The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man
Now a major motion picture, directed by Oliver Stone and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Edward Snowden was a 29-year-old computer genius working for the National Security Agency when he shocked the world by exposing the near-universal mass surveillance programs of the United States government. His whistleblowing has shaken the leaders of nations worldwide, and generated a passionate public debate on the dangers of global monitoring and the threat to individual privacy.
In a tour de force of investigative journalism that reads like a spy novel, award-winning Guardian reporter Luke Harding tells Snowden’s astonishing story—from the day he left his glamorous girlfriend in Honolulu carrying a hard drive full of secrets, to the weeks of his secret-spilling in Hong Kong, to his battle for asylum and his exile in Moscow. For the first time, Harding brings together the many sources and strands of the story—touching on everything from concerns about domestic spying to the complicity of the tech sector—while also placing us in the room with Edward Snowden himself. The result is a gripping insider narrative—and a necessary and timely account of what is at stake for all of us in the new digital age.
About the Author
Luke Harding is an award-winning foreign correspondent with the Guardian. He has reported from Delhi, Berlin and Moscow and has also covered wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He is the author of Mafia State and co-author of WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy (2011) and The Liar: The Fall of Jonathan Aitken (1997), nominated for the Orwell Prize. The film rights to WikiLeaks were sold to Dreamworks and the film, “The Fifth Estate,” came out in 2013. His books have been translated into 13 languages. Luke lives in England with his wife and their two children.
- Paperback: 352 pages
- Publisher: Vintage; F First Paperback Edition Used edition (February 7, 2014)
“Reads like a le Carré novel crossed with something by Kafka. . . . A fast-paced, almost novelistic narrative. . . . [The book] gives readers . . . a succinct overview of the momentous events of the past year. . . . Leave[s] readers with an acute understanding of the serious issues involved.”
—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“[Snowden’s] story is one of the most compelling in the history of American espionage. . . . The Snowden Files, by Luke Harding, a correspondent for the Guardian newspaper, which broke the initial Snowden story, is the first to assemble the sequence of events in a single volume. The book captures the drama of Snowden’s operation in often-cinematic detail. . . . Harding has delivered a clearly written and captivating account of the Snowden leaks and their aftermath.”
—The Washington Post
“Engaging and lucid. . . . A gripping read. . . . Harding is a gifted writer. . . . The strength of Harding’s book is its ability to bring Snowden’s story to life while elucidating the contours of a much larger set of issues. . . . In rendering the complicated comprehensible in an entertaining way, Harding’s book provides an important public service.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“The Snowden Files, the first book on what British journalist Luke Harding calls ‘the biggest intelligence leak in history,’ is a readable and thorough account. The narrative is rich in newsroom details, reflecting Harding’s inside access as a correspondent for the London-based Guardian newspaper, which broke the story. . . . The writer deserves unqualified praise for fueling the debate on privacy that Snowden so hoped to ignite.”
“A super-readable, thrillerish account of the events surrounding the reporting of the documents. . . . Harding has done an amazing—and speedy—job of assembling material from a wide variety of sources and turning it into an exciting account.”
—The London Review of Books
“The Snowden Files is a one-stop shop, covering his formative years, the government jobs that would eventually give him access, and even the development of the data-gathering programs he exposed to the world. It’s as impressive in its execution as it is infuriating to revisit how much government manipulation and duplicity was involved. (Harding does an equally thorough job explaining the role played by the UK’s version of the NSA—the GCHQ—and their appallingly thuggish actions as the news stories broke.) . . . Harding is unflinchingly honest. . . . [He] ask[s] hard questions about the consequences of Snowden’s actions. While Harding is a Snowden supporter, he’s hardly a blind one.”
—San Francisco Book Review
“A newsworthy, must-read book about what prompted Edward Snowden to blow the whistle on his former employer, the National Security Agency, and what likely awaits him for having done so. . . . Whether you view Snowden’s act as patriotic or treasonous, this fast-paced, densely detailed book is the narrative of first resort.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“Engaging. . . . Harding’s well-researched and compelling book is highly recommended.”
“Recounts the incredible story of how Snowden becomes angry about the abuses he says he witnessed inside the system, resolves to pull off a stunning electronic heist by downloading the NSA’s and its partners’ most sensitive files, and gives them to journalists he has persuaded to meet him in Hong Kong. Harding captures nicely the moment when The Guardian pushes the button on its first Snowden story, an intense, adrenaline-filled cocktail of high-minded journalistic zeal and the sheer thrill of publishing sensitive information.”
Ed Snowden and the American tribal fear meme
This is a story about what one American saw atop the tip of an iceberg called the “American national security state.” In the end, Ed Snowden, a 29-year old, $200,00/year High School dropout turned Computer Systems Administrator for Dell, and then Booz Allen Hamilton, both of which were under contract with the NSA, is little more than a proxy for the rest of us: the “paying customer” zombies and drones for the American “national security state.”
As he tried to “ride out” his tenure astride this violently bucking institutional Orwellian Frankenstein, Snowden quickly realized that he was losing ground to this secret self-fashioned protector of America’s deepest values. In our life time, the NSA had joined a long string of other self-justifying, self-certifying, security institutions, like the CIA, the FBI, Swat Teams, the DEA, even local police intelligence units, especially in America’s inner cities. In our lifetime, these institutions have acquired immense and unwarranted powers, often even unauthorized, unconstitutional and unearned and even criminal influence over our democratic institutions. Today, as this evolving behemoth huffs and puffs and bucks wildly out-of-control, Snowden decided he had no choice but to “jump ship,” taking with him a treasure trove of all that lay below the national security waterline.
As he now sits ensconced somewhere in Russia, one thought above all else must have occurred to Mr. Snowden: Is this some kind of sick joke? That me, a freedom-loving American, who willingly exercised my civic duty as a free-thinking defender of American values and the U.S. Constitution, conveying crimes being committed against that very Constitution, is now forced to run, hide and seek refuge in a failed ex-Communist state?
What Ed Saw from the Clinton/Bush/Cheney-Bush/Obama clock Tower at Fort Meade and Langley
What Snowden saw, in full operational glory, was a series of very sophisticated interconnected computer programs, any one of which alone, unbridled, was capable of undoing our democracy in one fell swoop, full stop. But when taken together, as Snowden witnessed up-close and personal at the NSA, as an interconnected institutional suite of government sanctioned malware, they constitute nothing short of the greatest spying machine ever known to man: a virtual global cyber-panopticon, a hidden architecture for worldwide oppression. Here at the very nerve center of “democratic America,” we find a virtual omnipotent and omnipresent 21st Century Stasi style Cyber-Frankenstein, one that so far has not yielded to open democratic debate, or democratic tinkering, or limp-wrist oversight, or indeed to any other attempts to rein it in, whatsoever.
To start with, there is the mother of all spy programs called PROMIS, which (lest we again forget) first surfaced in the mid-to-late 1990s in association with the death of Danny Casolaro, a reporter who was murdered in a motel in Kentucky just before he was about to blow the cover off of what the people in Little Rock, Arkansas were doing with PROMIS through a small software firm (established and funded by Jackson Stephens) called Systematics. And although Wikipedia describes PROMIS as little more than a sophisticated “data capture program” that “Hoovers-up” data for later analysis, we know better. We know that it is much more than just a “stand-in Hoover.”
We know that it has played a much larger more sinister role as a “backdoor cyber-Trojan Horse” for financial enterprises and the Banking industry. We know that PROMIS was invented by the Inslaw corporation out of Reston, Virginia, as a foolproof way of tracking drug profits, and uncovering the contents and numbers of Swiss bank accounts — among many other things. (Does BCCI ring a bell for anyone? If Vince Foster were still alive today, what are the chances he could tell us a lot more about PROMIS?)
If we can trust what the NSA and the CIA slides stolen by Snowden, now tell us, then, what PROMIS is doing is the equivalent of a “drive-by hijacking” of 100 of the major communications firms within the U.S. These firms were given a dead man’s choice: “Give us access to all of your customer files, or your economic life?” Only a few balked and tried to resist this threat. The others, asked for and got a quickly “jerry-rigged” secret piece of legislation of questionable constitutional integrity and legitimacy, that ordered them to do exactly what the NSA had threatened them to do in the first place. They then all fell in line. At least in this way, they were assured a tissue thin layer of moral “top cover.”
Once this extra-Constitutional “fake democratic dog-and-pony show” was over, then all the companies’ files were commandeered, rifled and “culled for meta data” about every citizen in the U.S. (and potentially every citizen in the rest of the world) that uses any form of electronic communication (i.e., fiber-optic cables, gateway switches, or data networks). Once culled, this Big Data base is all stored so that it can later be further processed, analyzed, and interrogated as needed, all, ostensibly, in a last-ditched effort to find the “last standing terrorist in the global haystack?”
The cost to the taxpayer for this very inefficient, expensive and questionable protection (that is, if we could ever know the NSA’s budget), must clearly be calculated in the billions; the cost to our nation in the way of lost democratic freedoms and rights, is clearly incalculable — but is approaching the complete capitulation of our democracy in every direction.
Another program called “Stellar Wind,” with the help of the UK, was used to build a “global social network graph” out of the stored Big Data, both within the U.S. and across the globe through a technique called “contact chaining.” It amounts to a dragnet surveillance of the world’s internet users. It allows the NSA, abetted by the British, to set up fake Internet cafes, where unwitting users can be monitored and where needed, entrapped. However, I leave the details of this and other programs like UPSTREAM, BOUNDLESS INFORMANT, TEMPORA, SAMUEL PEPYS, BIG PIGGY and BAD WOLF for discovery by the readers of this book.
I read this book because my book club chose it. I had expected to hate it largely because I expected it to lionize a man I considered a traitor, yet I harbored a secret fear that I might be persuaded to find Snowden to be a true hero, proving my own instincts wrong. In the end I was, surprisingly, rather bored with the whole thing.
The book is written well enough, but for a purported piece of investigative journalism it sure didn’t say much. It gave a bit of Snowden’s background, and at the end a short epilogue about his unintended self-exile in Russia. The big “revelations” in the book consist of a general description of the NSA’s major programs, such as listening to cell phone traffic, buffering internet data, and so forth, and listed their rather fanciful code names. My reaction to that was much the same as one British politician quoted near the end: “Spies spy.” Well, duh! Other than that, the remaining 90% of the book was pretty much a puff piece for The Guardian, the British tabloid that Snowden chose as his outlet for the stolen documents, or some of them at least. The author, a writer for that paper, seems to have an inferiority complex and tried mightily to use this platform to cast his employer as a major player and knight in shining armor for civil liberties everywhere. Ho hum (although I do like their cryptic crosswords).
What the book didn’t do is provide a single instance of anyone who was ever harmed by the NSA’s surveillance actions. Balance this with the fact the NSA did provide a few examples of terrorist plots that had been disrupted thanks to their monitoring efforts. To be fair, it also didn’t provide any examples of how Snowden’s action resulted in any harm to the U.S. or its Anglophone Five. As a former FBI agent I know how public foofaraw can be disruptive to an agency, but soon enough such revelations fade into irrelevance like a mosquito bite on an elephant.
Perhaps the same homily can be applied to both the NSA and Snowden: no harm, no foul. I have no doubt the NSA continues to intercept almost everything. Spies spy. I’m happy to have them record, read, watch, listen to, or parse everything I say or do. I’m not a criminal or terrorist. I will never understand those people who are outraged at the idea their communications are monitored by the government. Whenever I hear someone say that they are, I wonder what crime they’re worried about being caught committing. I’m afraid of criminals (of whom terrorists are merely a subset, and rather a small one at that – drivers with cell phones are much more of a threat), not the government. Criminals actually hurt people. The NSA doesn’t. I’ve seen many innocent people’s lives ruined by criminals but never once by the FBI or NSA. Even Snowden is quoted only as saying that the massive collection of data has the potential to be abused and result in an innocent person being accused. True. Letting a doctor give you general anesthesia and cut into your body has the potential for abuse, and so does giving police guns, but there’s such a thing as necessary risk.
Unlike many former FBI agents, I don’t see Snowden as one of the worst breaches of U.S. national security, and I don’t see getting him back for prosecution as all that important. He’s languishing in his own prison of sorts living with no job in Russia. The irony is delicious. I still think he’s a traitor and should go to prison, but his current situation is close to that.