Edward Snowden, the fugitive former CIA employee and NSA contractor who leaked secrets about America’s spying operations, often hung out online with foreigners in Japan who shared his interests in anime, video games, martial arts, the stock market and the expat lifestyle.
Snowden, who learned Japanese as a teenager, was a Japanophile who had longtime connections to the country and several people here, who perhaps had no idea that their online friend was doing top-secret work for the U.S. government.
Born in 1983, Snowden studied Japanese for a year and a half as a teenager after moving to a city close to the National Security Agency headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland. He called himself “E-do-waa-do” using the Japanese pronunciation of his name. “I’ve always dreamed of being able to ‘make it’ in Japan,” he wrote in 2001. “I’d love a cushy .gov job over there, but I hear they’ll quarantine your pets for 6 freaking months. I have kitties.”
Like other foreigners, he struggled with kanji, but he enjoyed dropping Japanese phrases such as zenzen wakarimasen [I understand nothing at all].
His skills at the Namco PlayStation fighting game “Tekken” drew attention at the 2002 Anime USA convention.
He worked in 2002 as a webmaster for Ryuhana Press, a start-up website about Japanese anime, also located in Fort Meade. The website closed in 2004, and it’s not known if his Ryuhana colleagues went on to pursue their interests here in Japan.
Snowden, who was interviewed in Hong Kong last week, wrote in 2006 that he knew many people working in Japan. He later moved to Japan to work for Dell as a contractor for the NSA’s secretive surveillance program in early 2009. ABC News reported on Friday that Snowden attended the 2009 summer semester of the University of Maryland University College’s Asia program at a campus somewhere in Tokyo. UMUC’s website lists several campuses on U.S. military bases across Japan.
Between 2006 and 2008, Snowden, using the moniker “theTrueHOOHA,” often chatted online with Peter Durfee, a Tokyo-based translator who studied at the American School in Japan in the 1980s and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley. Durfee, who has more than 3,000 followers on Twitter, claims to do contract work for Japan’s prime minister, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Diet members and many corporations. He’s currently director of the Nippon Communications Foundation and a translation instructor at the Simul Academy, whose graduates work in key positions across Japan’s economy and bureaucracy.
Using the name “Durf,” he posted 9,528 times on Ars Technica between 2002 and last week.
“We did indeed both post on some threads at Ars Technica,” said Durfee, known for his sarcastic wit on Twitter and other sites. “Unfortunately this doesn’t mean he’s now holed up in my Tokyo guest room.”
Durfee says Snowden never tried to contact him outside of Ars Technica. “I went and found those threads, but they wouldn’t have been particularly memorable ones to me otherwise.”
A search of the Ars Technica website reveals that Durf and Snowden chatted at least six times in 2006 between April 26 and July 28. They wrote about things such as expat life in Japan, bank wire transfers, stock markets, a drug bust, and a man jumping from the World Trade Center on 9/11. Their tone was often cordial, as they sought to share information and answer questions from other commenters.
Durfee and Snowden communicated again two years later, on Dec. 2, 2008. Durfee asked a question about the markets, while Snowden, who was stationed with the CIA in Geneva at that time, spoke with expertise about day trading on the stock market, which was falling in the wake of the Lehman Brothers collapse weeks earlier.
Snowden often posted details about his stock trading, which raises questions about the nature of his work and whether intelligence operatives with top secret clearances would have access to information unavailable to other market players.
On May 4, 2006, Snowden chatted about Japan with other members of Ars Technica, known as “Arsians.”
“Erekose,” claiming to be a network manager at a U.S. software company, mentioned that he was hoping to move back to Japan with his wife and newborn child. “It appears there are good opportunities for someone of my skill to be found here. Anyone actually doing it?”
The next commenter, “Ian,” said his wife was working in Japan. “I’m following her in September and am trying to figure out how to find an IT job in Tokyo for myself.”
Snowden, using the moniker “theTrueHOOHA,” replied: “Most of the Arsians I know of who are currently in Japan are working in the language field. I think the biggest barrier to working in IT over there is developing the professional-level language ability.”
“Ian” then wrote: “My wife is actually Senior Manager for the IT department of an American Multi-national in Tokyo and about half her staff are Americans with minimal/no Japanese.”
According to an Associated Press report, the Swiss foreign ministry has confirmed that Snowden worked in Geneva as a U.S. mission employee accredited to the United Nations from March 2007 to February 2009. His co-worker at the time, Mavanee Anderson, described Snowden as friendly and brilliant, and an expert in martial arts who joined in Chinese New Year parades. “He once gave me a one-on-one martial arts lesson, and I was surprised at his abilities — and very amused that he seemed unable to go very easy on a newbie,” she wrote in Tennessee’s Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Snowden then moved to Japan in early 2009 to work for Dell as a contractor for the National Security Agency’s surveillance program, the AP reported.
While in Japan, Snowden appears to have lost interest in posting on Ars Technica, a U.S.-based site that lists more than 700 of his comments between 2001 and 2012.
He made no posts on the site for seven months between April 7, 2009, and November 27, 2009, when he was reportedly studying in the summer semester at the University of Maryland University College at an unknown location in Tokyo. He made only two posts that December, then one in February 2010, and nothing for 21 months until November 2011. After that, he made one more post, on May 21, 2012.
Since he had been a prolific poster before moving here, it’s hard to imagine he went cold turkey in Japan and made no comments at all on websites in Japan, a haven for tech industry workers using pseudonyms. Thus, observers speaking privately wonder if Snowden adopted a new pseudonym to run his own blog or post on chat forums in Japan while working here, as many expats do.
Since fleeing to Hong Kong from his job in Honolulu, Snowden has accused the United States of running a massive and secretive surveillance network — involving Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and other tech companies — that collects data on people worldwide. Some call him a hero for defending the public interest, while others have accused him of treason. The FBI has launched a criminal investigation into Snowden’s conduct, and the bureau’s director has accused him of exposing state secrets.
During his time studying and working in Japan, Snowden would have met several Japanese and expats in various fields, and possibly some of the people he had known online for years.
His longtime girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, wrote that they fell in love with the little street festivals in Japan. “On the hunt for the perfect date-night venue [in Hawaii] I stumbled upon a flyer for a Japanese summer festival. Could that be more perfect?! E and I fell in love with all the little street festivals when we lived in Japan and I couldn’t think of a better event to bring smiles to our faces.”
An acrobatic dancer, Mills often tweeted with a person named Gabzilla8Japan, who IDs herself with the line “I give good hair.”
In Hawaii, the couple often enjoyed karaoke and Japanese restaurants. “We lovingly crammed a large group into a small corner of a delicious Japanese restaurant and filled our bellies with sushi, tempura, and good conversation,” wrote Mills.
It’s not clear where Snowden and Mills lived in Japan. Multiple websites claim that the U.S. National Security Agency employs large numbers of intelligence operatives on the Misawa Air Base in Aomori Prefecture, which was a staging post for rescue and recovery efforts after the March 11, 2011, disasters in Tohoku.
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