WASHINGTON - The National Security Agency is the size of a small town, with more than 30,000 employees and as much variety. There are blue-haired iconoclasts who work in their socks, buttoned-down military types and pale-faced introverts who avoid eye contact in the hallways.
On the surface, at least, Edward Snowden was hardly unusual at America's largest and most powerful intelligence agency. A self-taught computer whiz who wanted to travel the world, Snowden seemed a perfect fit for a secretive organization that spies on communications from foreign terrorism suspects.
But in hundreds of online postings dating back a decade, Snowden also denounced "pervasive government secrecy" and criticized America's "unquestioning obedience towards spooky types."
At least online, Snowden seemed sardonic, affably geeky and supremely self-assured. In 2006, someone posted to Ars Technica, about an odd clicking in an Xbox video game console. A response came from "TheTrueHOOHA," Snowden's pen name: "NSA's new surveillance program. That's the sound of freedom, citizen!"
On Friday, U.S. officials said a criminal complaint had been filed against Snowden over his leak of classified NSA programs that sweep up Americans' telephone records and foreigners' e-mail traffic. Since the disclosures first appeared in the news two weeks ago, investigators have searched for clues in his past that might have hinted at his intentions.
In one way, he was no anomaly: The NSA has hired thousands of people in their 20s and 30s - including techies, hackers and video gamers - since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to keep up with the digital explosion and expand America's cyber spying.
"It's a very eccentric group of individuals with some really far-out ideas about the world," said Matthew Aid, author of "The Secret Sentry," a book about the agency. "They're more liberal. They're better educated than their predecessors."
The NSA "has been forced to suck in its gut a little bit, saying we'll put up with these techno geeks as long as they keep their mouth shut and abide by the rules," he added.
Many of those at the NSA could earn fatter salaries in Silicon Valley or elsewhere in the private sector, as Snowden did. Before he emerged into the spotlight (and then went into hiding, apparently in Hong Kong), he worked for 15 months as a contractor at an NSA facility in Hawaii, first for Dell and then for Booz Allen Hamilton.
Experts question whether Snowden's history raised any red flags when a Virginia contractor, USIS, conducted his background check.
Federal investigators are conducting a criminal inquiry of USIS, which does two-thirds of federal background investigations, for "systematic failure to adequately conduct investigations under its contract," according to Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who chairs the subcommittee on financial and contracting oversight.