Edward Snowden will soon have an anniversary to mark in Russia.
It’s been nearly a year since the Guardian published its first article, on June 5th, based on Snowden’s leaks of top-secret NSA documents to journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras. It revealed a top-secret court order that forced Verizon to hand over millions of Americans’ phone metadata and created a public outcry. Days later, veteran security affairs journalist Ewen MacAskill traveled with Greenwald and Poitras to a Hong Kong hotel room to conduct the Guardian video interview that made Snowden a household name.
Fusion’s Jorge Ramos talked to Greenwald, MacAskill, and other key players in the Snowden saga about the man and the story behind one of the largest leaks of classified information in modern American history.
The arc of Snowden’s shift from geeky Maryland high-school dropout to NSA whistleblower is well-traced now by the Guardian, Baltimore Sun, and others. He was hired by the CIA as a computer engineer in 2006 as the agency continued to devour tech-savvy recruits as part of its post-9/11 buildup.
“9/11 gives an enormous impetus inside the government to collect everything there is on the basis of stopping a future terrorist attack, and that justification is all consuming within the government,” Guardian reporter Spencer Ackerman said. Snowden followed a patriotic urge to join the CIA, but he soon became disillusioned with operations from the inside and left in 2009.
Snowden landed at the NSA as a contract employee. He began planning to leave his job, his girlfriend, and his life in Hawaii with thousands of secret U.S. government documents. In late 2012 and early 2013, he began contacting journalists for help.
He targeted Barton Gellman at the Washington Post in addition to the Guardian journalists. Gellman’s stories from Snowden’s leaks would unveil the “black budget” of the U.S. intelligence community and the PRISM program that directly mined the servers of major U.S. internet companies. “The first time I had any interaction with him was indirectly in February of last year,” Gellman said. “I would ask questions to try to test, who is this guy?”
Gellman didn’t meet Snowden in person until he became the first journalist to interview him after he fled to Moscow. The Guardian’s Hong Kong interview left MacAskill in similar disbelief. “When I saw him in the hotel room in Hong Kong I was totally gobsmacked,” he said. “He looked about 22 or 23. The idea that someone of that age could have done all the things that he was claiming to be.”
Snowden was just getting started. His documents eventually revealed how the U.S. monitors the European Union, the UN, presidents of U.S. allies like Brazil and Germany, and vast amounts of network and telephone data from countries around the world. The leaks also showed how the NSA worked to create backdooraccess to U.S. internet communications and search its databases without a warrant.
Snowden has since been dubbed one of TIME’s 100 most influential people. He also received an outpouring of public support, especially among young people, who continue to back his actions. Oliver Stone is reportedly set to turn the Snowden saga into a thriller.
The administration has not softened its tone.
“I am, first of all, outraged that there are individuals who decided to take upon themselves to reveal some of the very, very important capabilities that this country has in place,” CIA Director John Brennan said.
Greenwald continues to work with Snowden and report on the information he provides, and is planning a new book.
“There are lots of senior officials in the Obama administration who have been very explicit about the fact that they think what I’ve done is criminal,” he said.
President Obama said that he would “welcome this debate” soon after the Snowden reports began. That debate rages on.
A special edition of AMERICA: Agents of Change, premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on Fusion.