NSA secrets-leaker Edward Snowden was a giant among geeks, a former colleague tells Forbes, revered and respected by fellow techies working in the intelligence arena.
"NSA is full of smart people, but anybody who sat in a meeting with Ed will tell you he was in a class of his own … I've never seen anything like it," the anonymous NSA staffer told the magazine.
Communicating with journalists using the codename Verax – Latin for truth-teller – Snowden, 30, leaked up to 200,000 classified documents detailing countless amounts of information gleaned from U.S. cyberspying operations that revealed wiretapping of phones and computers around the globe.
The information uncovered has mostly centered on the NSA's electronic surveillance program. It showed the United States eavesdropped on the cellphone calls of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and tracked the porn-watching habits of Muslim terrorist sympathizers, Time magazine reports.
The colleague recalled Snowden, a high-school dropout who grew up near NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Md., as "principled, ultra-competent and somewhat eccentric."
He said Snowden was "a genius among geniuses."
He frequently roamed the underground NSA halls in Hawaii called the "tunnel" carrying a Rubik's cube and wearing a black hoodie sweatshirt parodying the National Security Agency logo, with an eagle clasping AT&T cables and eavesdropping headphones covering the bird's ears, according to the Forbes article.
Snowden frequently reported security vulnerabilities in NSA software to his bosses and developed a backup system widely implemented by the NSA in its codebreaking operations, according to Forbes.
Despite his status as a contractor, Snowden earned "full administrator privileges" when his supervisors decided he was the best qualified person to build one of its projects, something the former colleague admits was "a big mistake in hindsight."
"But if you had a guy who could do things nobody else could, and the only problem was that his badge was green instead of blue, what would you do?"
A neighbor in Hawaii, where Snowden was working before fleeing the country, recalled Snowden as "unremarkable but oddly standoffish."
The former colleague disputed claims that Snowden cut corners and cheated on tests to get where he got. And the person insisted that while Snowden may have been duplicitous by leaking the information, he did not do anything dishonest to gain access to the information.
"I was shocked and betrayed when I first learned the news, but as more time passes I'm inclined to believe he really is trying to do the right thing and it's not out of character for him. I don't agree with his methods, but I understand why he did it," the colleague says. "I won't call him a hero, but he's sure as hell no traitor," Forbes reports.
Snowden is living in Russia where he has been granted temporary asylum. The U.S. government has charged him with theft and violating the Espionage Act.
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