He spilled some of the most tightly held security secrets in U.S. history, and then fled to Russia, where he remains a fugitive. His disclosures about the breadth and depth of the Obama administration’s high-tech spying—not only against suspected terrorists, but its own citizens, and even close allies around the globe—have led to a continuous drip of embarrassing diplomatic incidents abroad and outrage at home. Edward Snowden, a lanky 30-year-old computer systems administrator, appalled by the sweeping surveillance of phone calls and Internet activities he witnessed as a contractor for the National Security Agency, downloaded tens of thousands of internal NSA documents and became a whistleblower on an epic scale.
And it’s not over yet.
The first leak, published by the Guardian newspaper in June, showed that the U.S. government was systematically collecting records of all Americans’ phone calls—not just those suspected of a crime. A day later, another leak published almost simultaneously in the Washington Post and the Guardian, revealed a secret NSA program called PRISM that allowed the U.S. government to collect emails and other communications from Gmail, Yahoo!, Hotmail and other major American-based cloud providers. The next day saw the publication of another top-secret document in which President Barack Obama laid out the country’s cyberwarfare policies, including targets to strike abroad if he gave the order. It was clear that someone with high-level access to a trove of America’s most sensitive secrets had decided to do something extraordinary.
The disclosures would continue throughout the summer and into the fall. But the anonymity of the source was soon lifted. In a video interview conducted by Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald and filmed by the independent documentarian Laura Poitras, Snowden revealed himself as the person who had flung the NSA’s secrets into the world. A one-time Obama supporter who had grown disillusioned with the President’s policies, he was waging his exposure campaign from a hotel room in Hong Kong. The U.S. promptly revoked his passport, and he flew to Moscow where he remained in legal limbo at the airport for weeks until he was granted temporary asylum on the condition, imposed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, that he do no more harm to the United States. By then, however, he had already handed over huge archives of documents to Greenwald, Poitras and the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman, who have been dripping them out and show no signs of being finished.
Snowden has been praised as a whistleblower and patriot, and condemned as a traitor. His disclosures sparked a debate over privacy and transparency in the U.S. and revealed hitherto unpublicized interpretations of the PATRIOT Act. The outcry that accompanied his leaks led to bipartisan calls for reforms to the surveillance practices that had grown since 9/11, with some demanding investigations in the style of the Church committee that followed the Watergate scandal and led to extensive reining in of intelligence services. His leaks also fuelled a debate over whether the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court put in place to oversee surveillance requests had become little more than a rubber stamp. President Obama responded defensively, calling some of the reporting about the documents misleading and convening a commission to examine whether the administration can better balance national security and civil liberties in its data-gathering activities. Meanwhile, Congress is weighing legislative proposals to curtail some of the NSA’s activities, at least on American soil.
The leaks had repercussions beyond Washington. The disclosures put a spotlight on co-operation by firms that provide Internet communications services to the world and led to a diplomatic row with Europe over wiretapping abroad, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone. The leaks set off a national and global debate about the voracious American national surveillance state—along with its “five eyes” partners of Canada, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand—and the ethos that if the U.S. has the technical capability to spy, at least abroad, it will do so. The issue remains whether the rules of spying have changed or should change with the amazing growth of computing and surveillance power.
The initial months of Snowden’s drama played out against the backdrop of the trial of the other mass leaker, Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Private Bradley Manning, who was convicted of violating the Espionage Act and sentenced in August to serve 35 years in a U.S. prison. So far, Snowden has remained free —though undoubtedly he remains closely watched by Russian security services. But he, too, has been indicted for violating the Espionage Act. Snowden’s personal saga is not over yet. And the recipients of his leaks have promised there are still more leaks to come.