As you wouldn’t be reading this if you weren’t reasonably familiar with the internet superstate, you’ll already have heard of Edward Snowden and the thumbdrive full of National Security Agency files he absconded with in 2013. His own story and the facts he revealed have been widely reported, and occasionally misreported, so I found the compilation of the relevant facts between one pair of covers made it a lot clearer for me. Luke Harding does a superb job of presenting The Snowden Files in a way that is both informative and easy to read.
The first chapters cover Snowden himself, from the opinionated young man who appeared online as TheTrueHOOHA to his years with the CIA in Switzerland and at the NSA listening station in Hawaii. It traces the erosion of his belief in the benign nature of the American intelligence services to his disillusionment when he discovered the extent of domestic surveillance conducted by the NSA, and by its partners in the ‘Five Eyes’ program, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
The Snowden whom Harding presents is a shy man who is uncomfortable with the attention he has received, and who was motivated by a patriotic urge to protect his fellow citizens from an over-reaching government agency. He does not appear as the narcissist that some of his critics have painted him as. He’s spent the last three years in Russia, which embarrasses the US government wherever it can, so he could have his face all over Russia Today if that was what he wanted.
Nor does he appear to be a Russian agent, which he’s also been accused of. When he left Hawaii, he flew to Hong Kong to meet with Guardian journalists and only escaped to Russia because the Hong Kong authorities were, probably intentionally, slow to act on an international arrest warrant. He claims that he made his material not only unavailable to the Russian security services, but to himself in case he is ever coerced. Had he been a Russian agent, he could easily have escaped directly to Russia and met the Guardian journalists there. As the Guardian has only released a carefully curated selection of Snowden’s material, it’s safe to assume that the Russian government would be using the files to maximise embarrassment if they had access to them.
As Harding himself has been expelled from Russia after his reporting on the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent poisoned with polonium in London, it’s unlikely that his writing on Snowden is coloured by any pro-Russian bias.
Snowden himself largely disappears from the book, as he disappeared from everything else, about half way through, and the emphasis shifts to the story of the files themselves. Perhaps because Harding is a Brit working for the Guardian, which is still a primarily British newspaper in spite of its American and Australian sections, he balances his discussion of the NSA with discussion of its British counterpart, General Communications Headquarters. The much vaunted ‘special relationship’ between the USA and UK is less to do with trade and military links, as many in the UK seem to think, than on the close co-operation between their intelligence agencies. Harding presents GCHQ as a part of NSA in all but name, albeit a part that is unconstrained by a written constitution guaranteeing individual freedom or any prohibition on spying on American citizens.
The story of Snowden’s leak and the worldwide reaction that is perhaps best summed up by the German coinage, Der Shitstorm, contains several incidents that seem more Johnny English than James Bond. One particularly high profile gaffe occurred when the Bolivian president’s aeroplane was forced to land in Vienna because someone ran away with the idea that he was smuggling Snowden out of Moscow. Another was the smashing of the hard drives the Guardian had used to store the files, supervised by spooks from GCHQ. Harding is vague, probably intentionally, about whether the GCHQ hammers actually destroyed the files or not. Given that the story was broken by Glenn Greenwald, who lives in Brazil and was never on the Guardian staff, and that the Guardian partnered with the New York Times to report on them, there are almost certainly copies around somewhere. The smashing looks more like an exercise in the surreal inspired by Ned Ludd than a serious attempt to contain the information.
The difficulty of containing information is a running theme. NSA got hold of Google’s customer information because GCHQ tapped the cable they were using it to share between their American and European hubs. We know they did it because GCHQ shared the information with NSA, in the course of which is was accessible by many employees from both agencies, one of whom told the Guardian about it. The more information is disseminated, the more difficult it is to limit its dissemination or, to quote a catchphrase from the 1990s, ‘information wants to be free’.
The tendency of widely distributed information to leak begs the question of who else it may be leaking to. If Snowden’s reasons for turning whistleblower are controversial, it’s because they are public. The sheer scale of the NSA, GCHQ and presumably the other Five Eyes listening operations makes it very likely that they are being abused in less public ways. Snowden himself reported on cases where analysts used the systems to spy on their romantic partners, a practice common enough that it was given an informal name: Loveint, a play on the abbreviation Sigint for ‘signals intelligence’. He further reported on cases where analysts passed around nude pictures they had come across in their trawling through other peoples’ data.
Egregious as these incidents are in themselves, they point to a dangerously laissez-faire attitude to security among the people who can read our texts and emails. A few years before the Snowden files broke, the Guardian broke another story about certain British newspapers bribing police officers for information. With that door closed, what would an enterprising and unscrupulous journalist do but hang around the pubs of Cheltenham in the hope of bumping into an analyst with an out of control overdraft? As GCHQ has expanded over the past decades, the more likely it is to be employing a bribable analyst.
Perhaps the most surreal moment in The Snowden Files is the visit of Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood to the Guardian ‘war room’, the highly restricted office where they handled the leaked files. Having asked how many Chinese or Russian agents were on the Guardian staff, he gestured out of the window to a row of flats opposite the office, perfectly placed for anyone who wanted to peer into the office.
“I wonder where our guys are,” he said.
Heywood appears to have been a master of subtle intimidation. Perhaps he learned from the most famous previous incumbent of his post: Sir Humphrey Appleby of Yes Prime Minister infamy.
Heywood’s apparent understanding appears at odds with Harding’s descriptions of the Commons Intelligence and Security Committee’s poor understanding of what it was supposed to be overseeing. Its members are selected as the people who won’t rock the establishment’s boat, and Harding suggests that they tend to be of a generation whose grasp of the internet is at best tenuous. At the time The Snowden Files was published in 2014, the ISC chair was a former minister, Sir Malcolm Rifkind. The following year, he was forced to resign from Parliament after he was covertly filmed offering to sell his influence to Daily Telegraph reporters posing as representatives of a Chinese company. It is hardly evidence that he was the right man for the post, or indeed for the chair of the Standards and Privileges Committee which he occupied before he moved to oversee the securocrats.
Since then, moves to legislate the security services in the UK have tended toward giving them more rather than less room to manoeuvre. Last year, Parliament passed the Investigatory Powers Act, or Snoopers’ Charter as it is widely known, with very little debate. Not only does the act expand the security service’s powers to conduct targeted surveillance, but it compels internet service providers to retain our records for a year, where they can be accessed if necessary. Snowden himself called it ‘the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy’. Parliament passed it with very little opposition, suggesting that Harding’s view that it is unqualified to rein in the security services remains as valid today as it did when he wrote it two and a half years ago.
Which means that you and I have just been ‘contact chained’.
For a succinct precis of the Snowden Files and their import, it’s worth listening to what Snowden himself said at a TED conference:
And to the response to NSA Deputy Director Richard Ledgett: