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REVIEW: Permanent Record by Edward Snowden

Hope Kesselring

Anybody who’s expecting shocking revelations from Edward Snowden’s new book, Permanent Record, is going to be disappointed. However, if you’re interested in spy culture like I am, it is worth a read.

The Department of Justice is suing him for not submitting the manuscript to them, but I’m not sure why other than for profit. Permanent Record is more personal than scandalous, and since the lawsuit, it has become a bestseller. More money for them, I guess.

I got the audio version of Permanent Record for free as part of an Audible promotion. Snowden would call that a hack — or maybe they’ve hacked me? Apparently I traded my data for his memoir.

Anyway, I wasn’t sure about writing this review. I wasn’t sure about the book. But this morning I saw a tweet by Srecko Horvat (@HorvatSrecko) that made me see the value of Permanent Record.

Horvat found a copy of it at the Amsterdam airport and took a photo of it in a chair, stating that “One day soon a new Snowden will be inspired by this book.”

This made me think about all the people I know who seem oblivious to the extent of the surveillance we tolerate. I hope they’ll get bored in waiting areas and read Permanent Record. Maybe I’ve been too judgmental of this particular memoir and its author, I thought, so I decided to write the review.

Toward the beginning of the book, Snowden describes a high school English assignment that he could not do — an essay about himself. He claims to struggle with autobiographical writing to this day due to the nature of his occupational background.

Spying, he states, “begins with a denial of character and ends with a denial of conscience.” I wonder if he’s an unreliable narrator as I listen. I keep listening, though, because his life story is intriguing, especially the pre-911 parts.

Born to parents with security clearances, little Edward is inclined to spying and hacking from an early age. He describes his “first hack” as changing the time on the microwave so his parents won’t make him go to bed.

Hacking is a broad term, he explains. It’s not limited to computer coding. It’s knowing any system better than it knows itself and exploiting its weaknesses. In a way, we are all hackers.

Snowden’s coming of age parallels the internet’s coming of age. His father brings home a Commodore 64 and teaches him how to play games on it. In 1989, he gets a Nintendo, breaks it, and tries to fix it himself.

To young Ed, the World Wide Web is a miracle, even though his big sister kicks him offline to talk on the phone. On the internet, he finds the social outlet he needs. He spends hours online interacting anonymously with other gamers and computer enthusiasts, including a university professor who teaches programming.

Snowden describes the early days of the internet as idyllic. Anonymity afforded a democracy that was not reflected in offline society. He describes the 1990s online as the only successful form of anarchy.

It was civil, too, at least in comparison to the bad behavior we see on social media platforms today. Snowden attributes this to an equality fostered by anonymity. People could just change their identities and move on from things.

With platforms like Facebook, you use your real name and picture. You make yourself vulnerable to your neighbors and to the whole world. You could get passed over for a job because you expressed a bad opinion. You could get hacked.

Because of the commodification of internet data, a power dynamic is created, Snowden explains. He calls this “digital inequality.” We have become victims of data vampires, constantly watched. It’s easy to forget what online used to be.

Snowden spends his teen years in the flourishing hacking community. Teenagers are by nature hackers, he claims. Hacking is anti-authority. Warnings of “This will go down on your permanent record” from authority figures like school principals and government agencies just encourage rebellion in some people.

Nowadays we all have permanent records. Silicon Valley treats us like teenagers. If we’re bad, we get shadowbanned or deplatformed as punishment. Perhaps we should en masse conjure up our inner teens and metaphorically flip the bird at Big Tech.

Teenage Ed hacks the Los Alamos National Laboratory, but they not only don’t notice, they don’t fix the problem for weeks. When they call his family home and find out his age, they tell him to apply for a job with them when he turns 18.

Meanwhile, his parents’ marriage is falling apart. Snowden is growing up in a home and a community where people don’t talk about their jobs. It’s easy to see how this could lead to the compartmentalization of families. Ed retreats further into the anonymity and honesty of the early internet, and his grades suffer. By September of 2001, he is a dropout with a GED, freelancing website designs for money.

The most remarkable part of Snowden’s description of 911 is not his story about being stuck in traffic, trying to leave Fort Meade. It’s his recollection of a phone conversation with his father.

“They bombed the Pentagon,” is the quote. Not “They flew a plane into the Pentagon, too,” but they bombed it. Snowden repeats his father’s quote and does not correct it with the official narrative.

I can’t help but feel like this was on purpose, a little gem of truth left glittering but plausibly deniable in the manuscript.

Much of Permanent Record is a detailed and probably more accurate telling of the story made famous by Oliver Stone’s Snowden movie. Ed signs up for the military, gets injured, joins the CIA and contracts for the NSA. He designs surveillance software but says the compartmentalization that’s built into the intelligence community prevents him from truly understanding how damaging it is.

Then one day he finds a document that directly disproves what the intelligence agencies have been feeding us. Ed has an epiphany that bulk data collection is a bad idea. He puts files on SD cards and sneaks them out of a secured area, hidden beneath the colored stickers on a Rubik’s Cube.

Snowden considers sending his documents to WikiLeaks but decides against it because he doesn’t think a document dump is appropriate. He thinks the journalists he’s chosen will take better care of them.

Well, I guess they did because only about 10% were published before the Intercept stopped releasing them. He doesn’t tell us that part, though.

Snowden does make sure to tell us that, although he credits Julian Assange for saving his life, he doesn’t like him and hasn’t spoken to him for years. I wonder why, but all he tells us is that Assange is moody. He has a lot of praise for Sarah Harrison, the WikiLeaks journalist who helped him escape arrest by accompanying him from Hong Kong to Russia, but his goodwill doesn’t seem to extend to Assange, who’s being held in a maximum security prison.

The next-to-last chapter is taken from his girlfriend’s diary. He includes it, he says, so that the reader will understand what his loved ones went through, which includes FBI surveillance and interrogation.

In spite of this, Lindsay Mills forgives him and moves to Russia, where they are married. End of story. I would have liked more details about life in Russia, but maybe that will be included in the next book.

I would recommend Permanent Record to people who aren’t familiar with Snowden’s story or who are interested in his background. I’m glad a lot of people are reading it. His insights on mass surveillance and spy culture are useful in a post-911 world.

Just don’t go into it expecting any stunning reveals.

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Gerda Halvorsen
Gerda Halvorsen
Oct 4, 2019 12:23 PM

Just finished the book. I must admit that my esteem for Snowdon has sunk considerably. I can also understand why he doesn’t seem to have much sympathy for Assange; their world views seem to be almost complete opposites.

Snowdon, apart from his laudable insistence that US intellegence agencies respect US laws, appears to otherwise really buy into the USA as the light of the world, the exceptional nation. It is almost as though the entire book is a vehicle to show how patriotic and loyal he is. Trying for a presidential pardon, maybe?

Reading his narrative, I doubt he ever would have risked a single peep for even the most outrageous human rights offenses as long as some law had been passed to make it legal in the US, or if the victims were “only” non-US citizens.

As Hope wrote above, no relevations to be found. Apart from the single quote of his father, he seems completely unquestioning of the official 9/11 storyline. He insists on having such a great curiosity to understand how things work; does that mean there was there no trace of anything 9/11 on the NSA/CIA system? He doesn’t say. Or does he realize that if he writes anything contrary to the official fairytale he can say goodbye to his hope of ever being able to leave Russia?

Near the end of the book he makes the quip about eating at Burger King while in Russia “I know where my loyalties lie”. That was just too much, sorry. As well as the red, white and blue flowers for his wedding anniversary. Over the top barf.

Who/what is behind putting this book out in all its translations simultaneously? Just profit motive? Something just doesn’t square.

Give me Assange’s vain, moody, bullying (writes Snowdon) and Wikileaks, anyday, thank you very much.

Arby
Arby
Oct 2, 2019 12:12 AM

I think that Patrick Anderson (article on Mint Press) has the right take on Snowden (and, I would add, so does Yasha Levine and even class traitor Sibel Edmonds). I was soured on Snowden some time ago.

eddie
eddie
Sep 30, 2019 5:40 PM

Big Ed isn’t walking tall on the streets of Russia? Imagine the vetting he endured in order to remain outside a cozy little prison cell at the Lyubyanka..
He, Chelsea and Assange have had the Five-Eyes wearing adult diapers since their scoops hit the news, and will remain modern heroes to those who enjoy fact over fiction.

Petra Liverani
Petra Liverani
Sep 30, 2019 12:37 PM

I’d bet serious money that there is no “ex” regarding little Eddie, he is still very much CIA. As a YouTuber says, “There is no ex, there is no ex-CIA.” And, of course, when someone is very much still CIA we don’t expect any shocking revelations. In fact, any revelations they proffer we should treat with great circumspection.

From little Eddie’s Wikipedia article
Snowden described his CIA experience in Geneva as formative, stating that the CIA deliberately got a Swiss banker drunk and encouraged him to drive home. Snowden said that when the latter was arrested, a CIA operative offered to help in exchange for the banker becoming an informant.[49] Ueli Maurer, President of the Swiss Confederation for the year 2013, in June of that year publicly disputed Snowden’s claims. “This would mean that the CIA successfully bribed the Geneva police and judiciary. With all due respect, I just can’t imagine it,” said Maurer.[50] In February 2009, Snowden resigned from the CIA.[51]

Shock! Horror! The CIA got a banker drunk, encouraged him to drive home, he was conveniently arrested and they bribed him to exchange information for getting off. Noooooo. It’s exactly the sort of the thing CIA does no doubt but doesn’t it sound a little pat here? And the President of the Swiss Confederation couldn’t imagine it? Just like the US admin couldn’t imagine planes into buildings?

“They bombed the Pentagon,” is the quote. Not “They flew a plane into the Pentagon, too,” but they bombed it. Snowden repeats his father’s quote and does not correct it with the official narrative.

Shock! Horror! Revelation! Of course, thousands, if not millions, have worked that out for themselves. In fact, the FBI gives the game away with the codename for their investigation of 9/11, don’t they? PENTTBOM (Pentagon, Twin Towers bombing). Seriously.

If little Eddie were genuine I think he’d be offering a little more about 9/11 than a very tame quote from his dad.

Edward SNOWden
Chelsea MANning
Adrian LAMEo

Doncha love it?

Petra Liverani
Petra Liverani
Sep 30, 2019 12:57 PM
Reply to  Petra Liverani

Oh, and the Department of Justice suing him? … That’s just a ruse to raise the book sales as you point out has happened, Hope.

MASTER OF UNIVE
MASTER OF UNIVE
Sep 29, 2019 6:42 PM

I have asked the Government of CANADA to give Snowden asylum & Canadian citizenship.

I will personally vouch for Edward Snowden to become a Canadian citizen.

A great mind and person we have in Edward Snowden.

MOU

George Cornell
George Cornell
Sep 29, 2019 11:02 PM

Good for you. I am in complete agreement. He’s a hero and would be an adornment to any country in any age. He unmasked our number one enemy.

Wilmers31
Wilmers31
Sep 30, 2019 3:32 AM

Sadly, this will not work out. We have seen it with Ecuador, governments change and policies can be reversed completely. And then they often say one thing before the elections and do the opposite afterwards. It would be too dangerous for Snowden to leave Russia.

Spare a thought for Assange. He can never go back to his own country either because Australia would deliver him to the US on a silver platter.

Where to?
Where to?
Sep 30, 2019 4:18 AM
Reply to  Wilmers31

“Australia would deliver him to the US on a silver platter”

Australia trained* the Khashoggi chopper.

* choice of grammar is deliberate and illustrates that ‘Secret’ Australia is not above such barbarism

MASTER OF UNIVE
MASTER OF UNIVE
Sep 30, 2019 4:47 AM
Reply to  Wilmers31

Canadians would happily accept Snowden as a Canadian citizen, and then my Government of CANADA would guarantee that he was not extradited to the United States of America based upon the fact that they would likely give him the death penalty and Canadians don’t tolerate Capital Punishment. The United States of America would then have to apply for extradition based upon not sending Snowden to a state that has the Death Penalty on their books. Canada would respond to USA request with Supreme Court Ruling that would also protect Snowden from USA persecution for revealing state secrets in the manner that he did and Canadian litigators would fight extradition requests based upon our Charter Rights paradigm and the Constitutional rights of all in CANADA.

The United States of America would probably give up eventually after they realized how slow things can move in CANADA when Canadians don’t want to cooperate.

MOU

MASTER OF UNIVE
MASTER OF UNIVE
Sep 30, 2019 5:06 AM
Reply to  Wilmers31

If I can get my government to give Snowden asylum & Citizenship I’m sure I’ll be able to get Assange out of the grasp of the American & UK establishment after that. Getting Snowden Canadian citizenship & asylum is much easier than getting Assange out of the clutches of the USA & EU/UK right now.

I’ll deal with America later, don’t worry about that.

MOU

Fair dinkum
Fair dinkum
Sep 30, 2019 7:26 AM
Reply to  Wilmers31

With politicians tongues as trimming.

Brozza
Brozza
Sep 30, 2019 6:46 AM

As an realist Aussie, I’d NEVER ask him to apply for asylum here.
The worlds #1 yankee arse-lickers would ensure his plane got diverted to Guantanamo Bay before it made Aussie air-space.

Fair dinkum
Fair dinkum
Sep 30, 2019 7:25 AM
Reply to  Brozza

Arse licking is one thing. We are now the #2 weapons importer in the world, just behind the Saudis.

Brozza
Brozza
Oct 1, 2019 10:27 AM
Reply to  Fair dinkum

What with $50B for subs that’ll be obsolete by the time we get them and $17B for the relatively slow F-35’s that only have a range of about 1450 km (900 miles), plus the billions more for on-going running costs and upgrades, that’s a lot of money that could be going to improving peoples lot instead of going to machines to kill them.
A perfect example of copulated priorities from people with copulated minds.

Fair dinkum
Fair dinkum
Oct 1, 2019 11:31 AM
Reply to  Brozza

How gullible and hubristic they are.
Sucking up to the MIC and ignoring the plight of millions of struggling Australians.
They make me SICK!!

Willem
Willem
Sep 29, 2019 2:18 PM

“Toward the beginning of the book, Snowden describes a high school English assignment that he could not do — an essay about himself. He claims to struggle with autobiographical writing to this day due to the nature of his occupational background.”

Either that, or Ed is not too comfortable in telling what his real backround is and what his motives actually are.

And his hostility towards Assange (who, according to the narrative saved him from prison) is as interesting as his hostility towards the Russian community which he ‘ intentionally distances’ himself from (see https://www.zerohedge.com/geopolitical/snowden-spills-legendary-whistleblower-opines-spycraft-ai-and-being-suicided)

Quite well fits the narrative of heroes and villains, but perhaps Ed is just a shallow former NSA agent who, despite reading all 50000 NSA documents before handing them over to billionaire Omidyar (through Glenn Greenwald), believes narratives that straightly come from 3 letter word agencies.

Thanks for the review. I don’t think I am going to read or buy Snowden’s book.

MASTER OF UNIVE
MASTER OF UNIVE
Sep 29, 2019 6:39 PM
Reply to  Willem

Snowden has a right to mature as an adult, and epigenetic learning vi age transformation is valid argument for Snowden given that he acted out of consciousness to prevent mass abuse of populations via a predator state that has tools to victimize whole populations and ultimately the world.

Lastly, I personally don’t care if you read bubble gum wrapper jokes instead of books. The loss of understanding is yours to throw out.

Fill your hat.

MOU

John A
John A
Sep 29, 2019 2:17 PM

I have read a couple of reviews of the book but not the book itself. The writer of this review says: ‘I would have liked more details about life in Russia, but maybe that will be included in the next book’.
One bit of info in a review that really saddened me about Snowden was that he has made no attempt to learn Russian or even interface with Russian or Russian society. He basically holes himself up in some apartment or hotel room and communicates with hardly anyone, and those he does, only American/English speakers. What a sad waste of a wonderful opportunity to broaden his mind about the world outside computers and the USA.

MASTER OF UNIVE
MASTER OF UNIVE
Sep 29, 2019 6:45 PM
Reply to  John A

Intelligence Analysts have to be extremely careful who they talk to and associate with. Snowden has isolated himself because of Intelligence work. Being guarded is the task of everyone in the Intel community. It is something that never leaves you, ever!

MOU

John A
John A
Sep 29, 2019 8:47 PM

Such as people in shops, on the street, in cafes, on the metro system etc., are potential agents of his destruction? He would appear to have no interest in life outside America or non-American people. Or perhaps, people in general. Or life in general. I just think he is missing a genuine opportunity to become a more rounded person. Sad, sad, sad.

MASTER OF UNIVE
MASTER OF UNIVE
Sep 29, 2019 9:09 PM
Reply to  John A

Intelligence Analysts lead lives of almost complete solitude so that they can spend most of their time crunching data streams of thought. Socializing is not big on the to do list of serious Intelligence Analysts anywhere. Being an Intelligence Analyst is a 24/7/365 occupation whether for monetary gain or not.

Once formally trained in intelligence there is no going back to being a highly social person. It takes thousands upon thousands of hard research & hours to be an Intelligence Analyst.

No formally trained Intel are into being highly social with the great unwashed masses.
It’s a small club, and you ain’t in it. If the intel community wants highly social Intelligence Analysts they would train new recruits for that task. Most analysts are guarded for life. And all analysts have to guard their professionalism via lock & key.

MOU

John A
John A
Oct 1, 2019 9:12 AM

But he is no longer an Intelligence Analyst, and almost certainly never will be again. Any info Snowden has will now be very out of date. OK, he might be snatched on the streets of Moscow and secretly renditioned to Guantanemo, but Russia is not a vassal like the UK, Sweden and other countries complicit in American evil-doing.

MASTER OF UNIVE
MASTER OF UNIVE
Oct 1, 2019 4:45 PM
Reply to  John A

Snowden wants a G7 country to give him asylum so that he can get a fair trial if the USA wants to extradite him for breach. If CANADA takes him in and gives him citizenship & asylum the Americans will find it more than impossible to get the extradition that they will seek.

Other G7 nations may not be able to stand up to Americans & the USA but Canadians are not intimidated and CANADA is politically strong compared to the USA which is politically weak by comparison.

MOU

George Cornell
George Cornell
Sep 30, 2019 4:05 AM
Reply to  John A

And what have you contributed to make yourself judge and personality assessor of a brave and heroic man?

Brozza
Brozza
Sep 30, 2019 6:54 AM

Perhaps it’s something really simple like, how can I trust you?
Perhaps for someone in his position, it’s just easier and safer to trust nobody.

Roberto
Roberto
Sep 30, 2019 10:36 PM
Reply to  John A

I bought the book, though I didn’t expect any big exposés (actually, I read the Shadow Factory by James Bamford some years before Snowdon even flew the coop, so the ‘shocking revelations’ were old hat when he did).
Snowdon’s recounting of childhood and family history seems to go on forever though … hopefully the pace picks up a bit after the first few chapters. The techie stuff may be interesting.
Certainly documenting ‘life in Russia’ is not of much interest if he doesn’t wish to integrate into the society, learn the language, and enjoy the quirky and crazy Russia we love, sort of like the West used to be before it degenerated into a politically correct hellhole where the majority of the population whinges about being offended and the rest seem to be on a never-ending apology binge to patronise them.

Antonym
Antonym
Sep 29, 2019 1:01 PM

The most remarkable part of Snowden’s description of 911 is not his story about being stuck in traffic, trying to leave Fort Meade. It’s his recollection of a phone conversation with his father.

“They bombed the Pentagon,” is the quote. Not “They flew a plane into the Pentagon, too,” but they bombed it.

My interpretation: he witnessed the hurried evacuation of Fort Meade, the HQ of the NSA + some CIA.
99% chance they were clueless about the 9/11 events, 1% this evacuation was part of the scenario for show.

“They bombed the Pentagon”: whatever flew into that building went extremely fast, so for those close by it was hard to figure out what it was but it did make a loud explosion – a bomb – is a pretty logical guess. Only someone with full view of the correct quadrant of the sky above the Pentagon could have seen what it actually was.

Fair dinkum
Fair dinkum
Sep 29, 2019 10:22 AM

I can picture the movie now: ‘From Russia With Love’
Hang on _ _ _ _that’s already been done.
How about ‘Spychos I Have Known’