Edward Snowden
NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden, by his own account, grew up as a “shape-shifter.” His father worked for the Coast Guard, his mother for the Maryland state courts. But his parents’ appearances in Snowden’s new memoir, Permanent Record, are fleeting and superficial. The more enduring influences on his life—his sociocultural parental units, as it were—were the civil service and the internet. He seems not to have aspired to anything besides working at the intersection of the two.

The book’s title refers to both Snowden’s purpose and his fears. He hopes to tell the definitive story of how he became a whistleblower and to highlight what he sees as a great danger: that the U.S. government has a permanent record of everybody’s life online. He wants to memorialize his odyssey as a warning against overweening government power.

As part of the first generation to grow up on the internet, Snowden’s personality sometimes seems more digital than analog. He did not have a crowd, a best buddy, a mentor. He was more comfortable in the virtual communities of gaming. He doesn’t recall much about high school, except for sleeping in class after staying up all night online. His parents divorced, and he had to deal with the resulting “silence and lies.”

“I reacted by turning inward,” he writes. “I buckled down and willed myself into becoming another person, a shape-shifter putting on the mask of whoever the people I cared about the needed at the time. Among family, I was dependable and sincere. Among friends, mirthful and unconcerned.”

His realities are virtual, not vivid. He takes software engineering training and gets certified as a techie. When he becomes a systems administrator on contract at the National Security Agency and then the CIA, he finds the workplace culture congenial, at least initially.

“The Intelligence Community tries to inculcate in its workers a baseline anonymity, a sort of blank-page personality upon which to inscribe secrecy and the art of imposture.” He calls it “human encryption,” and admits his life was coded.

“[M]y earliest hacking attempts were directed toward allaying my neuroses,” he admits. “The more I came to know about the fragility of computer security, the more I worried over the consequences of trusting the wrong machine.”

The life of the encrypted techie was disrupted by the 9/11 attacks. At first he supported the U.S. going to war against Al Qaeda. “The greatest regret of my life is my reflexive, unquestioning support for that decision,” he says. He just wanted to be praised for something besides his computer skills. “I wanted to show that I wasn’t just a brain in a jar,” he writes. “I was also heart and muscle.” He enlists in the Army, but during basic training, his weak legs betray him. He is given a medical discharge.

How to be more than a brain in a jar? Snowden’s personal struggle is to find meaning beyond the limits of his online upbringing. He’s loyal to his internet self, even as he admits it’s pathetic. When he first applied for a security clearance, he decides not to erase his “supremely moronic” postings in various chat groups. (He recalls advocating the bombing of countries that taxed video games.)

Then he meets a 19-year-old art student named Lindsay—where else?—via an online dating service. She was, he says, “absolutely volcanic.” He rates her “hot,” although he now recognizes she was “gawky, awkward, and endearingly shy.” When they meet in person, they mesh. She listens to him and critiques his lousy wardrobe. She’s the only person in the book, besides Snowden himself, who comes alive in any way.

He’s an everyman of the digital age. With a girlfriend and a security clearance, he is “on the top of the world.” He had no coherent politics, only “a mash-up of the values I was raised with”—i.e., the civil service—“and the ideals I encountered online,” which were vaguely libertarian.

But the very lack of higher education that makes him naïve also makes him idealistic about the workings of the national security agencies. Without pretensions, he lacks cynicism. Without ideology, he doesn’t do rationalizations. While his colleagues help run the NSA’s global surveillance machine without questions or qualms, he wonders about that thing called the Constitution. He takes to perusing a copy at his desk. When colleagues realize what he is reading, he recalls, “they’d make a face and back away slowly.”


Snowden has trenchant observations about the foibles of the U.S. intelligence community (IC).

About the widespread use of contractors: “It’s unimaginable that a major bank or even a social media outfit would hire outsiders for systems-level work. In the context of the U.S. government, however, restructuring your intelligence agencies so that your most sensitive systems were being run by somebody who didn’t really work for you was what passed for innovation.”

About the lack of self-reflection among technologists: “Nothing inspires arrogance like a lifetime spent controlling machines that are incapable of criticism.”

And about his complacent colleagues. “It didn’t matter whether they’d come to the IC out of patriotism or opportunism: once they’d gotten inside the machine, they became machines themselves.”

James Clapper
James Clapper, former NSA director whose testimony spurred Snowden to act (Credit: Jefferson Morley)

Whistleblowing becomes Snowden’s path to getting a life. He embraces the Fourth Amendment. His work makes him worry about “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” He is surprised and puzzled that no one else seems to care that their employer is seizing the digital equivalent of “papers” of hundreds of millions of people every day without any evidence of wrongdoing. When director James Clapper denies in a Senate hearing that the NSA is collecting the metadata of hundreds of millions of people, Snowden, with his far-reaching sysadmin access, knows Clapper is lying. He decides to act.

Snowden becomes a thief of secrets, which is why some accuse him of espionage. As he roams the NSA’s networks in search of documentation of the surveillance regime, he knows how to cover his digital tracks. He accumulates a huge body of secrets: powerful surveillance programs with names like TURBINE, TURMOIL, PRISM, and XKEYSCORE, secret orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court, and internal NSA memoranda.

Snowden’s memoir flags a little at the end. He takes his trove and flees to Hong Kong, a story told with more urgency and flair in Laura Poitras’ documentary, Citizenfour. He turns over all decisions about the publication of the NSA files to Poitras and Glenn Greenwald (who would go on to found the Intercept), Ewen MacAskill of the Guardian, and Bart Gellman of the Washington Post.

Snowden’s self-effacing account effectively rebuts the conspiracy theories about him—that he vanished for a time in Hong Kong, that he gave documents to the Russians, that lives were lost because of his actions. It also skims over a development that would have disturbed a more self-involved whistleblower (e.g., Julian Assange). Ironically, the most permanent record of Snowden’s accomplishment—the complete collection of NSA records that he filched—is now inaccessible.

Earlier this year, the Intercept fired the staff who managed the Snowden Archive, prompting Poitras to say she was “sickened.” While the Intercept has done thousands of Snowden documents and scores of articles about them, sometimes in collaboration with leading news organizations in Germany, Australia and elsewhere, most of the Snowden Archive has never been written about.

Now it’s not clear when or how other reporters and historians can get access to it. I’ve asked First Look Media, the Intercept’s parent organization for more information I will post their comment if and when I receive it.

No academic institution can take over the archive because of the threat of government legal action. Like Snowden and wife Lindsay in Moscow, the most complete body of records about NSA mass surveillance lives in limbo. It’s not secret, but it’s not public either. Snowden has shared his tale, but the larger story of mass surveillance in America has yet to be told


Snowden Archive

This archive collects all documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that have subsequently been published by The Intercept and other news media. This is only a small portion of the NSA documents that Snowden stole from the NSA.

The Snowden Archive is the result of a research collaboration between Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) and the Politics of Surveillance Project at the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto.

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