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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This privately-owned company designs and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources Officer

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen at th...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - London - £40,000 + Bonus

£36000 - £40000 per annum + Bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own