Edward Snowden: the man who blew the whistle

Jun 10, 2013

He got into the CIA without a high school diploma: brilliant computing skills gave him access to secrets

The Guardian via Getty Images

EDWARD SNOWDEN, the man responsible for what The Guardian calls "one of the most significant leaks in US political history", managed to work for the CIA without obtaining a high school diploma. It was his brilliant computer programming skills that saw him rise through the ranks of the agency.

Now 29, and holed up in a hotel in Hong Kong where he is praying the authorities won’t hand him over to the Americans, Snowden was raised in Elizabeth City, North Carolina.

He and his family subsequently moved to Maryland, near the National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters in Fort Meade. In an interview with The Guardian, Snowden admitted he was "not a stellar student" and studied computing at a community college in Maryland in order to obtain his General Educational Development [GED].

In 2003, at the age of 19, he joined the US Army because "I wanted to fight in the Iraq war because I felt like I had an obligation as a human being to help free people from oppression". His dream of serving in the Special Forces was ended after a training accident in which he broke both his legs.

Discharged from the military, Snowden was hired by the NSA as a security guard for one of the agency's covert facilities at the University of Maryland. The Guardian claims that Snowden then "went to the CIA, where he worked on IT security".

Despite his lack of a high school diploma, Snowden’s talents on a computer keyboard meant that by 2007 he was working under diplomatic cover for the CIA in Geneva. The Guardian says that Snowden’s "responsibility for maintaining computer network security meant he had clearance to access a wide array of classified documents".

Leaving the agency in 2009, Snowden was hired by Booz Allen Hamilton, a private contractor, and assigned to a functioning NSA facility in Japan. Though he earned an annual salary of approximately $200,000, Snowden told the Guardian that the more he saw of the NSA the more he believed they "are intent on making every conversation and every form of behaviour in the world known to them".

Snowden's CV has raised eyebrows in the US. One former CIA official told the Washington Post that "it was extremely unusual for the agency to have hired someone with such thin academic credentials, particularly for a technical job", while a former senior US intelligence official was puzzled why a Booz Allen contractor at an NSA facility "would have access to something as sensitive as a court order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court".

Nonetheless both men agreed that Snowden’s revelations have "rattled the intelligence community". As to his motivation for leaking the information, Snowden told the Guardian: "I can't in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they're secretly building."

According to the Guardian, Snowden worked on his leak in Hawaii where he and his girlfriend have a home. He travelled to Hong Kong on 20 May in the hope that he will be helped to resist US attempts to extradite him.

"Mainland China does have significant restrictions on free speech but the people of Hong Kong have a long tradition of protesting in the streets, making their views known," said Snowden. "I believe that the Hong Kong government is actually independent in relation to a lot of other leading Western governments."

But some lawyers say Snowden’s hope of escaping prosecution under the US Espionage Act of 1917 is fanciful. "They're not going to put at risk their relationship with the US over Mr. Snowden, and very few people have found that they have the clout to persuade another country to go out of their way for them," the Daily Telegraph quotes New York attorney Robert Anello as saying.

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