“They’re reporting classified [expletive],” Snowden wrote. “You don’t put that [expletive] in the NEWSPAPER.”
At the time of the posting, in January 2009, Snowden was 25 years old and stationed in Geneva by the CIA.
“Are they TRYING to start a war?” he asked of the New York Times. “Jesus christ they’re like wikileaks.”
Snowden’s libertarian and dogmatic online persona adds to the emerging portrait of a shape-
shifting young man whose motivations and decision-making remain in flux.
When he burst into public view in the second week of June, Snowden cast himself as a lonely crusader reconciled to capture and prison but determined to use what freedom he had left to expose what he said were omniscient U.S. surveillance powers that threatened individual privacy.
“I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong,” Snowden told Britain’s Guardian newspaper in a report that was published June 9 and revealed that he was in Hong Kong.
Two weeks later, the former NSA contractor is on the lam, presumed to be at a transit zone at a Moscow airport and forced to depend on a government the likes of which he had earlier seemed eager to avoid.
Although Snowden seems to have started out with a carefully considered plan to steal highly classified material and abscond to Hong Kong, he has since undertaken unscripted dodges to keep U.S. investigators at bay.
He has formed an unsurprising but impromptu alliance with WikiLeaks, gambled on Hong Kong’s desire to be rid of him as well as on the Kremlin’s benevolence, and turned for asylum to Ecuador.
The maneuvers have left the 30-year-old open to charges that the idealism he first professed has given way to self-preservation.
Critical parts of Snowden’s biography remain opaque, particularly his entry into the intelligence community without even a high school diploma. He somehow made the jump from security guard at the federally funded University of Maryland Center for Advanced Study of Language, which conducts classified and unclassified research, to CIA recruit in 2007.
The CIA assigned him to Switzerland, and in his commentary on his first taste of life abroad, he complained about bad hamburgers and intermissions in movies.
“God I hate metric,” wrote Snowden on #arsificial, a channel on Ars Technica’s public Internet Relay Chat (IRC) server. “Why can’t they use real numbers over here?”
Editors at Ars Technica said chats on #arsificial are not archived, but they obtained the logs involving Snowden from multiple, independent sources. The Washington Post reported this month that Snowden used the handle TheTrueHOOHA. Elements of TheTrueHOOHA’s biography and personal views correspond with Snowden’s.
Snowden’s postings offer some glimpses into his political opinions. He admired Rep. Ron Paul — calling him “dreamy” — supported Second Amendment rights and considered Social Security a crutch that should be eliminated. He called those who disagreed with him “retards.”
In the run-up to the 2008 election, he described President Obama’s opponent, Sen. John McCain, as an “excellent leader” and “a guy with real values.” Speaking of Obama, he said that “we need an idealist first and foremost.”
He dismissed Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama’s opponent in the Democratic primaries, as “a pox on the country.”
Snowden wondered how the anonymous sources for the New York Times article could have disclosed classified information. “Those people should be shot in the balls,” he wrote.
There was only the faintest hint that Snowden was becoming disillusioned with the U.S. surveillance programs he would later reveal. “WE LOVE THAT TECHNOLOGY [EXPLETIVE],” he wrote in March 2009. “HELPS US SPY ON OUR CITIZENS BETTER.”
Indeed, as he told the Guardian in a videotaped interview this month, his disillusionment with his work as a systems analyst in the U.S intelligence community was gradual. “Over time that awareness of wrongdoing sort of builds up and you feel compelled to talk about,” he said. “And the more you talk about, the more you’re ignored, the more you’re told it’s not a problem, until eventually you realize that these things need to be determined by the public and not by somebody who was simply hired by the government.”
In 2009, Snowden left the CIA to work for a private contractor and was based at an NSA facility in Japan. Three years later, he moved to Hawaii, where he again worked at an NSA facility.
In January, Snowden, without identifying himself, contacted the documentarian Laura Poitras, who has covered surveillance and counterterrorism issues, and told her that he wanted to get her encryption key and use a secure channel to communicate. In February, he also contacted Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald. Poitras also spoke to reporter Barton Gellman about some of the correspondence she had with Snowden, according to an interview she gave to Salon, the news Web site.
In March, Snowden took a position with the contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, apparently to maximize his access to classified material at the NSA.
“My position with Booz Allen Hamilton granted me access to lists of machines all over the world the NSA hacked,” Snowden told the South China Morning Post in an interview in Hong Kong this month. “That is why I accepted that position about three months ago.”
On May 20, after telling his supervisor that he needed treatment for epilepsy, Snowden flew into Hong Kong carrying four laptops. He met with Guardian journalists there on June 1. The first Guardian article based on NSA documents appeared June 5, followed the next day by articles in The Washington Post and the Guardian on another surveillance program.
On the run
Snowden said he chose the semiautonomous Chinese territory because it had the “cultural and legal framework to allow me to work without being immediately detained.” He stressed in interviews that he had no interest in aiding foreign powers.
“Anyone in the positions of access with the technical capabilities that I had could suck out secrets, pass them on the open market to Russia; they always have an open door as we do,” he told the Guardian.
Snowden’s supporters in WikiLeaks have said that neither Chinese nor Russian intelligence officials have debriefed the American and that agents from those countries have not had access to his computers. President Vladimir Putin also said Tuesday that staffers of the FSB, the Russian security service, “didn’t work and aren’t working” with Snowden. Former U.S. intelligence officials have questioned whether Russia would not take the opportunity to obtain NSA documents that could include material affecting its interests.
Once he was out in the open, Snowden was no longer in control of his fate. His original plan was to show up in Hong Kong and have a “free” and “simple” life there, according to one of his attorneys, Albert Ho. At a meeting in Hong Kong more than a week ago, his attorneys laid out the charges he could face, the likelihood of detention in Hong Kong and an extradition proceeding that could lead to his return to the United States, where he could face life in prison if convicted.
Snowden, who said he expected the United States to seek his arrest, selectively leaked documents after arriving in Hong Kong that would be of interest to China — an attempt by Snowden, Greenwald has said, to ingratiate himself with possible benefactors.
He showed the South China Morning Post records about U.S. hacking in China; the Guardian later reported that the communications of then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev were tapped by an NSA facility in England during a Group of 20 summit in London in 2009.
While in Hong Kong, Snowden made contact with activists from WikiLeaks. The group has said little about its role, except that it helped Snowden obtain temporary travel papers and that one of its top advisers, Sarah Harrison, accompanied him to Moscow.
“In the end, it was Mr. Snowden who took the decision on his own fate, based on the information that he had,” said Kristinn Hrafnsson, a spokesman for WikiLeaks. “I cannot go into details about the back-and-forth between Mr. Snowden and his legal team.”
Snowden had earlier told the Guardian that “my predisposition is to seek asylum in a country with shared values. The nation that most encompasses this is Iceland. They stood up for people over Internet freedom.”
Jia Lynn Yang in Hong Kong, Anthony Faiola in London and Timothy Lee in Washington contributed to this report.