WASHINGTON — He was a high school dropout, sometime junior college student and failed Army recruit.
But Edward Joseph Snowden found his calling in America’s spy services, using his computer skills to rise from a lowly security position to life as a well-paid private contractor for the National Security Agency. At age 29, he rented a bungalow with his girlfriend north of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, and claimed to earn $200,000 a year.
On Monday, hours after he admitted disclosing a trove of intelligence secrets to the media, Snowden checked out of the glitzy Mira Hotel in Hong Kong, where he had holed up for weeks, and dropped out of sight. Whether he has gone into hiding, is seeking asylum with a sympathetic government, or been taken into custody by U.S. or Chinese authorities is unclear.
U.S. intelligence officials scrambled to evaluate the damage and worried about whether Snowden would give away, among other intelligence secrets he claimed to know, the locations of every CIA base overseas and identities of its undercover officers. The FBI is investigating and has begun interviewing his family. House and Senate intelligence committees called urgent closed-door hearings for Tuesday.
Before fleeing, Snowden gave a 12-minute videotaped interview to the Guardian, the British newspaper that broke many of his scoops. In soft-spoken tones, he said he was determined to shine a light on what he called the federal government’s almost unlimited tracking of private citizens’ phone calls and Internet usage.
“I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded,” he said to the camera.
Snowden started life in Elizabeth City, a river port along North Carolina’s coast. His family soon moved to a gray clapboard home in Ellicott City, a Baltimore suburb near the NSA’s vast headquarters at Ft. Meade. He told the Guardian that he struggled in high school and eventually dropped out. A neighbor, Joyce Kinsey, recalled him as a quiet boy who often was on his computer.
His parents are divorced. His father, Lonnie Snowden, was an officer in the U.S. Coast Guard, according to public records, and lives in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, part of the old Rust Belt north of Philadelphia. His mother, Elizabeth Snowden, is chief deputy clerk in charge of administration and information technology at the U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
Two people who identified themselves as FBI agents visited the home of Snowden’s father and stepmother Monday afternoon in Upper Macungie Township near Allentown, Pa. Lonnie Snowden, 52, told ABC News that he last saw his son months ago for dinner and that they parted with a hug.
Susan Gross, a spokeswoman for Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold, Md., said an Edward Joseph Snowden took classes there intermittently from 1999, when Snowden was about 15, through fall 2005. He earned a GED, a high school equivalency credential, but did not get a college degree or certificate.
In May 2004, Snowden enlisted in the Army, hoping to join the Special Forces. He took advantage of an option that allowed recruits to try out directly for the elite force without prior service. He reported to Ft. Benning, Ga., but was discharged four months later, the Army said Monday.
Recruits designated for Special Forces normally go through eight to 10 weeks of basic training, followed by an advanced infantry training course and then Special Forces assessment and selection. Snowden told the Guardian that he left the Army after he broke both legs in a training accident.
An Army spokesman, Lt. Col. S. Justin Platt, confirmed Snowden’s service but said no records indicate he completed even basic training. Platt said he could not comment on Snowden’s claim that he broke his legs in training because it involved medical records.
The next year, Snowden got his start in intelligence by landing a job as a security specialist at the Center for the Advanced Study of Language at the University of Maryland, a spokesman confirmed. The center, run by the NSA, is “dedicated to addressing the language needs of the intelligence community,” according to a university website.
After that, Snowden said, his computer skills helped him get a job with the CIA in information technology.
In 2007, he said, the CIA posted him for two years to Geneva, Switzerland, to maintain security for the agency’s computer network. He lived in an apartment block on the banks of the Rhone River where the U.S. consulate often housed employees, according to Radio Television Suisse.
The CIA considers Geneva an important spying base because it hosts so many foreign diplomats and financial institutions.
Snowden said he began to grow disillusioned with the CIA while in Switzerland. He claimed that CIA officers deliberately got a Swiss banker drunk, and then offered to fix his drunk-driving arrest if he agreed to disclose secret financial information. He didn’t say whether the banker agreed, but the scheme is straight from a CIA playbook.
“I realized that I was part of something that was doing far more harm than good,” he said.
Still, Snowden continued to move up the ranks in the intelligence community. His high-level security clearance made him easily employable in the private sector, and in 2009, he said, he left the CIA to work as a contractor at an NSA facility on a military base in Japan.
That’s when he first saw the astonishing breadth of the agency’s surveillance capabilities, he said.
Snowden became a firm proponent of civil liberties, affixing a sticker to his laptop promoting the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates for Internet users’ rights.
In 2012, he made two contributions totaling $500 to the presidential campaign of Ron Paul, the libertarian Republican congressman from Texas, according to federal records. Snowden listed his employer as Dell, the Texas-based computer company. A Dell spokeswoman declined to answer questions Monday about Snowden’s employment.
Sometime that year, Snowden moved to Honolulu. Last March, he took a job with Booz Allen Hamilton, a government contractor, as an infrastructure analyst at the NSA’s huge mountaintop facility on Oahu. He rented a single-story blue bungalow in Waipahu, an upscale suburb 10 miles from the NSA facility.
Documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, who contributed to last week’s stories in both the Guardian and the Washington Post based on documents Snowden said he provided, told Salon on Monday that she was contacted anonymously by email in January this year. She denied that she encouraged Snowden to leak national security secrets.
“Are you kidding?” she said. “I didn’t know where he worked, I didn’t know he was NSA, I didn’t know how — nothing. There was no like, ‘Oh, do you think you …', no nudging. ... There’s no connection here. We were contacted, we didn’t know what he was up to, and at some point he came forward with documents.”
Colby Itkowitz and Daniel Patrick Sheehan of the Allentown Morning Call and Matthew Hay Brown of the Baltimore Sun contributed to this report.