Edward Snowden tells his story

In 2013, at age 29, Edward Snowden became the world’s most famous whistleblower.

He told the world that U.S. Intelligence agencies were gathering information on everyone on earth who’d ever made a phone call, text message or e-mail, used Google, Amazon, Facebook or a credit card or had electronic medical, educational or financial information on record.

His new book, PERMANENT RECORD, tells how he got the information out, and why he risked death and prison and suffered exile to do it.

I don’t think anybody, no matter how much they may question his actions, can doubt the sincerity of his motives.

He grew up in a family with a heritage of military and government service.  Both his parents had security clearances.

HIs basic values (like mine) were belief in American freedom and democracy as he was taught about them in school.  Also, like many others in the 1990s, he believed in computers and the Internet as a force for human liberation.

From a young age, he had a knack for analyzing systems for weaknesses.  He analyzed the grading criteria for his high school courses, and figured out that he could get a passing grade without doing any homework.

As a teenager, he found a hole in the security system of Los Alamos National Laboratories and pestered authorities until they acknowledged it and fixed it.

His first impulse after the 9/11 attacks was to enlist in the Army and try to qualify for the Special Forces.  But he was injured in a training accident and discharged.  He then joined the Central Intelligence Agency instead.

Organizations based on hierarchy and adherence to a chain of command do not usually welcome recruits who are given to pointing out flaws in the system.  But the CIA dealt with Snowden by giving him special permissions so they could use his talents.

As a CIA officer and later as a contractor for the National Security Agency, Snowden gained unusual access to the whole range of CIA and NSA activities.  He became aware that they were spying not just on foreign governments and suspicious characters, but virtually everyone in the USA and abroad.

Knowledge is power.  If someone knows everything about me, they have power over me.  Most people (myself included) have done things they’re ashamed of, and wouldn’t want known.  Almost everyone has done or said something that can be made to look bad.

In the days of J. Edgar Hoover, the Federal Bureau of Investigation would wiretap prominent figures and read their mail, then blackmail them.  There is no guarantee that the heads of the CIA and NSA would not use their knowledge to blackmail.  There is no guarantee they are not already doing so.

Government agencies that are doing this operate in secrecy.  They have power over us, but we the people can’t set limits on them because we don’t even know what is happening.

Snowden could not discuss his qualms with anyone, not even his lover, Lindsay Mills (now his wife).  To breathe a word to anyone would have been considered a violation of the Espionage Act, which carries a maximum penalty of death.

Having reached a decision in silence, he had to make a plan silence and execute it alone.  He had to figure out exactly what the CIA and NSA were doing, how to prove it and how to disseminate that proof in a way that would have an impact.  Any error in his plan or its execution would have been fatal.

The strain must have been almost unbearable.  The temptation to confide in someone must have been almost irresistable (which was the downfall of his fellow whistleblower, Pvt. Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning).

He created an application for the CIA called Heartbeat, which enabled officers to search the entire data files for all information that the individual officer had clearance to see.  Only Snowden, writer and administrator of the program, had access to everything.  He then figured out how to collect electronic data in secret and remove it from CIA facilities in secret.

His next task was figuring out how to disseminate the information so it would have an impact.  Reporters as a group, in his view, did not understand technical issues.

Most of them missed the significance of the announcement of the NSA’s huge data repository in Bluffdale, Utah. Most of them missed the significance of a briefing by Ira “Gus” Hunt, chief technology officer for the CIA, to the computer trade press on the CIA’s new capability.

He had to find someone who would understand the significance of what he was doing.  He bypassed the New York Times because he thought its editors were too timid.

He bypassed Wikileaks because he didn’t want to dump his whole archive on the Internet.  He wanted journalists who could make a judgment as to what the public needed to know and what would unnecessarily hinder the legitimate missions of the CIA and NSA.

He didn’t want to cripple the CIA and NSA, whose legitimate functions he respected.  He wanted to deal with responsible journalists who would exercise discretion as to what was of public interest and what was not.

He finally chose Laura Poitras, the documentary film-maker, and Glenn Greenwald, a former civil liberties lawyer who was then a columnist for The Guardian.  He and Poitras had a hard time convincing Greenwald he wasn’t a crank.  Another Guardian reporter, Ewan MacAskill, came to Hong Kong with them, and Bart Gellman of the Washington Post wrote articles based on documents forwarded by Poitras.

Together, they gave his disclosures the impact he hoped for.

Snowden, like Manning and now Assange, was charged with violating the Espionage Act of 1917, which carries a maximum penalty of death or life imprisonment for disclosing defense information to an enemy in wartime.

In a espionage trial, evidence is limited to whether the person charged disclosed secret information.  There can be a plea of justifiable homicide, but not a plea of justifiable espionage.  Snowden assumed that if he had been tried, the only issue would have been what his sentence would be.

Wikileaks editor Sarah Harrison helped Snowden flee Hong Kong.  He hoped to reach Ecuador, whose President Rafael Correa had given political asylum to Assange.  They planned to go via Moscow, Havana and Caracas because all other routes crossed U.S. air space.

But once in Moscow, they were informed that Secretary of State John Kerry had canceled Snowden’s passport and revoked his travel document.  So he was stuck in Russia.

But if he had boarded the Havana flight, the plane might have been forced to land so it could be searched, as happened with a plane carrying Bolivian President Evo Morales home from a meeting in Moscow.

And if he had been allowed to reach Ecuador, he would have been handed over by Ecuador’s current president, Lenin Moreno, just like Julian Assange.  That is, provided that he hadn’t died mysteriously in the meantime.

Snowden’s latest permission to reside in Moscow expires in 2020.  I can imagine President Vladimir Putin handing him over as a good will gesture if and when U.S.-Russian relations improve.


Freedom of the Press Foundation.  Edward Snowden is the current president of the board.

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2 Responses to “Edward Snowden tells his story”

  1. Word from the Dark Side – Taiwan vs China, Ghislaine Maxwell vs the CIA, and TV ads vs you. | SovietMen Says:

    […] review of the Snowdon book.  I hope when he leave office, Trump pardons both him and […]


  2. Word from the Dark Side – Ghislaine Maxwell vs the CIA and TV ads vs you. | SovietMen Says:

    […] review of the Snowdon book.  I hope when he leave office, Trump pardons both him and […]


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