Vanity Fair article about Edward Snowden

The latest issue of the magazine has a profile of the famous whistleblower that traces his life history and his evolution from a hesitant and tentative participant in online forums for computer enthusiasts to an assured, self-confident, sometimes cocky, and even abrasive personality. It is behind a paywall but one of the authors was interviewed at length on Fresh Air and it made for good listening and the interview and the transcript can be found here.

What I found most interesting is that following his parents’ divorce, Snowden dropped out of school at the age of 15 and is pretty much self-taught. I am not surprised that he learned his computer skills on his own because that is how many do. But he uses language in such a careful, precise, and measured way that people think must require many years of formal education.

I have encountered many people who have very little formal education (certainly much less than me) but speak and write and think so well and so clearly that this no longer surprises me. But I can see how people who think that a lot of formal education, preferably at elite institutions, is a necessary part of becoming a mover and shaker are annoyed at the fact that this high school drop-out has managed to command the world’s attention.

As an aside, there was considerable media chatter at the fact that Snowden asked Russian president Vladimir Putin a question about Russia’s surveillance practices during an online Q&A by the latter. In this article, Snowden explains why he asked what he did.


  1. pethenry says

    The Terry Gross piece is vaguely interesting in a “cud-chewing” kind of manner. Gross probes for human quirks and flaws – pursuing an idea that Snowden was “ego driven,” for instance – and is brought to heel by Borough (one of the writers of the Vanity Fair piece) more than once, who reminds Gross of how consistent Snowden has been. Throughout, Snowden has striven to keep the focus away from himself and on the spying scandal.

    I detect a whiff of sycophantism in the interview – subtle hints that Snowden’s professed straightforward motivation is just too naive to be believed, and that he must be more self-serving. Maybe I am just overreacting, but it seems to me like emperor’s court reporting, the view from inside the beltway, and an attempt to make his actions understandable to people who live inside the bubble.

    Despite the focus on his personality, early influences (parents’ divorce) and emotional development, the interview did not cover what I find the most puzzling part of his story – how he was able to make the leap from security guard to computer professional. The good news is the hiring department in the CIA must be open to people with true ability, rather than insisting on paper credentials as a ticket to a job interview.

    All in all, I suggest we follow Snowden’s advice – to relegate his personal story to the back burner, and to keep our focus on what truly matters – the egregious actions of our government, in its apparently limitless spying on us and on people around the world.

  2. Mano Singham says


    To indulge in pop psychology is Terry Gross’s style, which I find annoying. But she does bring on interesting guests.

    But you are right, the truly interesting part is the transition out of being a security guard. I think that two factors may have been in his favor. One is that people in the computer industry know that a lot of highly competent people have taught themselves and have little formal education. Also, the CIA by necessity has to be less bureaucratic and skilled in finding ways to get people to serve their interests. In other words, they were more likely to overlook his background and hire Snowden than a traditional company. Once he got in the door, his seemingly exceptional skills would have enabled him to rise quickly.

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