In late December 2001, someone calling themselves TheTrueHOOHA had a question. He was an 18-year-old American male with impressive IT skills and a sharp intelligence. His real identity was unknown. Everyone who posted on Ars Technica, a popular technology website, did so anonymously.
TheTrueHOOHA wanted to set up his own web server. It was a Saturday morning, a little after 11am. He posted: “It’s my first time. Be gentle. Here’s my dilemma: I want to be my own host. What do I need?”
Soon, regular users were piling in with helpful suggestions. TheTrueHOOHA replied: “Ah, the vast treasury of geek knowledge that is Ars.” He would become a prolific contributor; over the next eight years, he authored nearly 800 comments. He described himself variously as “unemployed”, a failed soldier, a “systems editor”, and someone who had US State Department security clearance.
His home was on the east coast of America in the state of Maryland, near Washington DC. But by his mid-20s he was already an international man of mystery. He popped up in Europe — in Geneva, London, Ireland, Italy and Bosnia. He travelled to India.
Despite having no degree, he knew an astonishing amount about computers. His politics appeared staunchly Republican. He believed strongly in personal liberty, defending, for example, Australians who farmed cannabis plants.
At times he could be rather obnoxious. He called one fellow-Arsian, for example, a “c***”; others who disagreed with his sink-or-swim views on social security were “f****** retards”.
His chat logs cover a colourful array of themes: gaming, girls, sex, Japan, the stock market, his disastrous stint in the US army, his negative impressions of multiracial Britain (he was shocked by the number of “Muslims” in east London and wrote, “I thought I had gotten off of the plane in the wrong country… it was terrifying”), the joys of gun ownership (“I have a Walther P22. It’s my only gun but I love it to death,” he wrote in 2006). In their own way, the logs form a Bildungsroman.
Then, in 2009, the entries fizzle away. In February 2010, TheTrueHOOHA mentions a thing that troubles him: pervasive government surveillance. “Society really seems to have developed an unquestioning obedience towards spooky types… Did we get to where we are today via a slippery slope that was entirely within our control to stop? Or was it a relatively instantaneous sea change that sneaked in undetected because of pervasive government secrecy?”
TheTrueHOOHA’s last post is on May 21, 2012. After that, he disappears, a lost electronic signature amid the vastness of cyberspace. He was, we now know, Edward Snowden.
Edward Joseph Snowden was born on June 21, 1983. His father Lonnie and mother Elizabeth — known as Wendy — were high-school sweethearts who married at 18.
Lon was an officer in the US coastguard; Snowden spent his early years in Elizabeth City, on North Carolina’s coast. He has an older sister, Jessica. When Snowden was small — a boy with thick blond hair and a toothy smile — he and his family moved to Maryland, within DC’s commuter belt.
As his father recalls, Snowden’s education went wrong when he got ill, probably with glandular fever. He missed “four or five months” of class in his mid-teens. Another factor hurt his studies: his parents were drifting apart. He failed to finish high school. In 1999, aged 16, Snowden enrolled at Anne Arundel community college, where he took computer courses.
In the aftermath of his parents’ divorce, Snowden lived with a roommate, and then with his mother, in Ellicott City, just west of Baltimore. He grew up under the giant shadow of one government agency in particular.
From his mother’s front door, it takes 15 minutes to drive there. Half-hidden by trees is a big, green, cube-shaped building. An entrance sign off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway reads: “NSA next right. Employees only.” The Puzzle Palace employs 40,000 people. It is the largest hirer of mathematicians in the US.
For Snowden, the likelihood of joining was slim. In his early 20s, his focus was on computers. To him, the internet was “the most important invention in all human history”. He chatted online to people “with all sorts of views I would never have encountered on my own”. He wasn’t only a nerd: he kept fit, practised kung fu and, according to one entry on Ars, “dated Asian girls”.
Joining the force
The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq prompted Snowden to think seriously about a career in the military. “I wanted to fight in the Iraq war because I felt like I had an obligation as a human being to help free people from oppression,” he has said.
The military offered what seemed, on the face of it, an attractive scheme, whereby recruits with no prior experience could try out to become elite soldiers. In May 2004, Snowden took the plunge and enlisted, reporting to Fort Benning in Georgia. It was a disaster. He was in good physical shape but an improbable soldier, shortsighted and with unusually narrow feet.
During infantry training, he broke both his legs. After more than a month’s uncertainty, the army finally discharged him. Back in Maryland, he got a job as a “security specialist” at the University for Maryland’s Centre for Advanced Study of Language. It was 2005. (He appears to have begun as a security guard, but then moved back into IT.) Snowden was working at a covert NSA facility on the university’s campus.
Thanks perhaps to his brief military history, he had broken into the world of US intelligence, albeit on a low rung. The centre worked closely with the US intelligence community, providing advanced language training.
In mid-2006, Snowden landed a job in IT at the CIA. He was rapidly learning that his exceptional IT skills opened all kinds of interesting government doors. “First off, the degree thing is crap, at least domestically. If you ‘really’ have 10 years of solid, provable IT experience… you CAN get a very well-paying IT job,” he wrote online in July 2006. In 2007, the CIA sent Snowden to Geneva on his first foreign tour.
Switzerland was an awakening and an adventure. He was 24. His job was to maintain security for the CIA’s computer network and look after computer security for US diplomats. He was a telecommunications information systems officer. He also had to maintain the heating and air-conditioning.
In Geneva, Snowden was exposed to an eclectic range of views. On one occasion, he gave an Estonian singer called Mel Kaldalu a lift to Munich. They had met at a Free Tibet event in Geneva; they didn’t know each other brilliantly well, but well enough for Snowden to offer him a lift.
They chatted for hours on the empty autobahn. Snowden argued that the US should act as a world policeman. Kaldalu disagreed. “Ed’s an intelligent guy,” he says. “Maybe even a little bit stubborn. He’s outspoken. He likes to discuss things. Self-sustainable. He has his own opinions.”
The Estonian singer and the CIA technician talked about the difficulty pro-Tibet activists had in getting Chinese visas. Snowden was sceptical about the Beijing Olympics. Kaldalu said the Israeli occupation of Palestine was morally questionable.
Snowden said he understood this, but viewed US support for Israel as the “least worst” option. Kaldalu suggested a “deconstructive” approach. The pair also discussed how rapid digital changes might affect democracy and the way people governed themselves.
At the time, the figure who most closely embodied Snowden’s rightwing views was Ron Paul, the most famous exponent of US libertarianism. Snowden supported Paul’s 2008 bid for the US presidency. He was also impressed with the Republican candidate John McCain.
He wasn’t an Obama supporter as such, but he didn’t object to him, either. Once Obama became president, Snowden came to dislike him intensely. He criticised the White House’s attempts to ban assault weapons. He was unimpressed by affirmative action.
Another topic made him even angrier. The Snowden of 2009 inveighed against government officials who leaked classified information to newspapers – the worst crime conceivable, in Snowden’s apoplectic view.
Guardian News & Media Ltd