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Snowden an eccentric, but hardly stood out at NSA

The ex-contractor who exposed NSA surveillance programs was a self-taught tech whiz who mysteriously ascended to a coveted job with the agency. But his background check found no red flags.

June 21, 2013|By Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times
  • An image of Edward Snowden is shown on a TV screen in a shopping mall in Hong Kong, where he is believed to be in hiding.
An image of Edward Snowden is shown on a TV screen in a shopping mall in Hong… (Kin Cheung, Associated…)

WASHINGTON — The National Security Agency is the size of a small town, with more than 30,000 employees and as much variety. There are blue-haired iconoclasts who work in their socks, buttoned-down military types and pale-faced introverts who avoid eye contact in the hallways.

On the surface, at least, Edward Snowden was hardly unusual at America's largest and most powerful intelligence agency. A self-taught computer whiz who wanted to travel the world, Snowden seemed a perfect fit for a secretive organization that spies on communications from foreign terrorism suspects.

But in hundreds of online postings dating back a decade, Snowden also denounced "pervasive government secrecy" and criticized America's "unquestioning obedience towards spooky types."

At least online, Snowden seemed sardonic, affably geeky and supremely self-assured. In 2006, someone posted to Ars Technica, a website popular with technophiles, about an odd clicking in an Xbox video game console. A response came from "TheTrueHOOHA," Snowden's pen name: "NSA's new surveillance program. That's the sound of freedom, citizen!"

On Friday, U.S. officials said a criminal complaint had been filed against Snowden over his leak of classified NSA programs that sweep up Americans' telephone records and foreigners' email traffic. Since the disclosures first appeared in the news two weeks ago, investigators have searched for clues in his past that might have hinted at his intentions.

In one way, he was no anomaly: The NSA has hired thousands of people in their 20s and 30s (Snowden turned 30 on Friday) — including techies, hackers and video gamers — since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to keep up with the digital explosion and expand America's cyber spying.

"It's a very eccentric group of individuals with some really far-out ideas about the world," said Matthew Aid, author of "The Secret Sentry," a book about the agency. "They're more liberal. They're better educated than their predecessors."

The NSA "has been forced to suck in its gut a little bit, saying we'll put up with these techno geeks … as long as they keep their mouth shut and abide by the rules," he added.

The NSA director, four-star Army Gen. Keith Alexander, even showed up in a black T-shirt and jeans last year at Defcon, a major conference for computer hackers, to deliver the keynote speech and look for recruits. "In this room right here is the talent we need to secure cyberspace," Alexander, who normally wears his military uniform, told the group.

Many of those at the NSA could earn fatter salaries in Silicon Valley or elsewhere in the private sector, as Snowden did. Before he emerged into the spotlight (and then went into hiding, apparently in Hong Kong), he worked for 15 months as a contractor at an NSA facility in Hawaii, first for Dell and then for Booz Allen Hamilton.

Experts question whether Snowden's history raised any red flags when a Virginia contractor, USIS, conducted his background check.

Federal investigators are conducting a criminal inquiry of USIS, which does two-thirds of federal background investigations, for "systematic failure to adequately conduct investigations under its contract," according to Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who chairs the subcommittee on financial and contracting oversight.

Cedric Leighton, a retired Air Force intelligence officer who was the NSA's deputy director for training in 2009-10, said vetting procedures were stricter for analysts and those engaged in offensive cyber operations than for systems administrators like Snowden.

But more rigorous vetting might not have stopped Snowden from being hired or found grounds to deny or revoke his security clearance.

"When you get a security clearance, you don't stop having political beliefs," said Jeff Moss, a renowned ex-hacker and cyber consultant who serves on the Department of Homeland Security Advisory Council.

In any case, Snowden's online posts sound more juvenile than subversive. Raised in Crofton, a small town near the 350-acre NSA headquarters campus at Ft. Meade, Md., he dropped out of school in 10th grade and never obtained a college degree, although he bounced around among several schools.

In the early 2000s, he worked for Ryuhana Press, a startup website for Japanese comics, and wrote on his profile page, "You see, I act arrogant and cruel because I was not hugged enough as a child, and because the public education system turned it's [sic] wretched, spiked back on me."

He was a frequent contributor to the Ars Technica forum, posting more than 700 times on a variety of topics. In 2003, he solicited advice on how to hide his Internet activity, saying, "I wouldn't want God himself to know where I've been, you know?"

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