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Photo: Rituparna Banerjee/Mint
Photo: Rituparna Banerjee/Mint

Book Review | The Snowden Files

In this riveting account of Snowden's life, Luke Harding remains unconditionally sympathetic towards the choices made by the whistleblower

Last year, shortly after Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the dubious activities of America’s National Security Agency (NSA), David Letterman, a popular personality on American television, made a characteristic jibe: “Germany is mad at the US for the NSA eavesdropping. This, ladies and gentlemen, from the country that gave us the Gestapo."

The remark captures, with haiku-like precision, not only the double standards that lie at the core of even the world’s strongest democracies but also the impossibility of ever winning a moral war when it comes to judging, comparatively, the strategies of surveillance adopted by various states. While George Orwell’s grim vision of the evils of state policing in 1984 may have shaken the ethical compass of the 20th century, in real, geopolitical terms, it ended up becoming just another well-worn cliché. Published in 1949, Orwell’s novel was a prescient critique of the Iron Curtain era, which went on to spawn even more ambitious and insidious networks of espionage.

In The File, for instance, political theorist Timothy Garton Ash writes about his discovery of a file in the archives of the Stasi, the East German state police, once their records were made public after the reunification of Germany. For several years while Garton Ash was a student in Germany, he was followed by secret service agents, his each move scrupulously noted and the papers of every person he ever came in contact with—friends, lovers, supervisors, family—put through the scanner. Codenamed Romeo by the Stasi, Garton Ash was shocked to find even his casual sexual encounters, which had long slipped his memory, preserved in clinical detail by the hawk eye of the officers.

Snowden’s revelations of the workings of the NSA has made us alert to similar possibilities—of being the subject of scrutiny, even during our most private moments, while we are speaking on the phone or writing an email, ostensibly for the sake of a safer world. If the case for national interest cannot be dismissed outright, the violation of privacy cannot be condoned either. To comply with measures that involve access to sensitive data is to renege on the first principles of civil rights and liberty, established after centuries of revolutions. Yet, since the fall of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 2001, the world we live in makes us increasingly vulnerable to terror threats, and dependent on the state for our security.

In this riveting account of Snowden’s life, Luke Harding remains unconditionally sympathetic towards the choices made by the whistleblower as well as the ideals that informed his decision. Harding is a journalist with The Guardian, the newspaper primarily responsible for carrying out Snowden’s exposé, with the help of activist-journalist Glenn Greenwald and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras. Although much of the Snowden story is well-known, thanks to its repeated telling by the global media, Harding makes us especially aware of two key aspects of the narrative: Why did Snowden choose to behave the way he did? And how did he manage to pull it off, in spite of his lack of formal education?

Harding’s narrative has the energy and headiness of a John Le Carré mystery, and the key players in it do not lack for complexity. Snowden, we learn, had aspirations to join the army and join the fight in Iraq, though his poor eyesight did not allow him to realize his patriotic zeal. His career as a contractor with the NSA, in fact, set him apart from the other whistleblower Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning who had passed on classified documents to Julian Assange of Wikileaks from within the military. Snowden, in contrast, was a committed Republican, an ardent fan of Ron Paul, the politician who advocated gun rights and national security above all else.

Yet, since the time he posted online as TheTrueHooHa, Snowden also had an inescapable urge to tell the truth—he later called himself verax, Latin for truth-telling—that would eventually lead to the ruin of his promising career in the intelligence services. In the process, he rendered an invaluable service to humanity, making it alert to the pernicious and invisible trappings of the modern state.

Somak Ghosal is a Features Writer with Mint.

Comments are welcome at views@livemint.com

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