Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Book review: Permanent Record, Edward Snowden (2019)

Writing a memoir allows Snowden to demonstrate things about himself that go to the question of his character. This tactic makes it evident that what he did – reveal the US intelligence community’s unlawful, and frankly ludicrous, acquisition and use of the electronic data of everyone on the planet, what they called “bulk” collection – was something like an inevitability.

Courage is rare to come across but there’s no question that Snowden is a man of exceptional courage. He also has an unusual personality. This is a man who kept copies of the US Constitution on his desk at work so that he could give them away to other people in the office. He took his job seriously and expected others around him to do the same. Unfortunately, many of them let him down.

One thing that emerges from reading this book is the way that Snowden’s hacker roots helped him make the decisions he did. It wasn’t an accident that he decided to buck the system; the need to do so from his earliest years – in order to learn about computers and digital networks – instilled in him a healthy dose of libertarianism. In a sense Snowden is a kind of literalist. The copies of the Constitution on his desk were as much a part of his education as a citizen as were his years tinkering about with the computers his father – who worked for the US Coast Guard – brought home.

Snowden is also a good writer, although he did benefit from the help of at least two people (a circumstance he notes in the book). From time to time there is a folksy expression that proves that Snowden, rather than someone else, was driving the bus. There is something old-fashioned as well as familiar about this kind of writing, in the sense that it draws the reader close to the author, as though the two of you are sitting in front of a fireplace in the evening after dinner having a congenial chat. The chapters are short and the pacing is solid. There is enough colour to give the reader a rounded view of each person without overburdening the reader with information.

Overall, I found the story of Snowden’s life to be well-told as well as interesting. I have tried reading official histories of spy agencies but the two I started to read were impenetrably dull. They seemed to have been designed for academics, or other types of specialist, people with an inexhaustible capacity to struggle through acres of opaque prose. This is a shame. It’s not surprising however. Often when you phone a government agency – or even if you email their media department to ask for information – you will have to wait an age before you get to speak to a human, or else you will get an email in reply that hides more than it discloses. Large organisations almost universally lack the human touch.

Snowden does away with all the crap and gives you what you need to understand his story. And because of the time period covered in the book – it starts in the 90s – this memoir also has elements of history that can be very revealing about the times it talks about. The way that young people (like my own brother) became enamoured of everything digital is worth several histories, at least.

The book is also full of the author’s native intelligence. Snowden appeared to me, as I was reading, to be very sensible (as we all are in our own ways) to the nuances and subtleties of existence. Here is someone, I thought to myself, who is conscious of the impact that his own actions have on others. I wish him all the best for the future. Whatever that holds for him.

We already know the story, of course, or we do if we watch at least some of the news. The story so far, in any case. But even when you know how things turn out, the journey to reach the ending of this book is still thrilling. Congratulations to Edward and to all of the people who helped him, including Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald.

There are others in this class of people who gave Snowden assistance in his hour of need, but you can buy the book if you want to find out more. I will say however that Snowden does leave out some details from the account he makes in order not to unnecessarily compromise the security of the organisation – the National Security Agency (NSA) – he was working for when the time came to carry out the acts that enabled him, carefully and deliberately, to remove documents from his workplace. Part of the curtain remains in place, preventing the reader – whoever he or she is – from seeing everything. But at the level of sophistication I am talking about, only specialists would be able to understand what any disclosure would mean. The substantive outlines of the crime Snowden committed are adequately rendered.

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