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Posted on 11 Mar 2014 in Non-Fiction |

LUKE HARDING The Snowden Files: The inside story of the world’s most wanted man. Reviewed by Michael Richardson

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snowdenThe full significance of the security documents Edward Snowden leaked has yet to emerge; this fast-paced account tells the story so far.

No one knew who Edward Snowden was in May 2013 when he scraped 1.7 million classified documents from the National Security Agency from his post as a civilian contractor in Hawaii. By the end of June he would be the most wanted man in the world, having rocked the national security establishment of the United States to the core by revealing the mass surveillance of foreign nationals, world leaders, and, perhaps most damaging of all, American citizens.

Now, in early 2014, the documents he stole continue to feed news story after news story, even after Snowden himself has spent the last six months as a ‘guest’ of the Russian government. Yet these stories represent just the tip of Snowden’s iceberg, according to Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of the Guardian and publisher of many of the surveillance revelations.

Luke Harding’s account of the Snowden story and its initial impact is thus timely, but also limited in its scope – it lacks the perspective that distance from the subject might offer. Fast-paced and journalistic in style, The Snowden Files offers a straightforward, accessible account of Snowden, the data he managed to ‘exfiltrate’ from the NSA, and the ‘epochal debate’ it engendered.

Harding, a journalist with the Guardian, paints a sympathetic but rounded portrait of Snowden himself. The young whistle-blower is intelligent, composed, and idealistic – a civilian libertarian and a patriot, acting in virtuous defence of the US Constitution and the privacy of its citizenry. He is easy to like, and even to admire. Meeting with journalists for the first time, on the run in Hong Kong:

… he radiated a sense of tranquillity and equanimity. He had reached a rock-like place of inner certainty. Here, nothing could touch him.

But Snowden is not only the hero in Harding’s story. Those journalists – the freelancers Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, and the Guardian’s own Ewan MacAskill – and editors who ensured that the public knew what he had learned, often in the face of draconian pressure from government officials, emerge as brave, determined advocates for the truth. While it is hardly surprising that Harding would depict his colleagues so positively, he shows convincingly the personal risks taken by all the journalists involved – risks that may still prevent both Greenwald and Poitras from returning to the United States from their homes in Brazil and Berlin respectively.

The central chapters of the book, dealing with Snowden’s theft of the documents, his flight to Hong Kong, the handover of documents to Greenwald and Poitras, and his subsequent escape to Russia, have something of the spy thriller about them. A Rubik’s cube is used as an identifier, encrypted thumb drives are smuggled around the world, and references to ‘tradecraft’ abound. Intelligence agencies even put in appearances that would be farcical if they weren’t all too real: digging up the sidewalk outside the Guardian’s New York office and its editor’s home just hours after the first story went live, for example:

Soon, every member of the Snowden team was able to recount similar unusual moments – ‘taxi drivers’ who didn’t know the way and forgot to ask for money, ‘window cleaners’ who lingered and re-lingered next to the editor’s office.

While these sections are an easy read, they can push the thriller angle a little hard. Snowden himself is a referred to as a ‘spy’ on numerous occasions – despite having worked in systems administration at his various intelligence posts. The events narrated need no such embellishment. As Harding himself points out on more than one occasion, Snowden’s leak was by many orders of magnitude the most significant in history.

Harding is at his journalistic best when distilling complex, multi-layered events into thematically organised chapters. Similarly, his descriptions of the various obscurely code-named programs are lively rather than dry and technical. Describing TEMPORA, the British agency GCHQ’s ‘gigantic computerised internet buffer’ across the web’s arterial undersea cables, Harding writes:

The buffer could store traffic. Analysts and data miners would then be able retrospectively to sort through this vast pool of digital material … From the residue the spy agencies would, with luck, glean usable intelligence about targets of interest. The system was analogous to a gargantuan catch-up TV service where you could go back and watch any broadcast you’d previously missed.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Harding is most passionate and outraged in recounting the pressure placed upon the Guardian by the British state. Unlike the protection of the press guaranteed by the constitutional right to free speech in the United States, newspapers in England operate in a far more precarious position.

In one of the most vivid sections, Harding describes in detail the ‘half pantomime, half-Stasi’ occasion of intelligence ‘boffins’ supervising the Guardian in ‘the hot, messy work of pulverising hard drives’. He captures the absurdity of the moment without losing its immense seriousness: the British government was actually compelling a newspaper to destroy its hard drives, much as dictatorships throughout history have fearfully smashed the printing presses of subversives and revolutionaries.

Here in Australia we would be well-advised to pay heed. Despite Snowden stealing some 15 000 documents from the Australian Signals Directorate and controversies over spying on East Timor, Indonesia and the private phone of its president, there has been little debate here about electronic surveillance, oversight of spy agencies, or the right to privacy. Recent attacks by the government, including Prime Minister Abbott, on the ABC and the Guardian are worrying – as in the UK, free speech is only minimally protected in Australia.

While The Snowden Files considers the tension between security and privacy, between free speech and the interests of the state, it does so only lightly. This is unsurprising, given the proximity of the events recounted, and their still very much unfolding consequences. And it is in the nature of this kind of popular account to only scrape the surface of deeper and more philosophical issues. Yet this lack of serious engagement with the relationship between surveillance and our digital world means that the book – for all its detailed reporting and skilful narrative – never quite approaches the bigger questions of what the knowledge Snowden revealed might mean for the contemporary world, and for our future.

In The Snowden Files, Harding does an admirable job of showing how Edward Snowden and a handful of journalists and editors gave us deeper knowledge of what our governments do in our name, and began a debate that might otherwise have never been had. It is up to us to demand that debate continue, and to decide for ourselves where the line between privacy and security should be drawn.

Luke Harding The Snowden Files: The inside story of the world’s most wanted man Faber 2014 PB 352pp $29.99

Michael Richardson is an academic and writer. Once, he was the only Australian speechwriter in Canadian politics. He can be found on the web at and on Twitter @richardson_m_a.

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