In a wide-ranging interview, the elder Snowden offered a vehement defense of the young man some have labeled a traitor. He said that Edward, who is holed up at an airport in Moscow, grew up in a patriotic family in suburban Maryland, filled with federal agents and police officers, and that he “loves this nation.’’
Asked what triggered his son’s decision to leak top-secret intelligence documents, Snowden, a retired Coast Guard officer, said he didn’t know. Although Edward had seemed troubled in April during their final dinner together, he said his son had recently put up a “firewall between himself and his family.”
“We had no idea what was coming,’’ he said.
But he pointed to a possible explanation: what he considers misleading statements by U.S. officials about the surveillance methods that Edward Snowden revealed. “If you could say there was a tipping point, I would say it was what happened in the last six to nine months of this nation,” the elder Snowden said.
He also mentioned a conversation that hinted at his son’s growing political awareness; he said Edward told him that he was “troubled” by the 2010 suicide of a Tunisian street vendor that helped trigger the Arab Spring protests.
“It was the idea that a man who simply wanted to make a living, who sold fruits and vegetables to support himself and his family, felt so suppressed and humiliated by his government that he would set himself on fire,” Lon Snowden said.
The younger Snowden, 30, has remained a figure of intrigue since he revealed his identity last month as the principal source behind articles in the British newspaper the Guardian and The Post about secret surveillance. Under the programs he exposed, the NSA collects the telephone records of millions of Americans from U.S. telecommunications companies and the online communications of foreign targets from major Internet firms.
Snowden, who has been charged in the United States with theft and espionage, is seeking asylum in Russia. U.S. officials have condemned the leaks and said the programs he exposed are legal and supervised by a federal court.
In the elder Snowden’s first newspaper interview, conducted with his attorney, Bruce Fein, he offered insight into his son, whose own girlfriend labeled him a “man of mystery.’’ Snowden, who is divorced from Edward’s mother, said his son was “a gentle child” who was highly intelligent and fascinated by computers and technology but didn’t always do well in school.
Yet he grew animated when asked why Edward left Arundel High School halfway through the 10th grade. “If people are going to call him a high school dropout, they should call him a 16-year-old college drop-in as well,’’ he said, explaining that Edward missed months of school because he contracted mononucleosis and made up the coursework at a community college.
He added that his son, a voracious reader, once smiled at him, quoted Mark Twain and said, “Dad, my education is interfering with my learning.’ ’’
Snowden said he was unsurprised that the adult Edward later made the remarkable leap from security guard at a federally funded center at the University of Maryland to the intelligence world. “I’m assuming that what they saw was a 23-year-old brilliant man. Someone saw something in him,” said Snowden, 52.
But Snowden said he was shocked when his son was identified as the leaker.
“I was as surprised as the rest of America. I was stunned,” he said. He said he saw no direct signs of the growing disillusionment with the government and its surveillance methods that Edward has spoken about in interviews. “He simply did not talk about his work. He was true to the culture,’’ Snowden said.
Edward has said he took his final government contracting job with Booz Allen Hamilton in Hawaii to gain access to sensitive NSA information. But his father said Edward told him that his previous contracting job had been eliminated because of the federal budget sequestration.
“As a father, it pains me what he did,’’ Snowden said. “I wish my son could have simply sat in Hawaii and taken the big paycheck, lived with his beautiful girlfriend and enjoyed paradise. But as an American citizen, I am absolutely thankful for what he did.’’
Less than two days after Edward’s unmasking, FBI agents showed up at his father’s home outside Allentown, Pa., where he retired from the Coast Guard in 2009. He spoke to them for four hours, telling them “everything I could possibly think of’’ and sharing e-mails he had exchanged with Edward, he said.
Soon after that, the FBI asked him to fly to Moscow.
It is not precisely clear why the negotiations over the trip failed, and FBI officials declined to comment. Nor is it clear why Lon Snowden has not gone to Moscow on his own.
“Sure, I could get on a flight tomorrow to Russia. I’m not sure if I could get access to Edward,’’ said Snowden, who said he had communicated with his son through unspecified “intermediaries” as recently as two days ago.
What is clear is that relations between Lon Snowden and U.S. officials have since deteriorated. He condemned the Obama administration and members of Congress for labeling his son a traitor and said he now prefers that Edward stay in Russia.
“If he comes back to the United States, he is going to be treated horribly. He is going to be thrown into a hole. He is not going to be allowed to speak,” Snowden said.
At one point, he nearly choked up as he discussed a plaque that used to be on his desk at the Coast Guard headquarters in the District. Quoting the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, it said: “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”
The father said that applied to the son, who played with the plaque as a child. “I believe he is comfortable with who he is,’’ Lon Snowden said. “Yes, I am certain. I know my son. He knows he has done the right thing.”