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Ghost in the Machine

How Edward Snowden found his conscience

Permanent Record by Edward Snowden. Henry Holt and Co., 352 pages.

In May 2007, not long before his twenty-fourth birthday, Edward Snowden, then a technical field officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, was posted to Geneva, Switzerland. Despite the luxe environs in the heart of Europe, it wasn’t his first choice of location. Still filled with post-9/11 patriotic fervor, Snowden had asked for a war zone posting in Afghanistan or Iraq. But he was denied, perhaps because he had earlier protested against poor conditions at a CIA training site at a moldering motel in Virginia. Still, Geneva was considered a prestigious posting, at the nexus of global finance and diplomacy, making it a promising start to the young technologist’s intelligence career.

Snowden’s job in Geneva was mostly behind-the-scenes work on networking and communications, but one evening, he found himself at an embassy party with local luminaries. Some CIA case officers (COs), working under diplomatic cover, mingled with the crowd. Snowden, a teetotaler who was more comfortable in front of a screen than out in the field, found himself talking to a Saudi money manager. He quickly decided that this man would make an appealing recruit as a CIA informant and brokered an introduction with one of the COs, who then went to work.

Over the next month, the case officer took his new banker friend out for Dionysian nights on the town, but “the banker wasn’t warming up to him—at least not to the point where a pitch could be made.” So the case officer decided to do something drastic. He took the banker out drinking, got him loaded, and then, when the banker drove himself home, called the local police and explained that there was a man driving drunk. The banker was arrested, only to be bailed out by the friendly case officer. By putting the banker in his debt (and promising him relief from his legal problems), the CO had done his job expertly. But the banker, incensed at the setup, refused the approach. He soon went back to Saudi Arabia, making a kibosh of the whole affair.

Snowden was disturbed at what happened. “Too much had been hazarded, too little had been gained,” he writes in Permanent Record, his memoir. (Snowden has told versions of this story in past interviews but provides new details in his book.) He decided that more could be accomplished with SIGINT—signals intelligence—than in the messier world of HUMINT—human intelligence. His instinct was confirmed the following summer, when, while still in Geneva, he was talking to operators from the Special Collection Service, a joint CIA-NSA signals collections program with access to the Intelligence Community’s (IC) most sophisticated technologies. Snowden told them the story of the Saudi banker. Next time, one of the operators told him, “don’t bother with the COs—just give us his email address and we’ll take care of it.” For Snowden, it was a glimpse behind the curtain, where there operated a surveillance apparatus whose vast scope and power he couldn’t yet fathom. He was beginning to understand the all-seeing power of SIGINT in the digital age, but that knowledge would become a curse.

Following Snowden’s upbringing as a geeky computer savant with little interest in school, his eventful journey through the country’s military-intelligence complex, and his whistleblowing and exile, Permanent Record is, ultimately, a tale of discovery and profound disillusionment. It’s a story that, in retrospect, is deeply of its place and time, charting perfectly with the rise of the internet and its vulgarization into a relentlessly surveilled and commoditized space. As Snowden notes, “for one brief and beautiful stretch of time—a stretch that, fortunately for me, coincided almost exactly with my adolescence—the internet was mostly made of, by, and for the people. Its purpose was to enlighten, not to monetize.” In other words, he is a millennial, nostalgic for an internet that, however feral it may have been in its early days, is now trapped in the amber of nostalgia. It can only be remembered, never recovered.

For Snowden, it was a glimpse behind the curtain, where there operated a surveillance apparatus whose vast scope and power he couldn’t yet fathom.

Permanent Record tracks two arcs of disenchantment: Snowden’s relationship with the internet, and his attitude toward the IC, surveillance, and the war on terror. These stories are intertwined, but it would take Snowden the better part of a decade to figure out how. Raised in a solidly middle class family with strong legacies of government and military service, he grew up in Maryland’s Anne Arundel County, where “every fourth person works for, or serves in, a business, agency, or branch connected to Fort Meade,” the home of the NSA. The entire area, he notes, might be seen as “one enormous boom-or-burst company town.”

Snowden’s journey into top-secret America begins, naturally enough, after 9/11. His patriotic instincts activated, he decides to join the Army, enrolling in a program that would fast-track him to the special forces. But when he develops stress fractures in his legs during a training accident, his Army career is finished. (Snowden, perceptive in the ways that institutions forsake their responsibilities, acutely notes that the Army encouraged him to accept a kind of discharge that meant it would not have to pay his medical bills.) His military dreams dashed, he acquires a security clearance and begins wending his way through a series of government and contracting jobs for the CIA and NSA.

In the past, Snowden’s peripatetic journey through the public and private sectors has been seen by some as incriminating—a sign to critics that he was greedy or unserious, or had even changed jobs to deliberately acquire more documents for his eventual whistleblowing—which, if you follow this labored line of critique, was less about sounding the alarm about government abuses than a cover for a more serious betrayal. But Snowden makes clear that his various job changes were largely a product of the system itself, which is structured to encourage government employees to get their clearance and then bounce over to a government contractor like Dell or Booze Allen Hamilton, where they will likely get paid far more than their government peers, often to do the same work for the same agencies. “From the vantage of the corporate boardroom,” Snowden argues, “contracting functions as governmentally assisted corruption. It’s America’s most legal and convenient method of transferring public money to the private purse.”

So, Snowden is on his way, using his formidable computer skills in ostensible defense of his country. As a systems administrator, he finds himself with an extraordinary level of access to government networks. Snowden is boggled by his vertiginous rise, which occurs before he “had enough time to get cynical and abandon [his] idealism.” Whether establishing transcontinental data links or setting up a new data backup system, he finds himself with “one of the most unexpectedly omniscient positions in the Intelligence Community,” capable of reading documents that most intelligence officers would be barred from seeing. His status is unusual but not necessarily unique: “these lower ranks are rife with technologists like myself, whose legitimate access to vital infrastructure is grossly out of proportion to their formal authority to influence institutional decisions.” This disconnect between access and authority puts Snowden in a keen place from which to consider the breadth of the IC’s power.

A series of discoveries, each disturbing in turn, leads to Snowden’s eventual decision to stockpile documents, smuggle them out of the Hawaiian bunker where he works for the NSA, and flee with them to Hong Kong, where he would meet the documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras and journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill. One such discovery was that of Stellar Wind, a bulk surveillance program that previous NSA whistleblowers had tried to warn lawmakers about. Through these and other programs, through the building of an unprecedentedly massive data center in Utah, through the boasts of a CIA technologist who talks about collecting and computing on all information generated in the world, Snowden begins to understand that “surveillance wasn’t something occasional and directed in legally justified circumstances, but a constant and indiscriminate presence . . . a memory that is sleepless and permanent.” The machine reaches everywhere, collapsing space, time, and memory into a single archive. “I now understood that I was totally transparent to my government,” he acknowledges with the finality of someone accepting a cancer diagnosis. Even the promises of free speech become illusory under the surveillance regime, as “self-expression now required such strong self-protection as to obviate its liberties and nullify its pleasures.”

The machine reaches everywhere, collapsing space, time, and memory into a single archive.

The question is, what to do about it? He decides that self-publishing or releasing documents in bulk, unredacted, isn’t an option. Neither is traditional whistleblowing—that is, going through the “proper channels.” He has seen how other IC whistleblowers—Chelsea Manning, Anthony Russo, Daniel Ellsberg, William Binney, Thomas Drake, J. Kirk Wiebe—had their lives destroyed by the government. Manning’s “thirty-five year prison sentence was historically unprecedented and a monstrous deterrent to whistleblowers everywhere.” (Manning is now back in jail, facing another year of imprisonment and fines for refusing to testify in a grand jury case concerning Wikileaks’s Julian Assange.) Besides, the problems he encountered were practically systemic: “In organizations like the NSA—in which malfeasance has become so structural as to be a matter not of any particular initiative, but of an ideology—proper channels can only become a trap, to catch the heretics and the disfavorables.” And it’s not as if his colleagues care. “They weren’t merely oblivious to its abuses,” Snowden writes, “but incurious about them, and that lack of curiosity made them not evil but tragic.”

That leaves the media, toward which Snowden bears an understandable skepticism. But ever the Constitutionalist, he is also an idealist and a believer in the Fourth Estate. A large chunk of the book covers Snowden’s careful accumulation of documents and his preparatory efforts to contact sympathetic journalists. This section is at times thrilling and mournful, as Snowden, operating in total secrecy, even from his girlfriend, knows his life will be irrevocably altered. “The preparations I was making were those of a man about to die,” he says.

But despite what his enemies might think, Snowden is not a traitor or even a radical. He is a whistleblower in a very traditional sense. A whistleblower “knows that the institution can’t or won’t be dismantled.” He or she acts out of a “motive of restoration”—the disclosure is not “a radical act of dissent or resistance, but a conventional act of return.” Although he opposes mass suspicionless surveillance, Snowden seems to believe in the overall mission of the IC. As he writes early in Permanent Record, “I realized that coming forward and disclosing to journalists the extent of my country’s abuses wouldn’t be advocating for anything radical, like the destruction of the government, or even of the IC. It would be a return to the pursuit of the government’s, and the IC’s, own stated ideals.” While relaying the logistics of his whistleblowing, Snowden mentions that he used SD cards to smuggle information out of his workplace but is otherwise vague about his methods “so that the NSA will still be standing tomorrow.”

If anything, Snowden’s youthful politics might be called libertarian, infused with a heaping of techno-utopianism; he cites John Perry Barlow’s “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” and gives his girlfriend a gun for Valentine’s Day. By his own account, the patriotism instilled in him as a child is converted into “nationalist fervor” as a young adult. But his time close to the machine of empire alters him. When Osama bin Laden is killed by Navy SEALs in his Abbottabad compound, Snowden is hit with a painful epiphany: “I’d wasted the last decade of my life. The previous ten years had been a cavalcade of American-made tragedy. . . . The cumulative damage—the malfeasance in aggregate—was staggering to contemplate and felt entirely irreversible.” He’s disturbed at his own bit part in these crimes. “Over one million people have been killed in the course of America’s response” to the 9/11 attacks, he writes. “The greatest regret of my life is my reflexive, unquestioning support for that decision . . . I’d been rebooted as a willing vehicle of vengeance.”

This is the Snowden we’ve come to know in the last six years: the Snowden who sees privacy as an inalienable right connected to larger issues of liberty and control, who refers to “U.S. imperialism” in Latin America and derides “the class of financiers who direct much of U.S. foreign policy.” It’s the same Snowden who can write, with blunt accuracy, that the United States “claims to foster democracy abroad yet secretly maintains fleets of privately contracted aircraft” dedicated to kidnapping terrorism suspects and rendering them to black sites. It’s hard at times to reconcile this Snowden with one who supports the continued existence of seventeen U.S. intelligence agencies, but this dissonance marks much liberal-left thought about the IC and U.S. foreign policy. Despite being deeply literate, he doesn’t seem to consider the historical role of the IC as an enforcer of American empire and a tool for repression of domestic dissidents.

When he started in the IC, Snowden was perhaps too young and naive, too uneducated about the historical crimes of the CIA to grasp this, but now he should know better. While his decision to blow the whistle is described with a great deal of care and moral authority, his notion of “restoring” the IC to its stated ideals is shaky by comparison when those organizations exist in a larger matrix of violence and oppression. If the “malfeasance” in the NSA is “structural,” as Snowden contends, can the organization really be saved?

Despite what his enemies might think, Snowden is not a traitor or even a radical. He is a whistleblower in a very traditional sense.

What is clear is that the American IC doesn’t have room for people like Edward Snowden. Leaks to the media are sometimes tolerated, but “a disclosure is deemed acceptable only if it doesn’t challenge the fundamental prerogatives of an institution.” These kinds of disclosures, conducted with the sanction of high-ranking officials, are strategic and defensive, designed to shield an organization from genuine critique. That’s why IC employees who attempt to blow the whistle or leak documents genuinely in the public interest—Reality Winner comes to mind—are treated as dangerous criminals. (Media leaks, it’s worth noting, were rarely prosecuted before President Obama took office, but his administration charged a record number of leakers.) While prosecutors have discretion on prosecution, the law leaves no distinction for intent: leaking classified information to journalists and selling documents to a foreign adversary are “crimes [which] are virtually synonymous.”

The recent case of Daniel Hale is instructive. A former employee of the NSA and a contractor for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, Hale allegedly gave documents to Intercept journalist Jeremy Scahill about the highly secretive U.S. drone program. While Hale, like past leakers, has attempted to argue that his actions serve the public, the government has argued that  “the supposed ‘good motives’ of the defendant” are “irrelevant.” When former government officials like the prosecutor Preet Bharara express incredulity that there aren’t more Trump administration whistleblowers, they need only look to cases like Hale’s.

As I write this, an unnamed CIA officer detailed to the White House is being feted in the media and in Democratic political circles as a potential savior of the republic—a true whistleblower—for filing a complaint about Trump’s attempted quid pro quo with the president of Ukraine. That this whistleblower’s identity, beyond his profession, is unknown only makes him more appealing as an object of public fascination. Intelligence is supposed to be, as Snowden writes, “a self-denying career that brings no public glory,” which makes the intelligence whistleblower by default a traitor to his peers, doubly so if he becomes a celebrity. The latest whistleblower apparently went through “proper channels,” but he would not to be the first to do so and suffer the consequences regardless. Perhaps things will be different for this person of conscience, but one need only look at those who have trod the same path to know that the American power elite react poorly to principled challenges to their authority.

We don’t usually kill whistleblowers in this country, as the aspiring mafioso Trump suggested. Their fates tend to be more prosaic and miserable—jail time (in Manning’s case, solitary confinement), public humiliation, defrocked of career, health, and friends. Some stay to face their oppressors, others flee. There’s even one man who, in a baroque, frightening series of events, got stuck in Moscow. If you look around, you might see him there, perhaps in the Tretyakov Gallery, staring at the religious icons, wondering if he will ever return home.