Review: Permanent Record
Edward Snowden’s always been an outlaw to me. That’s true for most people who know the name since it was only through whistleblowing that he became a public figure. While I’m among those who are grateful for his actions, I knew very little about the guy before reading Permanent Record. My ignorance was probably greater than most: I hadn’t read, heard, or seen anything about Snowden himself. My understanding of the events was limited to the subject of the disclosures–the NSA, XKeyscore, PRISM, etc.
In the years since, a whole lot has been written about Snowden. There are articles, books, movies, and (as I just learned from Wikipedia) a catchy pop song featuring Rivers Cuomo! I really wasn’t interested in learning about him through secondary sources, though. Even the numerous interviews he’s given over the years seemed stilted, so I generally ignored them.
That’s what made Permanent Record so exciting to me. A personal memoir gives its author more control over self-expression than any interview. This was an opportunity to learn straight from the horse’s mouth. The biggest weakness of the format is bias, so I began reading with a sensitivity toward self-aggrandizing commentary.
It was really satisfying to be convinced that, despite the gravity of his actions (not to mention the inherent conceit of writing a memoir), Snowden’s a pretty relatable and even humble person. As he describes his experiences growing up and building a career in the Intelligence Community, he’s quick to deride himself for a variety of misconceptions and misdeeds. This is more than just playful self-deprecation: he owns up to some heavy stuff:
The greatest regret of my life is my reflexive, unquestioning support for [the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan]. I was outraged, yes, but that was only the beginning of a process in which my heart completely defeated my rational judgement. I accepted all the claims retailed by the media as facts, and I repeated them as if I were being paid for it. I wanted to be a liberator. I wanted to free the oppressed. I embraced the truth constructed for the good of the state, which in my passion I confused with the good of the country. It was as if whatever individual politics I’d developed had crashed–the anti-institutional hacker ethos instilled in me online, and the apolitical patriotism I’d inherited from my parents, both wiped from my system–and I’d been rebooted as a willing vehicle of vengeance. The sharpest part of the humiliation comes from acknowledging how easy this transformation was, and how readily I welcomed it.
You might be thinking that my decision [to enlist in the armed forces] made sense, or was inevitable given my family’s record of service. But it didn’t and it wasn’t. By enlisting, I was as much rebelling against that well-established legacy as I was conforming to it–because after talking to recruiters from every branch, I decided to join the army, whose leadership some in my Coast Guard family had always considered the crazy uncles of the US military.
I expected to find Snowden thoughtful, though not necessarily so self-critical. The book includes a number of admissions like these, ranging from “the supremely moronic commentary that [he’d] sprayed across a score of gaming and hacker sites” to “a sense of [his] own provincialism” when starting work in CIA headquarters, and the “the hurt and confusion [he’d cause his] family” by disclosing state secrets. His use of the word “revelation” to describe his own action felt a little presumptuous, but maybe he’s earned that. It’s also possible that my gratitude for his sacrifice has made me overly sympathetic, and I have to admit (between his teetotalism and his gaming habits) to developing a sense of solidarity. Still, I can’t help but take admissions like these as proof of sincerity.
Another surprise was the quality of the writing. There’s not much about Snowden’s position or actions that necessitate strong written communication skills (though they must have helped when recruiting journalists). Still, his prose is clean and varied and at times even nuanced. His anecdotes (like night shifts shared with an idiosyncratic civil servant) and analogies (like hacking and gaming) are interesting in their own right, but he frequently calls back to them in service of more important commentary.
And while these analogies certainly enrich the book, the most compelling theme is Snowden’s commitment to the public interest. He presents so many of his decisions and career moves in terms of dedication to citizens, reinforcing the motivation for the culminating transgression. For instance,
I raised my hand to swear an oath of loyalty–not to the government or agency that now employed me directly, but to the US Constitution. I solemnly swore to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
This rhetoric is maybe to be expected: a likely motivation for this memoir is to win public support, especially in terms of civil disobedience… Which isn’t to say that this book is a pity party. The author barely acknowledges the inherent unfairness of becoming a reluctant outlaw; he seems satisfied with proving the necessity of his actions. In that, he turns his critical eye outward. He admonishes Congress for capitulating to demands for increased defense funding. He complains about computing professionals’ tendency toward arrogance and Intelligence Community members’ tendency toward tribalism. He does this empathetically, though, reflecting on specific experiences which help explain these flaws.
It’s in one of these criticisms, made about midway through the book, that Snowden introduces an important question:
I wondered what the point was of my getting so worked up over government surveillance if my friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens were more than happy to invite corporate surveillance into their homes […]
Activism is political by definition, and it’s critical for activists to communicate why their goals aren’t recognized by the public at large. Snowden must have answered this for himself (otherwise there would be no book for me to review), but his answer is missing from Permanent Record.
Unfortunately, other omissions aren’t so philosophical.
Snowden details how, during his routine duties, he came across one classified document in particular. “Usually I’d take just the briefest glance at the thing. But this time, as soon I opened the document and read the title, I knew I’d be reading it all the way through.” While he explains why this document was particularly motivating, he makes no attempt to justify the insubordination itself. This felt strange in light of the kinds of apologies I mentioned earlier. He might’ve been acting on suspicion alone since he’d already become distrustful of the agency. His value system might support that, as he describes a few chapters later:
The most important decisions in life are never made [instantly]. They’re made subconsciously and only express themselves consciously once fully formed–once you’re finally strong enough to admit to yourself that this is what your conscience has already chosen for you, this is the course that your beliefs have decreed. That was my twenty-ninth birthday present to myself: the awareness that I had entered a tunnel that would narrow my life down toward a single, still-indistinct act.
While this feels right to me (and echos my favorite quote from a fantasy book I read just a few months ago), I may be reaching too far to justify the snooping. Or, as Pete put it, “That don’t make no sense!”
In John Oliver’s 2016 interview with Snowden, Oliver grilled the whistleblower for neglecting to read everything he disclosed. Maybe Snowden was satisfied with the answer he eventually arrived at (“The only time you can be free from risk is when you’re in prison.“), but we can only speculate. The author wrote nothing about his understanding of the complete corpus.
Although I was interested in learning the truth and sorting out right from wrong, I was also looking to be entertained. Subterfuge is interesting, and Permanent Record is definitely “fun” from that perspective. I feel a little guilty for deriving pleasure from Snowden’s struggle. I think he’d be okay with that–he has to expect that others will find his challenges and risks compelling. To his credit, though, he doesn’t dramatize it. Getting back to the idea of humbleness, Snowden doesn’t make himself out to be James Bond, even though some of his experiences are unavoidably intriguing. Maybe I’d feel differently if I weren’t so convinced of the righteousness of his cause, though. Maybe then it would feel arrogant.
Naturally, that all comes at the end of the book. It makes me wonder whether the memoir will sway Snowden’s critics–whether they’ll read that final series of events with more sympathy. Online reviews will give some sense of this. Mostly, I’ll learn from my friends and family, since I’m having trouble thinking of people to whom I wouldn’t recommend this book.