Edward Snowden grew up in Elizabeth City, N.C., where he lived with his parents, Lonnie, a Coast Guard officer, and Elizabeth, known as Wendy. The family moved to Maryland in the early 1990s, while he was still in grade school, and his parents divorced. He lived outside Baltimore with his mother, a federal court employee.
Snowden was, by his own admission, not a stellar student. He dropped out of high school in his sophomore year. But by that time, he had developed a fascination with computers and technology and was able to develop considerable skills on his own, and via friends and online forums. After attending a community college off and on, he passed a General Educational Development test in the early 2000s, receiving a high school equivalency credential.
He enlisted in an Army Reserve Special Forces training program in 2004 with the intention of fighting in Iraq to “fight to help free people from oppression,” he later told Britain’s Guardian newspaper. But he said he broke his legs in a training accident, and Army records show he was discharged after just four months.
He also worked briefly as a security guard before beginning his intelligence work in 2006, when he was hired by the CIA as a computer systems administrator.
The impact of Snowden’s disclosures, however, is already widespread. President Barack Obama appointed a review panel that criticized the NSA’s domestic data collection. Obama recommended in March that the NSA end the warrantless collection in bulk of metadata on Americans, which can show the most intimate details of an individual’s life and the patterns of movement and communication of millions. And the House recently passed a bill to end that bulk metadata collection.
Snowden is a former systems administrator for the CIA who later went to work for the private intelligence contractor Dell, first inside a National Security Agency outpost in Japan and then inside an NSA station in Hawaii. In early 2013, he went to work for contractor Booz Allen Hamilton inside the same NSA center in Hawaii.
While working for the contractors, at some point Snowden began downloading secret documents related to U.S. intelligence activities and partnerships with foreign allies, including some that revealed the extent of data collection from U.S. telephone records and Internet activity.
Childhood, family, and education
Edward Joseph Snowden was born on June 21, 1983, in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. His maternal grandfather, Edward J. Barrett, was a rear admiral in the U.S. Coast Guard who became a senior official with the FBI and was at the Pentagon in 2001 during the September 11 attacks. Snowden’s father Lonnie was also an officer in the Coast Guard, and his mother Elizabeth is a clerk at the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland. His older sister, Jessica, was a lawyer at the Federal Judicial Center in Washington, D.C. Edward Snowden said that he had expected to work for the federal government, as had the rest of his family. His parents divorced in 2001, and his father remarried. Snowden scored above 145 on two separate IQ tests.
In the early 1990s, while still in grade school, Snowden moved with his family to the area of Fort Meade, Maryland. Mononucleosis caused him to miss high school for almost nine months. Rather than returning to school, he passed the GED test and took classes at Anne Arundel Community College. Although Snowden had no undergraduate college degree, he worked online toward a master’s degree at the University of Liverpool, England, in 2011. He was reportedly interested in Japanese popular culture, had studied the Japanese language, and worked for an anime company that had a resident office in the U.S. He also said he had a basic understanding of Mandarin Chinese and was deeply interested in martial arts. At age 20, he listed Buddhism as his religion on a military recruitment form, noting that the choice of Agnostic was “strangely absent.”
Snowden has said that in the 2008 presidential election, he voted for a third-party candidate. He was disappointed with President Barack Obama, believing his policies were a continuation of those espoused by George W. Bush.
In accounts published in June 2013, interviewers noted that Snowden’s laptop displayed stickers supporting Internet freedom organizations including the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the Tor Project. A week after publication of his leaks began, Ars Technica confirmed that Snowden had been an active participant at the site’s online forum from 2001 through May 2012, discussing a variety of topics under the pseudonym “TheTrueHOOHA”. In a January 2009 entry, TheTrueHOOHA exhibited strong support for the U.S. security state apparatus and said leakers of classified information “should be shot in the balls”. However, Snowden disliked Obama’s CIA director appointment of Leon Panetta, saying “Obama just named a fucking politician to run the CIA”. Snowden was also offended by a possible ban on assault weapons, writing “Me and all my lunatic, gun-toting NRA compatriots would be on the steps of Congress before the C-Span feed finished”. Snowden disliked Obama’s economic policies, was against Social Security, and favored Ron Paul’s call for a return to the gold standard. In 2014, Snowden supported a basic income.
Feeling a humanitarian obligation to fight in the Iraq War to help free oppressed people, Snowden enlisted in the United States Army Reserve on May 7, 2004, as a Special Forces candidate through its 18X enlistment option. He did not complete the training. After breaking both legs in a training accident, he was discharged on September 28, 2004.
He was then employed for less than a year in 2005 as a security guard at the University of Maryland’s Center for Advanced Study of Language, a research center sponsored by the National Security Agency (NSA). According to the University this is not a classified facility, though it is heavily guarded. In June 2014, Snowden told Wired that his job as a security guard required a high-level security clearance, for which he passed a polygraph exam and underwent a stringent background check.
Employment at CIA
After attending a 2006 job-fair focused on intelligence agencies, Snowden accepted an offer for a position at the CIA. The Agency assigned him to the global communications division at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
In May 2006 Snowden wrote in Ars Technica that he had no trouble getting work because he was a “computer wizard”. After distinguishing himself as a junior employee on the top computer-team, Snowden was sent to the CIA’s secret school for technology specialists, where he lived in a hotel for six months while studying and training full-time.
In March 2007 the CIA stationed Snowden with diplomatic cover in Geneva, Switzerland, where he was responsible for maintaining computer-network security. Assigned to the U.S. mission to the United Nations, Snowden received a diplomatic passport and a four-bedroom apartment near Lake Geneva. According to Greenwald, while there Snowden was “considered the top technical and cybersecurity expert” in that country and “was hand-picked by the CIA to support the president at the 2008 NATO summit in Romania”. Snowden described his CIA experience in Geneva as formative, stating that the CIA deliberately got a Swiss banker drunk and encouraged him to drive home. Snowden said that when the latter was arrested, a CIA operative offered to help in exchange for the banker becoming an informant. Ueli Maurer, President of the Swiss Confederation for the year 2013, in June of that year publicly disputed Snowden’s claims. “This would mean that the CIA successfully bribed the Geneva police and judiciary. With all due respect, I just can’t imagine it,” said Maurer. In February 2009 Snowden resigned from the CIA.
NSA sub-contractee as an employee for Dell
In 2009, Snowden began work as a contractee for Dell, which manages computer systems for multiple government agencies. Assigned to an NSA facility at Yokota Air Base near Tokyo, Snowden instructed top officials and military officers on how to defend their networks from Chinese hackers. During his four years with Dell, he rose from supervising NSA computer system upgrades to working as what his résumé termed a “cyberstrategist” and an “expert in cyber counterintelligence” at several U.S. locations. In 2011, he returned to Maryland, where he spent a year as lead technologist on Dell’s CIA account. In that capacity, he was consulted by the chiefs of the CIA’s technical branches, including the agency’s chief information officer and its chief technology officer. U.S. officials and other sources familiar with the investigation said Snowden began downloading documents describing the government’s electronic spying programs while working for Dell in April 2012. Investigators estimated that of the 50,000 to 200,000 documents Snowden gave to Greenwald and Poitras, most were copied by Snowden while working at Dell.
In March 2012, Dell reassigned Snowden to Hawaii as lead technologist for the NSA’s information-sharing office. At the time of his departure from the U.S. in May 2013, he had been employed for 15 months inside the NSA’s Hawaii regional operations center, which focuses on the electronic monitoring of China and North Korea, the last three of which were with consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton. While intelligence officials have described his position there as a system administrator, Snowden has said he was an infrastructure analyst, which meant that his job was to look for new ways to break into Internet and telephone traffic around the world. On March 15, 2013—three days after what he later called his “breaking point” of “seeing the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, directly lie under oath to Congress”—Snowden quit his job at Dell. Although he has stated that his career high annual salary was $200,000, Snowden said he took a pay cut to work at Booz Allen, where he sought employment in order to gather data and then release details of the NSA’s worldwide surveillance activity. According to a Reuters story by Mark Hosenball, while in Hawaii, Snowden may have misled 20–25 co-workers into giving him their logins and passwords under false pretenses. NBC News subsequently reported that the NSA sent a memo to Congress suggesting that Snowden had tricked a fellow employee into sharing his personal public key infrastructure certificate to gain greater access to the NSA’s computer system. This report was disputed, with Snowden himself saying in January 2014, “With all due respect to Mark Hosenball, the Reuters report that put this out there was simply wrong. I never stole any passwords, nor did I trick an army of co-workers.” Booz Allen terminated Snowden’s employment on June 10, 2013, one month after he had left the country.
A former NSA co-worker told Forbes that although the NSA was full of smart people, Snowden was “a genius among geniuses,” who created a backup system for the NSA that was widely implemented and often pointed out security bugs to the agency. The former colleague said Snowden was given full administrator privileges, with virtually unlimited access to NSA data. Snowden was offered a position on the NSA’s elite team of hackers, Tailored Access Operations, but turned it down to join Booz Allen. Reuters reported that Booz Allen hiring screeners could not verify some details of Snowden’s education but decided to hire him anyway; what triggered these concerns or how Snowden satisfied them was unknown. Snowden’s résumé stated that he attended computer-related classes at Johns Hopkins University. A spokeswoman for Johns Hopkins said that the university did not find records to show that Snowden attended the university, and suggested that he may instead have attended Advanced Career Technologies, a private for-profit organization that operated as the Computer Career Institute at Johns Hopkins University. The University of Maryland University College acknowledged that Snowden had attended a summer session at a UM campus in Asia. Snowden’s résumé stated that he estimated that he would receive a University of Liverpool computer security master’s degree in 2013. The university said that Snowden registered for an online master’s degree program in computer security in 2011 but was inactive as a student and had not completed the program.
Snowden has said that he had told multiple employees and two supervisors about his concerns, but the NSA disputes his claim. Snowden elaborated in January 2014, saying “[I] made tremendous efforts to report these programs to co-workers, supervisors, and anyone with the proper clearance who would listen. The reactions of those I told about the scale of the constitutional violations ranged from deeply concerned to appalled, but no one was willing to risk their jobs, families, and possibly even freedom to go through what [Thomas Andrews] Drake did.” In March 2014, during testimony to the European Parliament, Snowden wrote that before revealing classified information he had reported “clearly problematic programs” to ten officials, who he said did nothing in response. In a May 2014 interview, Snowden told NBC News that after bringing his concerns about the legality of the NSA spying programs to officials, he was told to stay silent on the matter. He asserted that the NSA had copies of emails he sent to their Office of General Counsel, oversight and compliance personnel broaching “concerns about the NSA’s interpretations of its legal authorities. I had raised these complaints not just officially in writing through email, but to my supervisors, to my colleagues, in more than one office.”
In May 2014, U.S. officials released a single email that Snowden had written in April 2013 inquiring about legal authorities but said that they had found no other evidence that Snowden had expressed his concerns to someone in an oversight position. In June 2014, the NSA said it had not been able to find any records of Snowden raising internal complaints about the agency’s operations. That same month, Snowden explained that he himself has not produced the communiqués in question because of the ongoing nature of the dispute, disclosing for the first time that “I am working with the NSA in regard to these records and we’re going back and forth, so I don’t want to reveal everything that will come out.”
In his May 2014 interview with NBC News, Snowden accused the U.S. government of trying to use one position here or there in his career to distract from the totality of his experience, downplaying him as a “low level analyst.” In his words, he was “trained as a spy in the traditional sense of the word in that I lived and worked undercover overseas—pretending to work in a job that I’m not—and even being assigned a name that was not mine.” He said he’d worked for the NSA undercover overseas, and for the DIA had developed sources and methods to keep information and people secure “in the most hostile and dangerous environments around the world. So when they say I’m a low-level systems administrator, that I don’t know what I’m talking about, I’d say it’s somewhat misleading.” In a June interview with Globo TV, Snowden reiterated that he “was actually functioning at a very senior level.” In a July interview with The Guardian, Snowden explained that, during his NSA career, “I began to move from merely overseeing these systems to actively directing their use. Many people don’t understand that I was actually an analyst and I designated individuals and groups for targeting.” Snowden subsequently told Wired that while at Dell in 2011, “I would sit down with the CIO of the CIA, the CTO of the CIA, the chiefs of all the technical branches. They would tell me their hardest technology problems, and it was my job to come up with a way to fix them.”
Of his time as an NSA analyst, directing the work of others, Snowden recalled a moment when he and his colleagues began to have severe ethical doubts. Snowden said 18 to 22-year-old analysts were suddenly “thrust into a position of extraordinary responsibility, where they now have access to all your private records. In the course of their daily work, they stumble across something that is completely unrelated in any sort of necessary sense—for example, an intimate nude photo of someone in a sexually compromising situation. But they’re extremely attractive. So what do they do? They turn around in their chair and they show a co-worker … and sooner or later this person’s whole life has been seen by all of these other people.” As Snowden observed it, this behavior happened routinely every two months but was never reported, being considered one of the “fringe benefits” of the work.