Any elected government that relies on surveillance to maintain control of a citizenry that regards surveillance as anathema to democracy has effectively ceased to be a democracy.
— Edward Snowden
Now that I have read his book, the person who comes to mind when I think about Edward Snowden, is Greta Thunberg. The reason for this is that while both individuals are precocious, highly intelligent, and medically atypical (autism in her case, epilepsy in his), what most strikes me about each and both of them is their exceptional devotion to the public good. This is actually a considerable understatement; a more accurate characterization might be to speak of their devotion to universal wellbeing. In the case of Ms. Thunberg, the dimension of her concern is of course the climate catastrophe threatening our planet; in the case of Mr. Snowden, it is the universal surveillance of humanity and the concomitant creation of a permanent record (per the title of his volume) on every human being who has in any way utilized electronic media. In short, his concern is the effective loss of privacy, with all the ramifications that carries.
His book follows the traditional autobiographical format of childhood forward to the present, and the events he describes portray both familiar, unremarkable family events and setting, and his own, obvious “otherness” as someone both bright and, for quite some time, socially awkward. There is nothing in this that obviously prefigures his later development into America’s foremost whistleblower; in fact, when the events of 9/11 transpired, his response was to join the army. Only an accident while in basic training that medically disqualified him from further service in the military, led him in the direction of employment with the National Security Administration (NSA), the preeminent spy agency whose top technical administrative ranks he progressed toward and ultimately attained. It is important to grasp that he did not enter this line of work with any intention to dissent, unmask, or oppose what he took to be Constitutionally mandated activities protecting the nation from its foreign enemies. It was only through his own experience at the NSA that he came to realize their official task had in fact been exceeded, and routinely so, on a scale that literally encompassed every person in the nation with any electronic fingerprint. In real terms, that meant anyone old enough to operate a smart phone or any internet-capable device.
What followed from his cumulative epiphany was, as we now know, his decision to “go public” with the facts of what the NSA was doing. Realizing that internal avenues for redress were mere window-dressing and would only result in his being effectively muzzled from ever making the public aware of the NSA’s transgressions, he resolved to do as Daniel Ellsberg had done before him, during the Vietnam War era: spill the beans to the Fourth Estate. Snowden was savvy enough to realize he had to make careful choices, as much of what passes for news reportage anymore is closely tied to vested power–what Democracy Now refers to as media that is “for the state, not a fourth estate.” Once he had made his choice of individuals he would approach, he undertook the personally wrenching process of preparing to depart without telling his girlfriend what he was doing.
The hardest part of the entire process, for him, was the period during which he was holed up in a hotel room in Hong Kong, waiting with understandable impatience and fear for the people he had contacted (Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and others) to actually appear; until they finally materialized (it must have seemed nearly magical, so great was his felt relief) in the hotel lobby per mutually agreed plans, he was uncertain whether they would in fact follow through on their stated commitment to travel to Hong Kong and meet with him, or whether he would instead first be found by agents of his likely future jailers.
We know of course that he came to be effectively caged in Russia as his final destination (to this date), effectively ceasing to be the waystation it was intended to be, when the US government revoked his passport. It is a source of satisfaction to me that he not only is very active with organizations and online conferences devoted to the cause of privacy rights and freedom from Big Brother-style surveillance, but that the love of his life, the girlfriend he had to leave without saying goodbye, rejoined, married, and now lives with him in Moscow. Exile was and is not his preferred course of action, but given the realities of what the United States has become–the world’s foremost example of a national surveillance panopticon, totalitarian in scope and intent–there is no choice for him but to remain where he is, relatively secure from the likes of the CIA.
I commend this book to you as the account of one of the foremost heroes of our time, a man who had achieved professional success far beyond that reached by most people in our society–only to risk that and much more, in order to afford us the opportunity to know the extent to which we were and are routinely surveilled, lied to, and manipulated by “our” government.