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 even as he secluded himself in computer games, anime and the study of the Internet’s architecture.
Edward Snowden, the skinny kid from suburban Maryland who took it upon himself to expose — 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.
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Snowden, 29, emerged a week ago from his status as an anonymous source for stories in The Washington Post and The Guardian, announcing 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.
He 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.
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 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 he also craved the limelight. A decade ago, while debating a fine point of Internet structure, he celebrated the response to one of his posts: “256 page views make me smile.” He also explored becoming a model, having a portrait photographer shoot him in alluring poses on a wooden bridge.
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.
The owner of S&S Music in Crofton said Snowden took lessons there in the mid-1990s, but 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 younger, didn’t stand out in a troop serving the area around Fort Meade, Md., the suburban military installation where the National Security Agency (NSA) 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.”
Halfway through 10th grade, during the 1998-99 school year, Snowden dropped out of Arundel High School, where he had made little impression. Neither the principal nor teachers who taught his favorite subjects remember him. Several classmates racked their memories last week and came up empty.
Three years after Snowden left high school, his parents divorced. His father, Lonnie, was a career Coast Guard officer who retired and moved to Pennsylvania a few years ago; he has remarried. His mother, Elizabeth, chief deputy clerk for administration and information technology at Baltimore’s federal court, has lived in a condo in Ellicott City, Md., since 2002. Neither parent responded to requests for comment.
Snowden dipped in and out of course work over the next dozen years, taking classes at Anne Arundel Community College, the University of Maryland’s University College, the University of Liverpool and the Computer Career Institute.
He got certified as a Microsoft Solutions Expert, but felt stuck in the first years of adulthood, describing himself on the Ars Technica site as someone “without a degree or clearance who lives in Maryland. Read that as ‘unemployed.’ ”
In 2004, he enlisted in the Army Reserve as a Special Forces recruit. His military career ended almost before it began. Less than four months after he reported to Fort Benning in Georgia for the Army’s Advanced Individual Training program, Snowden was discharged.
In a message on Ars Technica, where he used the handle TheTrueHOOHA, Snowden said he broke both legs during training and was discharged as a result.
Snowden “attempted to qualify to become a Special Forces Soldier but did not complete the requisite training and was administratively discharged,” said Col. David Patterson Jr., an Army spokesman at the Pentagon. The Army made no mention of any accident or injury.
He struggled through a period of joblessness. He also got into fitness, lifting weights and doing P90X, a high-intensity training program featuring intense workouts. “I am working pretty hard on the muscle tone,” he wrote, saying he had reduced his body fat to between 9.5 and 10.5 percent.
In the early 2000s, he worked as an editor for Ryuhana Press, an online publisher of Japanese-style anime comics. In 2005, he found a job as a security guard at the federally funded Center for Advanced Study of Language at the University of Maryland in College Park, he told online chatters.
Snowden said last week his work at the university took place at a “covert facility,” but, although some classified research is conducted there, the Defense Department-affiliated center is no secret; its website includes driving directions. Snowden said he worked for the NSA during that time, but a university spokesman said Snowden was a Maryland state employee.
“I have no degree”
In 2006, Snowden made a remarkable leap, from security guard to security clearance. His new position with the CIA put him on the path to extensive travel, a good income and extraordinary access to classified material.
He spent about three years in Geneva and then in Japan, working, he said, for the CIA and later for a contractor, in both cases on computer-network security.
How he managed that jump remains unclear, but he was proud of the move; in a 2006 post, he offered some advice: “First off, the degree thing is crap, at least domestically … I have no degree, nor even a high school diploma, but I’m making much more than what they’re paying you even though I’m only claiming six years of experience. It’s tough to ‘break in,’ but once you land a ‘real’ position, you’re made.”
At 22, Snowden was confident enough to take on the role of career-advice maven, describing how to parlay any IT job, no matter how lowly, into a lucrative position: “Listen to what they say about networking … If somebody likes you, it doesn’t even matter if you put your pants on before your underwear in the morning — you will get the job.
“I have $0 in debt from student loans, I make $70k, I just had to turn down offers for $83k and $180k … Employers fight over me. And I’m 22.”
Snowden wrote about using the Foreign Service as a path to success: “It’s an amazing deal if you can swing it. I’m not talking Foreign Service Officer, either, just standard IT specialist positions. They pay for your (ridiculously nice) housing and since you’ll be posted overseas, the first ~ $80k you make will be tax-free.”
Another time, he wrote that the ticket to travel was to land a tech job with the State Department. “Get a clearance,” he wrote. “If you’re cleared … and have specialized IT skills, you can go anywhere in the world right now. Thank god for wars.”
To Lindsay Mills, Ed Snowden — he was “E” on her blog, which was as expressive and public as Snowden was reserved and private — was a loyal sweetheart, but also a distant sort, “my man of mystery.”
She thought they were essentially “incompatible,” but she loved him.
They met about eight years ago in Maryland, where Mills was a pole-dancing instructor at Xpose Fitness, a women’s exotic-dance and fitness center, two friends confirmed. Xpose specializes in combining fitness exercise with a style of dancing typically done in strip clubs.
Mills grew up in Laurel, went to art school and competed in pole-dancing contests, according to a friend who asked not to be named. But in Maryland and later in Hawaii, where Snowden took a job with Booz Allen Hamilton, doing contract work for the NSA, Mills’ friends said they rarely saw Snowden and knew little about him.
Mills made it her mission to try to draw her boyfriend out of the house. She exulted on her blog when she was finally able to “force a little adventure” on him and get him to join friends on a hike to a Hawaiian waterfall. Snowden’s frequent business trips left her plenty of time to work with dance troupes and take courses in aerial silks, an acrobatic practice involving hanging from sturdy silk fabrics, said Terryl Deleong, of the Samadhi Hawaii dance studio.
Mills had no idea her beau intended to leak classified materials, according to a friend. On the day after Snowden said he was the leaker and had forsaken “living in Hawaii in paradise and making a ton of money,” Mills wrote her last blog post: “My world has opened and closed all at once … Sometimes life doesn’t afford proper goodbyes.”
Snowden now presents himself as a reasoned protester, but he has also shown contempt for some aspects of American society. “Go back to your meaningless consumerist life,” he wrote four years ago in a comment on a YouTube video that poked fun at the ritual of high-school reunions.
He was no ascetic, though. He boasted online about sexual relations with his girlfriend, noting at one point: “You have not lived until you’ve rolled over to post-coital Krispy Kremes. That’s what being an American is all about.”
Julie Tate contributed to this report