Like Bradley Manning, whose case he would later study, Snowden had an idealized view of the United States and its role in the world. He also had a gamer's sense of his own ability to beat the odds – he'd later tell Greenwald that his moral outlook had been shaped by the video games he played as a kid, in which an everyman-type battles tremendous and seemingly invulnerable forces of injustice, and prevails. Following that ethos, and deeply affected by 9/11, Snowden enlisted in the Army in 2004, hoping to join the Special Forces and fight in Iraq. "I believed in the goodness of what we were doing," he said. "I believed in the nobility of our intentions to free oppressed people overseas." But he was quickly disabused of this idea – "Most of the people training us seemed pumped up about killing Arabs, not helping anyone," he said – and months into his Special Forces training course at Fort Benning, Snowden later said, he broke both his legs and was discharged.
Back in Maryland, Snowden got a job as a security guard at the University of Maryland's Center for Advanced Study of Language, a Defense Department-funded facility he would later describe as "covert," though as The Washington Post pointed out, "its website includes driving directions." He also re-enrolled at Anne Arundel Community College and burnished his computer skills. Then, in 2006, he landed a job as a computer technician with the CIA.
The CIA, with its air of entitlement and mystery, is the most elitist of U.S. government agencies. But the beauty of the IT sector, no matter where you were, as Snowden said, was its egalitarianism. "Nobody gives a shit what school you go to . . . I don't even have a high school diploma," he wrote in 2006. "That said, I have $0 in debt from student loans, I make $70k, I just had to turn down offers for $83k and $180k. . . . Employers fight over me. And I'm 22."
In 2007, he was posted to the CIA station in Geneva. Mavanee Anderson, a young legal intern also stationed in Geneva, befriended Snowden and recalled him as thoughtful but insecure. "He talked a great deal about the fact that he didn't complete high school," Anderson later wrote in an op-ed for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "But he is an IT whiz – I've always taken it for granted that he's an IT genius, actually."
Snowden came to be bothered by much of what he saw in the CIA. He would later cite an operation to recruit a Swiss banker as an asset that involved getting the man arrested on drunk-driving charges. He also recalled, in an interview with The New York Times' Risen, the retaliation from a senior manager whose authority he'd once questioned. The incident arose over a flaw Snowden found in some CIA software, which he pointed out to his superiors. Rather than praising his initiative, however, one manager, who didn't appreciate such enterprising behavior, placed a critical note in his personnel file, effectively killing Snowden's chance for promotion. He eventually left the agency, "experiencing a crisis of conscience of sorts," as Anderson remembered. But Snowden also learned a valuable lesson: "Trying to work through the system," he told Risen, would "only lead to punishment."
As Snowden was navigating the intricacies of the U.S.-intelligence world, Greenwald continued to rail against the Bush administration and its policies, while also taking aim at the Democratic Congress for refusing to end the war in Iraq. In speaking engagements, and increasingly on television, he prosecuted his strategy to subvert the status quo by donning a suit and, in perfect and impossible-to-argue-against rhetoric, spouted the sort of radical ideology – pointing out the causal chain between U.S. foreign policy and terrorism – that would have landed anyone else in talk-show purgatory. Greenwald, though, became a regular guest on MSNBC.
"You have to learn the game," he says. "I put on a suit. I speak in sound bites. I know what I'm talking about – and I don't drone on and on. One of the main criticisms I have of Noam Chomsky is that he allowed himself to get marginalized by not ever strategizing how to prevent it. If you're an advocate and believe in political values, your obligation is to figure out how to maximize your impact. Basically, my strategy has been, 'I'm going to barge into every fucking place I can get and make my own access.'"
After Obama was elected, Greenwald alienated many of his former liberal allies by vowing to be as hard on the new president as he'd been on his predecessor. He was particularly critical of Obama's "Look forward, not backward" mandate, which effectively immunized officials who'd committed felonies during the Bush years, even as the Justice Department began to zealously prosecute its own "war" on national-security whistle-blowers.
This "two-tiered justice system," as Greenwald put it, was striking in the case of a former NSA official named Thomas Drake, whom Greenwald wrote about in 2010. Drake is famous in whistle-blowing circles for providing information to Congress about post-9/11 surveillance programs and disclosing information about mismanagement within the NSA including a costly, and failed, project, known as Trailblazer, to The Baltimore Sun. In 2010, he was indicted under the 1917 Espionage Act for mishandling classified material, though the government's case against him ultimately fell apart. Nonetheless, the investigation cost him his job, drained his savings and ruined his reputation. Today he works at the Apple Store in Bethesda, Maryland. To Greenwald, and to Snowden, Drake would be a cautionary tale of what happens to dissenters who try to work within the system.
Drake, whom I meet in his lawyer's office in Washington, is a tall, intense man with the earnest-yet-cynical bearing of a disillusioned Boy Scout. A former Navy intelligence officer, Drake spent 12 years in the private sector as a contractor, working as a systems software test engineer, among other positions. In 2001, he was hired by the NSA and assigned to its Signals Intelligence Directorate as part of an effort initiated by new NSA director Gen. Michael Hayden, to "stir up the gene pool," as Drake puts it, and overhaul the agency, a Cold War institution, for the 21st century.
Though the NSA had once led the world in areas like cryptology and electronic eavesdropping, after the fall of the Soviet Union it was underfunded and without a clear mission. Its calcified management failed to anticipate the advances in fiber optics and cellular technology that would revolutionize the rest of the world, leaving the agency "on the verge of going deaf, dumb and blind," according to NSA historian Matthew Aid. And it thoroughly failed to understand the importance of the Internet, says Drake. "The attitude was, nothing worth knowing is on the Internet, because it was open, right? They only wanted to know things that were closed."
September 11th, which also happened to be Drake's first day at Fort Meade, changed the equation. Drake explains the shift in two ways: The first was a massive expansion of U.S. spying capabilities as the agency "unchained itself from the Constitution," and began to spy on Americans and foreign citizens, at home and abroad. The other change, felt across the entire intelligence community, was a rapid expansion of the NSA itself.
"Massive amounts of money were pumped into the NSA after 9/11, and Congress was saying, 'How big do you want the check?'" says Drake. With virtually every agency involved in tracking terrorists clamoring for its SIGINT, or signals intelligence, the NSA expanded its outposts in Texas, Georgia, Hawaii, Colorado and Utah, as well as listening posts abroad, and also went on a building spree at Fort Meade, where the NSA's sprawling 5,000-acre campus is now almost 10 times the size of the Pentagon. By 2013, according to The Washington Post, the NSA had expanded its workforce by one-third, to about 33,000. The number of private companies it depended upon more than tripled during that time.
Soon, thanks to this influx of money and the increasing reliance on the private sector to handle even sensitive jobs, the very heart of America's intelligence infrastructure was being outsourced to contractors. "Essentially, 9/11 was a massive jobs program, in which the ticket you needed for the party was your clearance," says Drake. "And tons of people were getting those clearances. So you had this huge apparatus being built, and the government was just managing it. And in some cases, they weren't even doing that."
Snowden, who left the CIA in 2009, was a natural fit for the NSA, which embraced the kind of problem-solving initiative his CIA bosses seemed to resent. "The NSA was very blue-collar, much more utilitarian than the CIA," says Drake. "If you could prove your chops with computers, it didn't matter what your background was, or what your grades were. We had a lot of people like Snowden at the NSA, who I hired. And there was no limit on the contracting side."
Snowden was initially hired as a contractor for Dell, which had large contracts to maintain the NSA's internal IT networks. He would also work for the megacontractor Booz Allen Hamilton, who last year earned $5.76 billion almost solely from government contracts, and is considered to be involved in virtually every aspect of intelligence and surveillance.
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