Review: Dark Mirror
Late last year, Edward Snowden published Permanent Record, a memoir focused on his role as an NSA whisteblower in 2013. The book appealed to me as a substantial account presented on Snowden’s own terms. As much as I enjoyed it, there was no getting around the risk of bias. Secondary sources started to seem more appealing to me because they could help understand if/how Snowden’s take was inaccurate. Although there was a wealth of such sources to choose from, I wasn’t convinced any of those authors could write authoritatively on the disclosure itself.
Dark Mirror, published earlier this year, caught my eye because its author certainly had that authority. Barton Gellman was one of the three journalists with whom Snowden shared the classified documents, so his perspective on the events is inherently more relevant than that of those other authors. The timing also made me curious: it’s been the better part of a decade since the disclosures, but only a few months since Permanent Record was published. There’s so much to be said; what was Gellman actually interesting in writing about?
The book’s tagline gives an easy answer: “Edward Snowden and the American surveillance state,” but that turned out to be surprisingly inaccurate.
Sure, it discusses Snowden. On the topic of the man’s character, transcripts of discussions held before, during, and after the disclosures generally confirm what Permanet Record would have you believe. Snowden is committed, pragmatic, intelligent, and thoughtful. Gellman’s values seem to align with Snowden’s most of the time, which make him an unideal source for critique. But he’s no sycophant, and he demonstrates this through specific complaints about Snowden’s “instrumental approach to truth.” This was exactly the kind of reporting I was hoping for: not sensationalized “dirt,” but nuanced accounting of flaws that a person might not recognize in themself. That said, Gellman has far more to say in defense of Snowden than in support of the guy’s critics. His role as a third party in the debate allows him to be a little more direct than Snowden (who might otherwise seem defensive) and maybe makes him a little easier to trust.
But although there would be no book without Snowden, he’s not the primary focus. So what about “the American surveillance state”? Again, that’s only kind of true. From MUSCULAR to PRISM and XKEYSCORE, Gellman explains the technical capabilities of various NSA tools and initiatives. He also considers the responsibilities of those involved. A little surprisingly, that includes some sympathy for the operators of the surveillance apparatus. It’s not much, but it’s a nice demonstration of good faith (Snowden also included some words to this effect in his own book). He’s not nearly so magnanimous when it comes to leaders, from Dick Cheney on down. In the absence of new revelations, there’s nothing newsworthy in these pages. Although Gellman’s role in the disclosures doesn’t make his perspective on their content especially relevant, his years of experience dealing with the fallout are evident. His coverage of the topics is relatable and concise, easily more so than many other writers could manage.
Really, Dark Mirror is about the journalist’s experience in an unauthorized intelligence disclosure. This is the perspective that only Gellman can offer, and he does it well. He discusses the social responsibilities he had to weigh, trying to find balance between his responsibilities to the public, to his publisher, to his sources, and to his government.
He recounts the attacks he invited. These included enhanced scrutiny and even threats from US officials, which though tragic, is to be expected. They also included prying from unknown foreign actors. Somehow, I wasn’t prepared for this, though it’s no less logical than domestic investigation. I found the alert he received from Google particularly chilling: “Warning: We believe state-sponsored attackers may be attempted to compromise your account or computer. Protect yourself now.” It can all feel pretty gonzo, particularly when it comes to the FIRSTFRUITS program (which collected information about the author), his invocation of the Freedom of Information Act, and his subsequent lawsuit against Homeland Security.
Gellman outlines (glancingly) the precautions he took to protect himself digitally. One might assume that a privacy-focused journalist would have total confidence in the technology of secure communication. Gellman discusses his mistakes, admitting that he had to learn a lot and still rely on experts. Honesty like this comes across as humility when displayed by an accredited journalist.
He documents the lengths he had to go in order to publish with a reputable news organization. That meant finding a publisher, explaining what he intended to do, and securing legal protection. In recounting all of this, Gellman tacitly makes the case for what a burden knowledge can be. He had to draw on a career’s worth of connections just to be able to communicate–forget about actually writing. Even understanding the documents that he’d been given took considerable effort, including participation from the government itself. (Although Gellman doesn’t say it, that particular challenge tends to exonerate Snowden for not reading all of the documents he disclosed. It might seem impatient and reckless, but only if you assume someone could accurately interpret the information on their own. Snowden needed a journalist for that.)
He relays the criticism he suffered, criticism which seemed to come from everyone with whom he spoke. By including so little in the way of encouragement he received, Gellman might have come across as piteous. Like Snowden, though, he doesn’t dwell on any emotional toll from all the heat, and I think that’s what saves him from seeming whiny. Despite being the target of so much antagonism, he takes ownership for his actions, even as he reflects on the possibility that he was wrong.
It makes you wonder if the tension between government and the press is a meaningful dynamic. If each side behaves according to their self-interest, then no one has to be pretend like they could strike a “correct” balance. A more fatalistic journalist than Gellman might even take this to an extreme: “I received information, therefore I must report it.” Although the author doesn’t make such an argument in this book, he has previously made comments which support it. “The government tries to keep secrets and we try to find them out. There are tradeoffs.” Maybe I’m just picking up on subtext.
So even though Dark Mirror does a good job recounting information about the US government’s mass surveillance programs, that’s all old news now. Really, the best parts aren’t about surveillance at all; they’re about how government secrets were revealed and the personal consequence of those revelations. That’s not exactly what I was expecting, but it’s a welcome surprise. Balancing secrecy and consent calls for an understanding of many perspectives. Gellman’s take as a journalist is an essential part of that.