In Depth

Where is Edward Snowden now?

US government suing former intelligence employee over new book

The US Justice Department has filed a lawsuit in a bid to claim all profits from the release of a book by spy agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden.

The suit against Snowden and his publisher asks a court to seize the financial proceeds from the sale of Permanent Record, about the former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee’s life and his decision to leak highly classified National Security Agency (NSA) documents. The government is also asking the court to ban Snowden from giving speeches related to the memoir, released last week, reports The Wall Street Journal.

“Intelligence information should protect our nation, not provide personal profit,” said Zachary Terwilliger, the US attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, where the suit is based.

“This lawsuit will ensure that Edward Snowden receives no monetary benefits from breaching the trust placed in him.” 

Snowden’s attorney, Ben Wizner, insists that the book “contains no government secrets that have not been previously published by respected news organisations”.

And publisher Macmillan says it is “proud to publish Snowden’s memoir and make his uncensored story in his own words available worldwide”.

The former computer security consultant became a household name in 2013 after leaking details of extensive internet and phone surveillance by intelligence agencies worldwide. His actions polarised commentators, with some viewing him as a human rights hero while others say he is a traitor to his nation.

But why did Snowden decide to hand over the secret files to media outlets, and where is he now?

Early years

Snowden was born in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, on 21 June 1983.

He dropped out of high school and studied computers at Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold, Maryland, before spending four months in 2004 in special-forces training in the US Army Reserves. Snowden told The Guardian that he was discharged from the army after he “broke both his legs in a training accident”, but an unclassified report published by the US House Intelligence Committee refuted his version of events, stating: “He claimed to have left army basic training because of broken legs when in fact he washed out because of shin splints.”

Wired reports that Snowden subsequently landed a job as a security guard at a “top-secret facility that required him to get a high-level security clearance”, passing polygraph exams and background checks that would pave the way for jobs at the CIA and later, the NSA.

Following a posting in Japan as a technologist, Snowden grew disillusioned about the far-reaching surveillance operations of the US government, particularly in regards to the secret monitoring of mobile phones and browser activity. While working with tech consulting firm Booz Allen, he began digitally storing highly confidential NSA documents, “building a dossier on practices that he found invasive and disturbing”, including “vast information on the NSA's domestic surveillance practices”, says Biography.com.

He also began anonymously contacting journalists around the world in preparation for a massive leak of the secret documents.

Leak and escape

In spring 2013, Snowden told his NSA supervisor that he had been diagnosed with epilepsy and needed a leave of absence. At this point, he was stationed at the NSA’s Hawaii Cryptologic Center, more than 5,000 miles away from the NSA headquarters in Maryland.

For legal reasons, Snowden has never disclosed exactly when or how he smuggled the data out of the facility. However, 2016 biopic Snowden depicts him embedding a micro SD card in a Rubik’s Cube that he hands to a security guard as he passes through a metal detector on the way out of the building.

On 20 May 2013, Snowden boarded a flight to Hong Kong, where he hid out in various locations with the help of activists and lawyers, and held a series of secret meetings with Guardian journalists as well as filmmaker Laura Poitras. Following a number of extradition attempts, in June 2013 he attempted to fly to Ecuador via first Moscow and then the Cuban capital Havana, but his passport was cancelled midway through the journey. The fugative was left stranded in Russia, where he successfully applied for asylum.

What was in the leaks?

The leak contained previously unpublished details of a major global surveillance apparatus run by the NSA with the help of three partners in the Five Eyes security network - Australia’s Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and Canada’s Communications Security Establishment (CSEC).

Within this framework was a programme known as Prism, which allows for court-approved direct access to the public’s Google and Yahoo accounts without their knowledge. The documents also revealed details of “Tempora”, a British black-ops surveillance programme run by GCHQ.

According to The Sun, the bugging of more than 100 world leaders, including German Chancellor Angel Merkel, “caused huge diplomatic embarrassment” to the US.

Wired claims that Snowden was particularly enraged by a document from NSA director Keith Alexander that “showed the NSA was spying on the pornography-viewing habits of political radicals”, with the accompanying memo suggesting that the agency could use these so-called “personal vulnerabilities” to destroy the reputations of government critics.

Under the law at the time, individuals were to be targeted only if they were accused of plotting terrorism.

Snowden was reportedly “astonished” by the memo. “It’s much like how the FBI tried to use Martin Luther King’s infidelity to talk him into killing himself,” he said. “We said those kinds of things were inappropriate back in the 1960s. Why are we doing that now? Why are we getting involved in this again?”

Where is Snowden now?

On 21 June, 2013 - Snowden’s 30th birthday - the US Department of Justice unsealed charges against him of two counts of violating the Espionage Act of 1917 and theft of government property.

Snowden fled but ended up stranded at a Moscow airport, where he spent 40 days stuck in the confines of the transit zone. However, on 1 August, he was granted temporary asylum in Russia for one year, and was later granted a residency permit.

As the Daily Express notes, US experts have pointed out that the “optics are not good” that Snowden lives in Russia. In an interview with CBS News earlier this month, he said: “Of course it’s problematic and of course I would like to return to the United States.”

Snowden has said that he feels unsafe living in Russia, and has asked French President Emmanuel Macron to grant him asylum. Speaking to France Inter Radio last week, he said: “I asked for asylum in France in 2013, at the time of President Francois Hollande. Clearly, I would very much like Mr Macron to grant me the right to asylum.”

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