As America’s most famous “traitor,” Edward Snowden’s name evokes mystery, intrigue, and suspicion. This is the man who exposed the breathtaking scope of the National Security Agency’s (NSA’s) massive spying apparatus, and was summarily forced into hiding, where he remains to this day — the mythology writes itself. Snowden’s new tell-all memoir, Permanent Record, doesn’t lack in thrills, twists, and high-stakes crises, but is also a sobering reminder of what can happen when the last remaining superpower turns on its own citizens. When you crack open Edward Snowden’s memoir, your perception of the U.S. government is certain to change. Yet in many important ways, Snowden’s critique doesn’t go far enough.
The first half of the book is a collection of carefully selected anecdotes recalling the evolution of the internet and post-9/11 society, tracing Snowden’s own positions on privacy, politics, and patriotism. He starts with his lineage, which, directly traceable to the Mayflower, is deeply rooted in generations of civil service — his father worked in a tech position for the coast guard and his mother worked for the NSA. Throughout his childhood, Snowden’s father brought home the latest in commercial computing innovations, nourishing Snowden’s infatuation with the internet; indeed, that’s where his true education took place. Hating the petty tyranny of high school, he eventually dropped out to study computers at the Anne Arundel Community College, where he quickly learned the ins and outs of computer engineering, coding, and hacking.
In those days (the early ‘90s), the internet had an exceptionally high barrier of entry; it was accessible only to a privileged few. While Snowden acknowledges this fact, he nevertheless insists that the internet of his youth was close to perfection. Providing true anonymity, individual agency, and collective cooperation, he viewed this digital realm as the ideal democracy. Of course, exalting an inaccessible world as a model “free society” shows a certain lack of class consciousness. While he expresses anti-capitalist sentiments throughout his memoir, he refrains from fully denouncing capitalism, evidently restrained by the patriotism hammered into him since childhood.
Enter 9/11. Snowden paints a vivid picture of a nation caught in a bastardized version of its own ideals: a national media empire trafficking in xenophobia, racism and fear, and a national government wielding perverse power under the guise of patriotism. For those of us too young to remember, Snowden’s account illustrates the tragedy’s immediate aftermath. He doesn’t talk about heroic first responders or the miraculous perseverance of New York City — instead, he describes shooting ranges with Middle Eastern targets, slurs yelled out car windows, and a spate of racist beatings in the middle of the street. He bore witness to the collapse of non-partisan legislation, of checks and balances, and of national integrity.
Though disheartened by the spiral of post-9/11 America, this portion of the book continues to reveal his deep devotion to the American legend. It’s irrefutable that 9/11 turned the country rabid. But the nation wasn’t healthy before, and Snowden’s neglect of the slightly-less-recent past focuses his scorn on the 21st century alone. Is he merely reluctant to denounce the idea of a nation that he was essentially raised to serve? Perhaps, but in moments like this, it often appears that Snowden is writing to defend himself in the court of public opinion. This may thus be read as an appeal to mainstream readers who refuse to hear a broad rebuke of America from a man deemed a traitor. On the other hand, if we know anything about Edward Snowden, it’s that he puts a great deal of value on disseminating truth — leading us to his treatment of the U.S.’s nebulous, powerful, and uncontainable Intelligence Community.
As Snowden describes it, the Intelligence Community (IC) grabbed power by sending most of its public funding into the pockets of private contractors. Generally speaking, Congress tries to limit the growth of intelligence organizations by enforcing personnel limits, but, as private contractors don’t count as employees, the only check on an IC organization’s size is its budget. Amidst the defense spending extravaganza of the early 2000s, the CIA, NSA, and DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) ascended to new heights of power.
Contracted organizations usually hire contractors who hire contractors who hire contractors to fulfill the contracts; in this new era of private government, the IC never really knew who was working for it. Further, these organizations receive a commission from the IC based on their employees’ salaries, so they purposefully overpay their already privileged workforce to further gorge themselves on public funds.
For Snowden, this was great. Not even 30 years old, he ended up an overpaid Dell employee with access to government secrets nobody knew he had, because nobody had bothered to check. He worked in embassies in Switzerland and Japan and on bases in Maryland and Hawaii, bouncing around with his girlfriend in a dream of a life. That is, until he discovered something he wasn’t supposed to know.
In Maryland, the NSA put him in charge of checking their systems for misplaced or copied files, meaning Snowden was suddenly privy to almost all of the NSA’s internal documents. It wasn’t long before he stumbled across a top-secret report defending an agency surveillance program. Wondering why such a defense was warranted, Snowden dug.
His discoveries wracked him with guilt, anxiety, confusion, and a profound feeling of betrayal; his depression was so deep that it brought out a suppressed epilepsy gene. Waylaid by a mental collapse and failing health, he was incapable of working, let alone standing up for the truth.
In 2011, however, the popular uprisings of the “Arab Spring” invigorated Snowden: suddenly, he found a passion to defend democracy. Transferred to an NSA base in Hawaii, his health recovered, and his new position gave him even more access than before.
Snowden began amassing evidence: he learned that the NSA had the technological capacity to spy on all of the U.S. and most of the world. As time went on, he discovered that not only could the NSA, but they were. In fact, they were collecting, saving, and storing data for as long as they could. The NSA was creating a permanent record of humanity, and nobody’s online presence, even in private spheres such as email, location services, and search queries, was free from inspection. The NSA had discovered a legislative loophole that freed them from oversight, be it public, congressional, or judiciary: they could hide anything they wanted to by assigning confidentiality “in the interest of national security,” superseding the 4th Amendment, which protects against unwarranted searches, with a flimsy legal argument based on a 19th-century decision dealing with manual locks. Nobody from the outside knew what was happening, and Snowden knew he had to tell them.
Snowden thought long and hard about how he would break this story. Crucially, he had to decide which reporters to collaborate with, finally settling on reporters for the Guardian, the New York Times, and the Washington Post — reporters on the NSA’s watchlist. Just before everything went public, he made sure to leave the country, predicting retaliation; when everything was released, the U.S. government responded with wrath.
U.S. officials immediately revoked his passport, stranding him in Russia, where he still resides. They did their best to discredit him with slanted truths and labels like “traitor,” they harassed his relatives at home, seized all of his property, and pressured Russia to extradite him for trial.
Those looking for a “where is he now?” chapter may be disappointed; after discussing the immediate fallout of his actions in 2013, Snowden winds the memoir down, giving only scant details about his current life. In a way, this decision helps define the book as a whole: it isn’t the story of a man, but rather an impassioned statement on the importance of democracy, a brief history of the greed that has degraded it, and a defense of his decision to reveal that rot to the world.
Snowden did a great service in 2013 when he woke people up to the changing relationship between the U.S. government and its population. The government had begun to treat its citizens as subjects — steamrolling over their right to privacy — and a ridiculous amount of people didn’t even care, succumbing to soft despotism.
Nevertheless, there are flaws in Edward Snowden6s political analysis. Only in rare moments of ideological clarity does Snowden recognize capital’s starring role in corrupting democracy, and even then, such moments feel like an afterthought. His most fiery condemnation happens in the book’s preface, when he accuses Google, Facebook, and Amazon of ushering in an era of “surveillance capitalism” which transforms the lives of people into data, a commodity on the corporate market. Yet, the main text only alludes to this return to gilded-age corporate malfeasance. Although Snowden sporadically condemns the “demonic trinity” for spoiling his treasured ‘90s internet, in general, he focuses post-9/11 developments in the scope and power of government.
Despite its limitations, Permanent Record illustrates the government’s abuses effectively, keeping the reader both engaged and enraged. Indeed, the primary value of this memoir is its firsthand account of how the U.S. socio-political framework allows, nay, encourages tyranny. To some, Snowden’s narrative may invite a libertarian reading, pinning tyranny on government and uncritically lauding individual freedom. But Snowden is savvier than this, professing righteous disgust toward our society’s economic hierarchy in a way that no true libertarian would, and he understands that governance is a function of a legitimate social contract. All said, if you’re looking for anti-government anger fuel entertaining enough not to be completely depressing, Permanent Record is worth a read.