The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man, by Luke Harding. Guardian Faber Publishing RRP£12.99/Vintage RRP$14.95, 352 pages
First WikiLeaks and then Edward Snowden – such has been the tsunami of leaks from America’s national security state in recent years, it sometimes feels like there is nothing left to know about how Washington’s diplomats and spies go about their business. The revelations from Snowden, a contractor for the National Security Agency, the omnivorous US eavesdropping body, have far surpassed the initial state department document dump released by Julian Assange.
Not only are Snowden’s documents classified at a much higher level of secrecy. He has unveiled as never before the intimate architecture and entrenched networks of the most secretive postwar institution, the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance binding the US with the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Snowden’s documents have disclosed so much about its operations, from the national leaders bugged to the mind-boggling masses of data trawled in search of terror targets, that the extraordinary new material still pouring out is losing its ability to shock.
In many ways, the NSA has tried to subvert the internet itself, tapping into offshore cables carrying the data of US technology giants such as Google and Yahoo, and manipulating telecommunications systems so as to gain access to them remotely. It is no wonder Washington is so worried about Beijing tapping into equipment made by Chinese telecoms companies such as Huawei and sold around the world. Everything the Americans accuse China and Huawei of doing, they can do themselves, only much better.
The Snowden Files arrives just ahead of an account of the NSA scandal to be published in April by Glenn Greenwald, the lawyer-cum-journalist whom Snowden entrusted with his material. The Guardian journalist Luke Harding’s involvement in the story came later; he has interviewed people who worked with Snowden but not Snowden himself, and his portrait of the disillusioned intelligence IT expert-turned-leaker inevitably suffers from the kinds of faults you would expect from a book written so quickly. After all, it is only eight months since Snowden’s first leak.
Harding skirts difficult questions about how intelligence agencies can keep up with legitimate targets in the internet age. The arguments justifying the publication of details of intelligence over-reach and lawbreaking, similarly, do not necessarily support the disclosure of sensitive digital tradecraft that can only aid geopolitical rivals of the west such as Russia and China. But this is little discussed here.
In passing, the author also draws snooty comparisons between what he sees as a timid US journalistic establishment and the bravehearts of the British press. But the sometimes self-important deliberativeness of the US media is hardly self-censorship. Who brought the world the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, and more recently, Abu Ghraib and details of the US intelligence penetration of Iran’s nuclear programme?
As a journalist who was kicked out of Putin’s Russia, however, Harding at least has the perspective to admit there is something creepy about Snowden, fleeing the US in the name of free speech, taking refuge in an unapologetically authoritarian country.
Snowden himself remains an enigma, someone who once raged in chat rooms against leaking secrets only to turn into perhaps the biggest leaker in intelligence history. One explanation is his politics. Snowden, and indeed many of the people he worked with – notably Greenwald – are as much libertarians as they are civil-libertarians. As Harding notes, Snowden donated money to Ron Paul, the Republican libertarian presidential candidate and long an avowed opponent of the national security state. Greenwald, likewise, has expressed sympathy for Paul’s ideas.
The book works best in its first half, which 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, adrenalin-filled cocktail of high-minded journalistic zeal and the sheer thrill of publishing sensitive information.
That Snowden is no gin-soaked Kim Philby is simply emblematic of the times. Unshackled from cold war ideologies in a new information age, we are a long way from dead drops behind trees. There is a continuum, however: the greatest threat to the Anglo-American postwar intelligence project has always been less the Soviets and the Chinese than an internal distaste for the system’s hypocrisies. John le Carré has made a career turning them into fiction.
In many ways, there is a straight line connecting Snowden to 9/11 and the ricochet of reactions that propelled Washington into Afghanistan and Iraq, and put its intelligence agencies on steroids and encouraged them to circumvent the law. In the case of Iraq, the White House hounded intelligence agencies to get the analysis it wanted about Saddam Hussein. Barack Obama, by contrast, seems captive to the extraordinary intelligence tools he found at his disposal on coming to office. Few believe the White House when it says that the president didn’t know Angela Merkel’s phone was being tapped but it is doubtful he insisted upon it himself. Either way, Obama has come down firmly on the spies’ side.
It is beyond the remit of Harding’s book to assess the fallout of the leaks but so far, considering what Snowden has revealed, there has been remarkably little. A few people, such as Merkel, and institutions, such as the World Bank, have received assurances that they will no longer be targets. Otherwise, Obama has given little away. In that respect, Snowden and this book illustrate more than just the reach of the Anglosphere’s national security state. The true story may be its remarkable resilience.
Richard McGregor is the FT’s Washington bureau chief