WASHINGTON — The man who told the world about the U.S. government’s gigantic data grab also talks a lot about himself.
Mostly through his own words, a picture of Edward Snowden is emerging: fresh-faced computer whiz, high school dropout, wannabe Green Beret, disillusioned cog in a secret bureaucracy.
He’s retained an aura of secrecy despite sitting for several days of interviews with The Guardian, some posted in online video. Snowden combines an earnest, deeply serious demeanor with a flair for the dramatic.
Snowden, 29, fled the U.S. for a Hong Kong hotel last month to go public with top secret documents gathered through his work in Hawaii as a contractor through Booz Allen Hamilton with the National Security Agency, where he worked as a systems analyst. He revealed startlingly voracious spy programs that sweep up millions of Americans’ telephone records, emails and Internet data in the hunt for terrorists.
With the United States considering criminal charges against him, Snowden told the South China Morning Post he hoped to stay in the autonomous region of China because and he has faith in “the courts and people of Hong Kong to decide my fate.”
He’s also talked of seeking asylum from Iceland or Russia. And he suggested the United States might hire Chinese gangs to get him. The adversaries he’s made by disclosing secrets are so powerful that “if they want to get you, they’ll get you in time,” Snowden told The Guardian newspaper of London, which first reported his revelations.
Why would a man “living in Hawaii in paradise and making a ton of money” decide to leave everything behind, he asked. Because he realized that his computer savvy was helping erect an ever-expanding “architecture of oppression” and he believed the people must be told.
From a secret location in Hong Kong, he told the newspaper: “The reality is that I have acted at great personal risk to help the public of the world, regardless of whether that public is American, European, or Asian.”
Snowden’s leaked documents have had an enormous impact. Some have questioned, however, his descriptions of his power as a Booz Allen contractor and other details of his life.
For example, he said he was earning $200,000 a year. When Booz Allen fired him, they said his salary was $122,000.
“I, sitting at my desk, had the authority to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant to a federal judge to even the president if I had a personal email,” Snowden told The Guardian on videotape.
Asked by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, about that comment, NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander said simply that it was false. “I know of no way to do that,” Alexander told senators in a hearing Wednesday.
Former NSA and CIA director retired Gen. Mike Hayden called Snowden’s claim “absurd legally and technologically.” Former NSA Inspector General Joel Brenner also doubts it.
“I do not believe his statement,” Brenner said. “And if he tried, I believe he would be discovered, stripped of his clearance, and summarily fired.”
Brenner said, however, that Snowden appears to have had extraordinary access to things he should not have and that will be investigated.
Snowden also raised eyebrows by declaring that in his job he “had access to the full roster of everyone working at the NSA, the entire intelligence community and undercover assets all around the world, the locations of every station we have, what their missions are and so forth.”
Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, who first reported the phone-tracking program and conducted the Snowden interviews, describes him as “very steadfast and resolute about the fact that he did the right thing.”
Jonathan Mills, father of Snowden’s long-time girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, described him as “very nice. Shy, and reserved.”
“He’s always had strong convictions of right and wrong, and it kind of makes sense,” said Mills, who said he was “shocked” when he heard the news about Snowden.
In her blog, Lindsay Mills, a dancer and art college graduate, writes of a boyfriend she refers to only as “E.” On Monday, she wrote that “at the moment all I can feel is alone.” She said her hand and been forced, that she was typing on a “tear-streaked keyboard,” and that “sometimes life doesn’t afford proper goodbyes.”
Snowden told the South China newspaper that he hasn’t dared contact his girlfriend or family since allowing his identity as the leaker to be revealed Sunday in The Guardian.
His father, now retired from the U.S. Coast Guard and living in Pennsylvania, told ABC News in a brief interview that he was worried about his son and still processing what had happened. Lonnie Snowden said he last saw his son two months ago, over dinner.
Snowden’s parents are divorced and his mother, Elizabeth Snowden, declined to talk to reporters as she left her Maryland home Monday morning.
Joyce Kinsey, a neighbor living next to the gray clapboard condominium in a quiet Ellicott City neighborhood, said Snowden’s mother, whom she knows as “Wendy,” bought the condo more than a dozen years ago.
When he was about 16, Snowden lived in the condo without his family for a couple of years, Kinsey said. His mother would drop by with groceries and a girlfriend visited every weekend. Kinsey recalled seeing Snowden through the blinds, working on a computer “at all times of day and night.” She had the impression he was sort of a “computer geek.”
Snowden spent part of his childhood in Wilmington, N.C., before his family moved to the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., an area rife with government workers. He attended public school in Anne Arundel County, from elementary school through three semesters at Arundel High School in Gambrills, according to a county school spokesman.
Snowden told the Guardian he didn’t finish high school but studied computers at a Maryland community college.
He wanted to be a Green Beret. Snowden served in the Army from June to September in 2004 at Fort Benning, Ga., where he declared his intent to qualify for the Special Forces, said Col. David H. Patterson Jr., an Army spokesman. Snowden didn’t complete basic training and was discharged. The Army wouldn’t give other details.
Snowden said he tapped his computer skills to get an information technology job at the CIA and rose quickly through the ranks.
Snowden said he left the CIA in 2009 to begin working for a private contractor that assigned him to a functioning NSA facility, stationed on a military base in Japan.