The saga of Edward J. Snowden, the man whose leaked documents revealed the Orwellian dimensions of the National Security Agency, reads like a le Carre novel crossed with something by Kafka – at least it does in Luke Harding’s new book, “The Snowden Files.”
A 29-year-old NSA contractor, alarmed by the agency’s vast surveillance dragnet, starts secretly collecting hundreds of thousands of classified government documents from his employer and turns them over to journalists, revealing the agency’s colossal reach and indiscriminate vacuuming up of information about people’s phone calls, e-mails and contacts.
The revelations not only pull back a curtain on the secretive agency’s expanded workings since 9/11, but also unleash an urgent public debate. A debate about the balance between civil liberties and national security; about the scope and protocols of U.S. government surveillance; about the relationship between the NSA and giant Internet and phone companies; about web infrastructure and national sovereignty; and about the meaning of privacy in a world in which Big Brother or Uncle Sam could be listening. Snowden, in the meantime, has become a fugitive, holing up first in Hong Kong and then in Russia – the world’s most wanted man.
Last June, The Guardian newspaper in London broke the first NSA article based on documents provided by Snowden; it appeared under the byline of the columnist Glenn Greenwald, whom Snowden had reached out to (along with the documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras). Greenwald left the paper last fall to join a new journalistic enterprise, and this Snowden book (by another journalist at The Guardian, Harding) seems timed, with its release this week, to get out ahead of a book by Greenwald scheduled for April publication.
Since Snowden went public days after the first article appeared in The Guardian, he has become a controversial figure, regarded by some as a hero, by others as a traitor. In “The Snowden Files” he emerges in a decidedly sympathetic light, as a protagonist who goes from unassuming geek to world-shaking whistle-blower. But Harding tends to depict his colleagues – reporters and editors at The Guardian who worked on the Snowden articles – as the real heroes.
The portrait he creates of Snowden is a familiar one – a geek and gamer most at home online, who never graduated from high school but whose “exceptional IT skills” landed him a job with the CIA and later as an NSA contractor.
Portions of “The Snowden Files” seem particularly aimed at a British audience, focusing at length on the surveillance activities of the Government Communications Headquarters (known as GCHQ, Britain’s counterpart to the NSA), and its eager-to-please relationship with its wealthy U.S. counterpart. But the book still gives readers who have not been following the Snowden story closely a succinct overview of the momentous events of the past year.
And if it leans toward dramatizing everything in thrillerlike terms, the book also manages to leave readers with an acute understanding of the serious issues involved: the NSA’s surveillance activities and voluminous collection of data, and the consequences that this sifting of bigger and bigger haystacks for tiny needles has had on the public and its right to privacy.