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‘Permanent Record’ review: The boy who kicked a hornet’s nest

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In his powerful account, Edward Snowden explains what led him to blow the whistle on America’s National Security Agency and its surveillance programmes

In 1777, at the height of the American War of Independence, 10 officers of USS Warren, a 32-gun frigate under the command of Commodore Esek Hopkins, wrote a letter to the Marine Committee, saying the commander was torturing British prisoners. Hopkins reacted by dismissing the officers and filed a criminal libel suit against two of them, Samuel Shaw and Richard Marven.

A fellow naval officer of Shaw and Marven broke ranks and presented the case to the Continental Congress.

The Congress was alarmed by the revelations made in the letter. It terminated the command of Hopkins, ordered the Treasury to pay the legal fees of the officers and unanimously passed a resolution which stated it’s “the duty” of all Americans “to give the earliest information to Congress or any other proper authority of any misconduct, frauds or other misdemeanours committed by any persons in the service of these states, which may come to their knowledge.”

Edward Snowden, the former contractor at the National Security Agency, who leaked highly classified information in 2013, writes in his memoir, Permanent Record, that he was doing “this duty” when he blew the whistle on NSA programmes.

Risking his life

Snowden’s disclosures revealed that the NSA was illegally collecting information on Americans as well as foreign nationals. The U.S. government charged him under the Espionage Act.

His passport was cancelled while he was mid-air, travelling from Hong Kong to Quito, Ecuador, via Moscow. For over six years, Snowden has been a fugitive, stuck in Moscow with a temporary asylum.

Many have wondered why a 29-year-old American, who was working with the NSA, risked not just his career but also his life to reveal classified information. What the NSA was doing, Snowden believes, was in violation of the Constitution, a copy of which was kept on his desk against the Rubik’s Cube, which he always carried (even to Hong Kong where he met the journalists to whom he handed the NSA files).

When he found out about the NSA surveillance programmes, he realised that day-to-day rights of Americans, which the Constitution guarantees, were being violated.

He concluded that American democracy was being subverted by these intelligence programmes and thought he must “get the facts out into the world”.

On public duty

The Snowden the world knows is the whistleblower whose days in Hong Kong in 2013 — first at a five-star, The Mira Hotel, and then in one of the poorest neighbourhoods with a group of Asian migrants, evading both the press and authorities — and escape to Moscow were as dramatic as a Hollywood thriller. Citizenfour, an Academy Award winning documentary by Laura Poitras, and Snowden, a feature film by Oliver Stone, have already reconstructed those days on reel. Luke Harding’s book, The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man, is a good account of the disclosures. The challenge before Snowden was to go beyond what has been already said. Permanent Record does just that. It’s a book with a soul, which is Snowden’s moral righteousness. “My name is Edward Joseph Snowden. I used to work for the government, but now I work for the public,” writes an unperturbed Snowden in the opening lines of the book, as a laser-focussed statement of fact.

Permanent Record is not just about Snowden’s act of defiance. And there’s hardly anything in the book about his secretive life in Moscow. The first two parts of the book are about his upbringing, his first hack (he turned back time on all clocks at home to trick parents and watch more TV), his obsession with computers (the first one was a Commodore 64, which his father brought home), love for video games, the early jobs, and the formation of his views about both himself and the world. Snowden comes out as someone who did what he wanted to do — the boy who kicked a hornet’s nest. But the problem is that the “hornet’s nest” is the world’s most powerful military and security power.

Snowden knows that going back to the U.S. is dangerous under the present circumstances: “...anyone who says I have to come back to the States for trial is essentially saying I have to come back to the States for sentencing,” he writes, as all the government needs to do is prove that he leaked classified information. What’s overlooked is whether the disclosures were “civically beneficial”. In the case of Shaw and Marven of USS Warren, at least one of their officers broke ranks and stood by the whistleblowers even in “the darkest hour” of the American revolution. But in Snowden’s case, that possibility is non-existent. “My superiors were not only aware of what the agency was doing, they were actively directing it — they were complicit,” he writes.

Permanent Record; Edward Snowden, Pan Macmillan, ₹699.

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Printable version | Dec 16, 2019 7:08:52 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/permanent-record-review-the-boy-who-kicked-a-hornets-nest/article29788489.ece

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