Edward Snowden. A product of 9/11, a nobody drawn to patriotic service. Apprentice spy and contractor working for team Cheney, in some ways everything about a generation of mindless and detached worker bees that the east coast elite hates. But before he was a patriot, before he was this century’s most beloved and reviled American citizen, he was just a man with a job. Just like thousands of other contractors that continue to work under the aegis of Booz Allen Hamilton and Northrop-Grumman.
And while it’s important to remember he was the one that chose to reveal, to antagonize the already-raging bull, it’s of equal import to remind ourselves it could have been any one of those thousand faceless drones. Our country’s most secretive and supposedly important programs continue to be run by average Edwards. This one just happened to be the one in a hundred thousand.
The liberal elite have placed this man on the altar of patriotic heroism. His slate is wiped clean because he is poster boy, darling, whistleblower, the man who restored freedom; Nobel-something and every liberal’s general amnesty nominee. Boyish looking, white, techno-dweeb who speaks a different language, combo-IP and IC, he knows stuff. Stuff about the secret recesses of them. After they hired him. They trusted one of their anonymous drudges with top secret knowledge meant for only the most dependable. But when everything is top secret, nothing can be top secret. The management of such enormous amounts of data can’t be handled by just the trusted, because it’s simply too vast. And in the vastness of empty, orderly data, there is space for the Snowdens of the world to step in and create chaos.
Snowden enlisted in the Army Reserve in 2004 at the age of 19. He then worked for the Central Intelligence Agency. He took an oath. He signed non-disclosure and pre-publication agreements. He then moved to the National Security Agency. He passed multiple background investigations. He got a security clearance. He took a job working for Dell and Booz Allen Hamilton as a government contractor and subcontractor. He gained access to compartmented information dealing with communications intelligence. He had a job that allowed him “privileged access” to a Top Secret-level compartmented network. He downloaded what the government claims is well over a million documents. He removed them from a restricted area. He left the United States with them. He gave copies of all or some of these highly classified documents to at least three people not authorized by the U.S. government to have access to them. He publicly revealed his own identity on June 5, 2013. He spoke out and continues to speak.
Being a former Army intelligence analyst and a long-time secrets revealer in the world of book writing and journalism, nothing about the desperate binge eating disorder of the NSA in the information age surprises me. Having co-authored Top Secret America in 2010, after three years of research, I knew that the world of spying and killing had become an autonomous and opaque industry. But I’ve learned a ton from Snowden’s stash of documents. They are a painfully tangible internal paper trail of a world we are not supposed to see. PowerPoint briefing after PowerPoint briefing—nerds explaining stuff to their dinosaur bosses, mad scientists showing off what they can do, statistical accountings in the billions of the boundless appetite of machines—are themselves a sociological study and the modern-day record-keeping of the banality of bureaucratic evil.
Collecting too much? Focusing on everything and thus nothing? Meticulous granularity that says nothing about the big picture? What we’ve seen of the documents so far paints such an extraordinary montage of techno-hieroglyphics no one has even been able to summarize the corpus beyond the generalities. The public debate thus falls back on seemingly straightforward buzzwords – warrantless wiretapping, surveillance, bulk collection, and illegality—to trump their minimization and counter-terrorism and national security.
Today is the second anniversary of the age of Snowden. Some would have you believe that the evils of the surveillance juggernaut has been rolled back and that there has been a triumph over the secret state. I think nothing of the sort has occurred. Because the complexity of what the government is actually doing is still so difficult to comprehend, we see only temporary and vague technicalities used to impose seeming constraints. If the government was doing anything illegal two years ago, I think they are still doing it. If anyone’s rights were being infringed upon then, they still are. If our communications were subject to gratuitous collection and storage, that’s still going, too. And if our basic right to privacy was being challenged by the dark arts of signals intelligence and cyber collection, it still is. Meanwhile the internet has become intrinsic to daily existence from Argentina to Zimbabwe as well as a vast battleground of the nation state, of the corporate world, of terrorists and criminals and Snowden’s of Arc. I know that there are ponytailed prophets toiling away in New York and Berlin and Silicon Valley to slay the dragon, but the vagueness of progress— and even of their quixotic crusade—seems to match our piecemeal and imperfect understanding of the problem.
Because today is really only about Snowden, I set out to freshly review his message and thus try to understand his worldview. In his first recorded interview, Snowden described what he saw on the network as “disturbing” and labeled it “wrongdoing” and an “architecture of oppression.” Since then, he has hardened much of what he has to say, turning what the NSA can do into what the NSA is doing. Oh, he’s been willing to name some names—Cheney and two NSA directors Michael Hayden and Keith Alexander—but much beyond that, he has stuck to they, seemingly reluctant to finger the legions of keyboard soldiers in this massive institution as personally responsible.
Snowden also opines about “the people” and government, about privacy and the Constitution, justifying his actions and denying harm to U.S. national interests. He has laid out a consistent argument as to why he went to the press—and how that shows his care in what he did; no bulk divulging for him. In his own words, as laid out in the meta interview that follows here, he speaks of national security and the kind of spying he approves of. He defines harm, both harm that he believes he hasn’t caused and that which he claims the government has. He calls for the people to have a say though he also has a trenchant view of government, of Congress, and even the courts, leaving one wondering what form of regulation would satisfy Mr. Snowden if all the official institutions are so hopeless and corrupt.
In trying to summarize Snowden and his presence in our lives, I see not a traitor but certainly a criminal, and a hero, or at least a heroic figure. I have no doubt, backed by 40 years of working in this field, that every other “leak” pales in comparison. What Snowden did and the rules he broke in stealing some of the government’s most tightly held secrets makes every other whistleblower of our age look like a frightened weakling.
And yet should we listen to him? In introducing himself, Snowden says in an early interview that he’s been a “senior adviser for the Central Intelligence Agency,” that he has nine years of experience, that he had access to everything. He’s not lying. But it doesn’t erase the fact that he was also 29 and says “I don’t have special skills.” And in that is the real Snowden story: That a failed Army man and CIA drop-out could infiltrate this world, obviously saluting properly and following orders even, a cog in a giant soulless machine but in the end a lost soul. Which kind of reflects the whole of our nation as well, in which case, he is exactly the personification of 9/11 and its aftermath.
[Read my compilation of Snowden quotes about everything from his childhood to technical literacy here. I didn’t interview Edward Snowden directly but took what he has said in his own words and tried to represent his world and his worldview as fairly as I could.]
[First and third photos from AP. Second and final photo from Getty.]
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