WASHINGTON -- Just a few weeks ago, media experts were warning that the Obama administration's secret tracking of phone calls of Associated Press reporters and criminal targeting of a Fox News correspondent's contacts with a source would intimidate government officials and make it harder for journalists to perform crucial watchdog functions.
Then came the uproar over a 29-year-old National Security Agency contract employee's disclosure of a sweeping U.S. program to access the records of millions of telephone and Internet accounts. More to the point, the employee, a computer systems administrator named Edward Snowden, outed himself, insisting to the newspaper reporters to whom he had leaked that he wanted his name known to the world.
That left journalists and academics wondering how to explain what seemed to be a contradiction. Even before allegations had died that investigations into leaks of national security secrets would chill the willingness of other sources to come forward, a source had come forward with what Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers in the 1970s and is considered godfather of modern leakers, called the most important leak in American history.
"And that definitely includes the Pentagon Papers," Ellsberg wrote on the website of the Guardian, the British newspaper that first broke the news of Snowden's document dump.
"Snowden's whistle-blowing gives us the possibility to roll back a key part of what has amounted to an 'executive coup' against the U.S. Constitution," Ellsberg wrote.
Experts who study press freedom cautioned that it was still too early to judge what effect the Obama administration's zealousness in pursuit of government officials who have leaked information would have on news media reporting. But there were some who saw Snowden's disclosures as a healthy answer to an administration that had gone too far in hunting down journalists' sources.
"It's a strong assertion that the press is proud of performing its accountability function," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Lucy Dalglish, the dean of the school of journalism at the University of Maryland and the former executive director of the Reporters' Committee for Freedom of the Press, cautioned that the long-term impact of the Justice Department's aggressive actions against leaks is still unknown.
Snowden, she noted, is an unusual source _ willing to go public and expose himself to potential criminal prosecution and unattached enough to pick up from his rented home in Hawaii to leave for Hong Kong, where he stayed in a luxury hotel before his identity was revealed. The Washington Post, one of the two newspapers that published stories based on Snowden's documents, reported Monday that he had checked out _ his whereabouts not publicly known.
"The real chill is going to be on those sources you have to spend a lot of time cultivating, sources who have children who need to go to college, sources who might not be able to go to prison for 40 years or might not have the means to hire an expensive lawyer for the five years it often takes to litigate these things," Dalglish said.
In a widely disseminated video, Snowden explained his own version of why he had leaked, providing the Guardian, a British newspaper, with a copy of a secret order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to the Verizon phone company requiring that it turn over to the government on a daily basis the phone records of millions of Verizon customers. He also provided both the Guardian and The Washington Post with copies of a classified PowerPoint presentation that alleged that the federal government also was able to access the records of nine of the country's major Internet services, including Google, Facebook and Yahoo.
"I don't want to live in a society that does these sorts of things," Snowden said.
Snowden said he intended to ask for asylum "from any countries that believe in free speech and oppose the victimization of global privacy."
On Monday, White House press secretary Jay Carney found himself on the defensive as reporters pressed him on the leaks and Snowden.
He backed off Obama's claim Friday that every member of Congress had been briefed on the sweeping NSA surveillance program, but he insisted that Congress had been kept informed. "I can't speak to every individual member," Carney said. "What I can say is that it is simply true that there is substantial congressional oversight."
He declined to respond to questions of whether Obama had watched Snowden's interview, which was posted on the Guardian's website in full, or if he was angry about Snowden's claims that the executive branch had undercut traditional American values.
Carney did say that it is never justified for a federal employee to leak secret data no matter what the motives or justification.
"Everyone who takes an oath or signs an oath understands that divulging classified information is a violation of the law and a violation of that oath," Carney said.
Outrage over the revelations was not limited to the United States. In Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed concern that the National Security Agency's monitoring of communications may have violated the privacy of some Germans. She vowed to press Obama on the topic next week when they meet in Berlin. Other European leaders voiced similar fears.
Meanwhile, in articles, blogs and tweets, Glenn Greenwald and Barton Gellman, the Guardian and Washington Post reporters who broke the stories, gave contradictory accounts of their relationships with Snowden.
Gellman said Snowden went to the Guardian only after he gave the Washington Post a 72-hour deadline to publish his disclosures, which Gellman said the newspaper couldn't meet.
Greenwald, however, said he'd been in contact with Snowden since February, "long before anyone spoke to Bart Gellman."