Snowden Had A Fast Rise In The Intelligence World

Who is Edward Snowden? The National Security Agency contractor says he leaked information on secret surveillance programs to spark public debate over the reach of government monitoring.

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NPR's Jennifer Ludden has been learning more about Edward Snowden's background, where he came from, what he's like. Here's her report.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: The bespectacled man with the wispy goatee grew up in North Carolina, then Maryland. Public records list his mother as a deputy clerk for the U.S. district court, his father a former Coast Guard officer. But they divorced in 2001 and according to a neighbor, Edward moved out of the family home as a teenager to a condo in Ellicott City, Maryland. Joyce Kinsey(ph) lived across a garden path and says Edward was alone and not very social.

JOYCE KINSEY: When you would walk by him and you would say hi, he would never look you in the eyes. Hi, but he'd be looking down.

LUDDEN: Kinsey says his mother joined him a few years later. She calls her kind and intelligent. She got the impression Edward was working on his Master's degree.

KINSEY: He was always very quiet. He looked very studious and you could see him at his desk doing his - on his computer doing his work for college.

LUDDEN: In fact, Snowden never graduated from high school, earning a GED instead. And while he did attend community college, he never graduated from there, either. Glenn Greenwald is The Guardian newspaper reporter who revealed Snowden's identity. He tells NPR the college dropout joined the Army in 2004.

GLENN GREENWALD: Because he wanted to go fight as a member of the Special Forces in Iraq, but ended up breaking both of his legs in a training accident and so dropped out of the Army.

LUDDEN: Greenwald says Snowden worked as a security guard for a covert national security agency facility in Maryland and somehow his computer programming skills fueled a fast rise in the intelligence world. First, Greenwald says, with the CIA in IT security and undercover in Geneva, then with the National Security Agency through contractors. Snowden tells Greenwald his current job...

EDWARD SNOWDEN: I work for Booz Allen Hamilton as an infrastructure analyst for NSA in Hawaii.

LUDDEN: This video interview with The Guardian newspaper was made in Hong Kong, where Snowden says he traveled for safety. Snowden says his increasing access to more and more secret information disturbed him. He saw some intelligence gathering as abusive, as when CIA operatives, he claims, recruited a Swiss banker by getting him arrested for drunk driving.

Snowden tells The Guardian that at first it just seemed so much business as usual.

SNOWDEN: But over time, that awareness of wrongdoing sort of builds up and you feel compelled to talk about it. And the more you talk about it, the more you're ignored, the more you're told it's not a problem until eventually you realize that these things need to be determined by the public, not by somebody who was simply hired by the government.

LUDDEN: Snowden tells reporter Greenwald he had the ability to target anyone, from the average Joe to the president of the U.S. if he had an order.

GREENWALD: He described to us several instances in which he purposefully eavesdropped on very prominent people just to demonstrate the weakness in the system and to demonstrate that it could be done.

LUDDEN: Greenwald met with Snowden in his hotel room in Hong Kong and describes him as easygoing and self-effacing. He writes that his computer sported the stickers of online rights groups and he was reading "Angler," the biography of former vice president Dick Cheney. Snowden says critics who question his motives should put themselves in his shoes.

SNOWDEN: You're living in Hawaii, in paradise and making a ton of money. What would it take to make you leave everything behind?

LUDDEN: Snowden says his aim is a principled one, to spur public debate on privacy rights he considers essential to democracy. The Guardian's Greenwald says Snowden only became emotional once during their interview.

GREENWALD: He talked about the fact that he was concerned for the welfare of his family, many of whom work - are federal government employees. And he described how he knows that at this point, he's unable to help them and sort of had his eyes tear up as he recounted that to me.

LUDDEN: Family aside, Edward Snowden says his biggest fear is that after risking so much in the name of online privacy, nothing will actually change. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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