The Surveillance Scandals

06.11.13

The Mind of Leaker Edward Snowden: An Armchair Analysis

Is Edward Snowden a mastermind or a maniac? Genius or narcissist? Christine Pelisek asks professional profilers to evaluate the whistleblower’s public statements for clues to his psyche.

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden may just be a naive do-gooder in over his head. Or he could be a narcissist, motivated by the glory of seeing his name in print. Maybe he's just a disgruntled guy who thinks he's smarter than everyone else.

The psychological motives of the former CIA employee, who worked as a U.S. contractor in Hawaii before he became the latest snitch to divulge highly sensitive government information, are far from clear. But these are the possibilities offered by professional criminal profilers who have analyzed Snowden’s published quotes in the Guardian and the Washington Post as well as a 12-minute video posted by the Guardian.

“He thinks he’s a hero,” says Dr. Casey Jordan, a criminologist who specializes in crime and human behavior. “He thinks of himself as a conscientious objector. He thinks he’s going to be like the French revolutionaries in Les Miserables—that if you die trying you will be remembered for your actions.”

Snowden, who made a roughly $200,000 salary and had a live-in girlfriend before he went into hiding, said he decided to disclose information about the government’s PRISM program, which makes use of internet surveillance to assist counterterrorism efforts, to protect "basic liberties for people around the world." He became disenchanted with the Obama administration, he said, after it continued the policies of former president George W. Bush.

Retired FBI profiler Clint van Zandt, a former U.S. Army counterintelligence agent and onetime supervisor of the bureau's Behavioral Science Unit, also sees sign of vanity in Snowden’s explanations. “For someone to believe he could make decisions on world events and he can shape the world and he alone—not the federal judges, or the attorney general, or the Supreme Court—should be the only one to determine what should be a national secret...That’s a level of arrogance only he can explain.”

Van Zandt says there are usually personal reasons why someone like Snowden gives up the goods. “FBI and CIA agents have given up secret information to the Soviets—sometimes for money and sometimes because they were underpaid and underappreciated and this was their way of saying, ‘Look how smart I am.’ Was there a level of narcissism? Did he feel his supervisors demeaned him? Did he feel he was underpaid? All these questions will have to be answered.”

‘The whole thing to me appears reckless.’

According to Canadian criminal-profile expert Jim van Allen, who specializes in analyzing threatening cyber communications, Snowden was “the wrong guy in the wrong place”—someone who shouldn’t have had access to the information he had access to. “They put him in areas where he sees this data collection at such a large scale and he feels affronted by it. He’s more loyal to his personal ideals than government and national security.”

Holed up in a swank hotel in Hong Kong, Snowden said he has barely left his room, had lined the door of his hotel room with pillows to prevent eavesdropping, and put a red hood over his head and computer when entering his password to prevent hidden cameras from getting the information. The U.S. government, he told the Guardian, was building a massive spying machine that would “destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they're secretly building."

Such a strongly paranoid worldview, according to van Allen, is typical of a whistleblower’s personality.

“He’s using some really emotionally charged language,” van Allen says. “He figures if the government is left unchecked it is going to exponentially abuse people’s rights until we reach the point of turnkey tyranny. That’s some extreme thinking.” However, Jordan says such actions are “normal behavior” for former CIA employees. “He probably resented the fact that they knew things about his life.”

According to the June 6 interview, Snowden said that prior to fleeing to Hong Kong, he told his NSA bosses that he needed medical treatment for epilepsy. Instead, he packed his bags and told his girlfriend he was going to be away for a few weeks. Then, on May 20, he flew to Hong Kong, where the Guardian interviewed him in a hotel "just up the road" from the U.S. Consulate.

Video screenshot

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“I laughed when he said the CIA has a post just up the road,” says van Allen. “I  thought that, well, that narrows down the hotels you’re in. The whole thing to me appears reckless. He was with the military, the CIA, and was involved in security work. He should be way better in covering his tracks.” 

Snowden told the Guardian that he in fact wanted to avoid the media spotlight. "I don't want public attention because I don't want the story to be about me,” he told the paper. “I want it to be about what the U.S. government is doing."

Van Allen disagrees. “He wants people to notice him,” he said. “The fact this guy allowed himself to be named leads to a notoriety aspect of his personality.”

Jordan also sees selfish motives in Snowden’s decision to reveal his identity. “I think he’s scared,” she says. “It’s a last-ditch effort. The interviews were so we wouldn’t think of him as a crackpot when he’s brought up on the charges. It is his last speech before the gallows … A lot of these government agents, they think they’re Jason Bourne. I think he’s young and naive and seduced to the Julian Assange-WikiLeaks concept that he can be a hero. It’s a miscalculation on his part.”

Snowden’s desire to go to Iceland, where he said he is hoping to seek asylum from the American government that has already begun an investigation, could also be a miscalculation.

“I hope he Googles the median temperature in Iceland in January,” says van Allen. “He’s certainly not realistic. It’s not exactly the chosen career choice of many people. What is he going to do is Iceland? It’s like saying ‘I want to go to Winnipeg’ for the rest of his life.”