Who Is Edward Snowden? A Review of His Autobiography, Permanent Record

Edward Snowden’s recently published autobiography Permanent Record became a bestseller instantly, before any critical reviews in major media, thanks to the author’s notoriety. The reviews followed and they make for curious reading as I look over The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker. Though the reviewers take very different positions on Snowden, his villainy or heroism, they seem all to have read him very attentively and offer their readers many choice quotations from the book. Most of the reviews are fairly self-indulgent, none more so than Jonathan Lethem writing in The New York Review, who uses Snowden’s book as springboard for a discursive narrative on his own life experience.

In what follows, I will try to stay close to the book, which I would call a ‘page-turner’ although the first half, or approximately 150 pages, are a yawn. From his earliest childhood up to his first postings abroad, in Geneva and then in Tokyo, Snowden was little more than a techie-nerd, a monomaniac with no exceptional characteristics other than his aptitude and growing skill set in his chosen field of systems engineering in the computer world. His personal growth occurred exponentially in the six years that followed and he emerges at the end of the book fully formed, a powerful defender of freedom of speech, of privacy on the Internet and throughout our world which has become broadly digital during his lifetime.

The outstanding feature of Snowden that we observe already in the dull first half is that he is an autodidact from start to finish. Both for reasons of ill health and for reasons of condescension to school learning, Snowden dropped out of high school after a little more than one year. His only concession to the formal demands of future employers was his taking and passing a high school equivalency exam. Thereafter his formal training was limited to the specialized courses that would confer on him the highest grade in Microsoft programming certification, the absolute requirement for his future career, the ‘open sesame’ for his gaining access to the entirety of NSA, CIA and other employers’ cyber infrastructure, alongside the top secret clearances he received for reasons of his youth and tabula rasa record when he entered the government employ.

From his earliest years, Snowden put the bare minimum of effort and presence into the public schools, reserving for himself the nights which he spent online playing video games and picking up whatever was available to learn in cyber space. What exactly there was to learn and how he proceeded through these riches he does not tell us. And that is the single biggest enigma of this book, of this personality which leads me to ask Who is Edward Snowden?”

There are two dimensions to his self-education that jump out at any careful reader of this book. First, how did he acquire and properly integrate his fairly broad knowledge of the law, political science, history and languages, which include French, German, Latin and Japanese. Second, where did he acquire the moral compass that his very few peers in the field possess, which drove him ultimately to decide the questions before him of “if not me, then who?” and “if not now, then when?” as he took his leap across borders, left behind his comfortable and well-paid existence in Hawaii living with the woman of his dreams, for a path of betrayal of the U.S. intelligence services that could as easily have led to his summary execution or being hooded and shackled by agents of his employers for return to the United States and a pro forma trial behind closed doors.

These questions remain unanswered as you close Snowden’s book. However, there are other insights which provide partial compensation. One is that he embodies the consummate engineer’s personality which revolves around the question: how does it work? As a young child, during his father’s absence, he disassembled the treasured home computer and then almost, but not quite managed to reassemble it. It is this intensely inquiring mind that ultimately led him to investigate the capabilities and ambitions of the NSA in mass data collection. This was prompted when he presented a report on such programs in China during his Japanese sojourn. As he reasoned, if the technology was there, it was sure to be deployed if it had not already been, and he was likely looking into a mirror of America’s illegal activities. From that, he tracked down the elements of the relevant programs, ending in his discovery of how it all operated at the level of targets of surveillance.

The other insight explains where he found the time for his self-education and for his investigations into NSA criminality while holding down a full-time job. The answer comes from his rare skills, which led him to being virtually unmanageable by his employers.

Following his emergence as the source of the leaks regarding its big data operations on American communication systems, the NSA sought to disparage Snowden by describing him as a low-level contractor. In the pages of this book, Snowden explains that low-level was accurate only with respect to his position on the management ladder, whereas in terms of access to secure data he says he was one of perhaps a dozen people in the world with such freedom, all of which resulted from the requirements of his systems engineering job as a fixer and re-combiner of infrastructures. Moreover, Snowden goes on to explain that a very substantial share, perhaps a majority of the technical computing positions of those employed in the NSA, in the CIA alongside “govvies” are precisely employees of government contractors like Dell or Booz Hamilton Allen, where Snowden was on the payroll in an ever changing career line. The main reason he gives for this state of affairs is that it was a way for the intelligence services to work outside their congressionally approved budgets and given headcounts. Add to that the unavailability of the needed technical skills within the cohort of traditional recruits to these agencies coming from political science and law backgrounds. This arrangement also made it possible for talented technologists to earn much more than a purely government career would allow them as they moved back and forth between blue and green badges.

However, from my own knowledge of the situation in the intelligence services post 9/11, there was in parallel a massive purge initiated by Vice President Dick Cheney, when the traditional staff trained in Soviet studies was kicked out and new staff with skills in Arabic, Farsi and the other language and area studies of the current threats to American security was brought on fully trained via contractors. In tandem, there was a significant shift in the methodology of the agencies away from secret sources to open access sources.

As regards the new technologists being brought into intelligence work, clearly there was a management issue. It made much more sense to recruit via third parties which had experience managing technologists than to place them directly under the control of mid and higher level employees who did not have a clue as to what their new reports were supposed to do.

Nonetheless, it is perfectly obvious from Snowden’s book that even technically savvy contractors such as he worked for were unable or unwilling to exercise close management of employees who were serving at computer desks in the NSA or CIA. Snowden informs us directly that when he arrived at his new job in The Tunnel, in Hawaii, he immediately set up an autopilot program to essentially do his job for him, freeing all his time to pursue his investigation into NSA malfeasance, into downloading and taking away thousands of documents from the data banks of the intelligence services. This was made all the more possible by his opting for night shift work, when he was virtually alone on the floor and could do whatever he wanted without being interrupted or watched.

His words reminded me at once of a co-worker during my employment with United Parcel Service Deutschland, in the late 1980s, early 1990s. Like Snowden, my buddy had barely finished high school and made his till then meager career by his wits, namely by his inborn talent in mathematics. He told me once of his experience working for the Social Security Administration in Washington. Computers were just becoming a part of the workplace back then but already the issues flagged by Snowden had emerged. Frank would be given a computer-related task by his computer-illiterate boss, who then asked how long it would take to resolve. Frank would make a face, then say “Boss, this is a toughie. I’ll need three days to work on it.” That timeline would be approved. Then Frank would solve the task in fifteen minutes and take the remainder of the three days to goof off.

The technologists around Snowden seem also to have spent a good part of their time goofing off. After all, these systems engineers were basically there to fix some emergency if and when it occurred, not to baby-sit the machines minute by minute. And so they would use their time sharing nude photos of girls they were stalking online. Meanwhile, Snowden had all the time in the world for his self-education and for his chosen research project.

For those of us who are professional followers of Russian affairs, the most frequently occurring publications we find in the biographical – autobiographical genre detail the life of Vladimir Putin. Such books in one way or another present and then try to answer the question Who is Vladimir Putin? Very commonly they devote considerable attention to what are considered the formative elements of his personality and behavior, his childhood in St. Petersburg (then rather poor postwar Leningrad) and his service as a KGB intelligence officer posted abroad in East Germany.

Comparison of these two individuals, Putin and Snowden, has objective merit outside the preoccupations of the Russia expert community. Both men today have in common residence in Moscow. They are both among the best known persons in the world, and possibly in their own ways are among the most influential people in the world. They are separated by something between one and two generations in age terms, separated by a chasm in terms of technology: Putin is virtually tech-ignorant and antipathetic except as the needs of the Russian economy require it. Snowden is the incarnation of the Internet age generation, representing the wave of the present and future.

But what they have in common is precisely their service in the intelligence services. Both were, in the broad sense of the word, spies. Meanwhile, in the narrow sense of the word, both have demonstrated remarkable talent in assuming different guises, in fitting into hostile environments, and in carrying on with extraordinary sang froid under very stressful situations when confronted by real or potential enemies. And there you have the key to the opening question: why it is difficult to explain who they are and how they came to be who they are today.

It is interesting that, writing from Moscow, from the country which was perhaps the only one in the world with the ability and the determination not to heed threats from Washington over his extradition and instead to grant him temporary and renewable asylum status, Snowden does not once mention Putin by name in his 340 page book, nor does he describe his feelings about Russia and Russians though he has been there now more than six years. This is all the more surprising given that Russia did in fact experience a serious deterioration in relations with the United States when the Obama administration decided to punish the country for its intractability over Snowden.

Instead we read in Snowden statements on his libertarian political views. These are given in relation to the Arab Spring. But, reading between the lines, they are also obliquely anti-Russian, anti-Putin:

“In an authoritarian state, rights derive from the state and are granted to the people. In a free state, rights derive from the people and area granted to the state…It’s this clash, between the authoritarian and the liberal democratic, that I believe to be the major ideological conflict of my time – not some concocted, prejudiced notion of an East-West divide, or of a resurrected crusade against Christendom or Islam. Authoritarian states are typically not governments of laws, but governments of leaders, who demand loyalty from their subjects and are hostile to dissent. Liberal-democratic states, by contrast, make no or few such demands, but depend almost solely on each citizen voluntarily assuming the responsibility of protecting the freedoms of everyone else around them, regardless of their race, ethnicity, creed, ability, sexuality, or gender.”

In the book, Snowden discusses at some length his motivation for becoming a whistle-blower and serving the public interest, as opposed to being a mere “leaker” who is driven by personal or institutional ambition. He is deeply offended by the NSA’s violation not merely of existing US law constraining its data collection rights but by its more fundamental violation of the US Constitution’s protection of privacy. He points an accusing finger at Director of National Intelligence James Clapper for perjury in declaring to the US Congress that no such data collection was going on. What he intended to do by his fully documented revelations of NSA criminality was to initiate a public debate on citizens’ rights to privacy in the digital age, disputing the contention of these state agencies that individuals sacrificed their ownership of their data when they contracted with the telecoms companies and internet service providers.

Measured against this objective, Snowden can proudly tell us in the final chapter of his book that he achieved a large measure of success. Already in 2013 President Obama conceded that a national debate on these issues had begun. Both the courts and the Congress subsequently curtailed the intelligence services’ collection and access to big data, while the Internet and other technology service companies have built essential encryption features into their products to protect the public, starting with the “https” designation for protected sites.

Speaking as a member of the subset within the Russia expert community that might be qualified as “dissidents,” that is being opposed to the US foreign policy to Russia, which we believe is heading the West towards an unwanted and potentially catastrophic war with Moscow, I am frankly envious of Snowden’s success in sparking public debate on the issue for which he was a dissident voice. We have had no such luck, and, upon reading Snowden, it is apparent why: to bring his case to the American public, Snowden relied entirely on the Fourth Estate, the press. With the brave, unstinting support of journalists Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, and of the publications they worked for or cooperated with, including The Guardian and The Washington Post, Snowden’s stories reached the broad American and global public within days of his placing his cache of documents in their hands. A video interview with him during their initial meeting in his Hong Kong hotel taken by Poitras was aired on YouTube.com and on television, bringing his case directly to that vast audience even before the intelligence agencies had the time or opportunity to discredit and demean him.

All of this media treatment for Snowden and data privacy is in stark contrast to the challenges we in the dissident Russia expert community face. In our case, the mainstream media are precisely the handmaidens of government in discrediting our advocacy of détente and of national self-preservation, applying to us the tar of “stooges of Putin.”

Snowden has been blessed with recognition by some in mainstream as well as alternative media as an intellectual leader. He is now a member of the board of the Freedom of the Press Foundation alongside such heroic defenders of the public’s right to know as Daniel Ellsberg. He has earned his living as a lecturer.

That being said, one may well be skeptical of the survivability of the Fourth Estate in our digital age. The very dis-intermediation and monetizing of personal data by corporations that have accompanied the digital wave are destroying the economic foundations of journalism, an issue that Snowden does not touch upon in his book, nor does it seem to be mentioned in the website of his Freedom of the Press Foundation. It is no secret that today well above 50% of graduates from our schools of journalism never enter the newsroom, instead finding corporate jobs in public relations, where careers are still to be made.

Finally, the question “who is Edward Snowden” raises several key issues with the methodology we apply when reading works in the genres of biography and autobiography. It is an open question to what extent the subjects are the product of their youth, of their formal education and even of their formal job descriptions. Second, and more relevant to the case at hand, is the importance of mind over matter, of intellect over emotion in explaining how great people evolve and enter public space. I have described Snowden’s intellectual and moral growth in his 20s as exponential. The same may be said of Vladimir Putin in the twenty years he has been in power. This ability to grow is in fact a very rare commodity that is usually overlooked by biographers and autobiographers.

These factors also were overlooked by the NSA and the CIA when they vetted and eventually moved Snowden along his career path. It was the hubris of his employers and their assumption that those below deck could be kept there by threat of violent force, if need be, that opened the way for Edward Snowden to become the hero we encounter at the end of Permanent Record.

Gilbert Doctorow is a Brussels-based political analyst. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2017. Reprinted with permission from his blog.

© Gilbert Doctorow, 2019