risking a long-term separation from his family and much more:

He has had “a very comfortable life” that included a salary of roughly $200,000, a girlfriend with whom he shared a home in Hawaii, a stable career, and a family he loves. “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.”

Listen to Snowden, and you get the sense that despite President Obama’s assurances that surveillance programs are in the hands of “professionals” and that there’s a careful balance between privacy and national security, the NSA wants it all: “They are intent on making every conversation and every form of behaviour in the world known to them.”

Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution has gone to great lengths to classify those who spill classified information to the news media. There are baskets: 1) the ego leak (for the purpose of self-aggrandizement); 2) the goodwill leak (a downpayment for a “future favor”); 3) the policy leak (“a straightforward pitch for or against” a certain proposal); 4) the animus leak (get back at the bastards); 5) the trial-balloon leak (self-explanatory); and 6) the whistleblower leak (generally deployed by career personnel frustrated by the lack of change).

The grandiose proclamations of Snowden suggest a touch of ego involved in this enterprise, but absent evidence to the contrary, he appears to be laying a legitimate claim on the noble Door No. 6. Certainly The Guardian thinks so.

What’s incontrovertible is that the Obama administration’s six leak investigations — not to mention an array of powerful folks on Capitol Hill who routinely clamor for prosecution of national security-related disclosures — weren’t sufficient to deter Edward Snowden from coming forth with his goods. Did the recent revelations about the AP investigation and Fox News harden his resolve to disclose these documents? That’s a bit unclear; after all, the Guardian asked him when he decided to come forth, and Snowden responded as follows:

“You see things that may be disturbing. When you see everything you realise that some of these things are abusive. The awareness of wrong-doing builds up. There was not one morning when I woke up [and decided this is it]. It was a natural process.

“A lot of people in 2008 voted for Obama. I did not vote for him. I voted for a third party. But I believed in Obama’s promises. I was going to disclose it [but waited because of his election]. He continued with the policies of his predecessor.”

In its landmark 1972 decision in Branzburg v. Hayes, a ruling that declined to give news reporters an exemption from testifying in criminal cases, the Supreme Court professed its confidence in a bounteous supply of sources and leakers: “[T]he relationship of many informants to the press is a symbiotic one which is unlikely to be greatly inhibited by the threat of subpoena: quite often, such informants are members of a minority political or cultural group that relies heavily on the media to propagate its views, publicize its aims, and magnify its exposure to the public.”

Is that what happened here?

On Friday, both Gellman and Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian columnist who broke these NSA stories, told the Erik Wemple Blog that the government’s leak crackdowns have chilled the flow of information, notwithstanding Snowden’s actions. Wrote Greenwald:

Whoever is responsible for these disclosures had to have an enormous amount of courage and an endless willing to self-sacrifice in order to bring these abuses to light. As a democracy, we shouldn’t have to wait for such extraordinary human acts to have transparency, and the fact that we were lucky enough to have it here certainly doesn’t mean that the climate of fear from whistleblower persecutions isn’t real.

It’s very real.

Real enough that the source of the NSA documents is half a world away, thinking about seeking asylum “from any countries that believe in free speech and oppose the victimization of global privacy,” he told the Washington Post. How many potential sources of top-secret documents would be willing to make such a break?

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.