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Edward Snowden Evolved From Gaming Geek to Conscientious Whistleblower

The last decade of Edward Snowden’s life was a complicated journey from geek to principled spy, gaining information on what he came to call the government’s “Architecture of Oppression.”

2014 0103-1a(Photo: Wikimedia)The year 2003 was the last that 18-year-old Edward Snowden lived a normal life. Snowden, a computer gaming jock and fan of Japanese animation, was about to enter a decade-long journey deep inside the “black ops” secret spy world of the Central Intelligence Agency [CIA], the Defense Intelligence Agency [DIA] and the National Security Agency [NSA]. His trip would end in June 2013, at a chic room at the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong, where he divulged thousands of top-secret NSA documents to filmmaker Laura Poitras and investigative reporters Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill of The Guardian newspaper.

The publication of the “Snowden Papers” has caused an international sensation for 6 months as each revelation adds to the sense that US intelligence is completely out of control and without any limits. Even US diplomats were shocked by the depth of US spying. Overnight, Snowden became the most famous leaker in the annals of US intelligence. He was nominated for the alternative Nobel Peace Prize, won awards for being a whistleblower; yet to many in the US intelligence community he also became Public Enemy #1.

But back in May 2003, Snowden was a little-known teenage tech geek helping friends at Ryuhana Press, a website where the young Snowden worked at what he described as “Web Editor/Coffee Boy. “His avatar was a geek, with a T-shirt emblazoned “I [heart] Me,” spiky hair, granny glasses on the tip of his nose and a green scarf draped around his neck. “I really am a nice guy,” was the intro to his online web profile that continued, “you see, I act arrogant and cruel because I was not hugged enough as a child, and the public education system turned it’s [sic] wretched, spiked back on me.”

For his 19th birthday in June 2003, friends of Snowden posted pictures of him lowering his pants for colleagues, pinning clothespins to his chest and dancing. One colleague jokingly posted, “Who is he? What does he do? Does he really love himself as much as his shameless marketing would make you believe?” Snowden – who was regularly cited by friends as well spoken, deliberate and intellectual – described himself in the following statement: “I like Japanese, I like girls, I like my girlish figure that attracts girls and I like my lamer friends.” In a prescient sense that eventually he’d be pursued by law enforcement, he wrote – “That’s the best biography you’ll get out of me, coppers!”

Other clues about Snowden’s personality are found in a collection of 773 online messages/chats that Snowden wrote between 2001-2012. For over a decade, these messages – some paragraphs long, others just a few words – highlight Snowden’s online interests: computer programming, online martial arts games, most things re: Japan, sex and the stock market. In a few notable posts, he would share his political leanings.

In 2003, the 19-year-old native of North Carolina was living in Maryland, just outside of Washington DC, and practically in the shadow of the headquarters for the US spy organization, the National Security Agency, at Fort Meade, Maryland. Snowden’s father, Lon, worked at the US Coast Guard, and his mother, Elizabeth, at the courthouse. Snowden, a pale-skinned, slightly built man with stylish glasses, was a huge fan of the virtual fight game Tekken 4. Snowden was already well along his path from casual gamer to high-level programming expert as he discovered keyboard combinations to custom maneuver characters. “Lee is my favorite character. He is the silver-haired devil, after all,” wrote Snowden in a 2003 online chat forum. Using the screen name “TheTrueHooha,” Snowden wrote on the tech site Ars Technica, “you have to be incredibly aggressive to master him in Tekken 4. I’ve invented a style I like to call the ‘crazy fist’ with him.”

(Jonathan Franklin can be followed on Twitter @FranklinBlog.)

Develops Computer Prowess

Showing a computer prowess for which he would later become world famous, Snowden then outlined a key-stroke combination “1,2~f[f,f]”that could be “chained indefinitely if you do it right, and the changeup possibilities are awesome. He [Lee, the silver haired devil] does a 1-2 punch combo, then a crouchdash IMMEDIATELY that evades high. The only weakness is that both punches are high.”Before long, Snowden had programmed moves so that by using a single finger on the “x” key, he could execute sophisticated virtual martial arts moves thus allowing his other hand to be free, “where I hold a beer,” the 19-year-old bragged.

From online action, Snowden’s dreams morphed. Snowden imagined a real-world fighting mission, that of a US Army Special Forces commando. Instead of pounding a keyboard with his single index finger, Snowden would rappel from helicopters, handle with ease sophisticated weaponry and pack 40 kilos worth of high-tech gadgetry in his rucksack, and he would proudly earn “boots on the ground” credibility of a real warrior. “I enlisted in the army shortly after the invasion of Iraq,” Snowden would later reveal. “I believed in the goodness of what we were doing. I believed in the nobility of our intentions to free oppressed peoples.”

Loaded with ambition and patriotism, Snowden entered the US Army on May 7, 2004, according to [only partially released] Pentagon records that show that this Special Forces plans died quickly. Four months after entering, on September 28, 2004, Snowden was discharged from the US Army. The Army and Snowden say he broke both his legs in a military training accident. Few details have been released about the accident. After Snowden snapped – or shattered – the bones in both legs, the career path for the ambitious and highly intelligent young soldier veered sharply from his plans – and that of his Army evaluators who had thought enough of the bright and motivated teenager to give him a Special Forces tryout.

With no chance of quickly rejoining the physically grueling Special Forces oeuvre, Snowden was soon working at an innocuous sounding job: security guard at a public university. He would work security for the folks at the University of Maryland’s “Center for the Advanced Study of Language.” (CASL – pronounced “Castle”). But what on paper may have sounded like a Walmart assignment was immediately revealed as a secret world, more classified, more cutting edge and eventually far more tempting to Snowden than the Special Forces. Officials with the University of Maryland confirmed that Snowden was an employee working at CASL in 2005 but refused to provide specific details. Indeed much of the work at CASL is shrouded in secrecy.

The “Center for the Advanced Study of Language” is a state of the art behavioral psychology unit set behind iron fences and manned security gate. When the center was inaugurated in 2005, then CIA director Porter Gross was on hand. Behind the guarded doors are the keys to understanding Edward Snowden’s evolution from loyal soldier to loyal citizen. Understanding CASL also helps unmask one of the many, many missions of the National Security Agency, which, because of Snowden’s later revelations to journalists, is now the most controversial surveillance organization on the planet.

Viewed from the perfectly trimmed lawns and landscaped grounds, CASL appears to be a suburban-style corporate office park, with the security level jacked up a few notches. But as Snowden and everyone who works at CASL soon learned, CASL has dual missions of both advancing foreign language skills and “weaponizing language” via massive computing power. One of the research projects at CASL, for example, is to solve the kind of problems that come up when the spy agency can’t figure out every last word of what a “suspect” has typed, spoken, or in many cases, tried to erase.

Massive Computer Power

If the NSA has access to a hard drive from a “suspect computer” that has been partially erased, then the spooks might have 90 percent of a document but are unable to recover the last – often-essential – 10 percent. Preferring witchcraft over tradecraft, the NSA delegated CLAS with the kind of government mission that is classic Orwell or Huxley: instead of just analyzing the 90 percent of the document that exists, CLAS is working with NSA to use massive computer power to process, predict and then fill in the blanks, based on what a computer infers the writer had intended to write or the speaker to say.

If the intercepted conversation is a telephone conversation with gaps, the software seeks to analyze the context, syntax and punctuation, then fill in the missing phrases. Think Google Translate fused to Minority Report, the Tom Cruise movie where researchers sought to prevent “future crimes.” The logic of the NSA is apparently that humans are so predictable that every and each human thought process can be “channeled,” then unlocked by computer algorithms which then mine the individual’s syntax to the extent that thoughts and phrases become predictable. In other words, so much for poetry, free will and the possibility of artistic endeavor; we are not only bricks in the wall, but each an individual software code that can be hacked.

Few details are yet known about how much young Snowden interacted with the researchers at CASL. Was he an aloof security guard? Was he drawn to the secret world of intelligence and cutting-edge research? Was he secretly recruited by the NSA? Like much of the history and work done by the NSA, details of what Snowden did or didn’t do at this early stage of his spy career is still not widely known. [The NSA itself was so secret that for years bureaucrats denied its very existence to the extent that reporters began to call it “No Such Agency.”] Whatever his relationship was with the NSA, when Snowden left CASL, he soon begun working directly for US intelligence.

On the chats where Snowden regularly posted, one of the forums was “Working for The Government,” and it took little reading to understand that an ambitious young man with a security clearance could live comfortably. The road to riches was spelled out in a simple formula: #1: Obtain clearance level TOP SECRET. #2: Move to Washington, D.C. #3: Take Your Pick among jobs paying over US$100,000.

By July 2006, Snowden was working for the CIA and had been groomed for an overseas posting. During his online chats, he listed his upcoming [CIA] assignment as a two-year posting where he could choose the country. His top choices were, along with Japan, Thailand, Korea and Australia.

Snowden told his online audience, “There’s a good chance your requests will be honored” because the company “maintains positions in nearly every country on earth, even the little crappy ones.” But not in Snowden’s case. Fate – or a faceless bureaucrat in CIA Human Resources – skipped what Snowden called his “wish list” and sent him to Geneva, Switzerland.

In May 2007, Snowden began his overseas CIA work in Geneva. Snowden – then just 23 years old – was now an “attaché” with the US diplomatic corps in Geneva. He worked in the offices of the US Permanent Mission to the United Nations and lived comfortably astride the Rhone River. Snowden’s online chats show a man with little understanding of the Swiss and even less respect. “You can’t get tap water in restaurants,” he wrote. “They make you buy it in bottles, glass bottles. Five bucks a pop . . . you guys wouldn’t believe how expensive shit is here.” Snowden described eating “greasy cardboard” hamburgers for $15 apiece and that workers at McDonalds make “like $50,000 a year.” Soon, however, the young CIA computer systems analyst was fitting in as he described the joys of “living in a postcard,” where “the girls are gorgeous . . . ” Of the Swiss, Snowden wrote “I have never EVER seen a people more racist than the swiss jesus god they look down on everyone” and classified the populace as “horrifically classist.”

A CIA Spy with Diplomatic Cover

Snowden was not a diplomat. He was working as a CIA spy, under diplomatic cover. Snowden described his task as protecting portions of the computer infrastructure run by the US government. As a CIA “attaché,” Snowden was privy to a massive range of digital espionage regularly planned and executed under the diplomatic cover of the US Permanent Mission.

The Geneva CIA assignment bounced Snowden, whom colleagues described as a “computer wizard,” progressively higher into the echelon of Top Secret access. Snowden would eventually go far beyond Top Secret and would hold SSI (Specialized Sensitive Information) clearance, which allowed him to read, access and eventually download a wide range of highly classified information. It was this very access which began to seed a revolution in the young programmer’s mind.

In Geneva, Snowden had a growing knot of doubt as he watched firsthand more and more dirty tricks to which he was both privy, and likely participated in, as an undercover agent. These deeds were the seeds to a plan now germinating inside his head. He would take on an uber-secret mission while among the deans of world diplomacy in Geneva: He would start spying on the spies. “I’m no different from anybody else. I don’t have special skills,” said Snowden. “I’m just another guy who sits there day to day in the office, watches what’s happening and goes, ‘This is something that’s not our place to decide; the public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong.'”

Mavanee Anderson, a diplomatic colleague from those years, described Snowden as having “a crisis of confidence” about his CIA work during the time they both worked together at the US Permanent Mission in Geneva in 2007 and 2008. “Anyone who is self-reflective and introspective and who does the type of work that he did, I feel there must be points in time when they question the types of things they do, they have to do, the decisions they have to make, the lies they have to tell or the obfuscations,” said Anderson, who also had a Top Secret clearance and worked as an intern in the legal section of UN Permanent Mission. Anderson described Snowden as a man who carefully studied the consequences of his actions, calculating the fallout long before he acted. Regarding his computing skills, she called him an “IT genius.”

Though his specialty was digital spying – allegedly both offensive and defensive – Snowden was in “The Company,” and many of his colleagues were schooled in Cold War-style espionage techniques that were as effective as they were crude. One incident Snowden described was an intelligence operation in which he says the CIA sought to extract information from a Swiss banker. The plan was classic John le Carré. The CIA agents in Geneva deliberately got the banker drunk, then, when he was pulled over for drunk driving (note: not clear whether this was accidental or also part of the setup), the CIA “friend” came in to clear up the entire incident or pay the bail (versions differ here) thus paving the way for the banker becoming a friendly source for CIA inquiries into the secrets of Swiss banking.

As he later explained to filmmaker Laura Poitras, Snowden’s high-level security clearance and position as administrator for computer networks allowed him to view a huge range of classified information. “When you’re in positions of privileged access like a systems administrator for community agencies, you’re exposed to a lot more information on a broader scale then the average employee, and because of that you see things that may be disturbing, but over the course of a normal person’s career they’d only see one or two of these instances.” Snowden explained that he had the ability to see “everything” and recognize that what might look like individual errors were actually systematic programs. “When you see everything you see them [“errors”] on a more frequent basis, and you recognize that some of these things are actually [systematic] abuses.”

“The More You’re Told It’s Not a Problem…”

Snowden also hinted that he had tried to discuss his concerns on multiple occasions with his superiors. “Over time that awareness of wrongdoing sort of builds up, and you feel compelled to talk about [it]. And the more you talk about the more you’re ignored. The more you’re told it’s not a problem . . . ” It was here that Snowden took a huge step toward his conviction that he could not longer be a faceless bureaucrat, compliant in what he considered an illegal series of actions. “Eventually you realize that these things need to be determined by the public and not by somebody who was simply hired by the government.”

As a spy under diplomatic cover, Snowden began to outline his explosive revenge. He would work at ever-higher levels of the US government spy apparatus, waiting for the moment to pull the digital trigger. Snowden would first access, then secretly download and copy the most egregious documents. His motivation was not to hurt the United States, but to detonate a public debate. He claims that had he wanted to cash in, he could have stolen identities of US informants and spies worldwide and walked over to the Russians – “That door is always open.”

Snowden decided that he would reveal the secrets exclusively to reporters and media outlets willing and likely to print the incriminating secret reports. Snowden has since called his time in Geneva as “formative” in his decision to start revealing government secrets. “Much of what I saw in Geneva really disillusioned me about how my government functions and what its impact is in the world,” Snowden would later say. “I realized that I was part of something that was doing far more harm than good.”

Snowden’s initial plan, according to an interview he gave The Guardian, was to release secret files in late 2007. However, Barack Obama’s election offered Snowden pause, a moment of hope. Would Obama revert the massive surveillance systems and balance citizen freedoms and privacies? Snowden thought the answer was a possible yes, so he postponed his plans to blow the roof off NSA secret ops.

In 2009, Snowden quit the CIA, says his former colleague Mavanee Anderson. He began working in a similar role, but this time in Japan, where he worked on a US military base as information specialist for the NSA. Like the majority of people working in US intelligence operations, Snowden was hired as a private contractor, not by the government, but by Dell Inc. While in Japan, Snowden told The Guardian that his views “hardened” as he “watched as Obama advanced the very policies that I thought would be reined in.” While at Dell, according to later reports in the Associated Press, he also began secretly to copy highly classified US espionage documents. He had begun a historic, one-man campaign against the world’s most powerful intelligence agency and what Snowden described as the “Architecture of Oppression.”

Snowden’s new mindset is highlighted in a February 2010 online chat. After an absence of nearly two years, Snowden returned to his favorite online forum. This time, he did not post about computer games or the stock market. His post was a sign of his growing frustration. “Society really seems to have developed an unquestioning obedience towards spooky types,” he wrote on February 4, 2010. “Did we get to where we are today via a slippery slope that was entirely within our control to stop, or was it an (sic) relatively instantaneous sea change that sneaked in undetected because of pervasive government secrecy?”

After several years in Japan, Snowden began working in Oahu, Hawaii, where for years the NSA had a huge Top Secret facility buried and disguised, 23,000 square meters – nearly 6 acres – of hardened work space. The secret facility was built in the wake of the Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and was designed as an assembly plant for building airplanes – in case repeated Japanese attacks forced US manufacturing to literally go underground.

Today, the Kunia Regional SIGINT Operations Center is above ground and remains a key NSA spy operation. Snowden was working in computer systems administration positions with a security clearance that allowed his information grazing to be both deep and wide. As a renegade information prospector, Snowden could first scan the landscape, then drill down and focus when he hit information bonanzas. Snowden also used his insider skills to cleverly hide his system-wide explorations, leaving few of the digital fingerprints that would alert NSA security officials.

Frustrated by the Obama administration’s unwillingness – or inability – to reign in the surveillance state, Snowden began looking for an outlet for his frustration. He had decided to become the point person on what he knew would be a worldwide firestorm. He told The Guardian, “You can’t wait around for someone else to act. I had been looking for a leader, but I realized that leadership is about being the first to act.”

By December 2012, Snowden was playing a high-risk poker game. He could continue to burrow into Top Secret corners of US espionage, or he could walk away from the game. Snowden decided to cash in his collected chips. He had gathered a critical mass of secret documents that he believed were clear violations of constitutionally guaranteed rights to privacy. Snowden looked for an appropriate venue for his digital treasures. He first contacted Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald with a series of encrypted emails that led to encrypted documents. Greenwald, an outspoken defender of privacy rights, bestselling author and critic of tactics used in the War on Terror, did not follow a series of technical steps necessary to access the encrypted information. Snowden then contacted documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras who understood encryption far better and immediately began collaborating with the whistleblowing spy. Poitras, who respected and knew Greenwald, made the contact to bring the two together. A relationship based on encrypted emails thus commenced.

Snowden, in the meantime, ratcheted up his secret plans. He took another huge gamble. In order to access and reveal even more valuable data, he sought a transfer to an even higher level of the NSA where he would have even greatest access to documents. He found the dream job with Booz Allen Hamilton, a private consulting firm that conducts highly confidential – and lucrative – government missions that had long ago been outsourced from the ranks of government employees to the “more efficient” private sector.

Snowden’s last posting at US Intelligence began in March 2013. “My [final] position granted me access to lists of machines all over the world the NSA hacked,” Snowden told a Hong Kong newspaper. “That is why I accepted that position.” It was later revealed that he took a substantial pay cut when he signed up to work for Booz Allen Hamilton and gain access to even more sensitive databases. After just two months with Booz Allen, his document stash apparently stuffed with even more Top Secret information, Snowden applied for a medical leave. Because of Snowden’s security clearance, he was required to clear travel with his superiors before actually leaving Hawaii. He needed a few weeks, he told his employer. To his girlfriend he only mentioned that he would away for a few weeks. In late May, Snowden flew to Hong Kong – a city he would later argue had a tradition of tolerance and free press and was unlikely to extradite him to the United States.

Reporter Greenwald and filmmaker Poitras were given instructions that sounded like they came from a 1980s’ spy novel. Wait outside a specific Hong Kong restaurant and be on the lookout for the man walking with a Rubik’s Cube in his hands. Snowden arrived late, which spooked the reporters even more. Then a man with the Rubik’s Cube appeared. He was so young that Greenwald was floored by doubts.

“Up until that point, I had no idea whether or not this was completely real,” said Greenwald in a telephone interview from his home in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. “When I saw him, I said there is just no way that he has access to anything near as significant as I had led myself to believe and that I had probably just flown all the way around the world for nothing. I also contemplated that he was the assistant of the source? Or his son? And would take us to the actual source . . . it was a definite period of significant disorientation and confusion.”

Cross-Examining the Witness

Moving to a hotel room, Poitras immediately pulled out her cameras and began filming. Greenwald – a former attorney – began what was essentially a cross examination of the witness before him. Snowden, fearing that he might already be under surveillance would type in his passwords on his laptop only after dropping a sweatshirt over his head and computer. He also requested that all cellphones be removed from the room. “The NSA has the capability, which is widely reported, to remotely activate people’s cellphones and turn them into listening devices. Even if you turn your cellphone off, as long as the battery is in it, it will still function that way,” explained Greenwald, as he described the security precautions he took while interviewing Snowden in Hong Kong. “You could take the battery out, but I actually had a cellphone of the type where the battery could not be taken out. The only real solution was to leave it somewhere outside of the room, but there was no real place we could leave it. So Snowden suggested that we put it in the refrigerator: there it would be hermetically sealed and there would be no pickup of audio.”

After days of conversations, convinced that Snowden was a former spy spilling the biggest cache of secrets in decades, The Guardian began to publish the documents provided by Snowden. Then, after less than a week of stunning Guardian scoops, on June 6, 2013, Snowden took his one-man revolution public. In a video interview with The Guardian, Snowden showed his face, gave his name and offered an explanation of why he gave up what he called an easy life in Hawaii. He acknowledged that the US spy networks would hunt him for life, “You can’t come forward against the world’s most powerful intelligence agencies and be completely free from risk because they’re such powerful adversaries. No one can meaningfully oppose them. If they want to get you, they’ll get you in time . . . I’ll live under [that] for the rest of my life, however long that happens to be.”

When he revealed the inner secrets of American spying, Snowden expressed a deep worry. An inner panic. “The greatest fear that I have regarding the outcome for America of these disclosures,” he said. “Is that nothing will change. People will see in the media all of these disclosures. They’ll know the lengths that the government is going to grant themselves powers unilaterally to create greater control over American society and global society. But they won’t be willing to take the risks necessary to stand up and fight to change things to force their representatives to actually take a stand in their interests.”

So far, at least, those worries seem needless. With thousands of articles, debates and worldwide coverage, Snowden can take full credit for launching a deep look at the balance between freedom and security. Congressional reforms are still far away, but light years closer than the years preceding his revelations. In an extensive interview with the Washington Post in December, Snowden declared Mission Accomplished.

Yet, Snowden’s story is far from over. He will be called a hero. A traitor. A spy for Russia. A Chinese collaborator. A kamikaze information trafficker and far worse. Some will call for him to be awarded the Noble Peace Prize. Others will suggest a one-way trip to the firing squad. But analyzing what is known about the last decade of Snowden’s life, the evidence points to the growing frustration of a programming wizard who accidentally fell into the world of Top Secret information warfare. Snowden’s decision to go public had little to do with money or fame. He was firing a shot in what he hoped would ignite as a worldwide debate regarding what he described as the “Architecture of Oppression.”

Copyright of Jonathan Franklin. Not to be reprinted without the permission of the author. Follow him at @FranklinBlog on Twitter.

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