Big Brother is watching you

In Dark Mirror, by journalist Barton Gellman, we have a ringside seat on the extraordinary few months which led to the Edward Snowden data breach

Robert Verkaik

Citizens of mature, liberal democracies accept that some things done in our name by those who guard us take place in the grey margins of the law. If the ultimate objective is to keep us safe then we may be prepared to turn a blind eye. But after 9/11, America’s security agencies embarked on the “war on terror” which crossed that line, committing acts of torture including waterboardings and interrogation beatings which shocked the world.

What wasn’t known was that, at the same time, the National Security Agency (NSA) and Britain’s GCHQ were conducting their own spying operations in cyberspace, using technologies that infringed the civil liberties of their own populations. Had former NSA contractor Edward Snowden not stepped out of the shadows and showed us the industrial scale of this data-gathering done in our name we might still be oblivious to just how many of our phonecalls, emails and texts are being processed by the State.

In Dark Mirror, by journalist Barton Gellman, we have a ringside seat on the extraordinary few months which led to the greatest data breach in history and the hunt for those responsible.

The information Snowden decided to share with the Western media shone a light into a very murky world and has led to changes in the law which have enhanced the protection of the public from state surveillance. But it is also true that Snowden’s leaks gifted enemy state actors and terrorist groups access to the workings of the top secret cyber-programmes deployed by the West. The rights and wrongs of Snowden’s bravery or treachery, depending on where you stand, are finely balanced and I know that even at the Guardian newspaper, where many of his disclosures were later published, the paper’s editorial staff were split down the middle.

Snowden paid a high price for his actions and is now living in permanent self-isolation in Russia. The journalists whom he selected to bring the cache of top secret material into the public domain have become as much a part of the story as the whistle-blowing spy himself.

Filmmaker Laura Poitras and investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald have already given their accounts and Snowden published his autobiography last year. All three, to varying degrees, suffer from self-serving narratives, are packed with enlightened hindsight and present agonisingly complex moral and legal dilemmas in oversimplified and unambiguous form.

Dark Mirror is a much more nuanced piece of writing. From the off Gellman admits: “I had to make high-stakes decisions on my own. I improvised. I made mistakes, some of them embarrassing to recount.” By putting his own failings and insecurities at the heart of the Snowden story, Gellman’s testimony is both credible and readable. His bouts of self-doubt over his own abilities and the potential consequence of his actions make his book a cyberspace thriller where even knowing the ending renders it no less gripping.

Gellman’s Snowden, whom he met twice in Moscow and spent many hours interrogating over encrypted digital channels, is neither hero nor traitor.

Instead he comes across as clever and shrewd, with a sophisticated understanding of how the media operates. But he is also haughty, telling Gellman: “Are you purposely trying to piss me off with questions you know I won’t answer?” And bombastic: “I am somewhat concerned that journalists are being made to feel that their responsibility is protecting the methods that empower an elite at the expense of the world’s inherent right to privacy too.”

Journalists working with Gellman in the Noughties at the Washington Post must have found him a bit of a tiresome oddball, insisting on encrypted online accounts to communicate with all his contacts. But it turned out that Gellman’s cybercraft was not only ahead of its time, it also made him the kind of surveillance-conscious geek with whom Snowden could do business.

In 2013, when their paths crossed, Gellman desperately wanted the story but he also wanted to be sure Snowden, then known to him only by his codename Verax, was the real deal. “Why,” asked Gellman of Snowden, “should I believe you have access to classified material, much less the capacity to vouch for it?”

Verax finally handed over the first tranche of data in 2013. It is impossible not to admire Gellman’s industry and journalistic courage as he begins the vast task of interrogating the 51,662 files which Snowden had labelled “Pandora’s Box”. “The first five I opened had page counts of 57, 4, 188, 16, and 356,” says Gellman. “There might be gold in those files, but you could spend a career looking.”

Snowden hoped to make enough information public to start an “unstoppable debate” and Gellman says he too thought the disclosure would do “more good than harm”. Years later when Gellman was treated to lunch with NSA deputy director Richard Ledgett, the spy chief tried to persuade the journalist there was nothing in the Snowden revelations which should worry the public: “What I struggle with is to convince people that the government really doesn’t care about them, in that sense. You’re just not that interesting.”

That is an easy ex post facto claim to make. Until Bart Gellman and Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald risked their own liberty to help Snowden disclose the extent of Western government spying, we didn’t even know the State possessed the powers to decide whether we are interesting or not. 

Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden and the American Surveillance State
By Barton Gellman
Bodley Head, 448pp, £20

This article is taken from the May/June 2020 issue of Standpoint. To subscribe to the print and digital editions, including a full digital archive, click here.

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