In 'Permanent Record,' Edward Snowden Says 'Exile Is An Endless Layover'
When Edward Snowden landed at the Moscow airport in 2013, having just divulged valuable secrets about National Security Agency surveillance programs, he was immediately stopped by Russian authorities.
A smooth-talking Russian intelligence officer sat Snowden down in an airport lounge and informed him the U.S. government had canceled his passport while Snowden had been in the air. The Russian added, "Life for a person in your situation can be very difficult without friends who can help. Is there some information, perhaps, some small thing you could share with us?"
Snowden, who had worked at the CIA as well as the National Security Agency, said he immediately turned down the offer to cooperate with Russian intelligence. But his stay in Russia has been far longer than expected.
"We landed at Sheremetyevo [Airport] for what we assumed would be a twenty-hour layover," Snowden writes in his new book, Permanent Record. "It has now dragged on for over six years. Exile is an endless layover."
And there's no end in sight for a man who remains deeply polarizing.
The U.S. government has charged Snowden with violating the Espionage Act for providing journalists with details of the NSA's top secret surveillance programs, and many in the national security community regard him as a traitor.
A 2016 report by the House intelligence committee cited more than 20 examples of which, it said, Snowden damaged national security.
"Snowden and his defenders claim that he is a whistleblower, but he isn't," said California Democrat Adam Schiff. He was the ranking Democrat on the committee at the time, and is now the chairman. "Most of the material he stole had nothing to do with Americans' privacy, and its compromise has been of great value to America's adversaries and those who mean to do America harm."
A move to 'mass surveillance'
Yet Snowden's supporters include human rights activists and privacy advocates who say he played an invaluable role in unveiling the NSA's worldwide data collection that included the phone, email and other electronic records of American citizens.
"I participated in the most significant change in the history of American espionage — the change from the targeted surveillance of individuals to the mass surveillance of entire populations," Snowden writes of his time at the NSA. "I helped make it technologically feasible for a single government to collect all the world's digital communications, store them for ages, and search through them at will."
Snowden has no new bombshells in his book. But he offers a very readable memoir about growing up with the Internet, a detailed rationale for his actions, and a look at how government surveillance has evolved since his disclosures.
Snowden says his relatives have served in the military or national security dating back to the Revolutionary War. His father spent his career in the Coast Guard, and his mother worked at the NSA for a time.
An indifferent student fascinated by computers, Snowden was doing part-time work for a small business run out of a private home on the NSA's compound at Fort Meade, Md., when al-Qaida struck on Sept. 11, 2001. The NSA was itself considered a possible target, and much of the staff was sent home, creating a massive traffic jam.
"At the moment of the worst terrorist attack in American history, the staff of the NSA — the major signals intelligence agency of the American intelligence community — was abandoning its work by the thousands, and I was swept up in the flood," Snowden writes.
A new direction
That day changed Snowden's life in ways he never could have predicted. He joined the Army, but at 5-foot-9 and 124 pounds, he struggled with a heavy backpack causing stress fractures in both legs — and was discharged within months.
He joined the CIA based on his technical skills but grew disillusioned. In 2012, he got a job as an NSA contractor, working at an underground facility in Hawaii. Despite his modest status, he had remarkable access:
"Deep in a tunnel under a pineapple field — a subterranean Pearl Harbor-era former airplane factory — I sat at a terminal from which I had practically unlimited access to the communications of nearly every man, woman and child on earth who'd ever dialed a phone or touched a computer."
This comprehensive NSA surveillance was a direct outgrowth of the al-Qaida attacks. The intelligence community failed to see them coming and was intent on gobbling up as much raw data as it could to prevent any future attack.
For Snowden, this mass collection of the data on U.S. citizens was a gross violation of privacy. He surreptitiously copied evidence of the programs, fled to Hong Kong in May 2013 and shared it with several journalists.
"I was resolved to bring to light a single, all-encompassing fact: that my government had developed and deployed a global system of mass surveillance without the knowledge or consent of its citizenry," Snowden writes.
After a month in Hong Kong, Snowden feared he would be detained or extradited to the U.S. and worked out a plan for asylum in Ecuador. But his roundabout journey ground to a halt when he landed in Moscow.
Snowden says almost nothing about Russia in his book, which seems odd, since he regularly speaks out in his interviews.
"It was not my choice to live in Russia," Snowden told NPR in an interview Thursday. "I've actually been quite public about my criticism of the Russian government's human rights record. I've been especially critical of their surveillance policies, and I also have criticized the Russian President [Vladimir Putin] quite routinely."
No plans to return home
Snowden says he wouldn't get a fair trial in the U.S., saying American law makes no distinction when it comes to releasing classified information. Providing such material to journalists, in what Snowden considered the public interest, is no different from selling secrets to an American adversary.
President Barack Obama has criticized him: "The benefit of the debate he generated was not worth the damage done, because there was another way of doing it."
Donald Trump has been a harsh critic, tweeting back in 2014 that Snowden was spy and that spied were once executed.
Snowden is a spy who has caused great damage to the U.S. A spy in the old days, when our country was respected and strong, would be executed— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 19, 2014
So what's changed since Snowden's revelations?
The law, for one. In 2015, Congress passed the U.S.A. Freedom Act, which prohibits the bulk collection of the phone records of American citizens, addressing one of Snowden's major complaints. Now the government must get a court warrant to look at individual phone records.
Also, ordinary citizens have become much more aware of how governments and private companies like Facebook, Amazon and Google may collect personal data. This, in turn, has led to the much wider use of encryption.
"2016 was a landmark in tech history, the first year since the invention of the Internet that more Web traffic was encrypted than unencrypted," writes Snowden.
His daily life in Moscow sounds routine, though he remains in demand as a speaker.
"I spend a lot of time in front of the computer — reading, writing, interacting," he writes. From his rented apartment, "I beam myself onto stages around the world, speaking about the protection of civil liberties in the digital age to audiences of students, scholars, lawmakers, and technologists."
He says he doesn't get out much, and his Russian isn't great. But he has become a bit more social since his longtime girlfriend from the U.S., Lindsay Mills, moved to Moscow three years ago. They've since married.
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