He was a teenage aficionado of role-playing video games and Japanese anime cartoons who dropped out of high school and turned his avid interest in computer technology into a career that paid him more than $100,000 a year before he turned 30, living every nerd’s dream with a beautiful girlfriend and a job in the tropical paradise of Hawaii.
For all his success, however, Edward Snowden harbored profound doubts about the world into which his skills had brought him. Snowden worked as a contractor on powerful top-secret information systems that sorted through data for the U.S. government, in what officials describe as a vital program to prevent terrorist attacks, but which Snowden and others say was an unconstitutional intrusion on the privacy of American citizens.
In the week since Snowden, 29, came forward to identify himself as the source of headline-making revelations about the National Security Agency‘s classified surveillance programs on which he worked, some have hailed him as a hero while others — including leading U.S. officials of both parties — have denounced him as a traitor. He is currently in Hong Kong, where protesters took to the streets Saturday for a rally in defense of Snowden. Meanwhile the disclosures by the bespectacled computer specialist have fueled a rancorous debate in America, where federal authorities are expected to seek Snowden’s extradition to prosecute him as a criminal.
For the first few days after he went public June 9 in an interview with the British Guardian newspaper, all that most people knew about Ed Snowden was what he said about himself: Originally from North Carolina, he moved to Maryland with his family, served briefly in the U.S. Army before breaking both legs in a training accident, worked as a security guard at an NSA facility, later was employed by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and, with security clearance, was hired as a computer technician for government contracting firms. Further hints about Snowden’s personality emerged Wednesday when the Reuters news agency reported that as a teenager, Snowden was online editor for Ryuhana Press, a now-defunct company devoted to Japanese-style anime cartoons.
“So anyway, there I was, surrounded by beautiful, nubile young girls… wait, has this been done before?” Snowden wrote in his joke-filled biography at the site, explaining: “I got bullied into being the editor of this fine specimen of a website by a gaggle of artists. … I really am a nice guy, though. You see, I act arrogant and cruel because I was not hugged enough as a child, and because the public education system turned its wretched, spiked back on me.”
Online Comments: Sex, Video Games and ‘Pervasive Government Secrecy’
Snowden also was a frequent commenter (under an alias, “The True HOOHA”) in an online forum at the Ars Technica site, Reuters reported. Between the time he first signed up at the site as a 17-year-old and the time he last commented in May 2012, Snowden left nearly 800 comments scattered across the Ars Technica forum. Much of what Snowden discussed was his interest in online role-playing video games, but he also talked occasionally about sex and religion, and shared advice about working for the government in the computer field.
In a 2006 comment at Ars Technica, he called his girlfriend “amazing,” describing her as “one of those who even wanted it more than me, sometimes, and would kind of sadly paw at my man-totem like a cat after it has killed the prey.” Snowden, 22 at the time, boasted of having “sex marathons from sundown til sunrise,” advising that establishing a “comfort zone” would ensure that “the sex will be better, longer, and more available.” That same year, Snowden posted a photo of himself to the Ars Technica forum, showing him pale, thin and clean-shaven, without the glasses and beard that he wore in video interviews with the Guardian last weekend.
In an article Wednesday at Ars Technica, reporter Joe Mullin called attention to several of Snowden’s comments that reflected his career as a government information technology (IT) specialist and foreshadowed his emergence as the source of the NSA leaks. At a time when he had reportedly been hired by the CIA, Snowden advised that the State Department was “understaffed” with computer specialists. Those with “specialized IT skills … can go anywhere in the world right now” in the State Department, Snowden wrote in July 2006. “Oh, and bonus? Yeah, working in IT for the State Department guarantees you’ll have to have a Top Secret clearance.”
After leaving the CIA a few years later, however, Snowden seemed disillusioned and suspicious toward government. In a comment on an Ars Technica article about surveillance software developed by Cisco, Snowden expressed concern about “how little this sort of corporate behavior bothers those outside of technology circles.” Criticizing what he called an attitude of “unquestioning obedience,” Snowden suggested that such surveillance had “sneaked in undetected because of pervasive government secrecy.”
Maintaining his own personal secrecy was a priority for Snowden, who asked in forums about using proxy servers to hide his online activity. In 2003 he commented, “I wouldn’t want God himself to know where I’ve been, you know?”
He appeared dismissive or hostile toward religion, describing it as “blindly making someone else’s beliefs your own.” That comment in September 2003 apparently was posted after Snowden decided to join the Army. He said he had checked Buddhism as his religious belief on the enlistment paperwork and remarked, “agnostic is strangely absent.”
A ‘Weird Little Guy’ and the Dancer Girlfriend He Left Behind
Snowden’s stint in the Army lasted less than four months. He said he broke both legs during training at Fort Benning near Columbus, Georgia. However, the Washington Post reported that an Army spokesman made no mention of injury, saying only that Snowden “did not complete the requisite training and was administratively discharged” in 2004.
His father was a career Coast Guard officer and his mother works for the federal court in Baltimore, the Washington Post reported in a lengthy profile of Snowden. He apparently made little impression on peers or teachers during his youth in Maryland’s Ann Arundel County; the Post reported that many of those who taught or went to school with Snowden could not remember him. One member of Snowden’s Boy Scout troop described him as being “shy and friendly,” part of a group of “weird little guys — computer nerds who loved to run around in the woods.”
As an adult, however, Snowden seemed to have made a strong impression on Lindsay Mills, a dancer and acrobat who worked as an instructor teaching pole dancing at XPose Fitness, according to the Post. Snowden and Mills dated for eight years. She moved to Hawaii with him when he was hired as a contract employee at the NSA facility there. After Snowden left for Hong Kong and went public as the source who had disclosed hundreds of pages of highly classified documents about the government’s surveillance programs, Mills wrote a blog post about her feelings of abandonment:
“My world has opened and closed all at once. Leaving me lost at sea without a compass. . . . But at the moment all I can feel is alone. . . . As I type this on my tear-streaked keyboard I’m reflecting on all the faces that have graced my path.”
The disillusionment that led Snowden to becoming an international fugitive was apparent as early as 2007, according to one of his former colleagues. Mavanee Anderson, who worked closely with Snowden for two years when he was stationed with the CIA in Switzerland, told the Chattanooga Times-Free Press that he “was already experiencing a crisis of conscience of sorts” even then. Anderson described Snowden as “an incredibly smart, kind and sincere person … introspective and, perhaps, a bit prone to brood.”
If Snowden’s goal in releasing the classified documents was to undermine support for the federal government’s policy, he seems to have succeeded. A survey by pollster Scott Rasmussen found that U.S. voters are opposed to the NSA surveillance program by a 50%-33% margin, while 57% of those surveyed said they “believe it is likely the NSA data will be used by other government agencies to harass political opponents.”
In Hong Kong, meanwhile, the South China Morning Post reported that “detailed records” provided by Snowden “show specific dates and the IP addresses of computers in Hong Kong and [in mainland China] hacked by the National Security Agency over a four-year period.” Snowden told the newspaper: “I don’t know what specific information they were looking for on these machines, only that using technical exploits to gain unauthorized access to civilian machines is a violation of law. It’s ethically dubious.” However, the New York Times reported that it would be difficult to know which Chinese computers are actually civilian-owned:
Western experts have long said that the dividing line between the civilian sector and the government is very blurry in China. State-owned or state-controlled enterprises still control much of the economy, and virtually all are run by Communist Party cadres who tend to rotate back and forth between government and corporate jobs every few years as part of elaborate career development procedures.
Snowden is likely to remain in Hong Kong for the time being, but the British government is apparently taking no chances on a repeat of the diplomatic crisis that followed Julian Assange‘s arrival in England as a fugitive from a sexual assault charge in Sweden. (Assange took refuge inside the Ecuadoran embassy.) British officials have notified airlines not to accept Snowden as a passenger on any British-bound flights.
U.S. Debate: National Security vs. ‘Potential Abuses’ of Surveillance
In Washington, officials have been harshly critical of Snowden. Thursday, top members of the House Intelligence Committee emerged from a closed-door meeting with NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander to charge that Snowden had lied about his role with the agency. “”He clearly has over-inflated his position, he has over-inflated his access and he’s even over-inflated what the actually technology of the programs would allow one to do,” said Michigan Rep. Mike Rogers, the committee’s Republican chairman. “It’s impossible for him to do what he was saying he could do.” Those charges were echoed by the committee’s top Democrat, Maryland Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, who said Snowden had “done tremendous damage to the country where he was born and raised and educated.” Numerous commentators expressed similar views, including Monica Crowley, who said on Fox News that Snowden “has probably done enormous damage to our national security” by “giving our enemies a heads-up” about U.S. intelligence capabilities. However, Crowley said, she is “deeply concerned about potential abuses of these surveillance programs.”
Sympathy for Snowden was apparently strong among readers of the Los Angeles Times. In the paper’s online poll, 67 percent of respondents said that Snowden is a “hero, because he exposed a huge potential threat to civil liberties, whereas 10 percent said the NSA leaker is a “criminal, because he disclosed classified documents he’d sworn to keep secret,” and 8 percent called him, “Worse than a criminal — a traitor.”
PJ Media columnist Stephen Kruiser pronounced the traitor-or hero debate “tedious,” remarking that Snowden’s background — growing up as the son of two federal workers near the NSA’s headquarters in Maryland — seemed not to prepare him for his career at the agency: “Many of the rest of us will simply keep wondering how a guy who grew up near the NSA but was shocked to find out what the NSA was up to when did contract work for them was bright enough to be doing the work in the first place.”
- Joe Mullin, Ars Technica: NSA leaker Ed Snowden’s life on Ars Technica
- Washington Post: Tracking Edward Snowden, from a Maryland classroom to a Hong Kong hotel
- Kristina Cooke and John Shiffman, Reuters: Exclusive: Snowden as a teen online: anime and cheeky humor
- Keith Bradsher, New York Times: Snowden’s Leaks on China Could Affect Its Role in His Fate
- John Shiffman, Mark Hosenball and Kristina Cooke, Reuters: While working for spies, Snowden was secretly prolific online
- John M. Broder and Scott Shane, New York Times: For Snowden, a Life of Ambition, Despite the Drifting
- Mavenee Anderson, Chattanooga Times-Free Press: Who is Ed Snowden? Friend shares memories, offers support for NSA leaker
- Jim Geraghty, National Review: Rasmussen: 57 Percent Believe NSA Data Will Be Used Against Political Opponents
- Lana Lam, South China Morning Post: Edward Snowden: Classified US data shows Hong Kong hacking targets
- Mike Lillis, The Hill: NSA leaker Snowden is lying, say leaders of House Intelligence Committee
- Stephen Kruiser, PJ Media: Getting To Know Edward Snowden
- Adam Geller, Associated Press: Edward Snowden Has Always Been A Privacy Fanatic