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Edward Snowden profile: The secretive life of America’s most wanted man

What made the whistleblower give up his Hawaiian idyll?

Edward Snowden was an unlikely member of America’s vast intelligence corps. The 29-year-old first encountered the NSA not as a recruit from an elite college but as a security guard working at one of the organisation’s secret facilities at the University of Maryland.

That was almost a decade ago. In the intervening years, as the US expanded its already sprawling security apparatus in response to the attacks on 11 September 2001, Snowden rose up the ranks before leaving to work for outside contractors. By the time he decided to blow the whistle he was living with his girlfriend in Hawaii and earning around $200,000 a year. A local estate agent in the town of Waipahu said the pair left their rented home on 1 May when their landlord decided he wanted to sell up. Fittingly they were a private couple who kept their blinds closed and “didn’t really talk to anyone”, a neighbour confirmed.

Snowden’s introduction to The Washington Post, which along with The Guardian published details of the NSA’s Prism programme that taps into data from firms such as Google and Facebook, reads like a spy novel. Reporter Barton Gellman described how Snowden went by the codename “Verax”, Latin for someone who speaks the truth.

He had a come long way, defying the odds at every step, before giving it all up, risking, as he put it to the Post, “my life and family” to expose the “omniscient state powers kept in check by nothing more than policy documents”.

Born on 21 June, 1983, Snowden, whose identity was revealed at his own request, grew up first in North Carolina and then in shadow of the NSA headquarters in Maryland. He left high school without a diploma, although he later earned his GED, a lesser qualification. His mother reportedly still lives in Maryland, working as a deputy clerk in a district court.

After school, Snowden did not appear to have had any ambitions to work as a spy. His aim was to join the elite special forces, and he took a first step in that direction when he signed up with the army reserves. He claims that he enlisted in 2003; the military has since said he signed up in May 2004, leaving four months later when he broke both his legs in an accident. It was then that he began working as a security guard. Soon, however, he was with the CIA in IT security, a job that a couple of years later led to a foreign posting under the cloak of a diplomatic assignment. His time with the CIA led him to question the power vested in America’s covert agencies.

Snowden switched to an outside contractor in 2009 and worked for a while in Japan. Barack Obama swept to power in 2008, riding a wave of liberal support motivated in no small part by his opposition to the Bush administration and its security policies. But, as an insider, Snowden could see that nothing was changing – quite the opposite, in fact. Snowden’s opposition to Obama is borne out by two public records from last year showing an Edward Snowden working for Dell in Maryland and another in Hawaii making donations to the libertarian Republican politician Ron Paul. 

Snowden, whose most recent job was with the NSA contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, decided to take matters in his own hands and began speaking to the press earlier this year. Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald has said he and Laura Poitras, a filmmaker, have been working with him since February, months before he told his NSA supervisor that he was leaving for a couple of weeks to seek treatment for epilepsy. Instead he boarded a jet bound for Hong Kong and disclosed the secret files to journalists.

According to Gellman, who had his first direct exchange with Snowden on 16 May, the former CIA worker demanded that his Prism leak be published within 72 hours before he went elsewhere. The reason? “I told him we would not make any guarantee what we published or when.” Snowden appears not to have deserted the reporter completely – as he unmasked himself on Sunday night, beside him sat Gellman’s book on Dick Cheney, Angler.