Childhood, family, and education
Edward Joseph Snowden was born on June 21, 1983, in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. His maternal grandfather, Edward J. Barrett, was a rear admiral in the United States Coast Guard who became a senior official with the FBI and was in the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 when it was struck by an airliner hijacked by al-Qaeda terrorists. Edward's father, Lonnie Snowden, a resident of Pennsylvania, was also an officer in the Coast Guard, and his mother, Wendy, a resident of Ellicott City, Maryland, is a clerk at the United States District Court in Maryland. His parents divorced in 2001, and his father remarried. Friends and neighbors described Snowden as shy, quiet and nice. One longtime friend said that he was always articulate, even as a child. Speaking in an interview, Snowden's father described his son as "a sensitive, caring young man," and "a deep thinker."
In the early 1990s, while still in grade school, Snowden moved with his family to Maryland. He later studied at Anne Arundel Community College to gain the credits necessary to obtain a high-school diploma but did not complete the coursework. Snowden's father explained that his son had missed several months of high school due to illness and, rather than return, passed the test for his GED.
Although Snowden had no Bachelor's degree, ABC News reported that he worked online toward a Master's Degree at the University of Liverpool in 2011. In 2010, Snowden took a six-day Certified Ethical Hacker training course in India. Having worked at a U.S. military base in Japan, Snowden was reportedly interested in Japanese popular culture, had studied the Japanese language, and worked for an anime company domiciled in the U.S. He also said he had a basic understanding of Mandarin Chinese and was deeply interested in martial arts; at age 20, he listed Buddhism as his religion on a military recruitment form, noting that the choice of agnostic was "strangely absent." Snowden told The Washington Post that he was an ascetic, rarely left the house and had few needs. He is reportedly vegetarian.
Before leaving for Hong Kong, Snowden resided in Waipahu, Hawaii, with his girlfriend. According to local real estate agents, they moved out of their home on May 1, 2013.
Snowden has said that in the 2008 presidential election, he voted for a third-party candidate. He has stated he had been planning to make disclosures about NSA surveillance programs at the time, but he decided to wait because he "believed in Obama's promises." He was later disappointed that Obama "continued with the policies of his predecessor." For the 2012 election, political donation records indicate that he once contributed to the primary campaign of Republican candidate Ron Paul.
A week after publication of his leaks began, technology news provider Ars Technica confirmed that Snowden, under the pseudonym "TheTrueHOOHA," had been an active participant in the site's chat rooms from 2001 through May 2012, discussing a variety of topics. In a January 2009 entry, TheTrueHOOHA exhibited strong support for the United States' security state apparatus and said he believed leakers of classified information "should be shot in the balls." However, in February 2010, TheTrueHOOHA wrote, "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?"
In accounts published in June 2013, interviewers noted that Snowden's laptop displayed stickers supporting internet freedom organizations including the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the Tor Project. Snowden considers himself "neither traitor nor hero. I'm an American."
On May 7, 2004, Snowden joined the United States Army Reserve as a Special Forces candidate through its 18X enlistment option but did not complete training. He said he wanted to fight in the Iraq War because he "felt like [he] had an obligation as a human being to help free people from oppression." Snowden stated that he was discharged after breaking both of his legs in a training accident. In an email to The Guardian, the U.S. Army confirmed his enlistment as a Special Forces recruit and said he was discharged on September 28, 2004.
He was next employed for less than a year in 2005 as a "security specialist" at the University of Maryland's Center for Advanced Study of Language, a non-classified facility.
In 2006, Snowden joined the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as a systems administrator and telecommunications systems officer. In May 2006, Snowden wrote in Ars Technica that he had no trouble getting work because he was a "computer wizard." In August 2006, he wrote about a possible path in government service, perhaps involving China, but said it "just doesn't seem like as much 'fun' as some of the other places."
The exact size of Snowden's disclosure is unknown, but Australian officials have estimated 15,000 or more Australian intelligence files and British officials estimate at least 58,000 British intelligence files. NSA Director Keith Alexander initially estimated that Snowden had copied anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000 NSA documents. Later estimates provided by U.S. officials were on the order of 1.7 million. In July 2014, The Washington Post reported on a cache previously provided by Snowden from domestic NSA operations consisting of "roughly 160,000 intercepted e-mail and instant-message conversations, some of them hundreds of pages long, and 7,900 documents taken from more than 11,000 online accounts."
In March 2014, Army General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee, "The vast majority of the documents that Snowden … exfiltrated from our highest levels of security … had nothing to do with exposing government oversight of domestic activities. The vast majority of those were related to our military capabilities, operations, tactics, techniques and procedures." When retired NSA director Keith Alexander was asked in a May 2014 interview to quantify the number of documents Snowden stole, Alexander answered, "I don't think anybody really knows what he actually took with him, because the way he did it, we don't have an accurate way of counting. What we do have an accurate way of counting is what he touched, what he may have downloaded, and that was more than a million documents."
According to Snowden, he did not indiscriminately turn over documents to journalists, stating that "I carefully evaluated every single document I disclosed to ensure that each was legitimately in the public interest. There are all sorts of documents that would have made a big impact that I didn't turn over" and that "I have to screen everything before releasing it to journalists... If I have time to go through this information, I would like to make it available to journalists in each country".
In late June 2014, the NSA's recently installed director, U.S. Navy Admiral Michael S. Rogers, claimed that some terrorist groups had altered their communications to avoid surveillance techniques revealed by Snowden, but that the alleged damage done was not significant enough to conclude that "the sky is falling."