Edward Snowden, the skinny kid from suburban Maryland who took it upon himself to expose — and, officials say, severely compromise — classified U.S. government surveillance programs, loved role-playing games, leaned libertarian, worked out hard and dabbled in modeling.
He relished the perks of his jobs with the CIA and some of the world’s most prestigious employers. Yet his girlfriend considered it a major accomplishment when she got him to leave the house for a hike with friends.
Snowden, 29, emerged a week ago from his status as an anonymous source for stories in The Washington Post and the Guardian, announcing to the world that he was prepared to be prosecuted for breaking his pledge to keep classified materials secret. But as quickly as he popped up in a fancy Hong Kong hotel, he vanished again, going underground as U.S. officials said they were preparing a legal case against him and several members of Congress called him a traitor.
Although Snowden has repeatedly insisted that the documents he revealed are the story and that his life is of no interest, questions about his motives and rationale inevitably colored the debate over his decision to violate his oath.
Snowden could not be reached for comment; he has not been seen since Monday, when he left the Hong Kong hotel from which he revealed himself to the world. And for someone who spent most of his life deeply exploring the most powerful communications tool of the era, he has connected with remarkably few people. Teachers, classmates, neighbors and fellow hobbyists consistently say they don’t remember him, or they recall him primarily as a quiet sort who made a point of keeping his distance.
For years, Snowden has sought to keep his online activities hidden, posting under pseudonyms even as a teenager and hanging out on anime, gaming and technology sites, chatting with fellow webheads about how to be on the Internet without being traced. “I wouldn’t want God himself to know where I’ve been, you know?” he wrote in 2003 on a bulletin board for the technically inclined.
But Snowden also craved the limelight. Even a decade ago, while debating a fine point of Internet structure, Snowden celebrated the response to one of his posts: “256 page views make me smile.” He explored becoming a male model, having a portrait photographer shoot him in alluring poses on a wooden bridge. And when he went public as the leaker, he did so on video, offering an assured, even cocky, argument for the acts that drove him to hide halfway around the world from the government of the country he claimed to love.
A quiet childhood
Eddie Snowden was a shy, thin-boned boy who didn’t say a lot. At Prince of Peace Presbyterian Church on Crofton Parkway, not far from Snowden’s childhood home in Anne Arundel County, Boy Scout Troop 731 met weekly, but although Snowden was a Scout for several years in elementary and middle school, the troop’s leaders and members recall little about him.
His two Scoutmasters said they don’t remember Snowden at all. Fellow Scout Brad Gunson, who attended Crofton Middle and Arundel High schools with Snowden, recalled Eddie’s high voice, feathery blond hair and obsession with computer video games.
“He liked fantasy games, video games,” said Gunson, who now leads a band and teaches music. “There was this weird trend when we were kids — a killing game I can’t remember. And Magic cards. I remember him being into that.”
Gunson said several friends from Arundel High began trading e-mails and Facebook messages about Snowden last week after his face showed up on front pages and newscasts. They remembered playing tennis or a darkly themed online game with Snowden.
The owner of S&S Music in Crofton said Snowden took lessons there in the mid-1990s, but the owner could not recall what instrument the boy played. (In online posts a few years later, Snowden talked about owning a guitar.)
Another fellow Scout, John Baldwin, said in an interview that Snowden, two years his junior, didn’t stand out in a troop serving the area around Fort Meade, the suburban military installation where the National Security Agency is headquartered.
“My troop fit the stereotype of having a lot of weird little guys — computer nerds who loved to run around in the woods,” Baldwin said. Eddie “wasn’t a troublemaker or anything. Just shy and friendly.”
Classmates and neighbors said that in a place where government employees and contractors with high-level security clearances lived, it wasn’t at all odd for adults to be secretive and avoid forming close friendships, and that attitude was evident among teenagers, too.
Twenty-five miles north of the capital, concrete barriers and guard stations surround the headquarters of the nation’s biggest intelligence agency, the NSA, where an estimated 30,000 people acquire and interpret an unimaginable torrent of information gleaned from the world’s digital, satellite and broadcast communications channels. Employees of the NSA and its corporate partners, dozens of which have offices in surrounding business parks, dominate nearby neighborhoods.
When Joshua Stewart, who grew up near Snowden and now works as a reporter at the Orange County Register, started talking to friends about the leaker, “we tried to come up with someone who didn’t have a security connection, and we couldn’t.”
When Stewart moved away from the Fort Meade area, he was struck by how deeply unusual his hometown was — a place where even at mid-morning coffee break time, the local Starbucks was virtually silent, bereft of the workplace conversation heard elsewhere.
“This is part of the culture of living in Crofton,” Gunson said. “This is where a lot of people are making the money that gives them all this comfort — the big intelligence operation that Washington runs.”
After high school
Halfway through 10th grade, during the 1998-99 school year, Snowden dropped out of Arundel High School, where he had made little impression. Neither the principal nor the teachers who taught his favorite subjects remember him. Several classmates racked their memories last week and came up empty.
The feeling was mutual. On the Internet chat rooms where he often would hang out at night, Snowden occasionally dashed off dismissive comments about high school. He took pride in building a career without having climbed the ordinary rungs of an American education. In one online posting, Snowden described his public school experience as “wretched.”
Three years after Snowden left high school, his parents divorced. His father, Lonnie, was a career Coast Guard officer who retired and moved to Pennsylvania a few years ago; he has remarried. His mother, Elizabeth, chief deputy clerk for administration and information technology at Baltimore’s federal court, has lived in a condo in Ellicott City since 2002. Neither parent responded to requests for comment.
Snowden dipped in and out of course work over the next dozen years, taking classes at Anne Arundel Community College, the University of Maryland’s University College, the University of Liverpool and the Computer Career Institute, a for-profit college then affiliated with Johns Hopkins University.
He became a Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert — a status the computer giant offers as a gateway to tech jobs — but Snowden felt stuck in those first years of adulthood, describing himself on the Ars Technica site as someone “without a degree or clearance who lives in Maryland. Read that as ‘unemployed.’ ”
In 2004, he enlisted in the Army Reserve as a Special Forces recruit. His religion, he wrote on his Army application form, was Buddhist. “Agnostic is strangely absent” from the form, he wrote in an online post, dismissing religion as “blindly making someone else’s beliefs your own.”
A few months earlier, a poster using the pseudonym “Chishinken,” a name Snowden adopted in some technical online discussions, had written about beginning basic training and buying a rifle for someone who “has not fired a rifle since he was seven years old.”
But Snowden’s military career ended almost before it began. Less than four months after he reported to Fort Benning in Georgia for the Army’s Advanced Individual Training program, Snowden was discharged.
In a message on Ars Technica, where he used the handle TheTrueHOOHA, Snowden said he broke both of his legs during training and was discharged as a result, though he complained that “after being cleared, they held onto me for another month just for s--ts and giggles.”
Snowden “attempted to qualify to become a Special Forces soldier but did not complete the requisite training and was administratively discharged,” said Col. David H. Patterson Jr., an Army spokesman at the Pentagon. The Army made no mention of any accident or injury.
Snowden struggled through a period of joblessness, spending long nights playing computer games and chatting online. (His fascination with games continued even as he rose to more responsible positions. “I woke this morning with a new name,” he announced excitedly in 2010, referring to his gaming avatar. “That name is Wolfking. Wolfking Awesomefox.”)
He was into fitness as well, lifting weights and doing P90X, a high-intensity training program featuring intense workouts. “I am working pretty hard on the muscle tone,” he wrote, saying he had reduced his body fat to between 9.5 percent and 10.5 percent.
In the early 2000s, he worked as an editor for Ryuhana Press, an online publisher of Japanese-style anime comics. In a fanciful profile he apparently wrote about himself, Snowden, depicted in a caricature wearing an “I [heart] Me” T-shirt, portrayed himself as a lover of the Baltimore Orioles, martial arts, girls, guns and the Japanese fighting video game “Tekken.”
In 2005, he found a job as a security guard at the federally funded Center for Advanced Study of Language at the University of Maryland in College Park, where he sometimes had a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift, he told online chatters.
Snowden said last week that his work at the university took place at a “covert facility,” but, although some classified research is conducted there, the Defense Department-affiliated center is no secret; its Web site includes driving directions. Snowden said he worked for the NSA during that time, but a university spokesman said Snowden was a Maryland state employee.
A new position
In 2006, Snowden made a remarkable leap, from security guard to security clearance, from a lowly position of the sort that high school dropouts find themselves in to a job with double the salary. His new position with the CIA put him on the path to extensive travel, a six-figure income and extraordinary access to classified material.
Snowden spent about three years in Geneva and then in Japan, working, he said, for the CIA and later for a contractor, in both cases on computer network security.
How he managed that jump remains unclear, but Snowden was evidently proud of the move; in a 2006 post, he offered some advice: “First off, the degree thing is crap, at least domestically. . . . I have no degree, nor even a high school diploma, but I’m making much more than what they’re paying you even though I’m only claiming six years of experience. It’s tough to ‘break in,’ but once you land a ‘real’ position, you’re made.”
At 22, Snowden was confident enough to take on the role of career-advice maven, describing how to parlay any IT job, no matter how lowly, into a lucrative position: “Listen to what they say about networking.. . . If somebody likes you, it doesn’t even matter if you put your pants on before your underwear in the morning — you will get the job.
“I have $0 in debt from student loans, I make $70k, I just had to turn down offers for $83k and $180k. . . . Employers fight over me. And I’m 22.”
Snowden wrote about using the Foreign Service as a path to success: “It’s an amazing deal if you can swing it. I’m not talking Foreign Service Officer, either, just standard IT specialist positions. They pay for your (ridiculously nice) housing and since you’ll be posted overseas, the first ~$80k you make will be tax-free.”
Another time, he wrote that the ticket to world travel was to land a tech job with the State Department. “Get a clearance,” he wrote. “If you’re cleared, have a lifestyle, and have specialized IT skills, you can go anywhere in the world right now. Thank god for wars.”
To Lindsay Mills, Ed Snowden — he was “E” on her blog, which was as expressive and public as Snowden was reserved and private — was a loyal sweetheart, but also a distant sort, “my man of mystery.”
She thought they were essentially “incompatible,” but she loved him. He was often preoccupied with work, yet he could still surprise her with a lei of purple and yellow flowers.
They met about eight years ago in Maryland, where Mills was a pole-dancing instructor at Xpose Fitness, a women’s exotic dance and fitness center, two friends confirmed. Xpose specializes in combining fitness exercise with a style of dancing typically performed in strip clubs. (A manager at Xpose declined to comment.)
Mills grew up in Laurel, went to art school and competed in pole-dancing contests, according to a friend who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the friend suspected that Mills would not appreciate friends speaking about her to reporters.
But in Maryland and later in Hawaii, where Snowden took a job with Booz Allen Hamilton doing contract work for the NSA, Mills’s friends said they rarely saw Snowden and knew little about him.
Mills made it her mission to try to draw her boyfriend out of the house. She exulted on her blog when she was finally able to “force a little adventure” on him and get him to join friends on a hike to a Hawaiian waterfall. Snowden’s frequent business trips left her plenty of time to work with dance troupes and take courses in aerial silks, an acrobatic practice involving hanging from sturdy silk fabrics, said Terryl Deleong of the Samadhi Hawaii dance studio.
Mills had no idea her beau intended to leak classified materials, according to a friend. On the day after Snowden announced he was the leaker and had forsaken“living in Hawaii in paradise and making a ton of money,” Mills wrote her last blog post: “My world has opened and closed all at once. . . . Sometimes life doesn’t afford proper goodbyes.”
‘Where we are today’
By 2010, Snowden was already thinking about the morality of the surveillance programs he was privy to. “Society really seems to have developed an unquestioning obedience towards spooky types,” he wrote in an online forum. “Did we get to where we are today via a slippery slope that was entirely within our control to stop, or was it a relatively instantaneous sea change that sneaked in undetected because of pervasive government secrecy?”
Snowden last week said that his “sole motive is to inform the public as to that which was done in their name and that which is done against them.” He made no mention of partisan politics, though he twice last year donated $250 to libertarian Ron Paul’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.
Snowden now presents himself as a reasoned protester, a conscientious objector of sorts, but he has also shown flashes of anger and even contempt for some aspects of American society. “Go back to your meaningless consumerist life,” he wrote four years ago in a comment on a YouTube video that poked fun at the ritual of high school reunions.
He was no ascetic, though. He boasted online about relations with his girlfriend, noting at one point: “You have not lived until you’ve rolled over to post-coital Krispy Kremes. That’s what being an American is all about.”
Julie Tate contributed to this report.