“Permanent Record” by Edward Snowden

I recently finished Permanent Record by Edward Snowden. Permanent Record is Snowden’s autobiographical account of his own life, with an obvious emphasis on the events that led to him living in exile in Russia. Whether you call Snowden a hero or a traitor, I believe this book is worth your time.

Permanent Record by Edward Snowden

The first several chapters of the book are rather tedious. Snowden attempts to weave a couple of thematic elements throughout, like hacking (“hacking” his bedtime, the Army “hacking” him, and the NSA “hacking” the Constitution). He lays the groundwork for these connections by recounting his childhood, which I felt could have been condensed down to a half-dozen paragraphs. A few mildly interesting anecdotes were recounted; his love of computers and the Internet, his parents’ affiliation with the government, his meeting of his girlfriend, and the fact that he was on Fort Meade as a civilian on 9/11.

After Snowden’s short stint in the Army is covered, he begins detailing his seven-year career in the intelligence community (IC). This is where the book got interesting to me, even though his career was largely unremarkable; lots of people get a clearance, get contact positions, and bounce around from agency to agency, position to position. At this point he begins to hint at, then explicitly acknowledge his disillusionment with the government and intelligence community.

This is followed by the stuff everyone reading this blog will be most interested by: a detailing of the surveillance programs he disclosed to reporters. Snowden briefly discussed his tradecraft, his decision to go to journalists rather than Wikileaks or self-publishing. He discussed his preparation and thought process at evading detection. If you “enjoy” OPSEC, Snowden had an extremely difficult OPSEC problem, so listening to this was extremely enjoyable.

My Thoughts

Edward Snowden is an extremely polarizing figure. As I stated in the opening paragraph, if you have strong feelings about him either way this is an important book. Obviously the technology/tradecraft piece of Permanent Record was interesting to me. As interesting, though, was Snowden’s ideology and explanation thereof.

Snowden draws a distinction that I think I’ve been subconsciously aware of but have never verbalized or heard elsewhere: the distinction between duty to one’s Country and one’s State. The “Country” consists primarily of the nation and its citizens. The “State” consists primarily of the government and its consolidated power, which is deeply disproportional to that of the Country. Snowden claims his loyalty was to the Country rather than the State, and by disclosing the surveillance programs he was trying to even this balance.

Permanent Record also provoked a lot of though about the nature of whistle-blowing versus espionage. Again Snowden made a point I’ve never heard: U.S. law does not take into account one’s motivation for disclosing secrets. Snowden disclosed secrets to journalists, primarily for the benefit of his Country and very little (if any) personal gain. But he’s treated no differently than Aldrich Ames, a traitor who sold secrets to the Russians, including the identities of Americans and American assets. Ames did so purely for personal gain, financial and otherwise. Should the two be treated differently?

Finally, this book provoked a lot of thought about the following question: In what do you believe in so strongly that you would give up your job, your home, your significant other, and live in exile in Russia? Most of us – myself included – would probably have a very hard time answering that question.

Most of you probably don’t care about my ideology. You probably do care about the security aspect, however. Listening to Snowden’s recounting of the programs in which he worked are an eye-opener. I admit that sometimes I get a little complacent, but being reminded of the tremendous capabilities of governments is a good reason to stay vigilant. Just listening to Snowden’s accounting of a single program made me want to start over with a new computer, new phone, and new VPN service (I didn’t, but it made me want to).

Notes on The Audiobook

I consumed this book in audiobook format. An audiobook narrator can make or break a book. Permanent Record was narrated by Holter Graham, who was quite enjoyable to listen to. Though at times I felt he was a little too enthusiastic (some of his quotations were over-wrought and some accented words were, perhaps, over-enunciated), I also felt like he did a great job of mirroring Snowden’s personality and verbal demeanor.

In Summary

If you are looking for a real-life espionage thriller, Permanent Record isn’t it. If you’re looking for the backstory of one of the most important news stories of our time, you should absolutely read this book.