Learning from Snowden

A review of Edward Snowden’s book Permanent Record

Published in The Whistle (Newsletter of Whistleblowers Australia), No. 102, April 2020, pp. 3-5

Reviewer: Brian Martin

Edward Snowden worked for the US Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency. The CIA and NSA are the two largest and most well known organisations in the US intelligence community (IC). Due to his technical skills, Snowden rose rapidly to high positions in handling the agencies’ computer systems. He discovered that the NSA was involved in a massive programme of collecting electronic information about US citizens, in violation of the US Constitution. In 2013, he leaked a vast collection of information about NSA surveillance to journalists. Their stories were front-page news around the world for weeks. After a few days, Snowden went public about his identity. He became a fugitive and ended up in Russia, where he has lived ever since.

Permanent Record is Snowden’s autobiography. It is an engaging account, from his description of his upbringing to how he collected information about NSA surveillance. Here I focus on insights especially relevant to whistleblowers.

The US IC seeks to collect every bit of electronic information — telephone calls, emails, bank account transactions, social media comments, and so on — about every person on the planet, and to store it forever. This means your entire life, electronically speaking, could be retrieved and scrutinised. It would be a “permanent record,” the title of Snowden’s book.

Snowden was a child of the computer age. As a youngster in the 1980s and 1990s, he was obsessed with early computers, so much so that his grades in school suffered. He became highly adept at computer games and later computer programming and systems analysis.

His life trajectory was dramatically altered by the 9/11 attacks. Snowden was an ardent patriot and decided to join the army, thinking he would contribute to his country’s defence. But he suffered a serious injury and could not continue. So then he made a decision to support his country using his computer skills, which actually made a lot of sense. At the time, he felt that he wasn’t doing much unless it was difficult for him, and computing for him was a breeze.

9/11 was the greatest failure in the history of US intelligence agencies. They had failed to pick up warnings about the organisation of the operation to hijack passenger planes and fly them into prominent buildings. The IC paid no penalty for this failure aside from being reorganised. Instead, it received a tremendous boost in funding.

It was an ideal time for someone with advanced computer skills. Despite his limited academic background and young age, Snowden was able to take on ever more advanced roles in the CIA and NSA.

For quite a few years, Snowden remained a patriot, completely accepting the role of the IC and its activities. Gradually, though, he became aware of the massive scale of the NSA bulk collection of electronic information, and that it was illegal. For his reference point, Snowden used the US Constitution. The fourth amendment to the Constitution bars the government from undertaking searches and seizures of people’s property without cause and authorisation. Snowden’s thinking was that the government shouldn’t be searching people’s digital record any more than it should be searching their homes. Indeed, pre-Internet, the CIA’s method of surveillance was to break into people’s homes and install listening devices. Obviously, this was a risky and costly procedure that could be carried out only for high-value targets. Now, the NSA was doing the digital equivalent for everyone.

There are two important points concerning Snowden’s gradual awareness and concern about government surveillance. The first is that he developed his concerns without any external prodding. There was no civil libertarian who lived down the street who got him thinking. Nor, according to his book, did he ever attend meetings of any group that might have encouraged him to think critically about his job and the activities of his employers. If he had, he might have come under suspicion. He knew that as a member of the IC that he was under constant surveillance himself.

The second point about Snowden’s increasing concerns is that he told no one about them. He didn’t start discussing matters with his co-workers, much less his bosses. Furthermore, he didn’t tell any family members or friends. He didn’t even tell his partner Lindsay. Part of the reason is that as part of getting his jobs in the IC, he had to undergo close scrutiny to be given top-secret security clearance, and it was drilled into him that nothing about his job was to be revealed to outsiders, including close family members. As he prepared, over many months, to leak a massive trove of documents, Snowden said nothing about his plans to those close to him. Indeed, he hid his preparations as much as possible.

Snowden’s trajectory was thus different from that of many other whistleblowers, who commonly raise concerns at the workplace, showing discontent long before they take action, and who share their concerns and plans with family members. Indeed, whistleblower advisers usually recommend checking with family members before taking action, because they are affected too. Snowden, because he worked for the IC, was used to keeping secrets about his work, and ironically this made it easier for him to conceal his plans to expose government surveillance.

An implication of Snowden’s experience is that if you have a totally clean background — clean in the sense of not being known as a critic or malcontent — and you become aware of serious problems, one option can be to collect information and leak it, without telling colleagues, friends or family beforehand. This is a sort of deep-cover whistleblowing. If you can leak without being identified, this is even better.

Once Snowden decided he had to reveal government snooping, he patiently and carefully collected a vast amount of data supporting his concerns. In Permanent Record, he tells about his trepidation as he took data out of the massive spy base in Hawaii, for example by putting a chip inside a square of a Rubik’s Cube. To his surprise, no one ever came to arrest him.

It helped that Snowden made every attempt to be friendly with others, including guards handling physical security. If you are seen as an engaging co-worker, you are less likely to be suspected of breaking ranks.

As well as collecting a huge number of documents about government surveillance, Snowden went one step further: he provided primers on how to understand the documents. He knew that outsiders would have a difficult time understanding the acronyms, procedures and systems within the IC, and so he made it as simple as possible for them to get on top of the material. It helped that he had experience teaching: he had given lectures to others in the IC about computer systems. But explaining things to outsiders was a bit different.

Snowden considered various options for making the information available to the public. One of them was setting up his own website and posting the documents. He decided this wouldn’t be effective. There were too many kooky websites and it would be difficult to establish credibility. Eventually he decided to bring in journalists, who would give the information credibility and help decide what was appropriate to reveal.

Not every whistleblower has revelations so explosive that journalists will be interested. Indeed, most don’t, and many become frustrated trying to gain media coverage. An alternative is to find an action group — in Snowden’s case, this could have been an Internet freedom organisation — that will use the information for campaigning purposes.

Snowden was very careful about how he approached the media, and this provides a model for others. He studied what different media outlets had done when they had access to material similar to his, namely about government electronic surveillance. He knew that the New York Times, the most prestigious newspaper in the US, had sat on important revelations in 2004 and was only prodded to publish when the material was about to be exposed independently. Snowden perceived the New York Times as too close to the US government and therefore unsuitable for his purposes.

He looked for courageous journalists who had experiences that resonated with his, and found an ideal person in Laura Poitras, a filmmaker. She brought on board journalist Glenn Greenwald, who wrote for the Guardian. This was a wise choice because the Guardian was based in Britain and thus not as subservient as US mainstream media to the IC.

It wasn’t easy for Snowden to recruit them. At the time, he was working in Hawaii and could only contact them by email, using a pseudonym. He had to convince them of the importance of his revelations and to meet him in person. It was hard to get Greenwald to use encrypted email; Snowden wrote a tutorial to help him.

As it turned out, Poitras and Greenwald were excellent choices; Greenwald brought in Ewen MacAskill from the Guardian as well. All of them spent days with Snowden in a hotel in Hong Kong as they interviewed him and he explained the documents he was giving them. Their stories were published and their editors and publishers stood up to pressure from the US government.

For the first few days of worldwide headlines based on Snowden’s disclosures, he remained anonymous. However, he knew it was a matter of days before US investigators tracked down his identity, so he decided to go public. In this way, he set the agenda. Poitras filmed him in the hotel room where he had been ensconced for many days, and the film clip went worldwide.

In preparation for making his disclosures, Snowden had done an enormous amount of careful planning, in downloading and securing documents, getting them out of the NSA base, choosing journalists and choosing where to meet them. Along the way, there were many possible traps, and Snowden often feared that he would be discovered and arrested, and was surprised when he wasn’t. Indeed, he was surprised to be as successful as he was, so much so that he had not planned anything beyond getting the information to the public.

Going public made a huge difference: it saved him from prison or worse. Soon after his name and pictures were on the worldwide media, he received offers of support in Hong Kong. He received legal assistance and he was sheltered by asylum seekers. Sarah Harrison, who worked for WikiLeaks, flew immediately to Hong Kong and pulled strings on his behalf, accompanying him on a flight out, with the ultimate destination being Ecuador.

As is well known, Snowden ended up in Russia, where he lives today. Aside from Ecuador, not a single government in the world would guarantee Snowden the protection against extradition to the US that is enshrined in law but is worthless if governments are so afraid of US pressure that they refuse to enforce it. When the plane carrying Ecuador’s president was stopped and searched, in violation of international law, Snowden knew he had no choice but to stay in Russia.

There are many moving parts in Permanent Record. Even knowing the outcome, Snowden’s account of his struggles and efforts generates tension. His story has been told many times — by others. And there has been quite a bit of disinformation too, as opponents sought to discredit Snowden. Snowden’s story from his perspective is illuminating in a different way. It is personal and all too human. He tells about his connections with his parents and especially with his partner Lindsay. He couldn’t tell her about his plans, so when he disappeared, having gone to Hong Kong without leaving a trace, just a note saying he was called away for work, she became increasingly worried. Permanent Record contains extracts from Lindsay’s diary, wonderfully revealing her emotions.

Whistleblowers, especially those seeking to make explosive disclosures, can learn a lot from Snowden’s story, in particular the value of keeping a low profile, collecting vast quantities of documents, providing explanations of the meaning and significance of the documents, choosing the best way to reveal the information and planning everything carefully.

Permanent Record provides Snowden’s perspective on the massive surveillance carried out by the US IC. Before he went public, he knew that the IC would immediately access the data held about him by the IC, and use it against him. Finally, years later, he wanted to add to the IC’s permanent record about him, by adding his own voice, ironically titled Permanent Record.

Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden, Permanent Record (Macmillan, 2019)


Brian Martin is editor of The Whistle.

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