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 nubile, beautiful women, even as he secluded himself in a nightscape of computer games, anime and close 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 on NSA surveillance.
He announced 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 again, 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 and that his life is of no interest, 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 himself to the world. And for someone who spent most of his life deeply 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 hanging out on anime, gaming and technology sites, 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 wrote in 2003 on a bulletin board for the technically inclined.
But Snowden also 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 wooden bridge. And 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, halfway around the world, from the government of the country he claimed to love.
A quiet childhood
Eddie Snowden was a shy, thin-boned boy who didn’t say a lot. At Prince of Peace Presbyterian Church on Crofton Parkway, not far from Snowden’s childhood home in Anne Arundel County, Md., Boy Scout Troop 731 met weekly, but although Snowden was a Scout for several years in elementary and middle school, the troop’s leaders and members recall little about him.
His two Scoutmasters said they don’t remember Snowden at all. Fellow Scout Brad Gunson, who attended Crofton Middle and Arundel High schools with Snowden, recalled Eddie’s high voice, feathery blond hair and obsession with computer video games.
“He liked fantasy games, video games,” said Gunson, who now leads a band and teaches music. “There was this weird trend when we were kids — a killing game I can’t remember. And magic cards. I remember him being into that.”
Gunson said several friends from Arundel High School began trading emails and Facebook messages about Snowden last week after his face showed up on front pages and newscasts. They remembered playing tennis or a darkly themed online game with Snowden.
The owner of S&S Music in Crofton said Snowden took lessons there in the mid-1990s, but the owner could not recall what instrument the boy played. (In online posts a few years later, Snowden talked about owning a guitar.)
Another fellow Scout, John Baldwin, said in an interview that Snowden, two years his younger, didn’t stand out in a troop serving the area around Fort Meade, Md., the suburban military installation where the National Security Agency is headquartered.
“My troop fit the stereotype of having a lot of weird little guys — computer nerds who loved to run around in the woods,” Baldwin said. Eddie “wasn’t a troublemaker or anything. Just shy and friendly.”
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 be secretive and avoid forming close friendships, and that attitude was evident among teenagers too.
Twenty-five miles north of the capital, concrete barriers and guard stations surround the headquarters of the nation’s biggest intelligence agency, the NSA, where an estimated 30,000 people acquire and interpret an unimaginable torrent of information gleaned from the world’s digital, satellite and broadcast communications channels. Employees of the NSA and its corporate partners, dozens of which have offices in surrounding business parks, dominate nearby neighborhoods.
When Joshua Stewart, who grew up near Snowden and now works as a reporter at the Orange County Register in California, started talking to friends about the leaker, “we tried to come up with someone who didn’t have a security connection, and we couldn’t.”
When Stewart moved away from the Fort Meade area, he was struck by how deeply unusual his hometown was — a place where even at mid-morning coffee break time, the local Starbucks was virtually silent, bereft of the workplace conversation heard elsewhere.
“This is part of the culture of living in Crofton,” Gunson said. “This is where a lot of people are making the money that gives them all this comfort — the big intelligence operation that Washington runs.”