Snowden wandered through life almost unnoticed — until the leaks
He dropped out of high school in the middle of 10th grade, yet won well-paying positions that came with overseas travel and access to some of the world's most closely held secrets.
He had a vivacious, outgoing girlfriend and boasted online about his interest in beautiful women, even as he secluded himself in a nightscape of computer games, anime and study of the Internet's architecture.
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, 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, 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 that he was the leaker. For someone who spent most of his life 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 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 posted in 2003 on a online bulletin board.
But Snowden 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 bridge. 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 from the government of the country he claimed to love.
A quiet childhood
Eddie Snowden was a shy boy who didn't say a lot. At Prince of Peace Presbyterian Church, not far from Snowden's childhood home in Anne Arundel County, Md., Boy Scout Troop 731 met weekly. Snowden was a Scout for several years in elementary and middle school, but the troop's members recall little about him. His two Scoutmasters said they don't remember Snowden at all.
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 avoid forming close friendships and that attitude was evident among kids.
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 teachers who taught his favorite subjects remember him. Several classmates racked their memories last week and came up empty.
Drifts in and out of courses, jobs
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, lives in a condo near Baltimore. Neither parent responded to requests for comment.
Snowden dipped in and out of course work over the next dozen years at several colleges. He got certified as a Microsoft 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. But his military career ended almost before it began. Less than four months after he reported to Fort Benning in Georgia for the training, Snowden was discharged.
In a message on Ars Technica, where he used the handle TheTrueHOOHA, Snowden said he broke his legs during training.
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. The Army made no mention of any accident or injury.
Snowden struggled through a period of joblessness. In the early 2000s, he worked as an editor for Ryuhana Press, an online publisher of Japanese-style anime comics. 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.
Unclear leap into CIA, security clearance
In 2006, Snowden made a remarkable leap, from security guard to security clearance, from a lowly position 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.
“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.”
‘My man of mystery'
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.
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.
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.”
Regards himself as reasoned protester
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 an relatively instantaneous sea change that sneaked in undetected because of pervasive government secrecy?”
Snowden now presents himself as a reasoned protester, a conscientious objector of sorts, but he has shown 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 that “You have not lived until you've rolled over to post-coital Krispy Kremes. That's what being an American is all about.”