"Permanent Record" Review
Published: July 17, 2022, 5:01 p.m.
Edward Snowden's autobiography is a story about young man's journey leading up to arguably one of the most important events of the second decade, a story about rejection of evil, a story about rejection of being complicit, a story about standing up, even though all the cards are stacked up against one.
Welcome to the book club! This is the first installment of the series, far too long coming, but it's finally here! We are starting with "Permanent Record", because Ed's story is one of the more influential ones to my values, one of the most polarizing and misrepresented ones. He worked for both CIA and NSA and climbed up the ranks. While doing so he realized the scale of unconstitutional and morally wrong actions of these organizations. Not being okay with it he collected and released documents proving these activities. Seeking shelter from the response of the United States government he tried to reach Ecuador for political asylum, however, along the way his passport was repealed and thus he was exiled in Russia. Articles have been coming left and right describing Ed as a traitor, as someone who betrayed his country, and while yes, he did betray the system of the United States of America, but he did not betray the underlying values the country was built upon. I read the first half of the book several months back, and read the second half three days ago, immediately following with another book, so I may be misremembering some things.
The story starts at his roots, the first realizations of people leaving marks in society, the ways Ed got fascinated with technology, free information sharing, the way he stood up for oppression and rebelled against authority. Ed had 2 different lives - a gifted kid with loads of potential, who put the bare minimum needed in studies, and a fascinated internaut, who would hang around message boards with anonymous people, who he later found out were decades older than him, a never ending source of information feeding his curiosity. It was an incredible time where targeted bullying was not as prevalent, because there was always a clear way out - just come back with a different identity. People would play games of identifying the same person using different usernames, and Ed was incredibly good at hiding himself. Ed's parents were upstanding citizens working for the government, living in a city where working directly for the government was normal, he himself would be free to hang out on a porch of NSA headquarters, Ed describes the time before 9/11 as a time where freedom prevails. Then, a tragedy would struck the country and force it to close down, to find enemies, and ultimately become less free. After 9/11 no regular person could sit on the NSA's porch, because the entire area would be behind tightly controlled fence. Snowden described this time as the beginning of the fall of democracy.
Strive for Justice
After the tragedy, Ed wanted to help the country, he himself wanted to fight the bad guys. He enlisted in the army, which he would ultimately have to leave due to his health conditions. He ultimately wanted to become a government worker and work in the intelligence community (IC), which serving in the army was supposed to help with. Along his way Ed would notice subtle ways the system was rigged, for instance, one could be honorably discharged from the army if they chose to forfeit any claims to army's liability for any health conditions they were responsible for. Eventually, Ed would end up becoming a CIA contractor, but he wasn't interested in money. He wanted to travel, go to dangerous places where he would have impact, where he would help fighting for freedom. There were many freaky things he would learn during his training, one thing which struck me was Van Eck phreaking. It's a technique of extracting image contents from a CRT display by purely measuring electromagnetic emissions. That is how technical CIA training was, and not going to lie, that's really cool. Through a really funny sequence of events, Ed would end up in Geneva - the only TISO trainee who wanted to go to Afghani desert and ended up in one, highly in demand, place he did not want to go. In there he had a privilege to work alongside NSA folks, where he was hinted at absolutely insane technological capabilities of the competing intelligence organization. He would eventually become a government worker for the NSA and move to Japan, where he'd end up coming up with some uncomfortable realizations.
The One Thing Keeping You Awake at Night
In Japan, Ed worked as a systems analyst, helping to link together NSAs infrastructure with CIAs. The primary difference between NSA and CIA was that NSA was far more technologically advanced, while CIA was far more careful with security. NSA did not compartmentalize access to information, nor encrypted it. There was no universal backup strategy either. Ed was instrumental in improving this situation, through his EPICSHELTER backup system. The fact that Ed worked on such important systems will prove instrumental to his ability to pull off the 2013 blow of the whistle. Throughout the time in Japan, Ed also had to make several reports on technological capabilities of US IC adversaries, such as China. Then he realized that "there was simply no way for America to have so much much information about what the Chinese were doing without having done some of the very same things itself", and reading the report he could sense himself "looking at a mirror and seeing a reflection of America. What China was doing publicly to its own citizens, America might be - could be - doing secretly to the world." First, Snowden did his best to ignore it, but then his curiosity took over.
Several whistleblowers had disclosed that after 9/11 Bush had authorized warantless wiretapping as part of President's Surveillance Program (PSP), which later was deeper ingrained into law. Later, an Unclassified Report on the PSP was released, which was very non-descriptive. Ed tried to look for the classified version of the report, which he could not find. There was no record of it. Only much later would he find the report, filed in Exceptionally Controlled Information (ECI) compartment, which was an "extremely rare classification meant to be hidden even from those holding top secret clearence". The designation of the document's classification was very strict - "pretty much only a few dozen people in the world are allowed to read this". Ed had access to the report through mistake - a draft copy left on one of the lower security systems, that should not have been left there, and as a sysadmin he had a chance to investigate it. And what he found, was shocking. He found "a complete recording of the NSA's most secret surveillance programs, and the agency directives and Department of Justice policies that had been used to subvert American law and contravene the US Constitution". The most profound thing was that the classified version of the report exposed that the publicly available unclassified version was a fabricated lie - the only common thing between the reports was their title. Ed found out that NSA felt it necessary to collect every passing communication and had reinterpreted the law to enable bulk collection of the world's data without warrants, that NSA's mission had been transformed from defence of America to its control, "by redefining citizens' private communications as potential signals of intelligence". This information, I think, was the key event that defined Snowden's life. He could never fall asleep without letting the world know about it.
The details of how and when he was going to do it are not exactly important in understanding the key idea of the book, but they are extremely fascinating nonetheless. Ed was in a very unique position of having expansive access to key pieces of the infrastructure, having climbed up the ranks at an extremely young age. He had developed systems, such as automated readboard platform that could be used to collect important documents of the entire IC, called Heartbeat, as well as using other NSA systems to exfiltrate them. For instance, system administrators were so used to Heartbeat pulling many documents that he was able to use its beating pattern to pull in more sensitive documents in the process. Ed was working in a heavily fortified NSA site in Hawaii, and smuggled the documents out through SD cards. He wrote his own encryption schemes, and kept everything under wraps. He was visibly distressed his entire time, but never told anything to his girlfriend Lindslay (yes, he was chad enough to keep up a relationship this entire time). As one of my friends said after hearing this - based. In fact, we later find out that Lindslay assumed an affair after Ed went to break the world in Hong Kong. Snowden would go wardriving and communicate to various journalists through Tor and open hotspots. He was careful to always cover his tracks, leave no traces behind, and be extremely smart in his processes. He did not choose the journalists to contact, instead, he used the information of IC to know the most truth-seeking ones out there. The journalists that would not be silenced with a large sum of money or tad bit of intimidation, and it paid off really well.
After extracting final documents he would fly to Hong Kong through Tokyo, paying for everything in cash (to be fair, I am not sure that was helpful given air transport is by far the most thoroughly logged system out there). Everything was deliberate. The location was picked specifically, because it was not under US influence, but was free enough so that his story would not be immediately discredited, which is a point we will get back to in a bit. In there, he waited for days before the journalists Glenn, Ewen and Laura showed up. And then, he told the story. This is where his views and what was reported slightly diverged from one another. Ed was focused on the system, he wanted to expose the system that enabled this to happen, journalists focused on the details, on which data was collected, who exactly was to blame. But these divergences were still compatible with each other. What Ed has extracted out, made its way to the world. Then, he needed a way out.
He had no plan, and the propaganda had kicked in. All the little details picked on by the state were amplified. "All of those people, whether they faced prison or not, encountered some sort of backlash, most often severe and derived from the very abuse that I'd just helped expose: surveillance. If ever they'd expressed anger in private communication, they were "disgruntled." If they'd ever visited a psychiatrist or a psychologist, or just checked out books on related subjects from a library, they were "mentally unsound." If they'd been drunk even once, they were said to be alcoholics. If they'd had even one extramarital affair, they were said to be sexual deviants. [...] for the IC, it's just a matter of consulting the files, amplifying the available evidence, and, where no evidence exists, simply fabricating it." Ed was very careful to minimize every chance of backlash, but he still could not avoid it. Chaos erupted, and he had nowhere to go. Thankfully, there were people ready to help. Several attorneys helped, such as Robert Tibbo and Jonathan Man. An entire team looked where to go. Ecuador was a great candidate, which is where he wanted to travel. There was one catch, however - flying through any airspace that was friendly to the United States was risky as the aircraft could be diverted and searched. For instance, after Ed got to Morcow US government suspected that Ed was traveling on the plane of the Bolivia's preident, diverted it to Vienna airport, searched it, and only allowed to continue once no trace of him were found. And yes, Ed chose to fly through Russia.
Sarah Harrison was the last person to help Ed. She's a journalist and editor for WikiLeaks, a publishing organization aimed solely at revealing the darkest classified activities of governments around the world. Ed was vary for Sarah's motives, as he thought of Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, as a very selfish individual who would do anything to win a "historic battle for the public's right to know". However, it seems like Sarah's motive was a more personal and she was one of few people to openly disagree with Assange. Sarah respected Ed and wanted him to have a better outcome than Chelsea Manning - previous WikiLeaks most famous source who had to unjustly serve nearly 7 years of prison. Sarah was with Ed throughout the flight to Moscow where Ed's passport was repealed. Ed was stuck in Moscow airport, with nowhere to go, and almost immediately FSB (Russian intelligence agency) was talking with him, trying to make a deal. See, Ed was, and still is, a diehard patriot, contrary to what what some articles want you to believe. He knew that even going into brief talks with the FSB could be used to discredit him, thus he immediately shut them down. They warned him to not make a terrible mistake, but he was set. Eventually, Ed was granted political asylum in Moscow, which was to be used to discredit his acts.
There is a simple thing to realize - were Ed to fly back to the US, he would never stand a chance at a fair trial. IC has broken the legal system apart, any accusations get blocked by the magical phrase of "it's classified", and should he go back there, he would be trialed in a private court - there is no room for justice there, everyone works for the IC. Should the US want to try him justly, they would be able to do the trial right here and now. Sure, they would have no power to actually imprison him, but why not get ahead of the curve? Why not sentence him? And then, why not sentence him again for evasion of sentences? Or maybe, America does not want to try him publicly, because that would uncover some dark truths about wrongness and unconstitutionality of the Intelligence Community? That's up to you to decide.
All in all, this was an incredible read. Ed went into great detail about his personal life, as well as the technicalities of the system, as well the processes he went through in exposing it. He exposed the dangers of how media is used to misrepresent the facts, and today, it is one of the most important things we should take note of when reading news articles. If you are interested in the technical details, and Ed's careful thought process, I would highly recommend this book. And if you are about to expose your government for something terrible, this is a must-read!