Edward Snowden: How the Intelligence Story of the Age Leaked Out
As he pulled a small black suitcase and carried a selection of laptop bags over his shoulders, no one would have paid much attention to Ed Snowden as he arrived at Hong Kong International Airport. But Snowden was not your average tourist or businessman. In all, he was carrying four computers that enabled him to gain access to some of the US government's most highly-classified secrets.
Today, just over three weeks later, he is the world's most famous spy, whistleblower and fugitive, responsible for the biggest intelligence breach in recent US history. News organisations around the globe have described him as "America's Most Wanted". Members of Congress have denounced him as a "defector" whose actions amount to treason and have demanded he be punished to the fullest extent of the law.
His supporters argue that his actions have opened up a much-needed debate on the balance between security and privacy in the modern world.
So is he whistleblower or traitor? That debate is still raging.
Snowden, aged 29, had flown to Hong Kong from Hawaii, where he had been working for the defence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton at the National Security Agency, the biggest spy surveillance organisation in the world. Since Monday morning, he has gone underground. Hong Kong-based journalists, joined by the international press, have been hunting for him. At the height of the search, reporters recruited Twitter followers to see if they could successfully identify the lighting and other hotel furnishings shown in the video in which he went public. They did: the $330-a-night Mira Hotel, on Nathan Road, the busy main shopping drag in Kowloon district.
Knowing it was only a matter of time before he was found, Snowden checked out at lunchtime on Monday. It is thought he is now in a safe house.
What happens now? The US is on the verge of pressing criminal charges against him and that would lead to extradition proceedings, with a view to bringing him back to the US for trial and eventually jail.
If America is planning to jail for life Bradley Manning, who was behind the 2010 WikiLeaks release of tens of thousands of state department memos, what retribution lies in store for Snowden, who is guilty of leaking on a much bigger scale? The documents Manning released were merely "classified". Snowden's were not only "Top Secret", but circulation was extremely limited.
For an American, the traditional home for the kind of story Snowden was planning to reveal would have been the New York Times. But during extensive interviews last week with a Guardian team, he recalled how dismayed he had been to discover the Times had a great scoop in election year 2004 – that the Bush administration, post 9/11, allowed the NSA to snoop on US citizens without warrants – but had sat on it for a year before publishing.
Snowden said this was a turning point for him, confirming his belief that traditional media outlets could not be trusted. He looked around for alternative journalists, those who were both anti-establishment and at home with blogging and other social media. The member of this generation that he most trusted was the Guardian commentator Glenn Greenwald.
In January, Snowden reached out to a documentary filmmaker and journalist, Laura Poitras, and they began to correspond. In mid-February, he sent an email to Greenwald, who lives in Brazil, suggesting he might want to set up a method for receiving and sending encrypted emails. He even made a YouTube video for Greenwald, to take him step-by-step through the process of encryption. Greenwald did not know the identity of the person offering the leaks and was unsure if they were genuine. He took no action. In March, in New York, he received a call from Poitras, who convinced him that he needed to take this more seriously.