Permanent Record: Edward Snowden and the making of a whistleblower

I will never forget the moment on June 9, 2013, when I watched a video of a skinny, serious, unshaven man named Edward Snowden introduce himself to the world as the source of a series of blockbuster revelations about US spy agencies' illegal surveillance of the global internet. Please, I thought, be safe. And Please, don't turn out to be an asshole.

The thing is, the decision to flush your life and turn your back on your life's work for a matter of principle is not normal. We like to think that every whistleblower takes action for the purest of motives, but whistleblowers, like every other human being, are mixed bags, with complex motives, and if we only listened to whistleblowers who weren't angry at their bosses over a missed promotion or a bad disciplinary report, we'd know a lot fewer vital truths about our lives.

Edward Snowden is, as far as I can tell, the rarest of whistleblowers: someone who was motivated purely by a commitment to principle.

I have "met" Snowden a few times: I was the opening act for his first-ever public appearance, and we did a double-act together in New York City once where he appeared by video, and I was thrilled beyond words when I learned that he'd taken one of my books with him when he fled Hong Kong, and even more proud to have published and reported out some of the documents Snowden brought with him and turned over to the journalists he worked with to publicize his revelations.

At every turn, I have been impressed with Snowden's thoughtful, principled, rigorous nature. He is, in some ways, a consummate sysadmin, one of those technical specialists whose conscientious mix of technical prowess, careful planning, attention to detail, and sense of duty make them unacknowledged legislators of the world, every bit as much as poets are.

In Permanent Record, Snowden's memoir, we are given the best proof yet that Snowden is exactly what he appears to be: a gung-ho guy from a military family who believes deeply in service and the values embodied by the US constitution, who explored multiple avenues of squaring his oath to uphold those values with the corrupt and illegal practices he saw around him, and worked out a breathtakingly bold and ambitious plan to do what no one else had ever managed: to expose wrongdoing in a way that provoked sustained interest and sparked action, while relentlessly focusing attention on the misdeeds he was alarmed by, rather than on himself.

Snowden's life history bears this out: a smart kid who — like so many of us — fell in love with computers and the way that they exemplified how systems could work, and how they could be exploited to let you shortcut the most boring, or foolish, or hidebound parts of society, and who were lucky to come of age in a time when the desperate tech skills shortage meant that this kind of mischief was a ticket to a job, rather than a cell.

Despite this clever understanding of the fallibility of authority, Snowden's identification with his parents' — and ancestors' — military service meant that he was terribly vulnerable to jingoistic calls for revenge after 9/11, leading him to enlist in a program that promised to stream him into a job as a Special Forces sergeant, until he broke both legs in basic training.

That injury pushed Snowden into the intelligence services, where he could use his computer skills to effect less atavistic, but even more important contributions to the revenge he burned for. In the CIA and then the NSA, Snowden was slowly but surely disillusioned: first and foremost by the Beltway Banditry from a new generation of military contractors whom the spy agencies use to circumvent the staffing limits placed on them by Congress.

Since Congress never says no to a budget request, the agencies can "hire" more people than they are permitted simply by contracting with Dell or IBM or Booz-Allen or some other military-industrial swamp-dweller to fill positions, and since these companies operate on a "cost-plus" basis, collecting a percentage of the salaries they pay, everyone is incentivized to charge as much as possible for these deniable contractors.

Snowden contrasts this with the principle of service he was raised with and that was embodied by his own family and the parents of the military kids he grew up with, and then shows how the culture of corruption forms a toxic stew when combined with the pathological secrecy of the agencies and the normal military boondoggles and deference to the chain of command.

Nevertheless, Snowden thrived: as a smart, skilled technician who could write and speak coherently about his work and who also cared deeply about that work, he was in high demand, both as a "sales engineer" for the private companies he contracted with, and for the spies he supported on overseas postings in Geneva and Tokyo.

But as Snowden's career progressed (and as he was laid low by a seizure that was diagnosed as epileptic), his professional need to know a bit about everything the agencies were doing gave rise to a terrible suspicion as the shadowy contours of the agencies' more-secret-than-secret global internet surveillance project revealed themselves to him.

In these chapters of Permanent Record, we're treated to a riveting blend of spycraft as Snowden painstakingly figures out how to confirm his suspicions without tipping off his bosses, and a brilliant ethical treatise as Snowden reveals the reasoning that took him from each step to the next, right up to Snowden's decision to burn his previous life down, fly to Hong Kong, and step into the jaws of likely life imprisonment, with the kind of torture that poor Chelsea Manning was subjected to, to make an example of him.

Snowden isn't just a principled patriot, he's also a gifted writer whose ethical reasoning shines through in a memoir that is more than a recounting of an extraordinary life: it's a manifesto for the importance of privacy, the corrosive dangers of corruption, and for a mass, global movement of resistance to the perversion of the internet into a system of control and surveillance.

Even if Snowden had turned out to be an asshole with impure motives, it wouldn't have made the things had to say any less true. But Snowden is a hero with the noblest of motives, and the native wit and tactical genius needed to turn his act of sacrifice into the start of a global movement for change.

Permanent Record is an extraordinary book, and it's hardly a surprise that Trump's DoJ doesn't want you to read it. Snowden says he'll come back to the US to stand trial if he can argue the ethics of his actions to a jury. Permanent Record makes it clear just how persuasive that argument would be. Let's hope he gets to make it, someday.

In the meantime, the whole world owes a debt to Edward Snowden, both for doing what he did, and, now, explaining how he did it, and, most importantly, why.

Permanent Record [Edward Snowden/Metropolitan Books]