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Who Is Edward Snowden, the Man Who Spilled the NSA's Secrets?

A primer on the life and impact of the former NSA contractor who leaked classified documents before fleeing to Russia.
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Few have vaulted from anonymity to the front pages more spectacularly than Edward Snowden, the former government contractor who revealed secrets from the National Security Agency's spying program.

NBC News will devote an hour of primetime on Wednesday to the first American television interview with Snowden, who disclosed secrets from the National Security Agency. Brian Williams, the anchor and managing editor of "NBC Nightly News," traveled to Moscow last week for an exclusive, wide-ranging interview with Snowden. The interview airs Wednesday at 10 p.m. Eastern/9 p.m. Central.

While some call Snowden a traitor who disclosed American secrets, others call him a patriot who exposed violations of the constitution.

Although his intense gaze and stubbled chin became the face of an international debate over privacy and security, many questions remain about his motivations, the exact extent of his removal of documents, and his future.

The impact of Snowden's disclosures, however, is already widespread. President Barack Obama appointed a review panel that criticized the NSA's domestic data collection. Obama recommended in March that the NSA end the warrantless collection in bulk of metadata on Americans, which can show the most intimate details of an individual's life and the patterns of movement and communication of millions. And the House recently passed a bill to end that bulk metadata collection.

Here, in anticipation of Wednesday's special report, is a primer on Snowden's life, his actions, and his impact.

What did he disclose?

Snowden is a former systems administrator for the CIA who later went to work for the private intelligence contractor Dell, first inside a National Security Agency outpost in Japan and then inside an NSA station in Hawaii. In early 2013, he went to work for contractor Booz Allen Hamilton inside the same NSA center in Hawaii.

While working for the contractors, at some point Snowden began downloading secret documents related to U.S. intelligence activities and partnerships with foreign allies, including some that revealed the extent of data collection from U.S. telephone records and Internet activity.

What are the key disclosures?

Among the revelations are the NSA’s bulk collection of phone and internet metadata from U.S. users, spying on the personal communications of foreign leaders including U.S. allies, and the NSA’s ability to tap undersea fiber optic cables and siphon off data.

Based on the Snowden documents, NBC News reported on Jan. 27 that British cyber spies demonstrated a pilot program to their U.S. partners in 2012 in which they were able to monitor YouTube in real time and collect addresses from the billions of videos watched daily, as well as some user information, for analysis. At the time the documents were printed, they were also able to spy on Facebook and Twitter.

NBC News also reported on Feb. 7, based on the documents, that British spies have developed “dirty tricks” for use against nations, hackers, terror groups, suspected criminals and arms dealers that include releasing computer viruses, spying on journalists and diplomats, jamming phones and computers, and using sex to lure targets into “honey traps.” According to the documents, which come from presentations prepped in 2010 and 2012 for NSA cyber spy conferences, the agency’s goal was to “destroy, deny, degrade [and] disrupt” enemies by “discrediting” them, planting misinformation and shutting down their communications.

What is his background?

Snowden, now 30, was born June 21, 1983, in Elizabeth City, N.C., where he lived with his parents, Lonnie, a Coast Guard officer, and Elizabeth, known as Wendy. The family moved to Maryland in the early 1990s, while he was still in grade school, and his parents divorced. He lived outside Baltimore with his mother, a federal court employee.

Snowden was, by his own admission, not a stellar student. He dropped out of high school in his sophomore year. But by that time, he had developed a fascination with computers and technology and was able to develop considerable skills on his own, and via friends and online forums. After attending a community college off and on, he passed a General Educational Development test in the early 2000s, receiving a high school equivalency credential.

He enlisted in an Army Reserve Special Forces training program in 2004 with the intention of fighting in Iraq to “fight to help free people from oppression,” he later told Britain’s Guardian newspaper. But he said he broke his legs in a training accident, and Army records show he was discharged after just four months.

He also worked briefly as a security guard before beginning his intelligence work in 2006, when he was hired by the CIA as a computer systems administrator.

How did Snowden gain access to top-secret documents?

Despite being a high-school dropout who eventually received a GED equivalency credential, Snowden was granted top-secret clearance when he was hired by the CIA.

He maintained that clearance during subsequent jobs with CIA and NSA contractors Dell and Booz Allen Hamilton.

Removing the documents was not complicated for someone with his access and expertise, NBC News reported in August. When Snowden stole the crown jewels of the National Security Agency, he didn’t need to use any sophisticated devices or software or go around any computer firewall. All he needed, said multiple intelligence community sources, was a few thumb drives and the willingness to exploit a gaping hole in an antiquated security system to rummage at will through the NSA’s servers and take 20,000 documents without leaving a trace. “It’s 2013 and the NSA is stuck in 2003 technology,” said an intelligence official.

NBC also reported in August that intelligence sources said Snowden accessed some of the secret documents by assuming the electronic identities of top NSA officials. “Every day, they are learning how brilliant [Snowden] was,” said a former U.S. official with knowledge of the case. “This is why you don’t hire brilliant people for jobs like this. You hire smart people. Brilliant people get you in trouble.”

Whom did he give the documents to?

In late 2012, Snowden began to reach out to journalists, and in 2013 he leaked documents to Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian, Barton Gellman of The Washington Post, and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras.

The Pulitzer Prize board in April awarded its highest honor, the medal for public service, to The Washington Post and The Guardian for their articles based on the documents provided by Snowden. The award echoed the Pulitzer given in 1972 to The New York Times for its reports on the Pentagon Papers, the secret history of the Vietnam War.

The executive editor of The Washington Post, Martin Baron, said when the Pulitzers were announced, "“Disclosing the massive expansion of the NSA’s surveillance network absolutely was a public service. In constructing a surveillance system of breathtaking scope and intrusiveness, our government also sharply eroded individual privacy. All of this was done in secret, without public debate, and with clear weaknesses in oversight."

Without the disclosures, Baron said, "we never would have known how far this country had shifted away from the rights of the individual in favor of state power. There would have been no public debate about the proper balance between privacy and national security. As even the president has acknowledged, this is a conversation we need to have.”

Congressman Peter King (R-N.Y.) tweeted that "awarding the Pulitzer to Snowden enablers is a disgrace."

How much information did he take?

Government officials initially said that it could be up to 200,000 classified NSA documents, and later gave the estimate of 1.7 million. Officials, including NSA Director Keith Alexander, have assured the public that the government knows the scope of the leak.

But Snowden has not said how many documents he took, and NBC News reported in August that officials say the NSA has been unable to determine how many documents he took and what they are.

What was in the documents?

Among the revelations from documents in the Snowden trove are the NSA’s bulk collection of phone and Internet metadata from U.S. users; NSA spying on the personal communications of foreign leaders, including U.S. allies; and the NSA’s ability to tap undersea fiber optic cables and siphon off data.

Did anyone suspect he was taking documents?

Snowden’s CIA supervisor at the CIA during his assignment in Geneva placed a critical assessment of his behavior and work habits in his personnel file and voiced the suspicion that he had tried to “break into classified computer files to which he was not authorized to have access,” the New York Times reported after he was identified as the leaker.

“The supervisor’s cautionary note and the CIA’s suspicions apparently were not forwarded to the NSA or its contractors, and surfaced only after federal investigators began scrutinizing Mr. Snowden’s record once the documents began spilling out,” the newspaper reported, citing unidentified intelligence and law enforcement officials.

And the Wall Street Journal reported in August 2013 that a federal review of his employment at the CIA and the intelligence contractors found the final security check that Snowden underwent in 2011 was inadequate. Investigators “failed to verify Mr. Snowden's account of a past security violation and his work for the CIA, … didn't thoroughly probe an apparent trip to India that he had failed to report, and they didn't get significant information from anyone who knew him beyond his mother and girlfriend,” it said.

Separately, the U.S. Department of Justice has joined a whisteblower’s lawsuit against USIS, the company that vetted Snowden, alleging the company faked 665,000 background checks it conducted for the Office of Personnel Management. It is not clear whether Snowden’s check was among those that, according to the criminal complaint, were fraudulently classified as “complete.” (The case is still pending. The company told NBC News in January that "a small group of individuals" was responsible for the bogus checks and a source said they had been “terminated.”)

What is he charged with?

In a criminal complaint unsealed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia on June 21, 2013, the U.S. Justice Department charged Snowden with theft, “unauthorized communication of national defense information” and “willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person.” The latter two charges are violations of the 1917 Espionage Act.

Each of the three charges carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years, for a total of 30 years. Additional counts could be added.

Snowden has retained a prominent Washington attorney who has represented several clients charged with violating the Espionage Act, reportedly in hopes of negotiating a plea deal.

Why did he do it?

Snowden has said in interviews that he acted out of the belief that the spying program was illegal and immoral.

"My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them," he told The Guardian in his first interview.

Snowden also has said he didn’t trust the Obama administration, having seen it prosecute whistleblowers at an unprecedented rate.

Did he have foreign help?

Snowden has denied suggestions that he worked with or for foreign governments. NBC reported in January that law enforcement officials have not found any evidence that Snowden was working for Russia as a spy.

What damage did Snowden’s leaks do to the U.S.?

That is a matter of considerable debate.

The man who leaked the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg, has called the Snowden disclosures the most significant leak in U.S. history. "Edward Snowden has done more for our Constitution in terms of the Fourth and First Amendment," Ellsberg said, "than anyone else I know."

Privacy advocates say that Snowden’s revelation of the extensive U.S. spying operations was a bold and necessary step that forced the federal courts, the Congress, and the Obama administration to re-examine the previously secret programs and, in some cases to reform them.

But U.S. officials, members of Congress, and others have said that the Snowden disclosures harmed national security by enabling foreign spies.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said the revelations caused "huge, grave damage" to the nation's intelligence capabilities.

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified in March that the Pentagon might need to spend billions to overcome the damage done to military security by Snowden's leaks of intelligence documents. Unnamed intelligence officials were quoted by AP saying that the agencies were scrambling to maintain surveillance of terror groups after they changed their methods of communication in the wake of Snowden's revelations.

The officials have not given details of any specific damage caused by the Snowden leaks.

The U.S. was also embarrassed by the disclosures — or by the behavior being disclosed — when the Snowden documents revealed that the U.S. has eavesdropped on the personal communications of foreign leaders, including allies.

Where is he now?

Since August of last year, Snowden has been living at an undisclosed location in Russia, under temporary asylum granted by Russian authorities as they consider his application for permanent political asylum.

What happens next?

His one-year temporary asylum in Russia expires on Aug. 1, but it could be extended if Moscow has not ruled on his request for permanent asylum.

It is also possible – but considered unlikely – that Russia would hand him over to U.S. authorities at that point.