How Did A Guy With A GED End Up With Top Secret Clearance At The NSA?

June 11, 2013 7:12 a.m.

By his own account, he was in paradise, living in Hawaii with his girlfriend and making around $200,000 a year at his job working for an NSA contractor.

Also by his own account, he had been a poor student in high school, did not complete course work at a community college in Maryland, and ended up earning nothing but a GED.

Edward Snowden’s decision to leak top-secret National Security Agency documents has raised questions about the extent of the government’s surveillance capabilities. But it has also led to questions about how someone with Snowden’s experience and background — he is just 29 years old — ended up with seemingly easy access to the nation’s most sensitive secrets.

“How could a guy who was at Booz Allen for three months have Top Secret compartmented clearance?” Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), a members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said to reporters in Washington on Monday, according to Bloomberg. “There are a lot of questions about whether these were in his purview or part of an effort on his part to accumulate as much as he could to release it.”

So far, most of what we know about Snowden’s career comes from what he has told The Guardian. The high school trouble, a brief stint in the Army, then work as a security guard at an NSA facility in Maryland, then to the Central Intelligence Agency, where he worked on IT security, then a job in Japan working for a private contractor at an NSA facility, and then a few years at various contractors, before his latest gig, working for Booz Allen Hamilton in Hawaii.

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Booz Allen Hamilton has confirmed that Snowden worked at the firm for the last few months, with a base salary of $122,000. The company fired Snowden on Monday, citing violations of the firm’s code of ethics and “firm policy.” Mother Jones, meanwhile, got in touch on Monday with Anne Arundel Community College, in Arnold, Md., which said that a student with Snowden’s name and birth date attended classes there from 1999 to 2001 and also from 2004 to 2005. A spokesperson for the college said that Snowden did not receive a degree, and had not taken any “cyber-related courses” or courses in the school’s NSA-certified “Information Systems Security” program.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), who also serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told Bloomberg that the “[the] idea that a 29-year-old individual with so little experience” had access to the material Snowden did is “absolutely shocking.”

There have been a few factors offered up to explain how Snowden ended up where he did. Snowden apparently cited his technical skills. According to The Guardian, “[Snowden’s] understanding of the internet and his talent for computer programming enabled him to rise fairly quickly for someone who lacked even a high school diploma.” (It is not clear, however, just how much technical skill Snowden’s various career stops demanded.) Media outlets, meanwhile, have pointed to the intelligence community’s increased reliance on private contractors in the years following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. According to the Washington Post, one in four intelligence workers in recent years have been a contractor, and at least 70 percent of the intelligence community’s budget has gone to private firms. (Snowden’s former employer, Booz Allen Hamilton, for example, is a Fortune 500 company that receives 98 percent of its revenue from the government.)

Lawmakers told the Post this week that they plan to look at both Snowden’s hiring and the increased use of private contractors for intelligence work.

“We’ll be going over every inch of this,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, told the newspaper.

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