National Security
3:24 pm
Wed April 16, 2014

Edward Snowden: From 'Geeky' Dropout To NSA Leaker

Originally published on Wed April 16, 2014 3:44 pm

Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden has revealed some of the group's most carefully guarded secrets.

The reporting on the documents he leaked won a Pulitzer Prize for the Washington Post and The Guardian, announced on Monday.

But there's still a lot we don't know about Snowden himself — and his motivation.

In a new article in Vanity Fair, Bryan Burrough, Suzanna Andrews and Sarah Ellison take a closer look at Snowden in an effort to explain how a high school dropout, a "seemingly aimless geeky kid from the Maryland suburbs," came to possess and expose secret NSA documents.

The trio spent six months researching their Vanity Fair article, "The Snowden Saga: A Shadowland of Secrets and Light." Burrough reflects on the article with Fresh Air's Terry Gross.


Interview Highlights

On Snowden's background

He dropped out of high school at 15. ... What ensued is, for me, one of the most fascinating periods of his life — this period from the age of 15 to the age of 20 where he didn't have anything like an actual job, nor was he doing anything other than occasional community college classes. What he appears to have done is spent five years on his computers, on the Internet.

While I think if we didn't know what we know now we'd say, "Ah, he's a virtual slacker," in fact, it seems to be a period of incredible self-education in which he became an expert on systems, became an expert on so many things to do with navigating the Internet. The amazing thing is [that] it appears to be largely self-taught. And whatever you may say or believe about Edward Snowden, he is an invention of himself.

On the turning point when Snowden left his CIA job in Geneva

Reading between the lines, you take away a couple things: He got into a big snit with his supervisors because he felt he knew more about the computers and the NSA software than they did — and I don't have any doubt that that's true. What I thought was telling is we talked to a number of people that said, if you just look at the totality, this is a young man who clearly believed that he was destined to be some type of a player here. There was a condescension in his comments.

He had quite a life there in Geneva maintaining the station's computers. He went from being a security guard in suburban Maryland to having his own nice apartment in Geneva, able to drive all around Europe. ... This is a kid who was fairly parochial at the time and he ... got this exciting life [in Europe] and what you see when he lost it, when he came back, is when you see those tremendously angry Ars Technica posts that suggest the depth of the anger that he was experiencing, having lost what appeared to ... be a charmed life.

On why Snowden had so much access to NSA files during his project in Hawaii

The NSA now tells us they're able to explain why Snowden was able to roam so free through the computers — including many niches he should not have otherwise been able to access. And it turns out, the NSA tells us, it was because they had given Snowden a different assignment, a unique assignment if you will, just because he was in Hawaii.

Hawaii is at the end of a long, long tagline with Washington and it's not necessarily always up to date on the latest procedures and things that should be gotten from Washington. Further, if there's ever any type of disconnect between Fort Meade and Hawaii — technically or communications-wise — Fort Meade, the headquarters of the NSA, was very concerned that somehow they would not be able to reach Hawaii: literally [would be unable to] communicate with them in the event of, I don't know, a nuclear problem or an earthquake or something.

What Snowden was doing was downloading and copying and backing up hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of pages of documents to make sure Hawaii had it all in case something went wrong. ... What no one realized at the time, of course, is that he was also making copies for his own reasons.

On the British and U.S. governments' attempts to stop the articles based on Snowden's documents

There was very little that either government could do to stop the publications because The Guardian just sprang this on the U.S. government two hours before the first thing got published and it took the NSA another four days. At least initially the NSA had no idea they were looking at a single leak of this PRISM program.

They didn't know if it might've come from a congressional aide, someone overseas, someone left a set of documents on the Metro in Washington; they just had no idea. And it wasn't until about the third day that it kind of dawned on them that this must be an actual leaker, a person. That's when they went in, and it took them about two days further to find out that it was Snowden.

On his own changing view of American intelligence issues

My working theory about all of these things ... has always been against conspiracy theories and in favor of human fallibility. I must say that what Snowden has put out there suggests that I need to be a little bit more aware of the conspiracy theories because in this case, many, many things were said [about what] the NSA could do, which sounds like a conspiracy theory — eavesdropping on [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel or the Indonesian prime minister's mistress — I might have scoffed at, and we now know are not only capable of being done, but have been done. The only thing that surprises me now is when I'm told that there's something the NSA can't do.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Edward Snowden revealed some of the NSA's most carefully guarded secrets, but there's still a lot we don't know about Snowden and his motivation. My guest Bryan Burrough is the lead reporter for a new article in Vanity Fair that takes a closer look at Snowden and tries to explain how a high school dropout, a, quote, "seemingly aimless, geeky kid" from the Maryland suburbs came to possess and expose secret NSA documents.

Because of Snowden, we now know that the NSA has been collecting data from the major Internet and telecom companies in the United States. This week the Washington Post and The Guardian each won a Pulitzer Prize for their stories based on Snowden's leaked documents. Last week, the four reporters behind those stories - Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, Ewan McCaskill and Barton Gellman - won a George Polk Award honoring special achievement in journalism.

Bryan Burrough, along with Susana Andrews and Sarah Ellison, spent six months researching their Vanity Fair article on Snowden. Bryan Burrough, welcome to FRESH AIR. One of your sources for this piece was Edward Snowden. I know you can't give this all away, but how were you able to contact him?

BRYAN BURROUGH: It was fairly late in the game. We had been negotiating with his various attorneys, and fairly late in the game, I think when they realized this actually was going to be a piece of some significance, they agreed to answer an enormous number of our questions, and we scurried around like writers do and made sure that he was adequately represented in the piece.

And I think that it made a tremendous difference. It brought up a personal component to this article that I had not seen in many that preceded it.

GROSS: So what explanation did he give you for why he downloaded these documents and made some of them public?

BURROUGH: He has been remarkably consistent in his explanations from the beginning, and to us, and that is he tells a very simple story, that of a young man who joined the military industrial complex, if you will, and was startled and ultimately shocked by the goings on he found there and that he decided at some point that enough was enough and that America needed to know what was actually going on behind the scenes.

And he has not wavered, really, from that basic story.

GROSS: You know, he told you that he thinks of himself as being different from Julian Assange, and he thinks that the documents that he's released are, you know, different than the WikiLeaks approach. What does he see as being the difference?

BURROUGH: Well, in fact I think a lot of people have jumped to the conclusion that because Snowden is a creature of the virtual world, because he is a creature of the Internet, a child of the Internet, and because Julian Assange and WikiLeaks latched on to him at some point, to little effect I might add, that Snowden shares the WikiLeaks philosophy of transparency everywhere, that essentially there should be no secrets.

In fact Snowden has said repeatedly that he believes, in fact, that there are secrets worth keeping, and he has a lot of respect for the people at the NSA who do that. His concern is that what's needed has gone way too far, that in fact the NSA has just gone to do things and to places that are far beyond what is necessary.

So Snowden, while he is, you know, swimming in the same pool as a lot of transparency activists, would be the first to tell you that he does not necessarily share all those philosophies, and that goes double, I think, for Julian Assange.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about Snowden's background. He was born in 1983 in North Carolina, dropped out of high school. Tell us the story of why he did that.

BURROUGH: Well, I think this is the key moment in his life. If you're looking for the rosebud moment, it's his parents' divorce. His father was transferred up to a base in suburban Maryland when Edward was 11 or 12, and shortly after, Edward's parents began squabbling, and there was a divorce. We were told that it was a pretty nasty divorce.

And at one moment, first semester of his sophomore year in high school, Edward went out sick, with what we're not quite sure. It's been said it was mononucleosis, but whatever it was, whatever the illness was, he never came back. He dropped out of high school at 15. Now, no one has come in and said that was because of the divorce, but it happened in the throes of the divorce.

And what ensued is, for me, one of the most fascinating periods of his life, this period from the age of 15 to the age of 20, where he didn't have anything like an actual job, and nor did he have, you know, was he doing anything other than occasional community college classes.

What he appears to have done was spent five years on his computers, on the Internet. And while I think if we didn't know what we know now, we would say oh, he's, you know, kind of a virtual slacker. In fact it seems to have been a period of incredible self-education, in which he, you know, just became an expert on systems, became an expert on so many things to do with navigating the Internet.

And the amazing thing is, it appears to have been largely self-taught. And whatever you may say, whatever you may believe about Edward Snowden, he is an invention of himself.

GROSS: People have been investigating whatever paper trail or email trail or, you know, postings trail that he left over the years. And you write about some of his early postings, when he was in his early 20s, and he posted on a site called Ars Technica. What was the site?

BURROUGH: Ars Technica was a - is a, not to put too fine a point on it, it's a techie site, and it was particularly popular during the early 2000s. And there's nothing terribly amazing about the texts except insofar as you see the intellectual development of a young computer - I would never use the word genius but a very bright, computer literate, young, American man.

He goes on the site initially in 2001 and says, you know, be gentle, I'm trying to learn about this, and he asks some technical questions. And over time, his confidence clearly grows. He begins to become opinionated, and this coincides with, you know, his growth from 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, until later, when he encounters some career reversals later in the decade, he's back on Ars Technica cursing people out and, you know, calling public officials all sorts of names and, you know, being very clearly an angry young man, and it's the telling thing is to watch that evolution from humility to supreme confidence in a matter of four, five, six years.

GROSS: Is that because he had reason to become more confident with more skill and experience, or do you think it's some kind of personality shift?

BURROUGH: Oh, I think it's one begat the other. I think he had reason to become confident. He - as he got out into the real world, as he took his first jobs, he saw, in fact, that what he believed about his skills was absolutely true. He was pretty amazing as a system administrator. We talked to a lot of people, and not one of them ever said a negative word about his technical skills. The question was always about his moral judgments.

GROSS: Let me read a posting, and I think this is from the Ars Technica site, and you quote this in your piece about Snowden. He wrote: I like Japanese food, I like food, I like martial arts, I like ponies, I like guns, I like food, I like girls, I like my girlish figure that attracts girls. I really am a nice guy, though. You see, I act arrogant and cruel because I was not hugged enough as a child and because the public education system that's turned its wretched, spiked back on me. He was 20 when he wrote that. What do you take away from that?

BURROUGH: Well, he was - that is one of the earlier posts, and it's the earlier Edward Snowden. This was a period where he engaged with a group of other cyber-denizens who were interested in Japanese animation, and it's during what we call his playful period, when he was very much in a sense of self-discovery, trying out different things, trying to feel like, you know, who he wanted to be.

And here was a lot of silliness and all very age-appropriate, but for a kid who didn't go to college, and by the way he was very insecure about that, this past is his kind of time in a fraternity, if you will, and the comments about lack of hugging would obviously seem to be a glancing comment on kind of the breakdown of his own family dynamic, and he has never had a good word to say about the U.S. education system or public education.

You know, he had come into contact with, clearly, people who were going to college, who had been to private schools, and he became aware of what he hadn't done and what he hadn't had. When he got his first real job later, with the CIA, one of the most telling posts ever was just his incredulousness that he'd gotten this, you know, how just telling people on Ars Technica how he had absolutely no degree and very little education.

This was - you know, we all have our insecurities, and these were part and parcel with his.

GROSS: Before we go any further, you write some things about Snowden that really went against assumptions that I had made about him. You write that things that made him angry in the past included Social Security. What did he think, people were freeloading on Social Security?

BURROUGH: He thought old people were freeloading on Social Security. But I also think that that was a fairly old post. You know, that's a good eight, nine years ago now.

GROSS: Right.

BURROUGH: He's certainly been careful to modulate any further discussions when asked about that type of stuff. But no, he's definitely shown glimpses of what would be called a libertarian bent. He voted for Ron Paul, I think it was, in 2008. And this is not surprising for a certain type of young person who grows up on the Internet, where you can, you know, pretty much go anywhere and do anything, especially if you had the technical skills.

And where Snowden would get upset as a younger man was in anyone placing limitations on where you could go or what you could do. He was very much, you know, self-made, and the idea that anyone would limit him or would, you know, give money to other people for doing nothing while he was working so hard, you know, seemed to greatly distress him, to the degree to which some people have called him a political conservative, which I think is a stretch.

I think if anything, he is - what's accurate is to say in the past, he's shown a bit of libertarianism.

Joining us, my guest is Bryan Burrough, and he's the lead author of a new piece in Vanity Fair called "The Snowden Saga: A Shadow Land of Secrets and Light." Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more about what you learned about Edward Snowden. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bryan Burrough, and he's the lead author of a new Vanity Fair piece called "The Snowden Saga: A Shadow Land of Secrets and Light." And it tells the Edward Snowden story from his childhood through the publication of the NSA documents, based on interviews with people all over the world, basically, including the journalist who broke the story.

So he was hired by the CIA after having first joined the Army when he was 20. He grew disillusioned with the military, you say, because he thought many of the other recruits seemed less interested in helping oppressed people than in killing them. And then he broke both of his legs in a training accident, returned to Maryland, where he'd been living, and then worked at the University of Maryland Center for Advanced Study of Language as a security guard, which is kind of funny in retrospect.

(LAUGHTER)

BURROUGH: Yes.

GROSS: And then after that he's hired by the CIA to maintain the computer systems' network security, which also seems kind of funny in retrospect. So how is he able to get the kind of security clearance he needed to help maintain the CIA networks' security?

BURROUGH: Yeah, that's something that people seem so surprised at, but if you talk to anyone in the intelligence community, especially those active in the post-9/11 years, that's just SOP. You went to work for the CIA, you had some type of security clearance. And his obviously, because he was not hired, remember, to be a spy, he was hired to maintain the spies' computers, and so he needed those clearances just to have the job.

When we asked the question that a lot of people asked, wasn't there anything in his postings or anything else that might have suggested that you were going to have a future problem with him, the answer we got back was, well, no. The guy was tabula rasa. There was - other than these age-appropriate kind of silliness and hi-jinks(ph) period that he went through in 19, 20, 21, there was nothing that would be a security risk.

And the difference between how a traditional employer might view him as a person, he's a security guard, and how the CIA would view the virtual Edward Snowden as, you know, practically a genius is just - to me it was just gob smacking.

GROSS: How long did he stay at the CIA?

BURROUGH: I think it was about five years.

GROSS: Why did he leave?

BURROUGH: Well, that's a good question. You know, at some point all of us, Susana and Sarah and I, we were almost embarrassed to talk about this because there's so much more we don't know than what we do know, and a case in point would be why Snowden left the CIA. The story that you hear at the NSA is that one of his supervisors made some negative comments in his personnel file and that Snowden got into a disagreement with this man and left, not a ton of detail.

What Snowden then says is no, no, no, no, no, you know, this was about I found flaws in the software. I wanted to fix them. They didn't think they were big enough to fix, so I did some things on my own to show them, and basically reading between the lines you take away a couple of things. He got into a big snit with his supervisors because he felt he knew more about the computers and the NSA software than they did.

And I don't have any doubt that that's true, but I thought what was telling was we talked to a number of people that said if you just look at the totality, this is a young man who clearly believed that he was, you know, destined to be some type of a player here. There was a condescension in his comments, and, you know, he had quite a life there in Geneva, maintaining the station's computers.

He went from being a security guard in, you know, suburban Maryland to having his own nice apartment in Geneva, able to drive all around Europe, Milan, you know, all sorts of places, London. You know, this was a kid who was fairly parochial at the time, and he went and got this great, and I think it's fair to say exciting life. And what you see when he lost it, when he came back, is when you see those tremendously angry Ars Technica posts that suggest the depth of the anger that he was experiencing, having lost what appeared, by any stretch of the imagination, to be a charmed life.

GROSS: Did he resign from the CIA, or was he fired?

BURROUGH: I don't think that's ever - he will tell you he resigned, and I don't think anybody said he was fired. My guess is it was like they say in baseball, it was a mutual decision.

GROSS: How did Snowden get to work for private contractors that worked with the NSA? Was his resignation from the CIA held against him at all? Did they try to investigate what terms he left the CIA on?

BURROUGH: We don't have any indication that Snowden's transition from the CIA to Dell as an NSA contractor was anything other than smooth. If anybody went back and thoroughly investigated what happened at the CIA, we don't know it. What we do know is that in a matter of months, he had accepted this job with Dell, which sent him to a U.S. military base outside Tokyo, where he was put to work safeguarding the NSA's computers, I think most pointedly against the threat of Chinese government hackers.

But, you know, he essentially, you know, one way to look at this is that he was essentially failing upward. I mean, he had - he went to the NSA, where he had I think a bolder job and a brawnier job there than he did at this one little station in Geneva. He was able to roam across Asia and work, you know, obviously was thought very highly of the NSA and was ultimately transferred from Japan to Fort Mead itself briefly and then ultimately to Hawaii.

GROSS: But just to clarify, he wasn't working directly for the NSA; he was working for contractors who were hired by the NSA, right?

BURROUGH: Exactly, for almost the entirety of the time that he worked, quote, for the NSA, he didn't work for the NSA. He worked for Dell for almost all that period of time. And then came a point where he applied to and was accepted for a job at the NSA that he declined because it wasn't the job he wanted. And then at the tail end of his career, he worked briefly for another contractor, Booz Allen, at its Honolulu office.

GROSS: So at the time that Snowden downloaded a lot of the NSA documents, he was working for an NSA contractor, Dell Computer, and he was working as a high-level systems administrator in Hawaii at a regional security operations center underground. Do you have any sense of what the turning point was for him?

BURROUGH: As far as a turning point, he's thrown up a number of them: a speech where he saw an NSA general say, you know, that they weren't doing anything they shouldn't have. It seems to have been a cumulative effect on his kind of morality crisis, if you will. You know, he has thrown up incidents going all the way back to CIA behaviors in Geneva, their mistreatment, allegedly, of a drunken Swiss businessman. You know, there have been a series of things.

But frankly I have not come upon a believable eureka moment in which Snowden tried to do this. I must say in our discussions with the NSA, they haven't come up with one, either, at least not one that they've been willing to share with us.

GROSS: Bryan Burrough will be back in the second half of the show. He's the lead writer of the article "The Snowden Saga" in Vanity Fair. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Bryan Burrough. He's the lead writer of a new in-depth article about Edward Snowden called "The Snowden Saga" in Vanity Fair. It tries to explain how a, quote, geeky kid from the Maryland suburbs, a high school dropout, came to possess and expose secret NSA documents. The article is based on six months of reporting. Snowden worked for the CIA for about five years, and then worked for NSA contractors, Dell and Booz Allen Hamilton.

You write that only recently did the NSA disclose that Snowden had been given a special assignment to copy millions of files from the central NSA computers on the mainland onto servers in Hawaii, where he was based working for Dell. Can you talk a little bit more about that assignment and why he was given it?

BURROUGH: Right. There's so many basic things I think that people misunderstand about Snowden and his role at the NSA. One of the biggest things that has happened in the intelligence community over the last 15 years has been the decision to outsource enormous swaths of intelligence work to contractors. Their offices are all around the NSA there in Fort Meade. Early on, in Hawaii, the NSA now tells us, they're able to explain why Snowden was able to roam so free through the computers, including many niches that he should not have otherwise been able to access. And it turns out, the NSA tells us, it was because they had given Snowden a different assignment - a unique assignment, if you will - just because he was in Hawaii. Hawaii is at the end of a long, long tagline with Washington, and it's not necessarily always up-to-date on the latest procedures and things that should be gotten from Washington.

Further, if there's ever any type of disconnect between Fort Meade and Hawaii, technically or communications-wise, Fort Meade, the headquarters of the NSA, was very concerned that somehow they would not be able to reach Hawaii, literally could not communicate with them in the event of, I don't know, a nuclear problem or an earthquake or something. And so, what Snowden was doing was he was downloading or copying and backing up hundreds of thousands of maybe millions of pages of documents to make sure that Hawaii had it all, in case something went wrong.

And what's amazing is Snowden was doing this so heavily, that the other systems engineers, administrators there at Kunia, were complaining that he was siphoning up too much - he was eating up too much power, and their servers were winking in and out because of the tremendous amount of data that he was downloading and backing up. And when they complained, he said, hey, look, guys. This is what I'm supposed to be doing. And he was. It's just that no one realize at the time, of course, is that he was also making copies for his own reasons.

GROSS: And there was nothing standing in the way of him just copying the downloads?

BURROUGH: No. And, obviously, this has become a sore point with the NSA. There are systems that exist, including at some NSA facilities, that would allow the NSA to see this type of thing going on, and because Hawaii is at kind of the tail end of their dragon, if you will. Those systems had simply not been put in place in Hawaii.

GROSS: After Snowden downloads the NSA documents, he goes to Hong Kong. Why did he choose Hong Kong?

BURROUGH: Good question. Different people have said different things. He did not answer our question on that in any new detail. We've heard, for instance, that if you're an existing NSA employee, you can fly internationally if you're going to go to one place and one stop. But if you're going to do two stops, you have to get, you know, some type of permission, or it can be somehow monitored. And Hong Kong was a one-stop. Clearly, Hong Kong was a place that he traveled, had been comfortable, and he thought that there's reasonably that Hong Kong or China might ultimately give him political asylum.

It was always in his mind when he left that he wasn't coming back, and if he wasn't coming back, that means that he's going to have to get asylum someplace. And I think that, you know, Hong Kong also has the benefit of being a very large place, where it's easy to get lost, yet it's sufficiently Western, where he was confident that he could do all the things communication-wise that he needed, and he was able to do so.

Of course, the ultimate problem became - and this was something that became apparent to us, the more and more we learned - was that, you know, he went out there to Hong Kong without telling a soul, obviously. And, you know, he had about what, I think it was 20 days, until he - until the end of the medical leave that - the fake medical leave he'd ask for, and at which point they'd come looking for him. And he needed to get someone, some journalist to come, you know, halfway around the world to Hong Kong, or else none of this was going to work.

And, you know, at least initially, the three journalists that he approached - Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Bart Gellman at The Washington Post - all said no. You know, he was a long way to go unless you knew for certain you were going to get gold. And so he ultimately did, and ultimately got two of the three to come.

GROSS: So, Edward Snowden goes to Hong Kong, feels very pressured to get the story out, because he's on a 20-day medical leave, and he knows when those 20 days are up, people are going to come looking for him. So he tries to get some of the three reporters who he's contacted to meet him in Hong Kong, Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, Bart Gellman. Two of them go. That's Greenwald and Poitras?

BURROUGH: Right.

GROSS: And which documents does he give them, then, like, what happens there at that first visit?

BURROUGH: Well, the first visit, I mean, it's actually kind of amazing that he got them to do this. Gellman didn't go. He obviously had - he had lawyers all over him, in one sense, who said that this is a very risky thing to do. Greenwald must've said no three times. It was Poitras who saw and believed. And they went, in large part, because Snowden sent them a bunch of documents ahead of time, I think led by this PRISM program set of documents that everyone led with first. And, of course, that led to, you know, the elements about the story that everyone smiles about, where, you know, he's given them these detailed instructions on how to approach him at this urban mall outside his hotel in Hong Kong, The Mira, where they'll know him because he's holding a Rubik's cube, which is actually something that he was known to walk around with at the Kunia facility in Hawaii. And then they follow him up to his room, and they start vetting him, and he starts telling them the story.

We should also point out that they weren't - it wasn't just the three of them. There was also - because The Guardian, Greenwald's employer, didn't know Greenwald real well. He was relatively new, and didn't know Poitras, at all. In fact, she was fairly hostile to The Guardian. The Guardian would not send him to Hong Kong without a chaperone, in essence. And so they roped in The Guardian's respected Washington bureau chief, Ewen MacAskill, who went over as, essentially, to be - I think what The Guardian thought - was the grown-up in the group. And, obviously, he was probably unnecessary, but it just shows the tenuous relationship between The Guardian and Greenwald and Poitras at that point.

GROSS: So, as the story gets rolling, The Guardian ends up with a lot of these documents that Snowden had downloaded on The Guardian's own hard drives, and it has to figure out how to safely keep these. Can you kind of explain how The Guardian ends up with the documents, and what The Guardian did to try to safeguard them?

BURROUGH: Well, The Guardian ended up with the documents via Greenwald. He had to, obviously, share his backing for the stories. And they kept, you know, everything they had, and we don't know the exact number of documents - but on a series of computers there in London, which were not connected to the Internet, and they thought that this was all safe - the British government did not. The British government quickly came calling, and wanted the documents and wanted them to, you know, to destroy basically any evidence that they'd existed. The Guardian's editors saw this coming after an initial visit, and they began sharing the documents, in essence, to safeguard them with ProPublica, and also with The New York Times. And once those were safeguarded, once they were - others were given copies, The Guardian allowed the British government to come in and essentially physically destroy these computer hard drives where the documents had been safeguarded for a while.

Rusbridger, the editor, of course, has told everyone this, you know, hilarious story about how they came in with, like, grinders and everything and physically ground up the hard drives to dust.

GROSS: So, do you know how The Guardian gave the documents or gave, you know, gave documents to ProPublica and the New York Times? I mean, obviously, they weren't emailed. Did people from both of those news organizations come and take back - physically take back thumb drives or whatever with documents on them?

BURROUGH: I don't know. You know, just about everything about the documents is a mystery, beginning with how many there are. No one knows. And certainly, no one knows what's happened to all of them. Obviously, a large share of them passed into the hands of Snowden's three journalists. Some section of them obviously went to the journalist's employers, others have been farmed out to newspapers in a dozen countries to back up stories that they're writing. So I think it's fair to say that, you know, the documents have been spread as widely as pollen.

GROSS: My guest is Bryan Burrough. He's the lead author of the new article, "The Snowden Saga" in Vanity Fair. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bryan Burrough, and he's the lead author in a new Vanity Fair lengthy essay called "The Snowden Saga: A Shadowland of Secrets and Light." And it draws sources from around the world to try to tell the full story of Edward Snowden and his leaks.

Neither the British government nor the U.S. government wanted these stories published about these NSA documents. Can you compare what the British government did to try to stop The Guardian from publishing, to what the Obama administration tried to do to prevent The Washington Post or The New York Times from publishing?

BURROUGH: Well, there was very little that either government could do to stop the publications, because The Guardian just sprang this on the U.S. government, you know, like two hours before the first thing got published, and it took the NSA another four days. At least initially, the NSA had no idea, you know, they were looking at a single leak of this PRISM program.

They didn't know if it might have come from a congressional aide, someone overseas, someone left a set of documents on the Metro in Washington. They just had no idea. And it wasn't until about the third day that it kind of dawned on them that this must be an actual leaker, a person. And that's when they went in, and it took them about two days further to find out that it was Snowden. There's no - other than a few you-can't-seriously-be-doing-this from the Obama administration, there was no systematic effort to stop anybody from publishing. And the British government has been mostly trying to control or destroy the documents to make sure that they don't get wider dissemination.

GROSS: So, how much tension was there between Snowden and the journalists? Because, you know, they had their own legal considerations to think about, and his need was for speed.

BURROUGH: That's exactly right. We've not picked up any significant tensions between Snowden and the journalists. There was plenty of tensions - at least initially, among the journalists, especially The Guardian group, who were kind of a shotgun marriage, if you will.

But, you know, Snowden, for whatever you may think about what he's done, he handled himself coolly and professionally and focused. He allowed all the journalists to vet him exhaustively. He was charming. He smiled. He knew what he was doing. Ewen MacAskill of The Guardian, who was tasked with the personal side of the story, he was going to write the story on Snowden himself and why he was doing it, told us that he had several sons about Snowden's age - at the time, Snowden was 30 - and that he sat down those first few days after they got to know each other and said look, kid, you don't have to do this. There are ways that these could be leaked without giving away your life. You are surrendering everything you've ever known by your decision to go public.

And yet, Snowden would not be dissuaded. He not only was going to leak this stuff, but he was going to make sure the world knew he leaked it. And while I agree with a lot of people that I think that one of the secondary drivers in Snowden's personality that obliged him to do this was ego, I don't think he did that necessarily purely for ego reasons. I think he knew very well that once these documents were leaked, the NSA, his partners at the - his former partners at the NSA - would quickly find out that he did it, and so there was no reason not to go public.

GROSS: So you're leaning toward thinking that Snowden's motivation - or at least part of it - was ego. Let me quote something that Snowden said, and I think this is what he communicated to you: "Every person remembers some moment in their life where they witness some injustice, big or small, and looked away because the consequences of intervening seemed too intimidating. But there's a limit to the amount of incivility and inequality and inhumanity that each individual can tolerate. I crossed that line and am no longer alone."

So that's what he says in response to why he did it. How much weight do you give that? And why are you giving so much weight to ego?

BURROUGH: I actually - I believe he did it for the reasons he stated he did it. In terms of secondary motivations, I think ego is strong. I mean, that's a very dramatic, diplomatic way to put things that he probably had a little bit of help with, I suggest.

GROSS: So right now Snowden is in Russia. Does he officially have asylum there?

BURROUGH: He's been given one year at which point no one really knows what will happen. He's applied for asylum to some 20 other countries. No one's given it to him. He's become this strange virtual Kim Philby.

GROSS: So last week a George Polk Award, a very prestigious journalism award, was given to stories that were broken based on Snowden documents, broken by Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald, Ewan MacAskill, and Barton Gellman. This week they won Pulitzer Prizes, those stories. So these stories have been very acclaimed in the world of journalism. I'm wondering if you think these stories are also controversial at all in the world of journalism.

BURROUGH: I actually don't. I think that they are widely acclaimed. And I think that people have made the case that this is, you know, the biggest leak, the biggest whistleblower situation since the Pentagon papers. One of the biggest, you know, journalism scoops since Woodward and Bernstein in Watergate. I think that their work was exemplary.

GROSS: Now, this is hardly the first long piece you've written about intelligence. You worked on the Vanity Fair piece on the path to 9/11 which was about dysfunction in the nation's intelligence agencies and the security failures that left us open to attack. You were a writer on the Vanity Fair piece "The Path to War" about how the Bush administration used false intelligence to justify invading Iraq and now you've written - you know, now you're the lead author on this piece about the Edward Snowden leaks.

So when you add this new piece to the other pieces about intelligence that you've written, how does that change the picture that you have of American intelligence?

BURROUGH: I don't cover American intelligence regularly. I get called in every now and then to contribute to these large pieces that our editor Graydon Carter does. So I'm really not an expert on intelligence. I have to say my working theory about all these things - keep in mind I'm typically brought in when something goes wrong - has always been against conspiracy theories and in favor of human fallibility.

I must say that what Snowden has put out there suggests that I need to be a little bit more aware of the conspiracy theories because, in this case, many, many things that were said that the NSA could do, which sound like a conspiracy theory - you know, eavesdropping on Angela Merkel or the Indonesian prime minister's mistress - I might have scoffed at.

And we now know are not only capable of being done but have been done. And the only thing that surprises me now is when I'm told that there's something the NSA can't do. Because when you're in the middle of reporting and researching one of these stories, you just - the sense of the NSA's capabilities just - they mushroom.

And you just come to believe that they can do almost anything. So, you know, I think it's going to be interesting going forward in terms of we now have these capabilities to listen in on basically everything in the world to warehouse that information internationally and domestically. And I can see that the Obama administration wants to somehow put this genie back in the bottle.

And I question, you know, ultimately whether that either can be done or whether, in fact, there will be the political will to have it done. We'll see.

GROSS: Well, Bryan Burrough, thank you so much.

BURROUGH: Thank you.

GROSS: Bryan Burrough is the lead author of the article "The Snowden Saga" in Vanity Fair. Coming up, John Powers reviews a crime novel by the godfather of Italian noir. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.