Cory Doctorow: Permanent Record: Edward Snowden and the Making of a Whistleblower

Yves here. Please thank Cory for his generosity in letting us post his review on Edward Snowden’s new book, which includes a personal perspective on Snowden.

By Cory Doctorow, a Canadian-British blogger, journalist, and science fiction author who serves as co-editor of the blog Boing Boing. Originally published at Boing Boing

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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

35 comments

  1. John Siman

    Be sure to read my review of Tom Mueller’s brutal new book on the tragic heroism of whistleblowers, Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud. It will be published Monday morning!

    Reply
  2. wellclosed

    Would be interesting to hear any president candidate from either wing of our war party offer to not throw him or Assange into The Pit Of Despair.

    Reply
      1. Carolinian

        But she’s such a showoff–going around being (almost) always right about everything.

        At any rate good to see Doctorow as an official NC contributor. Yay.

        Reply
        1. jrs

          well hasn’t actually done much so yea being right without a record is kinda where she is (she does have a good record on veterans issues).

          Reply
        2. Olga

          Not sure what is meant by “showoff;” I’d think it is more important seriously to consider what she is saying. I tend to think that delivery is less important than substance.

          Reply
          1. Carolinian

            I was being snarky. If it was up to me Tulsi would be at the top of the pack. Guess I will get to vote for her in a few months if she hangs in that long.

            Reply
  3. kees_popinga

    Without reading the book I’m trying to picture a “military family who believes [so] deeply in service” that it would raise a child to be “terribly vulnerable to jingoistic calls for revenge after 9/11.” Did these people think Vietnam was a failure of nerve or that our generals were stabbed in the back by peaceniks back home? Or that the Gulf War was “just” and “licked the Vietnam Syndrome”? Did “revenge” make any sense as a policy option after the 9/11 attacks? In order to make Snowden into the kind of hero Doctorow craves, he has to paint him as justifiably ignorant of the kind of culture he aspired to belong to. Where were his ethics as a teenager or young adult? A better story would be the flawed hero who accomplished some good after stumbling into a situation he should have known was bad from the outset. (Sorry to be complaining but hagiography stinks.)

    Reply
    1. Abi

      He may have well been ignorant of all you’re saying because it clearly states that’s the culture he grew up in. Whatever your grouse with that….he seems to have stepped out of the bubble he grew up in and formed his sense of justice.

      You really cannot tell someone how to view themselves or write their story

      Reply
    2. inode_buddha

      “a “military family who believes [so] deeply in service” that it would raise a child to be “terribly vulnerable to jingoistic calls for revenge after 9/11.” Did these people think Vietnam was a failure of nerve or that our generals were stabbed in the back by peaceniks back home? Or that the Gulf War was “just” and “licked the Vietnam Syndrome”? Did “revenge” make any sense as a policy option after the 9/11 attacks? ”

      Actually, I know a good many people of all ages who actually do believe all of this, as gospel truth. It is like an article of faith for them, and don’t you dare question it. The vast majority of them are either Republicans, Conservatives, or served in the military.

      Reply
      1. laudyms

        The military thrives by way of a form of mind control: they are open about taking young impressionable people, telling them what to do and think, and forming them into cohesive units not unlike clans. This is an effective tool on the battlefield and dismissive of critical thinking, since questioning orders is not desirable.

        Stepping outside the bubble one may reclaim ones humanity..tho the loss of comradeship may be painful. It’s a choice.

        Reply
      2. Tomonthebeach

        I think we forget that while growing up, many of us in very homogenizing Whitefliteburbia, that we were immersed daily in patriotic propaganda. 1952, kindergarten: “I pledge a legion [sic] to the flag …” Then Cub Scouts: “On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country …” Then the Boy Scouts: “Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly….” The Sophomore HS Civic class where you learn the concepts of neoliberal conservative anti-communist values and notions of how government works. Junior HS American History – where we learned that all US wars are just wars and that we always win; and we learn that communism is our evil enemy hell-bent on turning us all into slaves. Then we graduate from HS and get drafted, we fight and return home needing to rationalize the unrationalizable – “Peace with honor.” Then we give birth to little Ed Snowden and dismiss his world view as naive? What does that make us?

        Reply
    3. sj

      Did these people think Vietnam was a failure of nerve or that our generals were stabbed in the back by peaceniks back home?

      Looking at Viet Nam or the Gulf war is so short view as to be irrelevant. What Snowden describes is a tradition that goes back generations.

      And I don’t think Snowden was going for “a better story”. He just doesn’t seem to think that way.

      Reply
      1. Plenue

        I’m always reminded of the line in one of the A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones books to the effect of “a knight is a sword on a horse; the ribbons and ladies favors are windowdressing”.

        A military is a tool of state sanctioned murder. On very rare occassions, like stopping the Nazis, that organized murder machine may actually do more good than bad, but that’s very much the exception (and stopping bad guys isn’t remotely why WW2 was fought). A military family tradition should be a mark of shame, not something to be blindly proud of.

        And I say that as someone who comes from a military family.

        Reply
  4. David

    Like the rest of us, I suspect, I haven’t read the book yet, and I’ll defer judgement until I have. But just one thought on the word ‘illegal’ which Doctorow and similar writers tend to throw around rather glibly. All foreign intelligence gathering by definition breaks the law of the country you are targeting. It is therefore ‘illegal ‘ by some definition. If you are trying to find out what horrors Bolsonaro might be preparing, and you manage to get access to his mobile phone, then you are clearly breaking Brazilian law. Most countries have laws which permit their intelligence services to break the laws of other countries in this way, usually under some form of higher supervision. If Snowden didn’t know this, then he must have been incredibly naive.
    The problem is that ‘illegal ‘ is often used these days to mean ‘things that in my opinion should be illegal ‘ or sometimes ‘things which I think would be judged illegal by a court.’ Before you can make judgments about Snowden’s behavior, you have to know what he objected to and why. I can’t pretend to have looked at more than a fraction of the material he leaked, but what I’ve seen, whilst it could be morally shocking to some (spying on people !) isn’t necessarily illegal. We’ll have to wait and see.

    Reply
    1. Mucho

      I think the intended meaning of ‘ illegal’ by Doctorow (&Snowden) is the existence of programs which would illegal under US law, but escape (judicial) review or oversight because of their secrecy and/or questionable legal reasoning from the government. I think one of the examples given by Snowden is the rubber-stamping by FISA courts, in secret; approval which would not hold in a public court.

      Reply
    2. Jeremy Grimm

      I am not sure of the exact thrust of your comment — but instead of wondering about legal and illegal — I think Snowden is dealing with questions about right and wrong. Such question are at the heart of difference between the Law and Justice. Snowden’s emphasis on a trial by jury points to this difference. A jury can overrule a law — Jury nullification.

      Reply
      1. Anon

        After the judge gives “instructions” to the potential jurors on what the “real” matters of the case are to be discerned..lol…
        In principle jury nullification sounds wonderful, “truth, justice and the American way” and all that…in practice, it doesn’t necessarily manifest.

        Reply
  5. The Rev Kev

    I thought before starting to read this article that I would get a bit of background on Cory Doctorow whose name I have come across before. Considering all the works and achievements of the 48 year-old Cory Doctorow, I had to check that it was in fact done by only one person-

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cory_Doctorow

    After reading this article, I can understand all the hatred of Snowden on the part of the political establishments of so many countries. To have a person that has laid it all on the line and kept true to his beliefs is something that would give any politician a lot of aggro. It reminds them of who they should be but are not. It sounded so bizarre that politicians were demanding that he should have stayed to face the music and be tortured in some American gulag out of sight of everybody with zip interest on the part of the media. I suspect that Snowden has taken seriously that part at the end of the Declaration of Independence where it says to “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honor”. He did all that and more. Bayete!

    Reply
  6. AstoriaBlowin

    I’ve seen quite a bit of chatter that the Snowden revelations are part of the ongoing feud between the CIA and NSA and that Snowden is a CIA agent who’s job it was to burn the NSA. It later was revealed that the CIA under Obama built its own version of the NSA “collect it all” approach so the Snowden saga, according to the nether regions of Twitter, is a part of the struggle for resources and primacy within the intelligence world. And fighting between factions in the imperial court is certainly nothing new in human history or in the US.

    Reply
    1. Carolinian

      That would mean the CIA finally got themselves a mole with un-blowable cover in Russia. Subtle!

      Or alternately the CIA is a clownshow whose previous leaders include Pompeo and Brennan. I pick door number two.

      Reply
      1. AstoriaBlowin

        His flight to Russia could have been him messing up the plan. Maybe he was just supposed to steal the stuff but then had a crisis of conscience and went rogue, I have no idea. But the whole thing does stink a bit considering the intercept has locked away the majority of the documents and won’t release them and Pierre Omidyar is well connected to the USAID/DOD/CIA and to regime change front groups in Ukraine, Syria, etc. though the grants his foundation gives.

        Reply
    2. Yves Smith Post author

      I have a lot of trouble with that. This sounds like propaganda to discredit Snowden as just a tool of warring factions of The Blob as opposed to an independent actor. And his revelations discredited the surveillance state in a huge way. To think the damage was limited to the NSA is naive.

      Reply
  7. Jeremy Grimm

    Thank you to Cory Doctorow for this beautiful review of Snowden’s new book, and his compelling description of one of today’s great men – recalling a Robert Ingersoll quote about greatness Amfortas referenced in a comment in today’s links [Amfortas the hippie, September 26, 2019 at 10:06 am]. And to paraphrase Lambert’s lament — another book I must read.

    Reply
  8. laudyms

    The military thrives by way of a form of mind control: they are open about taking young impressionable people, telling them what to do and think, and forming them into cohesive units not unlike clans. This is an effective tool on the battlefield and dismissive of critical thinking, since questioning orders is not desirable.

    Stepping outside the bubble one may reclaim ones humanity..tho the loss of comradeship may be painful. It’s a choice.

    Reply
  9. sj

    I got the Audible** version of the book the day after it was released. It’s fascinating, inspiring, and filled with a wry humor that I couldn’t help but appreciate. The man speaks in paragraphs, and, given the time to ponder and edit, his ability to take complex technology and layered themes and make them understandable is astonishing.

    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.

    Exactly.

    ** Snowden doesn’t narrate his own book and, as I know what his voice sounds like, the narration was a little jarring. At first. It doesn’t take long for that discordance to fade, however.

    Reply
  10. Ode to the Times

    This is: To kill a Mockingbird in the 21st Century.

    Amen to Edward Snowden….Now if only we have an Aticus Finch. Ode to the Times.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *