Boundless Informant: The Global Hunt for Edward Snowden
Whistleblower Edward Snowden remains on the run from US authorities, leaving behind a trail of revelations. Currently believed to be in Moscow's international airport, he has become the victim of a global hunt with elements of a Cold War thriller.
At the headquarters of the United States National Security Agency (NSA) in Fort Meade, Maryland, there is a giant granite memorial plaque listing the names of 171 agents killed in the line of duty, with the words "They Served in Silence" carved into the stone. It's a very American way of remembering the country's heroes.
They will never say that about Edward Snowden, the biggest whistleblower in recent American history. Nevertheless, he is now a hero for many, because he burst America's dream of total data control.
Snowden has been traveling around the world carrying four laptops filled with secret documents since the end of May, when he flew from Hawaii to Hong Kong and eventually on to Moscow, leaving behind a trail of global revelations. He exposed the NSA's Prism program, which uses data from Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Skype; he revealed the role played in surveillance by the British intelligence agency GCHQ, whose Tempora program extracts data from hundreds of fiber-optic cables; and now he has also revealed the NSA's spying activities in Germany. New revelations seem to emerge by the day.
Since then Snowden has been engaged with US authorities in a global hunt with elements of a Cold War thriller -- only this time with 21st-century technology. He's also being pursued by hundreds of journalists, millions upon millions of viewers and presumably no small number of agents. This 30-year-old system administrator has already set off minor and major diplomatic tremors, because the revelations also show the extent to which allied countries spy on each other. The insights into its eavesdropping operations have embarrassed the United States in its relationship with China and Russia, as well as helping enemies and humiliating friends, who must now fear that their own spying activities will be scrutinized.
Snowden probably couldn't imagine all of this happening when, on May 20, he left his apartment in Hawaii and boarded a flight to Hong Kong. He was carrying a small, black suitcase containing the laptops, on which thousands of highly classified documents were stored. He told his girlfriend that he would be back soon, and he told his employer he needed to take some time off.
Snowden had been working in Hawaii for the security firm Booz Allen Hamilton, which does work for the NSA, for almost three months -- and he had access to America's biggest secrets. Although Snowden was a school dropout, he was also ambitious. When he enlisted in the army, he said that he was a Buddhist and committed to non-violence. The CIA and the NSA hired him because of his skillful handling of data networks.
Catapulted Out of Anonymity
In Hong Kong, Snowden took a room at the Mira, a five-star hotel in the Kowloon district. His choice of the Chinese special administrative region as a hideout was carefully calculated. He believed that he was safe there from the clutches of both American and Chinese authorities. He was also familiar with the city and had an acquaintance there. It was from Hong Kong that he launched a series of revelations that would shock America and the world before long.
He had already chosen a cohort in Glenn Greenwald, a blogger for Britain's Guardian newspaper. Greenwald, a former lawyer, lives with his partner and their 10 dogs in Rio de Janeiro. He's been advocating the disclosure of government secrets for years, and is seen as a passionate champion of transparency and someone who doesn't make compromises. Greenwald was the man Snowden now needed, so he asked him to come to Hong Kong.
Greenwald, a colleague from the Guardian and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras arrived on June 1. Snowden gave them elaborate directions to meet, and used a Rubik's cube to identify himself. The trio questioned their informant for almost a week. Then, on June 5, the Guardian published the first revelation, the story of a secret court ruling that showed that the US government had forced the telecommunications company Verizon to hand over telephone data for thousands of US citizens. The Prism surveillance program was disclosed the next day, followed by revelations about a similar program used worldwide, known as "Boundless Informant."
The disclosures coincided with the first meeting between the two most powerful men in the world. On June 7, US President Barack Obama invited Chinese President Xi Jinping to the Sunnylands Ranch in California. It was hot, 43 degrees Celsius (109 degrees Fahrenheit), and to the annoyance of the Chinese, their hosts had added the subject of cyber security to the agenda at the last minute. Obama told Xi that he would like to see a world order in which everyone played by the same rules. It was an admonition, from those who feel victimized, against the presumed malefactors in the cyber war -- the Chinese.
Although the Americans had taken notice of the revelations in the Guardian, they didn't know that a man on the other side of the Pacific was about to disclose even more secrets.
The video in which Snowden, a previously unknown system administrator, catapulted himself out of anonymity into the public eye, transforming from an everyman into the world's most wanted person on June 9, is 12 minutes and 35 seconds long. It had been clicked on 1.7 million times soon after its release.
The man in the video is young and pale, is wearing angular glasses and has a three-day beard. He speaks clearly, slowly and confidently. He says he has no intention to hide, because he hasn't done anything wrong. When asked why he didn't want to remain anonymous, Snowden replies: "The public is owed an explanation."
Snowden describes the NSA as a super-agency, a giant octopus that accesses massive amounts of data worldwide. He also explains that he decided to become a whistleblower when he realized that what he was experiencing on a regular basis were abuses, and that the more he wanted to talk about it, the more he was ignored and told that it really wasn't a problem.
The hunt was on.
Snowden's hiding place was discovered a few hours later, but he had already disappeared and gone to the apartment of a Hong Kong acquaintance.
Meanwhile, he was in contact with journalists from the South China Morning Post. After a conversation with Snowden, they revealed that the NSA had also hacked into the servers of telephone companies in China and Hong Kong and had collected millions of text messages.
Snowden apparently hoped to avoid extradition by provoking Chinese rage against the Americans. And he needed to do something, because Washington had already started to apply pressure. Although it has no extradition treaty with China, Hong Kong is largely autonomous and signed its own extradition treaty with the United States in 1996. US politicians were already demanding that Snowden be prosecuted "to the fullest extent of the law."
"People who think I made a mistake in picking HK as a location misunderstand my intentions," Snowden told the South China Morning Post. But he also sensed that he wasn't safe in Hong Kong. Where else could he go?
At that moment two men entered the equation who wanted some of the whistleblower's fame to rub off on them: Rafael Correa and Julian Assange.
Ecuador soon announced that it was considering an asylum application by Snowden. It isn't as if Ecuadorian President Correa is a fan of transparency. In fact, a new, restrictive media law has just been enacted in his country. But Correa suffers from the fact that Ecuador is too small a stage for his political ambitions.
On June 16, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange stood on the balcony at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, together with Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño. He said nothing but waved to his supporters. In interviews, however, Assange called Snowden a hero and recommended that he seek asylum in Latin America.
Assange has been stuck in London for more than a year now. Police officers are waiting outside the embassy to arrest him and extradite him to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning over allegations of rape and sexual assault. His room at the embassy isn't much bigger than a jail cell. It contains a table, a few chairs, a bookshelf and a single bed. The room is so gloomy, Assange said, that he ordered a sun lamp to simulate natural sunlight. He also has a treadmill and receives occasional visits from a personal trainer. Otherwise, he spends his time watching old episodes of "The West Wing" and "Twilight Zone."
Assange runs the now divided organization from his temporary home at the embassy. But he hasn't had any scoops in a long time, now that the flow of leaks has dried up. The situation in London is slowly becoming hopeless, and escape seems impossible. Since Snowden exposed himself as a whistleblower, it has become clear to Assange that this is his chance to get back into the game, draw attention to his fate and put one over on America.
- Part 1: The Global Hunt for Edward Snowden
- Part 2: WikiLeaks Steps In To Help
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2013
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH
Click on the links below for more information about DER SPIEGEL's history, how to subscribe or purchase the latest issue of the German-language edition in print or digital form or how to obtain rights to reprint SPIEGEL articles.
- Frequently Asked Questions: Everything You Need to Know about DER SPIEGEL
- Six Decades of Quality Journalism: The History of DER SPIEGEL
- A New Home in HafenCity: SPIEGEL's New Hamburg HQ
- Reprints: How To License SPIEGEL Articles
Begin quote gallery: Click on the arrow