Permanent Record by Edward Snowden

Confirming the immutable law that governments always act most swiftly when their reputations are at stake, the Justice Department has sued Edward Snowden and the publishers of his book for violation of the secrecy and non-disclosure agreements that he signed before he worked for the C.I.A. and National Security Agency, and they are seeking to recover all proceeds from the book’s sales.

Although the horse has well and truly bolted on the state secrets brought out from the dark heart of the N.S.A. by Edward Snowden six years ago, a deed that resulted in espionage charges being filed against him, and sent him seeking asylum in Moscow, the U.S. government doesn’t want you reading his autobiography, Permanent Record, because the whole affair is still a huge embarrassment. So, continue here at your own risk, because, as Snowden points out, the device you are using may be accessed by some anemic, dead-eyed technician who can work out where you are on the page from watching your lips move on the device’s camera. Maybe he’ll take things further by looking through your e-mail and photos; maybe he’ll order up a drone strike. These days, who can say?

Continue here at your own risk, because the device you are using may be accessed by some anemic, dead-eyed technician.

But before you leave, let me just say that this is a very good book. It reminded me of the scale of betrayal of the American people, not, of course, by Snowden, but by their government, and it told me a lot about the man who first appeared to the world on camera in a hotel room in Hong Kong, speaking convincingly and looking like the sort of fellow who could be relied upon to bring your daughter safely home by 11:30 p.m.

First Sightings

I first heard of him on Saturday, June 1, 2013. It was a fine day, and my neighbor and friend, Alan Rusbridger, then the editor of The Guardian, appeared in my garden looking a lot more preoccupied than usual. He eventually murmured that his reporters were onto a very big story— indeed, bigger than I could possibly imagine.

He glanced down at a pair of large Chinese pots filled with rainwater and suggested that I desperately needed some goldfish to keep the mosquito larvae down during the summer. We climbed into his Smart car and drove to a tropical-fish farm about 10 miles away. At that early stage, no one had any idea who Snowden was—not President Obama, nor his intelligence chiefs—and Alan and the few people in on the secret were keen to keep it like that. It may have been an absurd precaution, but it explains why I ended up with four goldfish in a plastic bag that day.

On the way, he told me that his reporter Ewen MacAskill was flying from New York to Hong Kong to interview an intelligence official who had worked at the heart of both the C.I.A. and N.S.A., and who was preparing to reveal the whole architecture of the U.S. government’s mass surveillance of the public.

At that early stage, President Obama had no idea who Snowden was.

Over the next few months there were many meetings at the Guardian headquarters in blacked-out rooms, where personal phones and laptops were left outside, while new computers that had never been connected to the Internet processed the documents that Snowden had smuggled out of the N.S.A. facility in Hawaii, using tiny SanDisk cards often hidden in his Rubik’s Cube.

The speed, scale, and detailed nature of the revelations, plus the ferocious reaction from those governments who were spied upon and those doing the spying (the U.S. and the U.K.), meant that I hadn’t properly thought about the forces that had propelled Snowden from a secure, fairly privileged life in Hawaii to Sheremetyevo Airport, in Russia, where he languished stateless because Secretary of State John Kerry had withdrawn his American passport. (This was one of the many mistakes made by the Obama administration, because it put Snowden beyond their reach.)

For me, Snowden’s moral compulsion is the most interesting part of the book, although it’s important to be reminded of such revelations as the XKeyscore interface, which allowed you “to type in pretty much anyone’s address, telephone number, or I.P. address, and then basically go through the recent history of their online activity.” And of PRISM, which accessed all the data from, among others, Microsoft, Google, and Facebook, often with their help, a fact that underlines that Big Tech and governments have basically the same agenda: to define you and your intentions by appropriating your data.

Back Numbers

Snowden’s personal data is pretty standard until he became an intelligence officer. He was born in 1983 into a family that had habitually served the nation and was also used to acquiring security clearances. His father Lon’s people were seafarers and he served in the Coast Guard, while Snowden’s mother’s side could trace their origins to a man who worked as a cooper on the Mayflower. They eventually divorced, but they were good parents, cultivating young Eddie’s math abilities and his fascination for systems and machines. He showed early signs of rebellion by changing the clocks in his home so that his bedtime was extended long into the evening, hacking his school marking system so he didn’t have to do homework or term papers, and, at a young age, breaking into the Los Alamos National Laboratory system, the country’s nuclear-research facility, which had a spectacularly crude “directory tree” in its U.R.L. structure.

He was rebellious and independent, but character does not equal conscience. Developing a conscience required deep and agonized reflection, which Snowden had to do on his own, because he couldn’t tell his girlfriend (now wife) Lindsay about his plans to steal the N.S.A.’s most damaging secrets and because, he says, if he had spoken to his father of these intentions, his father would have gone to the cops or had him committed to a mental hospital.

Big Tech and governments have basically the same agenda: to define you by appropriating your data.

His conviction developed over a long period, during which, he says, it “became increasingly difficult for me to ask these questions about the technologies I was responsible for and not about my country.” And what is impressive is that it was all done through the prism of the American Constitution. Snowden simply matched up what he knew was going on with the rights and freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution, then concluded that his “country’s operating system—its government—had decided that it functioned best when broken.”

It is rather pathetic and mean-spirited to try to punish Snowden through his book. He may still face charges under the Espionage Act, but there are very few people who have done more to uphold the values that are taught to every American child, and he underlines the point that if neither the country’s government nor its citizens are expected to take all this literally and act on it, the Constitution is reduced to nothing more than a religious incantation.

Henry Porter is a writer living in London. His most recent novel, White Hot Silence, is out now