Truman National Security Project

CODE NAME VERAX: Who is Edward Snowden, and why did he risk everything to tell the world about PRISM?


On June 5, the British newspaper The Guardian published a copy of a court order directing Verizon to turn over the records of all landline and mobile telephone calls made by customers both within the US and abroad, on an “ongoing, daily basis”. The resulting maelstrom of public outrage only increased when information about a secret government internet surveillance program was leaked the next day. By Sunday, The Guardian revealed the source of the leaks as 29-year-old former undercover CIA employee Edward Snowden.

Who is Snowden, and why did he risk everything to tell the world about the surveillance program that affects us all? Read on for an explanation.

Who is Edward Snowden and why did he leak classified intelligence files?

Snowden is a former technical assistant for the CIA and is currently employed by Booz Allen Hamilton, a defense contractor. Despite his lack of academic credentials (Snowden did not attain his high school diploma), he rose quickly through the ranks of the intelligence community. Displaying a strong talent for computer programming, Snowden moved from a position as a security guard for a non-classified NSA facility at the University of Maryland to an IT security position with the CIA. That position took him around the world to posts in Switzerland and Japan and was followed by work with NSA contractors. Eventually Snowden was stationed in Hawaii, his place of residence at the time of the leak.

As he moved up through the intelligence hierarchy, Snowden became increasingly disturbed by the breadth and brashness of US surveillance programs. The Guardian reports that his post in Geneva in 2007 represented a critical turning point, at which he became “really disillusioned” about the way the US government functions. “I realized that I was part of something that was doing far more harm than good.” However, he stopped short of releasing classified information, both out of unease about disclosing information that could potentially harm individuals and from hope that the election of Barack Obama might reverse what he saw as the overreaching policies of US national security.

Eventually, Snowden felt that he could not remain silent. In a 12-minute interview with The Guardian in which he revealed his identity and motivations, Snowden explained that in intelligence positions with privileged access, “you’re exposed to a lot more information on a broader scale than the average employee. And because of that, you see things that may be disturbing…you recognize that some of these things are actually abuses. Over time that awareness of wrong-doing builds up and you feel compelled to talk about it.” According to Snowden, “these things need to be determined by the public, not by someone who was simply hired by the government.”

What was revealed?

The leaks came in two major waves. On Wednesday, The Guardian released the court order in which the communications provider Verizon was compelled to turn over the records of all landline and mobile telephone calls of its customers on an “ongoing, daily basis”. The order, signed in April by the notoriously accommodating secret FISA court overseeing domestic surveillance, gives the government access to this data for a three-month period ending in July. Government officials have countered that only metadata, such as the duration of a call or the phone numbers of Verizon customers, could be obtained and that the contents of conversations remain private. The actual content of the conversation, the U.S. intelligence community contends, remains unseen and unheard.

The public furor sparked by the leak advocates heightened only days later, as The Guardian released a PowerPoint presentation that confirmed that the NSA has direct access to the servers of Google, Facebook, Apple, Skype, and other online giants through a surveillance program called PRISM. PRISM allows NSA officials to collect a startling breadth of information, including email contents, photos, videos, file transfers, and social networking details, without a warrant. The presentation claims that the companies were aware of the program, but most have denied knowledge or declined comment.

Snowden differentiates himself from the whistleblower Bradley Manning, who faces trial this week for releasing hundred of thousands of pieces of classified information to the website WikiLeaks. “I carefully evaluated every single document I disclosed to ensure that each was legitimately in the public interest,” Snowden told The Guardian. “There are all sorts of documents that would have made a big impact that I didn’t turn over, because harming people isn’t my goal. Transparency is.” Indeed, most experts agree that the leaked documents lack the specificity to pose a national security risk as Manning’s WikiLeaks papers did.

What happens next?

In late May, Snowden notified his supervisor that he would be away for several weeks and boarded a plane for Hong Kong, leaving behind a $200,000 salary, a stable lifestyle, and his girlfriend and family. According to the Guardian reporter to whom he released the leaks, Snowden has taken measures to remain out of sight; intimately aware of the capabilities of the NSA, Snowden knows how easily he could be found. And he knows that the consequences could be dangerous: “I could be rendered by the CIA. I could have people come after me. Or any of the third-party partners. They work closely with a number of other nations. Or they could pay off the Triads. Any of their agents or assets,” he admitted in the Guardian interview. “That is a concern I will live with for the rest of my life, however long that happens to be.”

Hong Kong may not end up being the safest location for Snowden; a 16-year-old treaty guarantees extraditions between the United States and Hong except under extraordinary circumstances. Snowden stated that he choose Hong Kong for its “strong tradition of free speech”, but if the US Department of Justice decides to prosecute him, he suggests that he might seek safe haven in Iceland or another country with similarly secure internet and press freedoms. “My predisposition is to seek asylum in a country with shared values,” he explained.

Matters seem to be equally unsettled for the Obama administration. Both the National Security Agency and Department of Justice have all declined comment, and President Obama’s statements have struck many as ineffectual. In his first public response to the week’s surveillance disclosures, the President asserted that congressional oversight prevents abuses of information-gathering capacities enjoyed by the intelligence community. However, Snowden has flatly denied the efficacy of such oversight: “The government has granted itself power it is not entitled to. There is no public oversight. The result is people like myself have the latitude to go further than they are allowed to,” he told The Guardian.

The Verizon court order has incited a particularly vehement response, as it is unusually broad. FISA court orders typically target individuals identified as being affiliated with terrorism, but this order gives the government access to information about a huge swath of Americans, most of whom are not suspected of having any connection to national security concerns. The court order also sheds light on comments made in recent years by senators about the “secret legal interpretations” made by the Obama administration. Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Mark Udall (D-CO) have emerged as particularly vehement critics of the growth of the intelligence network under the President. Claims such as “there is now a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows,” have been given new credence by the exposure of the Verizon order and the PRISM program.


With light shed on the capabilities and actions of the intelligence community, the Obama administration may have no choice but to scale back. Legal though their interpretations may be, they constitute invasions of privacy for most Americans. Furthermore, in exposing the public to the measures taken by the intelligence community, Snowden has helped inform the debate on balancing national security and civil liberties. In an interview with Sky News, Truman National Security Project President Rachel Kleinfeld calls Snowden “quite a brave whistleblower”. Although his actions may be illegal, she explains, “there are higher reasons for what he has done and one is making sure that as a democracy, we are open about the laws that we write, and that we have national security in the long run.”

Snowden takes solace in the surge of outrage that has ensued. Although he may face extradition, a lengthy trial, and prison, he expresses hope that “no matter what happens to me, the outcome will be positive for America. I do not expect to see home again.”

Shana Mansbach is a Contributing Writer to the Truman Doctrine.