A review of Edward Snowden’s memoir “Permanent Record”
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Without the Internet, life today would be highly inconvenient for most people and almost inconceivable for anyone under the age of 40. In this fascinating memoir, Edward Snowden, ex-CIA and NSA whistleblower, and one of the “under 40s,” explains how he was smitten by that technology at an early age, but naïve initially about the Internet’s vulnerability to widespread misuse.
If Permanent Record has a subtext, it could be summed up by one word: sadness. Sadness, disillusionment, and regret permeate much of the narrative. It’s not so much sadness for having to abandon a comfortable lifestyle and go into exile, or for having to betray his government and his employers, or for deceiving his family and girlfriend. It’s the sadness of realizing that the government he swore allegiance to is betraying the country he loves.
As the Internet grows from humble beginnings in the late 1980s, early adopters, those who take the first online baby steps, experience in awe what seems like a new wonder of the world. Snowden recounts how his father, an engineer in the U.S. Coast Guard, introduces him as a child to early computer games and shows him how to repair the consoles whenever they malfunctioned. This sparks an early interest in both hardware and software.
He remembers the Internet of his teenage years as being “clunky,” but still like nothing that ever existed. He quickly sees its potential for exchanging ideas with like-minded people and for publicly airing grievances with and about those in power. Importantly, as a young adult patriot and Republican, he regards the Internet as a great enabler of a more open and participative democracy.
Edward Snowden is an intelligent, quick learner and he easily masters the mysterious technology of the burgeoning online world. As a result, he has little difficulty gaining employment as an IT expert with various government agencies. After 9/11, the U.S. invests huge sums expanding its intelligence service and Snowden obtains lucrative and challenging roles at the NSA, the CIA, and companies contracted to both. He quickly climbs the career ladder gaining greater responsibilities and increased earnings with each move.
He finds his work easy and performs it diligently and with some pride. Slowly, however, he begins to question why the intelligence services need to collect so much data on so many people, not just in the U.S., but also worldwide. In order to do his job, he’s given a high level of security clearance, and this enables him to dig deeper than most of his colleagues. The more he digs the more he says he believes that the government — his employer — is in breach of the U.S. Constitution.
He hadn’t given it much thought at the beginning as he went about his daily work, but the more he discovers, the stronger his conviction grows. As time passes, his conscience forces him to ask what master he wants to serve. He has no doubt that his primary allegiance has to be to the American people and the Constitution. He admits that he hadn’t wanted to reach that conclusion and that the intensity of his conviction and its implications shocked and frightened him.
He describes how this frightening conviction turns him into the whistleblower who exposes probably more U.S. intelligence secrets than anyone else in history. Building the suspense like a seasoned spy story author, Snowden leads the reader through the dangerous process of covertly copying small chunks of data to portable devices and spiriting it out of his high-security workplace, over many weeks. He tells of how, in barely-disguised terror, he passes the security staff as he leaves work each day waiting for a firm hand to clasp his shoulder. It never happens.
He releases his cache of top-secret documents to a group of “newspapers of record” from around the world. These include The New York Times, The Guardian, and Le Monde. To protect the identities of fellow employees in the government agencies and to prevent the circulation of data not directly relevant to his case, he stipulates that large sections of the documentation should not be published. He decided not to release documents to WikiLeaks because, he explains, they publish leaked material unabridged and unedited.
The book could end when he leaves the U.S. for Hong Kong to meet the journalists he chooses to publish his revelations. The narrative continues, however, and describes how he then flies to Moscow where he hopes to catch a connection to Ecuador and secure political asylum. Like an unexpected twist in a John le Carré spy novel, circumstances conspire against him and force him to become a reluctant refugee in Moscow, where he lives to this day.
Whether one regards him as hero, villain, or misguided naïve idealist, no one can ignore him. Edward Snowden opened the world’s eyes to massive state surveillance and the hidden hazards of the Internet, and in doing so he became a pivotal figure of the 21st century. This well-crafted and engaging page-turner could well be the work of a seasoned thriller author. It’s a carefully crafted, valuable, and thought-provoking book.
Many people might expect Edward Snowden’s memoir to be the dull plodding words of an amateur. On the contrary, this well-written book has all the compelling narrative tension of a John le Carré spy thriller. It’s especially powerful and credible for being a true story.