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For Whom the Whistleblower Blows

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books and culture

For Whom the Whistleblower Blows

Edward Snowden’s new book is a self-indulgent omission of facts. December 4, 2019
Technology and Innovation

Permanent Record, by Edward Snowden (Metropolitan Books, 352 pp., $30)

Edward Snowden, the world famous former civilian contractor at the National Security Agency, was widely celebrated as a whistleblower because, before defecting to Russia, he shared with journalists highly classified documents exposing the NSA’s sources and methods of monitoring online communications. Now, more than six years later, he has released a memoir, Permanent Record, the publication of which he described in a tweet from Moscow “as an international conspiracy across 20 countries.”

Snowden asserts—with some justification—that his leaks made cyberspace safer than in the past from the U.S. intelligence community’s spying and other intrusions. Certainly, by exposing how the NSA and its allies monitored telecommunications, he made it easier to keep messages and other activities secret—not only from his employer but also from law enforcement agencies—by measures such as end-to-end encryption. Of course, America wasn’t the only state actor operating in cyberspace, and some hostile actors, like Russia, could slip through the hole that Snowden opened.

To understand how he punched this hole, consider some actions he took that he omits from the book. For example, as the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence revealed in its December 2016 report, Snowden removed digital copies of 1.5 million classified files from the NSA. In this haul, according to the Pentagon, some 900,000 of the files had originated at the Department of Defense and contained, among other things, information from the Cyber Command, a joint effort between the NSA and military intelligence to confront adversary intrusions in cyberspace. Other removed files contained documents that originated with allies, including the British, Australian, and Israeli intelligence services. Richard “Rick” Ledgett, who headed the NSA’s damage-assessment team, described one file containing a 32,000-page database that could provide adversaries with a roadmap to the gaps in our surveillance. The breach needed to be remedied.

Any secret data removed without authorization from the NSA’s secure facilities is, by definition, compromised. Regardless of whether Snowden supplied these files to journalists, parked them in the cloud, gave them to foreign governments, or threw them in the Pacific Ocean, the Defense Department had no choice but to shut down all the sources divulged in them. It was a Herculean task that took 200 to 250 intelligence officers several months to accomplish, and the loss likely made it more difficult to protect American cyberspace from Russian intrusions.

Journalists were not the only people to whom Snowden reached out. After he took the files and went to Hong Kong, Snowden secretly contacted Russian government officials, whom we now know considered his information important enough to inform Vladimir Putin. As Putin himself revealed in a September 3, 2013 televised press conference: “Snowden first went to Hong Kong and got in touch with our diplomatic representatives.” He added, “I was informed that there was such a man, agent of special services.” We don’t know what Snowden told these “diplomatic representatives,” or what they relayed to Putin—Snowden does not reveal his interaction with them—but it was enough for Putin to authorize his trip to Moscow.

It was Wikileaks, which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo once called “a hostile intelligence service,” that helped Snowden get from Hong Kong to Moscow. Julian Assange, its cofounder, not only sent his associate Sarah Harrison to Hong Kong but also used Wikileaks funds to pay for Snowden’s ticket on the Russian airline Aeroflot. Assange admitted this at his June 23, 2013 news conference, confirming that “we paid for those arrangements.” Assange also admitted that he and Harrison used Snowden’s credit card to book decoy flights. Harrison then personally escorted Snowden to Moscow.

Finally, though Snowden doesn’t identify his employer or source of income in Russia, U.S. intelligence found that he remained in contact with Russian intelligence until at least 2016. We know this because the House Intelligence Committee found, based on its access to U.S. intelligence, that “Since Snowden’s arrival in Moscow [on June 23, 2013], he has had, and continues to have, contact with Russian intelligence services.” Representative Adam Schiff, the committee’s ranking Democrat, and Representative Mike Rogers, its ranking Republican, confirmed this bipartisan conclusion to me.

Snowden chose not to include any of these four points in his “permanent record,” instead advertising his status as a whistleblower superhero. He has remained unique among them. Other whistleblowers have gone to their respective service’s inspector general with their concerns; by contrast, Snowden “got in touch with” agents of the Russian government. Other whistleblowers merely reported putative malfeasance; Snowden removed 1.5 million classified files and fled the country. And other whistleblowers accepted the legal consequences of their actions; Snowden evaded them by defecting to Russia. That’s a permanent record of its own.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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