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Who Is Edward Snowden, The Self-Styled NSA Leaker?

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Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old former CIA technical assistant who has stepped forward to say he's the source of explosive leaks about government surveillance programs was among "thousands upon thousands" of such analysts hired to manage and sift through "huge amounts of data," NPR's Tom Gjelten said Monday on Morning Edition.

He's "what we'd normally call a geek," Tom added.

Indeed, The Guardian on Monday shares more about the young man who it says was behind last week's leaks concerning National Security Agency programs that sweep up data on phone calls and Internet activity. It paints a portrait of a mediocre student with a GED degree who joined the Army in 2003, but was discharged after breaking his legs in a training accident. Snowden says he later wound up working with the CIA and then a contractor because he's skilled at computer programming.

According to the Guardian, "by 2007, the CIA stationed him with diplomatic cover in Geneva, Switzerland. His responsibility for maintaining computer network security meant he had clearance to access a wide array of classified documents."

The Washington Post, which along with the Guardian published a report last week based on documents allegedly leaked by Snowden, adds that:

"With wire glasses, short, dark hair and a thin goatee, he maintains an academic look. Yet he never completed his coursework at a community college in Maryland, only later obtaining his GED — an unusually light education for someone who would advance in the intelligence ranks.

"For the past several months, Snowden was stationed in Hawaii, working as an NSA contractor for the firm Booz Allen Hamilton. It was there, at the NSA offices, he told the Guardian newspaper, that he copied the last set of documents he intended to disclose, told his NSA supervisors he needed time off for treatment for epilepsy, and boarded a flight to Hong Kong."

In Hong Kong, Snowden is now very publicly trying to avoid being sent back to the U.S., where he would almost surely be prosecuted. (For more on why many legal experts say Snowden made a poor choice when he fled to Hong Kong, see this Morning Edition report from NPR's Frank Langfitt.)

As for Snowden's motivation, the Guardian writes that:

"For him, it is a matter of principle. 'The government has granted itself power it is not entitled to. There is no public oversight. The result is people like myself have the latitude to go further than they are allowed to,' he said.

"His allegiance to internet freedom is reflected in the stickers on his laptop: 'I support Online Rights: Electronic Frontier Foundation,' reads one. Another hails the online organisation offering anonymity, the Tor Project."

It is not clear, though, how much — if any — of an effect on national security his revelations may have.

While federal officials have condemned what Snowden says he did, "the general contours of these surveillance programs was already known," NPR's Gjelten said on Morning Edition.

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