FORT MEADE, Md. -- In the suburbs edged by woods midway between Baltimore and the nation's capital, residents long joked that the government spy shop next door was so ultra-secretive its initials stood for "No Such Agency."
However, when Edward Snowden grew up here, the National Security Agency's looming presence was a very visible and accepted part of everyday life.
When Snowden -- the 29-year-old intelligence contractor whose leak of top-secret documents has exposed sweeping government surveillance programs -- went to Arundel High School, the agency regularly sent employees from its nearby black-glass headquarters to tutor struggling math students.
When Snowden went on to Anne Arundel Community College in the spring of 1999 after leaving high school halfway through his sophomore year, he arrived on a campus developing a specialty in cybersecurity training for future employees of the NSA and Department of Defense, although, according to the records, he never took such a class.
And when Snowden joined friends in his late teens to edit a website built around a shared interest in Japanese animation, they chartered the venture from an apartment in military housing at Fort George G. Meade, the 8-square-mile installation that houses the NSA center dubbed the Puzzle Palace and calls itself the "nation's pre-eminent center for information, intelligence and cyber."
He prized the American ideal of personal freedom
In this setting, it's easy to see how the young Snowden was exposed to the notion of spycraft as a career, first with the Central Intelligence Agency and later as a systems analyst for two companies under contract to the NSA. However, details of his early life - in the agency's shadows and with both parents working for other branches of the federal government -- only magnify the contradictions inherent in Snowden's decision to become a leaker.
What, after all, did he think he was getting into when he signed up to work for the nation's espionage agencies? And what specifically triggered a "crisis of conscience" -- as described by a friend who knew him when he worked for the CIA - so profound that it convinced him to betray the secrets he was sworn to keep?
The latter is a question that even Snowden, in interviews since his disclosures, has answered piecemeal, describing his decisions as the same ones any thoughtful person would make if put in his position.
"I'm no different from anybody else," he said in a video interview with The Guardian, seated with his back to a mirror in what appears to be a Hong Kong hotel room, the tropical sunlight filtering through a curtained window. "I don't have special skills. I'm just another guy who sits there day to day in the office, watches what's happening and goes: This is not our place to decide. The public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong."
Posts to online blogs and forums, public records and interviews with Snowden's neighbors, teachers and acquaintances reveal someone who prized the American ideal of personal freedom but became disenchanted with the way government secretly operates in the name of national security.
Those who knew him describe him as introspective, but seem puzzled by where the mindset led him.
"He's very nice, shy, reserved," Jonathan Mills, the father of Snowden's longtime girlfriend, told The Associated Press outside his home in Laurel, Md. "He's always had strong convictions of right and wrong, and it kind of makes sense, but still, a shock."
'The education system turned its wretched . . . back on me'
Snowden, who was born in 1983, spent his early years in Elizabeth City, N.C., before his family moved to the Maryland suburbs when he was 9. His father, Lonnie, was a warrant officer in the U.S. Coast Guard, since retired. His mother, Elizabeth, who goes by Wendy, went to work for the U.S. District Court in Maryland in 1998 and is now its chief deputy of administration and information technology. An older sister, Jessica, is a lawyer working as a research associate for the Federal Judicial Center in Washington, according to LinkedIn.
In the suburbs south of Baltimore, the younger Snowden attended public elementary and middle schools in Crofton. In the fall of 1997, he enrolled at Arundel High School, a four-year school with about 2,000 students.
At all three schools, many parents worked for the military, nearby federal agencies and the contractors serving them. Those employed at the NSA were tight-lipped, said Jerud Ryker, a math teacher who retired from Arundel in 1998. He recounted conversations over the years with people who mentioned they worked for the spy agency.
"Oh, what do you do?" Ryker says he asked. The answer was always the same: "Nothing that I can talk about."
At Arundel, Snowden stayed only through the first half of his sophomore year, a school district spokesman said. Former teachers and classmates interviewed in the days since he surfaced as the leaker said they have no recollection of him.
It's not clear why he left. Four years later, in a post Snowden wrote for the anime website jokingly explaining his irritation with cartoon convention volunteers, he wrote: "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 turned its wretched, spiked back on me."
Years later, he "made a big deal of it [failing to finish high school], just in our everyday conversations," Mavanee Anderson, who met Snowden when they worked together in Switzerland in 2007, said in an interview with MSNBC. "I think he was slightly embarrassed by it."
With high school behind him, Snowden registered at the community college, taking for-credit classes from 1999 to 2001 and again from 2003 to 2005, as well as some non-credit classes in between, said spokeswoman Laurie Farrell. Snowden told friends and reporters that he later earned a high school GED certificate.
In 2001, Snowden's parents divorced and his father moved to Pennsylvania. The next year, his mother bought a gray clapboard-sided condominium in nearby Ellicott City, Md., and her son, then 19, moved in by himself. His mother dropped by with groceries from time to time and a girlfriend visited on weekends, said Joyce Kinsey, a neighbor who lives across the street from the unit, where Snowden's mother now lives.
Otherwise, Snowden appeared most often by himself, said Kinsey, who recalled seeing him working on a computer through the open blinds "at all times of the day and night," a period that coincided with his work on the anime venture, Ryuhana Press.
Blogging about security, technology and privacy
During this same time, it appears Snowden became a prolific participant in a technology blog, Arstechnica, under the pseudonym TheTrueHOOHA, posting more than 750 comments between late 2001 and mid-2012. In 2002, he posted a query asking for advice about getting an information technology job in Japan and mentioned he was studying Japanese. Later, he argued that, by pirating poorly made software, he was justly punishing companies for their ineptitude.
He also touched on questions of security and privacy.
In one October 2003 thread, he asked so many questions about how to hide the identity of his computer server that another discussion participant asked why he was being so paranoid.
Snowden's answer: "Patriot Act. If they misinterpret that actions I perform, I could be a cyb4r terrorist and that would be very . . . bad."
In another post that fall, he mulled the politics of personal identity.
"This is entirely dependent on the individual -- as is the definition of freedom. Freedom isn't a word the can be (pardon) freely defined," he wrote. "The saying goes, 'Live free or die,' I believe. That seems to intimate a conditional dependence on freedom as a requirement for happiness."
In that discussion, Snowden mentioned that he had identified himself as a Buddhist in paperwork he filled out for the Army. And in May 2004, he enlisted, with aspirations of becoming a Green Beret.
"I wanted to fight in the Iraq war because I felt like I had an obligation as a human being to help free people from oppression," he told The Guardian. "Most of the people training us seemed pumped up about killing Arabs, not helping anyone."