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.
WikiLeaks Steps In To Help
Assange arranged travel documents for Snowden from Ecuador and sent Sarah Harrison, a member of the WikiLeaks legal defense team, to Hong Kong. He wanted WikiLeaks to become Snowden's escape agent and bring him to a safe haven -- if such a place even exists anymore.
Snowden left his hiding place again for the first time on June 18. He had become even more cautious. He turned up at a meeting with attorney Albert Ho and two colleagues wearing a hat and sunglasses, and he told everyone to leave their mobile phones in the refrigerator. They ate pizza, drank Pepsi and talked for two hours. The lawyers warned him that no one could guarantee that he would remain a free man during possible extradition proceedings. If that happened, he would be without a computer or access to the Internet. Snowden was nervous. He wanted to leave, but he didn't know where to go.
It was a situation in which WikiLeaks could be helpful to him. A company that handles the accounting for donations to the organization had offered to pay for a private jet to take Snowden to a safe place. Assange had also activated his global network of supporters. WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson filed an application for asylum in Iceland on behalf of Snowden, in case it didn't work out in Ecuador. But was it just a red herring?
Snowden turned 30 on June 21. That evening, he learned that the US government had filed espionage charges against him, and that Attorney General Eric Holder was personally applying pressure to his Hong Kong counterparts to extradite the whistleblower. A provisional arrest warrant had already been sent to Hong Kong, and his passport had been revoked. The next morning, an intermediary from the Hong Kong government informed Snowden that there would be no objection to his leaving the territory soon. It was clearly a request.
The Repercussions in China
Since the revelations about espionage in China, the leadership in Beijing apparently decided not to extradite Snowden, but instead to urge him to continue his travels. The official explanation reads like a public slap in the face or, even worse, a verbal middle finger pointed at the United States: The documents were incomplete. The US government had used the wrong middle name for Snowden in the extradition documents. The Chinese also demanded prompt clarification of the Americans' spying activities.
Snowden was too afraid by now, and on June 23 he went to the airport, passed through the normal security control and took an Aeroflot flight to Moscow. His passport was now invalid, but he was presumably traveling with refugee papers from London, accompanied by WikiLeaks activist Sarah Harrison. On the same day, the South China Morning Post published another Snowden revelation. It included his statement that he had deliberately sought a position at Booz Allen Hamilton three months earlier to gain access to classified NSA information. At this point, Snowden was starting to look like a professional spy.
Meanwhile, China's leaders were relishing the fact that the United States, not China, was now being portrayed as a major data thief. Military expert Wang Changqin called the United States a "hacker empire," saying that there was now proof that China itself was a victim of attacks by foreign hackers, and that it isn't China but America that plunders the intellectual property of others.
But the Snowden case is also not without risk to the Chinese leadership. Shortly after Snowden left the country, a debate unfolded over the Chinese government's handling of Internet security for its citizens. How are we Chinese protected against attacks? Who approves the laws under which we are spied on? What happens when the authorities place a Chinese citizen under observation? These were the questions that Xie Yanyi, an attorney, was asking the Ministry of Public Security, a first in a surveillance state like China. Xie is unlikely to receive satisfactory answers to his questions, but the fact that he dared to even ask them is unprecedented.
A Gift for Moscow
Dozens of journalists and intelligence agents were waiting for Snowden when his flight landed at Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport. But no one came face-to-face with the fugitive, who only spoke with the Ecuadorian ambassador in the transit area. Then he disappeared, and there were soon rumors that he was leaving for Ecuador the next day.
Last Monday there was a crowd at Gate 28, where Aeroflot flight SU 150 was departing for Havana. Two dozen journalists had booked tickets on the flight. But seat 17A, where the fugitive was allegedly seated, remained empty. The flight took off, but Snowden was not on board.
Although Ecuador is playing up its role as a possible safe haven, there are only four connections from Moscow, each with a layover: via Madrid, Miami, Amsterdam and Havana. The first three airports are out of the question for Snowden, and even Cuba has an extradition treaty with the United States -- and is currently trying to improve relations with its neighbor. In contrast to the 1970s, Cuba is no longer a safe haven for fugitives.
Does this mean that Snowden will remain in Moscow? The Kremlin has ruled out extraditing the whistleblower from the start. Moscow's power elite sees his presence there as an opportunity to get back at America. Writing in the pro-government newspaper Izvestiya, nationalist writer Eduard Limonov called for revenge: "Let us spit at America and offer Snowden asylum, especially now that we've already given the drunkard Gérard Depardieu a passport."
Russian President Vladimir Putin has also commented on the Snowden affair. Because the fugitive was still in the transit area, said Putin, he was not truly in Russia, which was why -- unfortunately -- Moscow could not extradite him. With a hint of a smile, he added: "Assange and Snowden consider themselves human rights activists and say they are fighting for the spread of information. Ask yourself this: Should you hand these people over so they will be put in prison?"
For Putin, Snowden's flight to Moscow is a gift. The revelations provide him with ammunition with which to exert control over social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Russia's intelligence agencies already monitor the online activities of citizens today. The deputy speaker of the Russian parliament even wants to create a "sovereign Internet," free from the control of foreign powers -- and all the more controlled by Russian agencies. It wouldn't be impossible. Of the 20 largest Internet companies operating in Europe, 15 are American and five are Russian.
Has Snowden truly remained in Moscow voluntarily? Or was he perhaps forced to remain and is being interrogated? For Russian intelligence, Snowden's presence there is a unique opportunity to gain access to top-secret documents, or at least that is the suspicion being expressed out loud in the United States. Many now view the erstwhile hero as a traitor, because he is seeking out the wrong friends. With each day that passes, Snowden is less of a hunter and more of a hunted man. It no longer appears to be his game, but a game controlled by other powers.
By the middle of last week, no one knew where the whistleblower was. Was he in an isolated part of the airport? In a villa near Moscow owned by Russian intelligence? On his way to Ecuador, after all? It seems most likely that he will remain in Moscow for a while longer, and that he may even be applying for asylum there. His fate hangs on two thin threads: that a country allows him to pass through it without stopping him, and that he has the necessary travel documents.
Meanwhile, President Correa is already backpedaling in Quito, where he said: Snowden is not on Ecuadoran territory, so technically we cannot even process the asylum request." The decision could also take a while, as the foreign minister tweeted, "a day, a week or two months." Snowden seems to be welcome in Ecuador, just as long as he doesn't actually go there. The longer the diplomatic tug-of-war lasts, the better it is for Correa. He can portray himself as the David of free speech, rising up against a Goliath without having to deal with the problem of American sanctions against a country that depends on the United States economically.
Last Friday evening, Snowden appeared to have three options left. The first was a private plane. The flight from Moscow to Quito would cost about $200,000 (€154,000), and the Russian authorities would have to approve Snowden's departure.
Snowden's father Lonnie proposed the second option on Friday: that his son surrender to American authorities. Unlike WikiLeaks informant Bradley Manning, Snowden would be charged in a civilian and not a military court. And he could conceivably be acquitted if the court ruled that he did not commit treason. NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, for example, received one year of probation for his disclosures.
The last option would be to seek refuge at the Ecuadorian Embassy in Moscow, but that would require Russia's permission. And then? Snowden would be stuck, just like Assange.
REPORTED BY JENS GLÜSING, MARC HUJER, JULIANE VON MITTELSTAEDT, MATTHIAS SCHEPP, CHRISTOPH SCHEUERMANN AND GREGOR PETER SCHMITZ