Edward Snowden is a former National Security Agency subcontractor who made headlines in 2013 when he leaked top secret information about NSA surveillance activities.
“I don't want to live in a society that does these sort of things ... I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded. That is not something I am willing to support or live under.”
Born in North Carolina in 1983, Edward Snowden worked for the National Security Agency through subcontractor Booz Allen in the NSA's Oahu office. After only three months, Snowden began collecting top-secret documents regarding NSA domestic surveillance practices, which he found disturbing. After Snowden fled to Hong Kong, China, newspapers began printing the documents that he had leaked to them, many of them detailing invasive spying practices against American citizens. With the U.S. charging Snowden under the Espionage Act but many groups calling him a hero, Snowden remains in Russia, with the U.S. government working on extradition.
Edward Snowden was born in North Carolina on June 21, 1983, and grew up in Elizabeth City. His mother works for the federal court in Baltimore (the family moved to Ellicott City, Maryland, when Snowden was young) as chief deputy clerk for administration and information technology. Snowden's father, a former Coast Guard officer, lives in Pennsylvania.
Snowden dropped out of high school and studied computers at Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold, Maryland (from 1999 to 2001, and again from 2004 to 2005), later earning a GED. Between his stints at community college, Snowden spent four months (May to September 2004) in the Army Reserves in special-forces training. According to Army sources, he did not complete any training, and Snowden has said that he was discharged after he broke his legs in an accident.
Two years after leaving Anne Arundel for the second time, Snowden landed a job with the National Security Agency as a security guard, which he somehow parlayed into an information-technology job at the Central Intelligence Agency. Snowden has said that in 2007, the CIA stationed him in Geneva, but in 2009 he left to work for private contractors, among them Dell and Booz Allen Hamilton, a tech consulting firm. With Dell, he was shipped off to Japan to work as a subcontractor in an NSA office before being transferred to an office in Hawaii. After a short while, he moved from Dell to Booz Allen, another NSA subcontractor, and after only three months with Booz Allen, Snowden would make a decision that would change his life forever.
While working at the NSA's Oahu office, Snowden began noticing government programs involving the NSA spying on American citizens via phone calls and internet use. Before long, leaving his "very comfortable life" and $200,000 salary behind, in May 2013, Snowden began copying top-secret NSA documents while at work, building a dossier on practices that he found invasive and disturbing. The documents contained vast and damning information on the NSA's domestic surveillance practices, including spying on millions of American citizens under the umbrella of programs such as PRISM.
After he had compiled a large store of documents, Snowden told his NSA supervisor that he needed a leave of absence to undergo medical treatment. He had been recently diagnosed with epilepsy. On May 20, 2013, Snowden took a flight to Hong Kong, China, where he remained during the early stages of the fallout. This fallout began the following month, on June 5, when the United Kingdom's Guardian newspaper released secret documents obtained from Snowden about an American intelligence body (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court) demanding that Verizon release information "on a daily basis" culled from its American customers' activities.
The following day, the Guardian and the Washington Times released Snowden's leaked information on PRISM, an NSA program that allows real-time information collection, in this case, solely information on American citizens. A flood of information followed, and the American people, the international community and the U.S. government have since been scrambling to either hear more about it or have Snowden arrested.
"I'm willing to sacrifice [my former life] because I can't in good conscience allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they're secretly building," Snowden said after the fact, in a series of interviews given in his Hong Kong hotel room. One of the people he left behind was his girlfriend Lindsay Mills. The pair had been living together in Hawaii, and she reportedly had no idea that he was about to disclose classified information to the public.
The U.S. government soon responded to Snowden's disclosures legally. On June 14, 2013, federal prosecutors charged Snowden with theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information, and willful communication of classified intelligence with an unauthorized person. The last two charges fall under the Espionage Act. (Before President Barack Obama took office, the act had only been used for prosecutorial purposes three times since 1917; Since President Obama took office, it had been invoked seven times as of June 2013.)
Snowden remained in hiding for nearly one month, first asking Ecuador for asylum and then fleeing Hong Kong for Russia, whose government has denied the U.S. request to extradite him. While some decried him as a traitor, he did seem to be building some support for his cause, however. More than 100,000 people had signed an online petition asking Obama to pardon Snowden by late June.
The following month, Snowden made headlines again when it was announced that he had been offered asylum in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia. Around the same time, it was reported that Snowden was "stuck in transit" in Moscow after the U.S. annulled his passport, and that he had not yet made a decision on where, of the countries offering him asylum, he would be relocating. Snowden soon made up his mind, expressing an interest in staying in Russia. One of his lawyers, Anatoly Kucherena, gave an interview with CBS News. Kucherena said that Snowden would seek temporary asylum in Russia and possibly apply for Russian citizenship later. Snowden thanked Russia for giving him asylum and said that "in the end the law is winning."
That October, Snowden revealed that he no longer possessed any of the NSA files that he leaked to press. He gave those materials to the journalists he met with in Hong Kong, but he didn't keep any copies for himself. Snowden explained that "it wouldn't serve the public interest" for him to have brought the files to Russia, according to The New York Times. Around this time, Snowden's father, Lon Snowden, got a chance to visit with him in Moscow. Lon told the press that he supported his son, saying that "I know my son. I know he loves his country," according to a CNN report. He explained that his son was a "whistle-blower," not a "leaker."
Living in Exile
Snowden received some bad news in November 2013. According to the Guardian newspaper, his request to the U.S. government for clemency was rejected. The fallout from his disclosures continued to unfold over the next few months, including a legal battle over the collection of phone data by the NSA. President Barack Obama sought to calm fears over government spying in January 2014, ordering U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to review the country's surveillance programs.
Still in exile, Snowden remained a polarizing figure. He made an appearance at the popular South by Southwest festival via teleconference in March 2014. Around this time, the U.S. military revealed that the information Snowden leaked may have caused so much damage to its security that the cost to repair it may run in the billions.
In May 2014, Snowden gave a revealing interview with NBC News. He told Brian Williams that he was a trained spy who worked undercover as an operative for the CIA and NSA. Snowden explained that he viewed himself as a patriot, believing his actions had beneficial results. His leaking of information led to "a robust public debate" and "new protections in the United States and abroad for our rights to make that they're no longer violated." He also expressed an interest to go home to the United States.
That same year, Snowden was featured in the critically acclaimed documentary film called Citizenfour. He had contacted filmmaker Laura Poitras before he leaked the NSA documents, and she filmed her meetings with him and Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald. The documentary has been nominated for an Academy Award. Since its release, Snowden has remained outspoken on government surveillance. He appeared with Poitras and Greenwald via video-conference in February 2015.
That same month, Snowden spoke with students at Upper Canada College via video-conference. He told them that "the problem with mass surveillance is when you collect everything, you understand nothing," according to a CBC report. He went to say that government spying "fundamentally changes the balance of power between the citizen and the state."
Clancy's comment: Mm ... The citizen and the State.