I read this book because my book club chose it. I had expected to hate it largely because I expected it to lionize a man I considered a traitor, yet I harbored a secret fear that I might be persuaded to find Snowden to be a true hero, proving my own instincts wrong. In the end I was, surprisingly, rather bored with the whole thing.
The book is written well enough, but for a purported piece of investigative journalism it sure didn’t say much. It gave a bit of Snowden’s background, and at the end a short epilogue about his unintended self-exile in Russia. The big “revelations” in the book consist of a general description of the NSA’s major programs, such as listening to cell phone traffic, buffering internet data, and so forth, and listed their rather fanciful code names. My reaction to that was much the same as one British politician quoted near the end: “Spies spy.” Well, duh! Other than that, the remaining 90% of the book was pretty much a puff piece for The Guardian, the British tabloid that Snowden chose as his outlet for the stolen documents, or some of them at least. The author, a writer for that paper, seems to have an inferiority complex and tried mightily to use this platform to cast his employer as a major player and knight in shining armor for civil liberties everywhere. Ho hum (although I do like their cryptic crosswords).
What the book didn’t do is provide a single instance of anyone who was ever harmed by the NSA’s surveillance actions. Balance this with the fact the NSA did provide a few examples of terrorist plots that had been disrupted thanks to their monitoring efforts. To be fair, it also didn’t provide any examples of how Snowden’s action resulted in any harm to the U.S. or its Anglophone Five. As a former FBI agent I know how public foofaraw can be disruptive to an agency, but soon enough such revelations fade into irrelevance like a mosquito bite on an elephant.
Perhaps the same homily can be applied to both the NSA and Snowden: no harm, no foul. I have no doubt the NSA continues to intercept almost everything. Spies spy. I’m happy to have them record, read, watch, listen to, or parse everything I say or do. I’m not a criminal or terrorist. I will never understand those people who are outraged at the idea their communications are monitored by the government. Whenever I hear someone say that they are, I wonder what crime they’re worried about being caught committing. I’m afraid of criminals (of whom terrorists are merely a subset, and rather a small one at that – drivers with cell phones are much more of a threat), not the government. Criminals actually hurt people. The NSA doesn’t. I’ve seen many innocent people’s lives ruined by criminals but never once by the FBI or NSA. Even Snowden is quoted only as saying that the massive collection of data has the potential to be abused and result in an innocent person being accused. True. Letting a doctor give you general anesthesia and cut into your body has the potential for abuse, and so does giving police guns, but there’s such a thing as necessary risk.
Unlike many former FBI agents, I don’t see Snowden as one of the worst breaches of U.S. national security, and I don’t see getting him back for prosecution as all that important. He’s languishing in his own prison of sorts living with no job in Russia. The irony is delicious. I still think he’s a traitor and should go to prison, but his current situation is close to that.