He's "what we'd normally call a geek."
Or so it's been said of Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old former CIA technical assistant who has claimed responsibility for leaking headline-making information about the National Security Agency's (NSA) surveillance program. Snowden has holed himself up in a Hong Kong hotel, where he believes he has the best shot of avoiding a harsh government response.
Snowden, who voluntarily identified himself claims to avoid the public spotlight, insists he has done nothing wrong, yet admits to breaking the Espionage Act, is a series of contradictions. Who is Edward Snowden?
1. A high school and community college dropout making $200K a year in Hawaii.
Snowden worked for Booz Allen Hamilton, a defense consultancy making serious money in one of the most beautiful places in the world. Yet, he renounced all of this to come forward. "You are not even aware of what is possible," said Snowden, who decided to leak the information based on principle. "The extent of [the government's] capabilities is horrifying. We can plant bugs in machines. Once you go on the network, I can identify your machine. You will never be safe whatever protections you put in place."
2. A 2003 Army enlistee who wanted to work in Special Forces.
Snowden 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," only to be dismayed that "most of the people training us seemed pumped up about killing Arabs, not helping anyone." He was subsequently discharged after breaking both of his legs in a training accident.
3. An employee of the nation's most secretive agencies.
After leaving the Army, Snowden worked, directly or through contractors, for the NSA, the CIA, and then back to the NSA, throughout which time he claimed he had a "slow realization that presidents could openly lie to secure the office and then break public promises without consequence," motivating him to come forward.
4. A principled advocate of personal freedom and privacy.
"I don't want to live in a society that does these sort of things," Snowden told The Guardian. "I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded. That is not something I am willing to support or live under."
5. A computer whiz.
According to The Guardian, "He is quiet, smart, easy-going and self-effacing. A master on computers, he seemed happiest when talking about the technical side of surveillance, at a level of detail comprehensible probably only to fellow communication specialists. But he showed intense passion when talking about the value of privacy and how he felt it was being steadily eroded by the behaviour of the intelligence services."
6. A Ron Paul supporter.
The Washington Post reports that "according to campaign finance reports, Snowden made a $250 donation to Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign in March of that year. Paul has been a critic of excessive government intrusion."
Snowden remarked, "A lot of people in 2008 voted for Obama. I did not vote for him. I voted for a third party. But I believed in Obama's promises. I was going to disclose it [but waited because of his election]. He continued with the policies of his predecessor."
7. A lover of the spotlight.
Snowden has given several days of interviews to The Guardian alone, filming and recording interviews with several other outlets. He wrote a letter that accompanied the leaked documents which said "I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions," but "I will be satisfied if the federation of secret law, unequal pardon, and irresistible executive powers that rule the world that I love are revealed even for an instant."
According to The Guardian, "Asked by reporters to establish his authenticity to ensure he is not some fantasist, he laid bare, without hesitation, his personal details, from his Social Security number to his CIA ID and his expired diplomatic passport. There is no shiftiness. Ask him about anything in his personal life and he will answer."
8. A justifiably scared, paranoid man.
"He is deeply worried about being spied on," The Guardian writes. "He lines the door of his hotel room with pillows to prevent eavesdropping. He puts a large red hood over his head and laptop when entering his passwords to prevent any hidden cameras from detecting them.
Though that may sound like paranoia to some, Snowden has good reason for such fears. He worked in the U.S. intelligence world for almost a decade. He knows that the biggest and most secretive surveillance organization in America, the NSA, along with the most powerful government on the planet, is looking for him.
9. An enemy to some.
Several congressmen are calling for the extradition of Snowden to face trial in the United States. According to NBC News, "Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) late Sunday became one of the first U.S. officials to call for 'extradition proceedings at the earliest date' and warned that 'no country should be granting this individual asylum.'"
There is, in fact, a 1996 extradition treaty between the U.S. and Hong Kong that could allow this to happen.
10. A hero to many.
"Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971, says that the machinery of our democratic government is broken — and we need whistle-blowers like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden to inspire Americans to fight back against this invasion of privacy," according to the Daily Beast.
"Snowden is a hero because he realized that our very humanity was being compromised by the blind implementation of machines in the name of making us safe," writes Douglas Rushkkoff of CNN. "Unlike those around him, who were too absorbed in their task to reflect on their actions and pause in their pursuit of digital omniscience, Snowden allowed himself to be 'disturbed' by what he was doing."