Who is Edward Snowden and What Did He Do?

Some information for students (from a fellow student) to keep you up to date with this complicated current affair.

There’s been a lot of talk going around about Edward Snowden and his disclosure of NSA information, but with the amount of commentary in the media, it’s difficult to figure out even some basic information. The purpose of this post is to answer some of the basic questions revolving around Snowden and the NSA.

Who is Edward Snowden?

Born on June 21, 1983 in Wilmington, North Carolina, Edward Joseph Snowden is soon to be thirty years old. He studied computing at Anne Arundel Community College, but illness left him unable to complete his coursework, leaving him without a high school diploma until the later completion of his GED. In 2011, he participated in an online program, working towards a Masters Degree with the University of Liverpool. Seven years earlier, in 2004, Snowden had enlisted in the US Army as a Special Forces recruit, but according to his own reports, was discharged four months later after breaking both his legs in a training accident.


Snowden during an interview with Poitras and Greenwald.

Snowden’s former positions include (in the order he held them):

·      Working for the NSA, he was a security guard for the Center for the Advanced Study of Language, a covert center.

·      He worked for the CIA in IT Security.

·      According to his own reports, the CIA placed Snowden in Geneva under diplomatic cover in 2007, where he oversaw network security.

·      He reports leaving the CIA to work for a private contractor inside a US military base in Japan for the NSA.

·      Until recently, Snowden held a position as a system administrator inside the NSA for consulting company Booz Allen Hamilton in Hawaii. He held this position for under three months and was fired on June 10th after his media disclosures.

What did Snowden disclose?

Through the disclosure of documents and an arranged meeting in Hong Kong with reporter Glen Greenwald, of The Guardian, and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, Snowden revealed the following pieces of information:

1.     A top secret order of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) that called for Verizon Communications to provide metadata (i.e. general data) for all telephone calls in the United States, including both local calls and calls made to other countries. This was released by The Guardian on June 5th.

2.     Information about the NSA’s secret electronic surveillance program, PRISM, which is said to allow the NSA to access Internet traffic, including e-mail and web searches, in real-time. Both The Guardian and The Washington Post published this information on June 6th.

3.     The existence of the Boundless Informant system, which, according to The Guardian, “details and even maps by country the voluminous amount of information [the NSA] collects from computer and telephone networks.” The Guardian reported on Boundless Informant on June 9th.

4.     Since 2009, the NSA has been hacking into computers in both China and Hong Kong. South China Morning Post published on this the morning of June 12th.


The NSA’s Prism program collects domestic internet data.

5.     A British Intelligence Agency named the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) had intercepted communications from foreign politicians at the 2009 G-20 London Summit, an important discussion of financial markets and the world economy that took place in London in April of that year. This was circulated by The Guardian on June 17th.

Why are the disclosed intelligence gathering practices an issue?

There are several issues with the intelligence gathering practices employed by the NSA. First, the NSA is in charge of foreign intelligence. By law, it is not allowed to gather domestic information; domestic information gathering is the realm of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Moreover, the NSA has widely violated the Fourth Amendment by collecting information about individuals that is unlawful to access without a warrant. Finally, many have criticized the lack of transparency surrounding this issue. In an interview with The Guardian, Snowden expressed his belief that the NSA’s actions present a threat to the United States’ democracy:

“I think that the public is owed an explanation of the motivations behind the people who make these disclosures that are outside of the democratic model. When you are subverting the power of government, that’s a fundamentally dangerous thing to democracy.” (Snowden)

He went on to express his interest in the country’s constitutional well-being, explaining to Greenwald that he is “no different from anybody else” in that he has no malintent for the country. “The public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong, and I’m willing to go on the record to defend the authenticity of them,” Snowden added. “This is the truth. This is what’s happening. You should decide whether we need to be doing this.”

What action can I take?

If you want Snowden prosecuted, sit tight. The government is working on that as we speak. Though the NSA’s actions are considered unconstitutional by some, Snowden did technically break the law, so he is at risk of being prosecuted – and he is currently seeking asylum with the help of Julian Assange’s lawyers (Assange is the founder of WikiLeaks).

If you would like to support Snowden you can…

·      Sign the WhiteHouse.gov petition to pardon Edward Snowden (below):


·      Donate to the Progressive Change Campaign Committee’s fund for Snowden’s legal defense (below):


For further reading on Snowden, visit the links below:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Snowden#Career – More details about Snowden’s background and actions

www.buzzfeed.com/rosiegray/julian-assange-were-helping-to-broker-edwards-snowdens-asylu – Assange’s lawyers help Snowden seek asylum

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/06/why-should-we-even-care-if-the-government-is-collecting-our-data/276732/  – Why Kafka is a better author than Orwell to describe the NSA’s actions

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Security_Agency – What is the NSA and what is its job?

http://www.dailykos.com/story/2013/06/16/1216554/-NEW-BREAKING-NSA-Illegal-Unconstitutional-Collection-of-Innocent-American-s-Complete-Digital-Data       – Opinion piece on the NSA’s actions

http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2013/03/tomasi-part-iii/ – A blog post by Georgetown University professor Jason Brennan on ideal theory, constitutions, and social justice.


I had previously written that the NSA’s actions were unconstitutional. This was incorrect. While the NSA has gathered information about individuals without warrants, this information has, to my knowledge, been in the form of metadata, which – according to Huffington Post contributor Bob Cesca’s post in The Daily Banter – is encrypted and only decrypted when a warrant has been obtained. Cesca cites this as the reason for which the NSA’s actions have not been found unconstitutional.

Furthermore, I would like to note that according to Michael Cohen, of The Guardian, Snowden had access to several different avenues through which he could have voiced complaints about the NSA’s actions. I find Cohen’s points on this matter compelling, and I believe they shed new light on the issue of Snowden’s prosecution. I also find his points about counter-terrorism persuasive and important.

Finally, I find it important to mention that while many have criticized a lack of transparency surrounding the NSA, the law which allows the NSA to collect intelligence in the way it has (which can be found in a link below) requires semi-annual reports to Congress. Furthermore, this law was passed by congressional bodies, so it does not represent a circumvention of the democratic process, as I had previously stated.

Cohen’s article can be found here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jun/21/obama-national-security-state-rogue?INTCMP=SRCH

Cesca’s article can be found here: http://thedailybanter.com/2013/06/greenwald-debunks-himself-nsa-targeting-of-a-u-s-citizen-requires-a-warrant/

Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 Amendments Act of 2008: http://www.intelligence.senate.gov/laws/pl110261.pdf

Again, I apologize for the inaccuracy.

Works Cited:Cesca, Bob. “Greenwald Debunks Himself, NSA Targeting of a US Citizen Requires a Warrant.” TheDailyBanter.com. http://thedailybanter.com/2013/06/greenwald-debunks-himself-nsa-targeting-of-a-u-s-citizen-requires-a-warrant/. (accessed June 25, 2013).

Cohen, Michael. “Is Obama presiding over a national security state gone wrong?” TheGuardian.com. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jun/21/obama-national-security-state-rogue?INTCMP=SRCH. (accessed June 25, 2013).

Radack, Jesselyn. “NEW BREAKING NSA: Illegal, Unconstitutional Collection of Innocent Americans’ Complete Digital Data.” DailyKos.com. http://www.dailykos.com/story/2013/06/16/1216554/-NEW-BREAKING-NSA-Illegal-Unconstitutional-Collection-of-Innocent-American-s-Complete-Digital-Data. (accessed June 18, 2013).

Snowden, Edward. Interview with Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald. The Guardian. 9 June 2013. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/video/2013/jun/09/nsa-whistleblower-edward-snowden-interview-video.

Wikipedia, s.v. “National Security Agency,” accessed June 18, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Security_Agency.

Wikipedia, s.v. “Edward Snowden,” accessed June 18, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Snowden#Career.