On May 20, 2013, Edward Snowden, then a 29-year-old computer technologist working for a National Security Agency (NSA) contractor in Hawaii, disappeared from his job claiming medical problems and flew to Hong Kong, taking with him about 1.5 million pages of classified documents that he turned over to reporters for the U.K. Guardian and the Washington Post. The documents, secretly downloaded and copied by Snowden over many months, revealed, among other things, that the NSA, claiming authority under the 2001 Patriot Act, had been systematically collecting telephone and internet data on virtually every American—an activity condemned by its critics as blatantly unconstitutional as well as outrageous.
Snowden has been living in Moscow ever since, under a grant of temporary asylum by the Russian government. The U.S. government canceled his passport on June 23, 2013, leaving him stranded in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport as he was trying to connect flights to take refuge in Ecuador, whose socialist government under then-president Rafael Correa was reliably anti-American. Returning to America would have meant immediate arrest. Just before the State Department revoked his passport, the Justice Department charged him with theft of government property and violations of the Espionage Act of 1917, which forbids conveying information with the intent of interfering with U.S. military operations. One of the penalties for violating the Espionage Act is death.
And so a debate continues to rage: was Snowden a whistleblower hero paying a steep price for exposing a secret and unconscionable program of wholesale spying on Americans—or was he actually a traitor, since the vast majority of the contents of the leaked classified documents went well beyond domestic tracking to include defense activities which raised no privacy concerns and surveillance of foreign nationals living abroad (including members of Al-Qaeda and its terrorist ilk) whom U.S. constitutional protections don’t cover. Furthermore, he was no whistleblower (although he claims to be such) under any definition of that word. According to intelligence-agency records, he tried only desultorily to alert his superiors to the NSA’s mass data-collecting (he claims otherwise), and he never, for example, attempted to contact either government officials or members of Congress with intelligence oversight. Instead, he simply stole and leaked the documents for the delectation of journalists. He never tried to take advantage of federal whistleblower laws that protect against recriminations.
The Life of a Leaker
Snowden’s autobiography, Permanent Record, follows several years of semi-celebrity status for its self-exiled author, including numerous speaking engagements (via teleconferencing from Russia), an Academy Award-winning documentary about him, Citizenfour (one of several crypto names he used to contact reporters), and a lionizing 2016 biopic, Snowden, written and directed by Oliver Stone with all of Stone’s usual conspiracy-theorist tics and his propensity to tailor the purported facts accordingly.
Readers of Snowden’s own version of his exploits in this book should be similarly advised to supplement it with internet research that includes others’ recollections of his career path and personality. Records searches and media interviews with former bosses and co-workers—along with a bipartisan report in 2016 from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence—have indicated some discrepancies in his résumé, among other things. He did not actually take computer classes at Johns Hopkins University as sources say he once claimed, but rather from a now-defunct, for-profit entity that operated on a Johns Hopkins campus. Nor was he anywhere near finishing an online master’s degree at the University of Liverpool as he claimed in 2013, having failed to complete—or even start—the coursework after enrolling there in 2011.
Some of his former fellow employees described him as a troublemaker at work who had been reprimanded several times as well as an inflator of his job titles and responsibilities. Snowden’s last boss at NSA contractor Booz Allen Hamilton in Hawaii (which he joined only two months before his defection) said that, despite having a security clearance, he had no real access to the controversial programs whose data he said fell into his hands. Of possible special interest is a June 2013 article on Buzzfeed that excerpted some ten years’ worth of Snowden’s pre-defection postings on the geek site Ars Technica under the handle TheTrueHOOHA. There, the youthful Snowden, photographed minus the chin stubble and rimless eyeglasses that are his current signature features, boasted of feats of erotic athleticism: “There have been times when I’ve have [sic] sex marathons from sundown til [sic] sunrise.”
Permanent Record is far better written than the Ars Technica postings, perhaps because a maturing Snowden has polished his grammatical and spelling skills, or perhaps because an editor managed to turn his recollections into a crisp and surprisingly readable narrative, if one that should be consumed with a grain or even a tablespoon of salt. Snowden was born in 1983 in Elizabeth City, North Carolina not far from the Atlantic coast. Shortly before his ninth birthday, the family moved to Crofton, Maryland, near the Washington, D.C. Beltway. Both parents were federal lifers with high-level clearances: his father was a Coast Guard petty officer who did defense work he never talked about; his mother a benefits administrator at the Fort Meade Army base. Snowden’s electronics-addicted father introduced him to computers and computer games practically as soon as he could read. His parents divorced around his 15th birthday, and he lived his remaining adolescence with his mother and older sister.
Snowden, according to his own recollection, was the kind of smart but smart-aleck kid you’d like to smack (his father later told the media that his son had scored over 145 on two IQ tests as a child). When he was 13, young Eddie figured out that he could skip the homework and term paper in his U.S. history class and still get a passing grade, as long as he aced the tests. The teacher pulled him aside and told him maybe so, but the D-minus would follow him for the rest of his life: “You have to start thinking about your permanent record”—hence the book’s title.
During his sophomore year in high school, he missed four months of classes with mononucleosis and was told he would have to repeat the entire year. Instead, he took and passed the GED, signed up for community college classes, and figured out ways to hack himself into IT jobs without possessing either a high school diploma or a college degree, via computer prep courses that led to competency certificates—hence the dubious “Johns Hopkins” enrollment. He then acquired, as a security guard at an NSA facility at the University of Maryland, a top-secret clearance that would give him access to high-paying intelligence jobs. You have to give Snowden credit for saving himself and his parents massive amounts of higher-education tuition, not to mention the social justice indoctrination that goes along with it, but it’s also easy to see how he acquired a reputation for arrogance among those who had to deal with him day to day.
The next step was enlistment in the Army after 9/11. He didn’t last through basic training (owing to fractures in both tibias during an exercise according to his account; shin splints that involved pulled muscles but no broken bones according to the House Intelligence Committee’s 2016 report). In 2006 he was hired by the CIA (where he characteristically annoyed his training instructors) and dispatched to Geneva as a cybersecurity expert in 2007. There, the 23-year-old, hitherto unquestioningly patriotic Snowden claimed to have undergone a reverse road-to-Damascus experience observing his fellow CIA operatives encourage a prominent Swiss banker to get drunk and try to drive home instead of calling a cab; after he was arrested, they offered to help him out legally in return for becoming an informant. (The Swiss government went ballistic over this allegation and its implications of official corruptibility after Snowden conveyed it to the media in 2013.) Citing disillusionment, Snowden left the CIA in 2008. He had acquired a long-term girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, a dancer and yoga instructor whom he eventually married in Moscow in 2017.
In 2009 Snowden went to work for Dell, which had a computer-systems management contract with NSA. The job took him first to Tokyo, then back to Maryland, then, in 2012, to Kunia, on Oahu, where NSA had a giant underground facility devoted to electronic intelligence-gathering. The relaxed lifestyle was said to be beneficial for controlling the epileptic seizures that Snowden had begun experiencing. It was there that he discovered—and began systematically copying files from (via stolen passwords, his critics say)—NSA’s domestic and other surveillance operations. He spirited the tens of thousands of files out of NSA via micro-SD cards fitted inside a Rubik’s Cube he carried in his pocket. He also began contacting journalists whom he identified as displaying an anti-U.S. government bent: documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (she made the Oscar-winning Citizenfour) and Intercept founder Glenn Greenwald, then a columnist for the Guardian.
In March 2013 Snowden switched contractor-employers from Dell to Booz Allen, which gave him access to another of NSA’s Kunia facilities where he could actually view and hear firsthand the contents of some of NSA’s intercepted communications. He was also engineering his getaway. On May 20, 2013, he flew to Hong Kong and sequestered himself (he says) in a hotel room waiting for Poitras, Greenwald, and Greenwald’s Guardian colleague Ewen MacAskill to show up.
On June 5 the first of Greenwald’s stories appeared, detailing a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court’s classified authorization for NSA to collect and store daily information from Verizon about every phone call it handled (the Patriot Act is part of FISA). The next day, Washington Post national security reporter Barton Gellman, using documents transmitted by Poitras, ran a similar account. On June 9 Snowden publicly identified himself as the source of the stories and others that had run elsewhere in the media. He spent the next two weeks hiding out in apartments, consulting with lawyers, and arranging with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange to pay for his lodgings and his flight out.
Edward Snowden: Annoyingly Necessary
It is easy to detest Edward Snowden. His smug, know-it-all attitude, his numerous apparent factual fabrications, and his self-serving moralizing as he places himself securely among the “people of principle” who became martyrs to an overweening U.S. government are incessant irritants. He told the media that he had been triggered by the March 2013 testimony of James Clapper, then director of U.S. national intelligence, in which Clapper allegedly lied under oath to assert that NSA did not engage in bulk collection of American citizens’ communications—except that Snowden’s efforts to sabotage that spying had begun many months before.
The sheer volume of the documents and the irrelevance of so many of them to his central claim are also off-putting. Are we really supposed to care about some scholar in Indonesia who applied for a teaching job in Iran just because an NSA video viewed by Snowden caught his cute toddler son clambering over his computer keyboard? The whole point of the Patriot Act was to prevent Islamic terrorism—scarcely unknown in Indonesia—from migrating to U.S. shores as it did before 9/11. It is not surprising that President Barack Obama declined to pardon Snowden before he left office in 2017 despite intensive lobbying by celebrities and NGOs. Fellow leaker Chelsea Manning, whose sentence Obama did commute, had at least served time for her crimes. While there is little evidence that Snowden was an active foreign agent, those who believe he was clandestinely serving the interests of, say, Russia or China, can be forgiven.
The fact remains, however, that Snowden did perform a public service whose value becomes increasingly evident as time passes. NSA’s defenders, who include the prominent libertarian legal scholar Richard Epstein, have argued that the agency didn’t really eavesdrop on Americans’ electronic communications, but simply collected “metadata”—raw records of numbers called, emails sent, credit-cards used, and so forth. To examine the contents of any particular communication, agents must obtain a warrant from a FISA-Court judge, the argument goes. The most compelling response to that comes from Georgetown law professor Randy Barnett, who pointed out in a 2015 article for the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy that such blanket data seizures are simply 21st-century versions of the “general warrants” that allowed British authorities to rifle through homes and papers looking for contraband. The Fourth Amendment was drafted specifically to protect against such practices, hence the amendment’s requirement that search warrants describe “particularly” the items to be searched or seized.
Furthermore, as evidence mounts that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Justice grossly abused the FISA-Court system to spy on Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016 (knowingly using the fabulist, Democratic Party-commissioned “Steele dossier” to obtain warrants, for example), it is obvious that the secretive wholesale surveillance system that Snowden uncovered is in need of drastic reform. In 2015 Congress amended the Patriot Act to limit bulk collection of data, but NSA continues to intercept millions of records under the revised standards. The Justice Department continues to request that the FISA Court authorize more than a thousand search warrants a year on Americans, mostly for electronic surveillance. Compliant FISA judges grant nearly all those requests.
The most controversial FISA provisions are currently up for congressional reauthorization, and at least some Republicans in both houses are demanding their overhaul as a condition of support. Edward Snowden may be a creep and a narcissist who deserves to be a man without a country, but he has succeeded in drawing needed public attention to the malign use of technology in a society where it is all-pervasive.