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’ e-mail 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 NSA headquarters at Fort 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 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, with more than 700 posts 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?”
Snowden’s climb in the intelligence community remains puzzling. He somehow rose from lowly security guard at an NSA-affiliated research center at the University of Maryland in 2005 to a position as a CIA computer analyst assigned to a plush post in Geneva from 2007 to 2009.
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In 2006, apparently after he’d joined the CIA, Snowden embraced a popular online cause. He wrote that he had signed a petition calling on the Recording Industry Association of America to cease legal action against people who downloaded copyrighted music without payment or authorization.
In later years, Snowden was proud of his career advancement, bragging about his salary (“I make $70k, I just had to turn down offers for $83k and $180k”) and dispensing online advice like a world-weary veteran.
He talked up the perks of a State Department information-technology job, which requires a security clearance. “If you’re cleared, have a lifestyle, and have specialized IT skills, you can go anywhere in the world right now,” he wrote. “Thank god for wars.”
Michael Hayden, who was NSA director from 1999 to 2005, said the agency needed to continue hiring young techies but do a better job of screening recruits.
“We know which population has the skills we need,” he said. “And almost all are loyal Americans.” Snowden, he added, “was a mistake.”
(Tribune Washington Bureau staff writer Richard A. Serrano contributed to this report.)
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