Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden a year on: Odyssey of the whistle-blower

A second look back at the events of one year ago details how Edward Snowden's exposé of secret US mass surveillance took him around the globe

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 June, 2014, 5:30am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 June, 2014, 10:29am

"If I could go anywhere in the world, that place would be home." So said Edward Snowden in Moscow on May 28.

Home is, of course, America. But for the 30-year-old former NSA contractor, who turned his life upside down to expose the mass surveillance carried out in secret by the US government, the exact location of home is difficult to pinpoint.

Maryland - one of the wealthiest states - could stake a claim. It is where Snowden spent his formative years, attending primary and middle schools in Anne Arundel County, between Washington and Baltimore.

Snowden dropped out of high school in 1998 after a prolonged illness. As a result, he spent long periods at home.

It was during this time that his fascination for how things worked developed into a passion for computers and technology.

In 2001, when he was in his late teens, his parents divorced.

Ed, as he was known, moved into a house his mother, Elizabeth "Wendy" Snowden, bought in Ellicott City, Maryland, where she still lives.

Overlooking a tennis court and playground, the house is a 25-minute drive from downtown Baltimore, the largest city in Maryland, where Wendy works as the chief deputy clerk for administration and information technology at the federal court. She has never spoken publicly about the events that catapulted her son into the global spotlight.

When the South China Morning Post visited the courthouse where she works, we were told by officials she would be making "no comment".

While living with his mum, Snowden attended a local community college to finish high school.

And after a failed attempt to join the army in 2004, he took a job as a security guard at the University for Maryland's Centre for Advanced Study of Language a year later.

The centre is reportedly the base for a covert NSA facility and it is from here that Snowden moved into the secret world of America's spy agency.

Timeline: The Edward Snowden saga

Another contender for the US home to which Snowden wishes to return - despite the fact that a significant body of public opinion in the US regards him to be a traitor - is in Pennsylvania.

His father, Lonnie Snowden, and his stepmother Karen live in the town of Upper Macungie, near Allentown, a two-hour drive west of New York.

Snowden Snr retired from the US coastguard in 2009 and was thrust into the spotlight last June when his son's face was broadcast across the globe as the NSA whistle-blower. In an interview with US media shortly after his son broke cover in Hong Kong, Lonnie, 53, recalled the last time he had seen Edward.

"We'd gone out to dinner," he said, adding that his son seemed to be carrying a "burden". He added: "We hugged as we always do. He said, 'I love you Dad.' I said, 'I love you, Ed.'"

One of the small but stark reminders of the global media frenzy that broke out last summer is the broken doorbell at Lonnie's home.

Reporters and television crews descended upon the quiet street and, desperate to get a comment from Snowden's father and other family members, they rang and rang the doorbell until it rang no more.

Thousands of kilometres away, on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, is another of Snowden's homes. There too, former neighbours recall the intense media scrutiny last summer.

"We had reporters from the US, Japan, Australia, England. It was like crazy over here for a while," said one resident, who asked not to be named.

Snowden is not likely to choose Hawaii, but it is a possible option, given its idyllic setting.

However, he would probably not opt for Waipahu, a well-to-do area about 20 minutes drive from downtown and his last known place of residence.

He certainly couldn't move back into the light blue corner house on Eleu Street he used to call home with his girlfriend Lindsay Mills. New residents moved in late last year.

Snowden and Mills, 29, moved out of the house last May because the former owner wanted to sell it. Residents say Snowden and Mills kept mainly to themselves during the year they lived there.

"Every so often I would see him and wave, but it was either coming home from work or going to work," said one neighbour, who asked not to be named.

"We didn't have any conversations. We just acknowledged each other as neighbours. He kept to himself and he was a very private person."

The bungalow has since been sold and when the Post visited the house a few weeks ago, the new residents refused to be interviewed.

About half a dozen pairs of shoes were piled on the front verandah and the television was on loud.

A screen door opened onto the main living area, where Snowden and Mills would have spent their last weeks together in Hawaii.

When the previous owner sold the house, he found that wiring had been installed in the garage. This may have been the security system that alerted Snowden to a visit by the NSA shortly after he left Hawaii.

Another neighbour said, a year on, he still had mixed feelings about Snowden's actions.

"In a way, he brought out a lot of things which the public didn't know," said the man, who has lived in the area for 13 years.

"But our cousin works in the Pentagon and he said there were a lot of security things that were compromised. I can see what Snowden was trying to do, but I wonder, did he put the country at risk? So my opinion is mixed."

The neighbour hoped that Snowden, who has voiced his desire to return to the US under the right conditions, would be treated fairly. "If he is able to come back, I hope he is able to get a fair trial. That's what the constitution guarantees."

Just a short drive away is the Kunia regional security operations centre, the NSA facility in Hawaii where Snowden worked as a government contractor through Booz Allen Hamilton.

The heavily guarded entrance with a "Restricted Area" sign opens onto a large car park.

It is where Snowden downloaded hundreds of documents that would later form the basis of explosive reports on mass cybersurveillance that the US government was conducting on its own citizens, as well as foreign targets.

While many have questioned - and continue to question - his choice of Hong Kong, immersing himself into an Asian city was not such a deviation from his recent experiences.

Before he moved to Hawaii in mid-2012, he had spent three years working in Japan at the NSA's facility on a military base.

Snowden would have quickly felt at ease on the main Hawaiian island of Oahu, given the ever-present influence of Japanese culture on the island.

Last May, as Snowden made his way to Honolulu airport carrying four laptops loaded with the secret documents, he would have passed military bases and palm tree-lined promenades.

He would have caught glimpses of turquoise beaches and felt the warm summer sun beating on his shoulders. He had so many possible reasons to simply turn back. But he didn't.

He boarded a long-haul flight to Hong Kong, ready to make worldwide headlines as the man behind the biggest national security leaks in US history.

After he landed in Hong Kong, Snowden headed to the Mira Hotel in Kowloon and checked into room 1014.

There, he braced himself for a wild ride that would eventually lead him to Moscow, where he is now living after being granted temporary asylum last August.

Snowden met human rights organisations when he was stranded in the transit area of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport.

Tanya Lokshina, Russia director of Human Rights Watch, was one of the select few invited.

"I had never seen anything like that before," she said, referring to the media frenzy.

A few weeks after that meeting, Snowden was granted asylum by the Kremlin, as more revelations broke about how the US was spying on friends and foes alike - including German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Since then, he has appeared in video links and conducted online chats. And last month, he did his first American television interview, which many viewed as his attempt to win over public opinion.

Glenn Greenwald, the reporter who broke the first stories based on Snowden's leaks, said the images of Snowden as a free man who continues to participate in the debate he sparked were powerful to potential future whistle-blowers.

"That's so important, that the image of Edward Snowden that the world sees is somebody who wears a blazer and is invited onto stages and given awards, and who gives interviews and participates in the debate that he helped galvanise," Greenwald told the Post recently.

"As opposed to being this tragic figure who the world only sees in handcuffs and a jumpsuit being led off to a cage for the rest of his life.

"It's absolutely crucial for the question of how other potential whistle-blowers are going to make their choices."


From spies to five eyes: global leaders snared in Snowden scandal

Vladimir Putin, president of Russia

On August 1, 2013, the Kremlin granted Edward Snowden temporary asylum, sending a clear message to the US government that they would not simply hand over the US fugitive whistle-blower. The one-year reprieve meant Snowden was able to leave the transit area of Sheremetyevo airport where he had been stranded for weeks after arriving from Hong Kong. His passport was revoked by the US government before he could board a flight to Ecuador, where he intended to apply for asylum. Putin later described Snowden as a “strange guy” and “an unwanted Christmas gift”. “How is he going to build his life? In effect, he condemned himself to a rather difficult life. I do not have the faintest idea about what he will do next,” Putin told Russian media.


Barack Obama, president of the United States

The Obama administration went into crisis management overdrive last June when the first stories based on Snowden’s leaks broke. Initial reactions to Snowden ranged from hero to traitor, with critics demanding he be charged with treason. This March, Obama pledged to curb the scope of the NSA’s surveillance programmes and the White House confirmed that Obama would ask the foreign intelligence surveillance court in the US to approve the current bulk collection programme for a final 90-day period. Snowden welcomed Obama’s move and said it was a “turning point”. Last August, Obama cancelled a meeting with Putin in Moscow in an apparent snub for granting Snowden asylum.


Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany

When Snowden’s leaks first revealed that the US government was spying on its own citizens, Merkel said such activity was justified. But her stance changed when it emerged that American spies had been tapping her own mobile phone for years. “Spying on friends is not on at all,” Merkel said, adding that it was “completely unacceptable” and a “grave breach of trust”. Last month, Merkel was in Washington and spoke to Obama about the NSA’s revelations. She said that “under the present conditions”, Germany and the US – traditionally strong allies – have “differences of opinions to overcome”. This month, Germany’s federal prosecutor Harald Range confirmed that it would be investigating the phone tapping claims.


Tony Abbott, prime minister of Australia

In December, just months after becoming leader, Tony Abbott was forced to deal with the fallout from Snowden’s leaks when they revealed that Australia had spied on Indonesia. Documents from Snowden suggested that Australia’s Defence Signals Directorate had tapped the phones of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife and senior colleagues, triggering a diplomatic row with Jakarta. Abbott later criticised the Australian media outlets which had published the claims, saying they were unpatriotic. Abbott refused to say sorry to the Indonesian leader, saying Australia should “never, never apologise” for being part of the Five Eyes alliance, referring to the relationship it has with the US, UK, Canada and New Zealand.


Evo Morales, president of Bolivia

On July 1, 2013, the Bolivian president was in Russia for a conference and during an interview, he had voiced his support for Snowden. As he flew out of Moscow, rumours abounded that he was harbouring the whistle-blower. His plane was forced to land in Austria after Spain, France and Portugal refused to let his plane fly through their airspace. The events angered Latin American countries and prompted offers of asylum from Nicaragua and Venezuela. “It is an open provocation to the continent, not only to the president; they use the agent of North American imperialism to scare us and intimidate us,” Morales said when he finally returned to La Paz. France and Spain later apologised for the incident. The US refused to comment but said it had been in touch with a “broad range of countries” that Snowden should be returned to the US.