Nation & World

Image of NSA leaker Edward Snowden evolves with each revelation

More than three weeks since his revelations about U.S. spying sent ripples around the world, a more nuanced portrait is emerging of Edward Snowden, the former CIA contractor who initially was viewed in extremes – either a hero in the fight against government secrecy or a traitor who jeopardized national security.

Even as Snowden is stuck in the transit lounge of a Moscow airport, his public image is constantly evolving, through the publication of his Internet chat logs, statements from his father, live online conversations and an interview he gave to a Chinese newspaper.

Snowden undoubtedly remains a polarizing figure, but both his supporters and detractors have received some curveballs as details of his life are revealed and in many ways eclipse the trove of government secrets he risked everything to expose.

“It’s been interesting to see this story evolve. At every step, it’s been a surprise,” said Steven Aftergood, the director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists. “The scope of the initial disclosures was a surprise. And the fact that he was a critic of unauthorized disclosures as recently as a few years ago was an interesting revelation because it indicates how his own thinking on this has changed.”

With many thousands of words written about Snowden from all over the world, it’s difficult to keep up with his own ever-changing story, much less keep track of his piecemeal disclosures of a sweeping U.S. surveillance program.

Here are some unexpected turns in the case:

Snowden once opposed exposing government secrets.

In January 2009, Snowden was unrecognizable from his image today of a self-proclaimed crusader against government secrecy and widespread surveillance. The technology news website Ars Technica unearthed old Internet chat logs that quoted Snowden as saying that leakers of government secrets “should be shot in the balls.” Purportedly writing under the handle TheTrueHOOHA, a moniker he’d used elsewhere, Snowden told other users that sensitive information dealing with Iran’s nuclear program “is classified for a reason. It’s not because ‘Oh, we hope our citizens don’t find out.’ It’s because ‘This s--- won’t work if Iran knows what we’re doing.’”

Snowden wasn’t always an admirer of WikiLeaks.

Also in the chat logs made public by Ars Technica, Snowden refers derisively to WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy activist group that announced last week that it was advising Snowden and had paid some of his travel and lodging expenses since he went on the lam. Snowden was more disdainful in 2009, writing under his chat handle that it was irresponsible for The New York Times to have covered secret U.S.-Israeli negotiations: “Are they TRYING to start a war? Jesus Christ. They’re like WikiLeaks.”

The word “whistleblower” might not apply to Snowden.

While pro-transparency activists were quick to bestow Snowden with the title of “whistleblower,” that might be a stretch given some of his admissions to a Chinese newspaper. While in transit in Hong Kong, Snowden told the South China Morning Post, an English-language publication, that he’d staked out a job as a contractor at the firm of Booz Allen Hamilton in order to gain “access to lists of machines all over the world the NSA hacked,” the Morning Post quoted him as saying. The interview, said Aftergood of the Project on Government Secrecy, “did not strengthen his case. It made him look devious and calculating rather than conscience-driven.”

Many pundits have compared the Snowden case to that of Bradley Manning, a U.S. soldier who’s standing trial on charges that he passed huge amounts of classified material to WikiLeaks.

Now that Snowden’s evolution in thinking is becoming more focused, Aftergood said, there’s a more apt comparison: Daniel Ellsberg, the former military analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers, the classified Pentagon review of U.S. decision-making in the Vietnam War. Before Ellsberg’s then-groundbreaking revelations, Aftergood said, he’d been a confidant of Henry Kissinger’s and “a believer in the government’s position.”

Decades later, the 82-year-old Ellsberg is a staunch supporter of 30-year-old Snowden. He wrote in an editorial that Snowden “did what he did because he recognized the NSA’s surveillance programs for what they are: dangerous, unconstitutional activity.”

Aftergood said there were still gaps in the public understanding of when and how Snowden’s stance on government secrecy changed, and he fears that the focus on the enigmatic young leaker is getting in the way of a national debate on the runaway powers of government to spy on virtually anyone and anything in the world.

“It’s an extraordinary human drama, but it shouldn’t make us lose sight of the revelations,” Aftergood said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story contained a misspelling of Snowden's name.

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