When Edward Snowden’s disclosures about American mass surveillance first appeared in 2013, the world was a simpler place. The former intelligence contractor was defended by many journalists and civil libertarians. But America’s political and national-security establishments were in agreement: Snowden had betrayed his country. A reality television star with a weakness for conspiracy theories summed up the conventional wisdom in a tweet from July 10 that year: “Snowden has given serious information to China and Russia—anyone who thinks otherwise is a dope! He is a traitor who fled—he knew the crime!”
That was Donald Trump, who now despises the American “deep state” as much as the man who sought to expose it in 2013. Today, following Trump’s lead, much if not most of the Republican Party believes that the national-security bureaucracy built up since World War II is a dire threat to our democratic experiment. When Snowden was making that case in 2013, many of the same people said he had committed treason.
Snowden’s memoir, Permanent Record, purports to tell the story about his journey from his days as a gifted computer geek who joined the army after 9/11 to his decision to expose the American panopticon, which forced him into Russian exile. It is both revealing and deceptive. The most interesting aspect of it is that Snowden does not depict a ruthlessly efficient shadow government so much as a bland bureaucracy filled with mediocrities and greedy contractors. He observes early in the book that the terms “deep state” and “shadow government” fail to capture the reality of the federal bureaucracy.
Edward Snowden was raised by two civil servants. His mother worked as a clerk for the National Security Agency, and his father was an engineer at the Coast Guard. When Snowden first joined the intelligence community, he worked as a glorified night watchman at an NSA site intended to help people learn languages by computer. His dorm at the CIA campus where he trained to be a field technician was an infested motel whose stairs collapsed. Later, when Snowden begins to steal the documents he would later give to journalists, he describes how easy it was to fool security guards by asking them personal questions and being friendly.
For a while, Snowden’s life was good. He was a tech contractor with a top-secret security clearance, which meant he was making good money for a guy in his 20s. For his first contracting job—which was offered to him at a job fair—Snowden said his recruiter offered him a higher salary than he had sought because it increased his company’s commission. The badges that contractors wore after 9/11 were green for the color of money, Snowden jokes.
Over time, he became disillusioned. It began in Japan. There, he was assigned to an NSA outpost in Tokyo. Snowden had been chosen to fill in at the last minute to give a presentation on the Chinese counterintelligence threat. As he was cramming for his talk, reading through classified assessments, he had the “sneaking sense” that he “was looking at a mirror and seeing a reflection of America,” he writes. “What China was doing publicly to its own citizens, America might—could be—doing, secretly to the world.”
This observation is both shrewd and bizarre. It is shrewd because Snowden understood there was no way for America to have all this information on China’s big-brother technology without having at least the capability to build it, too. And it’s bizarre because Snowden would later help that Chinese government when he was in Hong Kong. This episode is not mentioned in Snowden’s book and is almost never discussed among his defenders. But in June 2013, Snowden gave an interview to the South China Morning Post where he shared the Internet Protocol Addresses of machines in mainland China that the NSA had breached.
The next shoe to drop for Snowden was when he searched the NSA databases for a classified version of an inspectors-general report on the President’s Surveillance Program. In 2005, the New York Times exposed the program as an expansive example of post-9/11 mass surveillance. The government was collecting the incoming and outgoing Internet and telephone traffic without a warrant from the special court to authorize such surveillance.
Eventually Snowden found a draft copy of the classified report, which contradicted the one the public was allowed to read. He found out about it because someone from the NSA’s inspector-general office had left a draft version of it in a lower-security database. He was scandalized. “The program’s very existence was an indication that the agency’s mission had been transformed, from using technology to defend America to using technology to control it,” he writes.
Here, it’s important to say that Snowden is partially correct. The Bush and Obama administrations did veil this mass surveillance in excessive secrecy. There were and still are sound reasons for giving the NSA the power to sort through masses of stored telephone and Internet data. It’s necessary to prevent terror attacks and protect against foreign espionage. But there was no reason for top officials to lie in open session to Congress about this. Most Americans, until recently at least, could live with giving the government these powers so long as there was proper oversight.
At the end of Permanent Record, Snowden writes about how he ended up living in Moscow. From Hong Kong, he teamed up with a WikiLeaks activist named Sarah Harrison, who helped him plan out an itinerary he had hoped would land him in Ecuador. But by the time his flight landed in Moscow, the U.S. government had revoked his passport. He was trapped. Inside the airport, Snowden met Russian intelligence officers who he says urged him to turn coat.
Here is where the book strains credulity. I don’t believe that Snowden was recruited by a foreign intelligence agency while he was working inside the government. But it’s also hard to credit Snowden’s tale. How likely is it that he would be allowed to live comfortably in Moscow, with his girlfriend (and now wife) who later joined him, without sharing what he knew with the Russian authorities? Snowden says he refused the offer. “Listen, I understand who you are, and what this is,” Snowden remembers telling the recruiter. “Please let me be clear that I have no intention to cooperate with you.” He leaves things there.
Snowden today still enjoys online freedom. He is active on Twitter. He has done a virtual book tour for the past month, appearing on podcasts and televised interviews from his apartment in Moscow. If he were to return home, he would almost certainly be found guilty of compromising state secrets and spend the rest of his life in jail. So he is stuck in a country that better resembles the surveillance-state dystopia he has warned Americans about.
“Once the ubiquity of collection was combined with the permanency of storage, all any government had to do was select a person or a group to scapegoat and go searching—as I’d gone searching through the agency’s files—for evidence of a suitable crime,” he writes. That is an apt description of China and Russia. There are many Americans who believe this also describes their own country. One of them happens to be the president of the United States.