Edward Snowden and the Rise of Whistle-Blower Culture

One of Edward J. Snowden’s earliest memories is of sneaking around the house and turning back the time on all the clocks in the hope of tricking his parents into letting him stay up late to watch more TV. Another is of the day his father brought home a Commodore 64 and how exciting it was, that very first time, to hold a joystick. Snowden’s new autobiography, “Permanent Record” (Metropolitan), is the autobiography of a gamer, pale and bleary-eyed and glued to his screen, longing for invincibility. Some people write memoirs; other people craft legends. Snowden, who once aspired to be a model and is in some quarters regarded as a modern messiah, is the second kind. As a kid, he read about King Arthur, and his family name comes from Snaw Dun, a mountain in Wales on top of which the legendary ruler is said to have slain a terrible giant by sticking a sword in his eye. Snowden makes a lot of this Tolkien-y sort of thing—avatars, portents of destiny, signs of greatness.

“Permanent Record” offers less than what most readers will want of the John le Carré-meets-Jason Bourne stuff: why, at the age of twenty-eight, while working for a defense contractor, Snowden decided to smuggle top-secret computer files from the U.S. government and give them to reporters at the Guardian and the Washington Post; how he did it; and what his life has been like since then. In dozens of interviews, Snowden, who lives in exile in Russia, has fielded and dodged a lot of questions about those parts of his life. Critics charge him with evasion and distortion; supporters see a becoming honesty and the nobility of an unimpeachable integrity. Readers will split over his book, too, without actually learning much, except about the mind of a gamer. Most of the book chronicles not Snowden’s disclosures and their consequences but his childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, game by game, from the Nintendo Entertainment System to the National Security Agency.

“I used to work for the government,” Snowden begins, “but now I work for the public.” In 2013, Snowden’s disclosures proved that the N.S.A. had been conducting surveillance on the entire U.S. population, by way of a series of top-secret programs staggering in their scale and intrusiveness, including the bulk collection of telephone records in the form of metadata that was acquired from telecommunications companies. The scale of Snowden’s heist was also staggering. The N.S.A. claims that he stole 1.7 million classified documents. Snowden disputes this number, but, even if the actual number is quite a lot smaller, it’s likely that he stole more documents than he was able to read.

Snowden is a controversial figure, and whistle-blowing, which is how Snowden describes what he did, is a contentious subject, especially when it concerns intelligence operations. Much of the controversy, in Snowden’s case, divides along what can appear to be merely a matter of opinion: Is he a patriot or a traitor? Obama’s Justice Department charged him with treasonous federal crimes under the 1917 Espionage Act. Snowden’s defenders view these charges as wrongheaded; his critics suggest that he ought to face trial, even though, since the material he stole was classified, any proceeding would be partly closed to the public, a condition that, as a rule, makes a fair trial awfully unlikely. People who consider Snowden a patriot argue that exposing the N.S.A.’s mass-surveillance program was both a public service and an act of heroism. People who consider Snowden a traitor argue that his disclosures set U.S. counterterrorism efforts back by years, and endangered American intelligence agents and their sources all over the world. Some also point to the circumstances of his flight and exile: because Snowden first sought refuge in Hong Kong and has been granted temporary asylum in Russia (due to expire in 2020), it has been variously alleged, without proof, that he did not act alone, that he shared American military secrets with China, and that he’s a dupe of Putin. Snowden denies these accusations.

The patriot-traitor divide should be less a matter of opinion than a matter of law, but the law here is murky. On the one hand, you might think, if Snowden is a patriot who did what he did for the good of the country, then he deserves not only the protection of First Amendment freedom of speech but also the legal shelter afforded whistle-blowers, under legislation that includes the 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act—except that Snowden signed an oath not to disclose government secrets, and neither the Whistleblower Protection Act nor its many revisions and amendments extend its protections to people who disclose classified intelligence. On the other hand, you might think, if Snowden is a traitor whose actions put his country at risk, the Justice Department was right to charge him under the Espionage Act—except that it doesn’t sound as though he were a spy. (Unlike Julian Assange, Snowden has criticized Putin, and the F.B.I. believes that Snowden acted alone.) “Permanent Record” doesn’t settle any of these questions, or even evince much concern about them. Instead, Snowden appears to have other worries. “Forgive me if I come off like a dick,” he writes, knowingly.

“Snowden could one day be seen as America’s first traitor-patriot,” the political scientist Allison Stanger writes, less King Arthur than King Solomon, in “Whistleblowers: Honesty in America from Washington to Trump” (Yale). Stanger interviewed Snowden for her book, a brisk and interesting history of people who, while working for the government, find out about terrible things the government is doing, including waste, fraud, mismanagement, and abuse of authority, and expose that misconduct to the public. She argues that Americans support whistle-blowing in theory, but, in practice, they treat whistle-blowers badly. They also tend not to like them. “Whistleblowers are by definition troublemakers,” Stanger writes. “For that reason, they can be difficult people.”

Laws protecting government whistle-blowers from retaliation have been on the books in the United States since 1778, when, in the wake of a scandal in the Navy, Congress resolved that “it is the duty of all persons in the service of the United States, as well as all other inhabitants thereof, to give the earliest information to Congress or any other proper authority of any misconduct, frauds or misdemeanors committed by any officers or persons in the service of these states, which may come to their knowledge.” In “Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud” (Riverhead), Tom Mueller dates legislation having to do with corporate whistle-blowers to the Civil War, when Congress passed the False Claims Act of 1863, to encourage private citizens, referred to as “relators,” to help counter corruption among military contractors by initiating suits for fraud on behalf of the government. (The Department of Justice did not then exist.) Relators who could prove fraud were to be rewarded with a portion of any recovered money. They still are.

Whistle-blowing, at least by that breezy name, is on the rise. In the years since Congress passed a sweeping revision of the False Claims Act, in 1986, relators have recovered sixty billion dollars in misspent taxpayer money. “This is the age of the whistleblower,” Mueller observes. Mueller, who interviewed more than two hundred whistle-blowers and profiles half a dozen, focusses on the corporate kind, especially in the health-care and finance industries. Stanger sets corporate whistle-blowing aside, declaring it a separate case. But the age of the whistle-blower is also an age of corruption, deregulation, and privatization in which the border between the public and the private sectors is as thin as a dollar bill. Snowden, notwithstanding his “I used to work for the government” line, worked mostly for a series of private companies, because the kinds of services he provided, mainly security and systems administration, had been privatized.“Don’t sit there—it’s wet.”

Snowden currently heads the board of the nonprofit Freedom of the Press Foundation, which was established in 2012 by, among others, Daniel Ellsberg. In 1971, Ellsberg leaked to the New York Times and the Washington Post forty-seven volumes of classified documents about the Vietnam War which came to be called the Pentagon Papers. (Unlike Snowden, Ellsberg, a former marine with a Ph.D. in economics, had held positions of considerable influence: he’d served as an adviser in Vietnam and helped draft some of the reports that made up the Pentagon Papers, and he’d read all of them.) In New York Times Co. v. United States (1971), the Supreme Court ruled the publication of the papers to be constitutional, but the Nixon Justice Department pursued charges against Ellsberg under the 1917 Espionage Act all the same. So desperate was Nixon for a conviction that his “plumbers” broke into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in the hope of finding evidence to discredit him. The arrest of the plumbers led both to the dropping of the charges against Ellsberg and to the great unravelling known as Watergate. But the exposure of classified intelligence still falls into a different bin from all other kinds of whistle-blowing. Since 1978, whistle-blowing that risks national security has been a contradiction in terms. If you steal classified documents, you can’t be a whistle-blower.

Then, there’s the question of legality. In the summer of 2013, when Snowden gave an apparently countless number of stolen files to the press, the question of whether the N.S.A.’s mass-surveillance program was unconstitutional was, at least in a narrowly legal sense, unresolved. Behind closed doors, both Congress and the White House had approved the program under the authority of the 2001 Patriot Act. In public, the N.S.A. denied that the program even existed. “Does the N.S.A. collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” a Senate committee had asked the director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, early in 2013. “No, sir,” he answered. “Not wittingly.” Lying to Congress is against the law. After Snowden’s revelations, Presidential advisers recommended that the Obama Administration make changes to the program, which, as they also pointed out, had been almost entirely ineffective, but they did not find it to be unconstitutional. In 2014, after the Times described Snowden as a whistle-blower, some government officials insisted that he wasn’t: because what he exposed wasn’t illegal, he was merely a leaker. This nicety is hard to take. Glenn Greenwald, the reporter who broke the Snowden story, asked, “If disclosing proof that top-level national security officials lied outright to Congress about domestic spying programs doesn’t make one indisputably a whistle-blower, then what does?”

In May, 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, reversing the earlier opinion of a lower court, ruled that the N.S.A.’s bulk collection of Americans’ telephone metadata violated the terms of the Patriot Act. The next month, Congress passed the USA Freedom Act, which prohibited the N.S.A. from collecting that metadata. Stanger argues that before 2015 Snowden was a leaker, but that after 2015 he was a whistle-blower. It’s a Catch-22: if Snowden hadn’t broken the law to point out that the government had broken the law, what the government had done wouldn’t have broken the law.

Edward Joseph Snowden was born in North Carolina in 1983. When he was six, he got a Nintendo for Christmas and fell in love with the Legend of Zelda, which, let me be clear, remains the greatest of all Nintendo games. But for Snowden, a lonely and seemingly miserable kid, the Legend of Zelda was much more than a game. Super Mario Bros., he says, taught him about mortality. Mario runs into bad guys; he falls into pits; he gets crushed by spikes. There are so many ways to die. Nintendo “was my real education,” Snowden writes. “I am being perfectly sincere,” he insists, in a book loaded with I’m-not-a-dick asides in which the author begs the reader to believe him, and to like him.

Snowden came from a military family—one of his grandfathers was a rear admiral in the Coast Guard with an office at the Pentagon—and his father and mother worked for the government. “Both my parents had top secret clearances,” he writes, which is about the most loving thing he says about either of them. Soon he could beat his father at Mario Kart, Double Dragon, and Street Fighter. “I was significantly better than him at all those games,” Snowden writes. “Almost immediately, I grasped the limitations of gaming systems,” he says of himself, at age seven, jumping up a level, leaving mere game consoles behind.

When Snowden was eight, his family moved to Maryland, near Fort Meade, where the N.S.A. is headquartered, and his father brought home a Compaq Presario 425. “From the moment it appeared, the computer and I were inseparable,” Snowden writes. A disconsolate little boy began to shut out the real world. Hitting Enter on his first computer is the only encounter he describes as having been worth his time. “No teacher had ever been so patient, yet so responsive,” he writes. “Nowhere else—certainly not at school, and not even at home—had I ever felt so in control.”

With the Compaq, he started going online. “Internet access, and the emergence of the Web, was my generation’s big bang,” he writes. “From the age of twelve or so, I tried to spend my every waking moment online.” The offline world was horrible. His parents’ marriage was falling apart. He stopped going to school. He stopped sleeping. Nintendo had been his education; the Internet became his everything. “The Internet was my sanctuary; the Web became my jungle gym, my treehouse, my fortress, my classroom without walls.” This sounds less like a childhood than like an experiment in human deprivation.

He spent endless hours on gaming sites looking for cheat codes for his favorite games, Doom and Quake. There’s a thing in gaming known as “god-mode,” where, temporarily, you can play invisibly and even invincibly. But god-mode conjures something more, a way of being outside the game, above the game. Around puberty, Snowden appears to have gone into god-mode and got stuck. At least, the way he tells it, he has believed his whole life that he knows more than everyone around him. His teachers were idiots. His co-workers were idiots. His bosses were idiots. Idiots, idiots, idiots. Delete, delete, delete. Game over. Reset. New game.

The great passion of Snowden’s autobiography is his anguished love for the very early Internet. Online in the nineteen-nineties, he could be anonymous, on bulletin boards, and on massively multiplayer online role-playing games like Ultima Online, which he played so constantly that his parents installed a second phone line so that he could have unlimited access. On Ultima Online, players choose an alternate identity, an “alt”; you can be a wizard or a warrior or a tinkerer or a thief. “I could toggle between these alts with a freedom that was unavailable to me in off-line life, whose institutions tend to regard all mutability as suspicious,” Snowden writes. Online, he could be whoever he wanted to be. And he could make the world be the way he wanted it to be.

Disillusionment, in this life story, is watching the wrecking of the Internet. “To grow up is to realize the extent to which your existence has been governed by a system of rules, vague guidelines, and increasingly unsupportable norms that have been imposed on you without your consent,” Snowden writes, offering a definition of adulthood that better describes arrested development. He left high school after a year. He went to community college for a while. He posted a lot of stuff on bulletin boards, including a Japanese anime site where, in April, 2002, when he was eighteen, he uploaded a short autobiography called “The Book of Ed,” illustrated with a cartoon of himself, a bitmoji before they were called bitmojis, wearing a T-shirt that reads “I ♥ Me”:

I like Japanese, I like food, I like martial arts, I like ponies, I like guns, I like food, I like girls, I like my girlish figure that attracts girls, and I like my lamer friends.

That’s the best biography you’ll get out of me, coppers! . . . I really am a nice guy, though.

In the spring of 2004, Snowden joined the Army reserves but, five months later, washed out of basic training. Not long afterward, on an early dating site called HotOrNot, he met a twenty-year-old photographer and pole dancer named Lindsay Mills. (They married in 2017.) In 2005, he became a contractor for American intelligence services, working as a security guard.

Whistle-blowing is very often an upstanding act of courage, undertaken at great personal cost, and resulting in great public good. But the presence of a lot of whistle-blowing—an age of whistle-blowing—isn’t a sign of a thriving democracy or a healthy business world; it’s a sign of a weak democracy and a sick business world. When institutions are working well, either they don’t engage in misconduct or their internal mechanisms discover, thwart, and punish it. Democracies have checks and balances, including investigations, ethics committees, and elections. Businesses have regulations, compliance departments, and inspections. Whistle-blowing is necessary when these safeguards fail. But to celebrate whistle-blowing as anything other than a last resort is to give up on institutions.

An act of whistle-blowing is more than an accusation of specific misconduct; it’s an indictment of an entire system of accountability. Whistle-blowers don’t say, “My company sells drugs that make you sicker.” They say, “My company sells drugs that make you sicker and my company knows it’s doing this and I alerted my bosses and asked them to stop it and they won’t, because they are making piles of money off this scam.” Whistle-blowers have a lot in common with one another. Most discover abuses while holding positions of power within their organizations, often in oversight roles. They typically report those abuses to their superiors, repeatedly, for months and even years, before seeking help outside their organizations, usually from lawyers or other advocates. Less frequently, they go straight to the press.

Snowden doesn’t fit any part of this pattern. Early in his training, he was upbraided for failing to follow the chain of command. He never held a position of influence or oversight within the intelligence community. He didn’t come across evidence of wrongdoing. He went looking for it. Stanger says that Snowden began “siphoning off classified information” from the servers on which he worked beginning in 2009, when he was sent to Geneva for the C.I.A. Snowden says he began searching for evidence of a mass-surveillance program before being posted to Japan, later that year, where he worked for Perot Systems (which was acquired by Dell soon afterward), at the N.S.A.’s Pacific Technical Center, at Yokota Air Base. His job there, he says, was “helping to connect the NSA’s systems architecture with the CIA’s.” To do this work, he had extraordinary access to classified documents, far above his standing in the intelligence community.“She’s a little sensitive to gluten.”

He began prowling around. “To find out about even a fraction of the malfeasance, you had to go searching,” Snowden explains. “And to go searching, you had to know that it existed.” N.S.A. mass-surveillance programs had been the subject of the 1998 film “Enemy of the State,” starring Will Smith; of the 2000 Nintendo 64 video game Perfect Dark; and of Patrick Radden Keefe’s 2005 book, “Chatter: Dispatches from the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping.” But Snowden says he began to suspect that the United States was engaged in mass surveillance only after being assigned to assess China’s surveillance capabilities. “I had the sneaking sense while I was looking through all this China material that I was looking at a mirror and seeing a reflection of America,” he writes. “And although you should hate me for it, I have to say that at the time I tamped down my unease.” Still, he was upset. So he kept digging. Eventually, he came across a classified report that provided the evidence he’d been looking for.

Snowden has claimed that he alerted more than ten officials at the N.S.A. about his discovery and expressed his alarm. He has provided no support for this claim. The N.S.A. says he reported his concerns to no one. “There were other avenues available for somebody whose conscience was stirred and thought that they needed to question government actions,” Obama said at a press conference in 2013. The classified documents Snowden released to the press contained a good deal more than evidence of the surveillance of American citizens; they included, for instance, a 2006 memo detailing the N.S.A.’s monitoring of the telephone conversations of thirty-five unnamed world leaders, which led the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, to charge the Obama Administration with tapping her phone, causing a diplomatic uproar. “I think it is fair to say that the senior leadership of the NSA probably hate me a little bit,” Snowden told Stanger, as if this were personal.

Snowden writes that, when he reached the end of his quest, he “felt more adult than ever, but also cursed with the knowledge that all of us had been reduced to something like children, who’d be forced to live the rest of our lives under omniscient parental supervision.” He’d been finding the offline world annoying for a long time, and now the N.S.A. had wrecked the online world, too. He unsheathed Excalibur.

The U.S. government has collected information about Americans since the first federal census, in 1790. At every point in American history when the government has stepped up those efforts, clandestine or not, citizens have protested and resisted, some number of Americans greeting each new regime as marking the end of American freedom. As the gifted historian Sarah Igo argues in “The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America” (Harvard), within this long fight lie the origins of most modern ideas about both privacy and citizenship, including the idea of the “private citizen.” Americans complained in the eighteen-seventies, when the federal government was found to be opening people’s mail. They complained in the nineteen-teens, after the founding of the F.B.I., which spied on socialists and African-American “subversives.” They complained about draft-registration cards, drivers’ licenses, and every other government-issued identification, as forms of tracking and surveillance, including, after 1935, Social Security cards, a punch card for every American. By 1966, as the Senate Judiciary Committee reported, the federal government held, in separate agencies, computer files containing “more than 3 billion records on individuals, including 27.2 billion names, 2.3 billion addresses, 264 million criminal histories, 280 million mental health records, 916 million profiles on alcoholism and drug addiction, and 1.2 billion financial records.” That year, Americans debated a proposal for establishing a National Data Center, a peer to the Library of Congress (which holds books) and the National Archives (which holds manuscripts), to store all the data on a central computer. Congress convened hearings on “computers and the invasion of privacy.” Critics warned of “data surveillance.” “The citizen concerned about the erosion of his privacy has until now had some consolation in knowing that all these records about his life have been widely dispersed and often difficult to get at,” Vance Packard wrote in the Times. “But today, with the advent of giant sophisticated computers capable of storing and recalling vast amounts of information, this consolation is vanishing.” The proposed National Data Center died. But data surveillance endured.

In 1971, Senate hearings on federal data banks revealed the existence of a vast program of domestic surveillance conducted by the U.S. military. By 1974, there had been so much documentation of government-run and computer-stored and processed surveillance of civilians that Congress passed the Privacy Act, which opened with this indictment: “Increasing use of computers and sophisticated information technology, while essential to the efficient operations of the Government, has greatly magnified the harm to individual privacy that can occur.” Passed when Americans’ distrust of government was at a high point, given the betrayals of Vietnam and Watergate, the Privacy Act failed to protect individuals’ private data from corporations. Concern about the capture of personal data seemed to be directed only at the government. (Bell Telephone Company, for instance, had been collecting bulk data about its customers to the best of its ability since its founding, in 1877.) At Senate committee hearings in 1975, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense was asked whether ARPANET, the Pentagon-run precursor to the Internet, was secretly collecting information about American citizens. “It is a marvel in many ways,” he answered, but it “simply does not fit the Orwellian mold attributed to it.”

But Snowden’s interest in the N.S.A.’s surveillance program appears to have had as much to do with the vanishing Internet of his childhood as with the overreach of the national-security state. In 2011, after four years of living abroad, Snowden returned to the United States. “Contradictory thoughts rained down like Tetris blocks, and I struggled to sort them out—to make them disappear,” he writes. Working at Dell, under a contract for the C.I.A., he felt that Americans had become pitiful victims of their own government. “The Internet I’d grown up with, the Internet that had raised me, was disappearing,” he writes. “And with it, so was my youth.” He was twenty-seven.

Snowden subscribes to the theory of a Once Great Internet, a techno-utopia in which boys and men could be free and anonymous and undiscoverable and ungovernable. “Back then, being online was another life, considered by most to be separate and distinct from Real Life,” he writes. “The virtual and the actual had not yet merged. And it was up to each individual user to determine for themselves where one ended and the other began. It was precisely this that was so inspiring: the freedom to imagine something entirely new, the freedom to start over.” This is the anarchists’ Internet, promoted by countercultural figures, including Stewart Brand, of the Whole Earth Catalog, and John Perry Barlow, the former Grateful Dead lyricist, and advanced by libertarians and anti-antitrust conservatives led by Newt Gingrich and George Gilder. Their Internet isn’t the Internet we lost; it’s the Internet we got, under the terms of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, a Gingrich-and-Gilder travesty, signed by Bill Clinton, that shielded the Internet from government regulation and made it a commercial free-for-all. Google, Facebook, and Amazon know far, far more about most Americans than the N.S.A. does. But Snowden came to believe that the forces that ruined the Internet of his boyhood were less the forces of libertarianism that left corporations unchecked, giving rise to endless forms of capture, tracking, mining, and manipulation, than the forces of government that, under the expansive authority of the 2001 Patriot Act, made the Internet a place where it was impossible to be unknown and ungoverned. He wanted to end that game. Reset. New game.

In 2012, after taking a disability leave, Snowden moved to Hawaii to work as a contractor at an N.S.A. facility in Oahu. He was determined to know everything about how the agency was trying to know everything. He wrote a program to flag any unusual documents that were moving through the traffic of the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communication System. In 2013, he took a lower-paying job working for Booz Allen Hamilton, in order to gain access to more classified information. He writes, “I was resolved to bring to light a single, all-encompassing fact: that my government had developed and deployed a global system of mass surveillance without the knowledge or consent of its citizenry.” He neared the eye of the giant.

On his desk, Snowden kept a pocket U.S. Constitution, propped up against a Rubik’s Cube. He stored the files he stole on micro SD cards, smaller than postage stamps. He’d pry off a square of his Rubik’s Cube, tuck an SD card inside, jam the square back on, and walk out the door. This move did not end the game. 

All Rights Reserved for Jill Lepore

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