Book Review: A gripping tale of a spy within the country

07:45 AM Nov 10, 2019 |

Four Towers fell like nine pins with thousands losing their lives and in Arlington County, Virginia, 125 Pentagon workers lost their lives when Flight 77 crashed into the western side of the building.

Of these, 70 were civilians and 55 were military personnel, many of whom worked for the United States Army or the United States Navy. It’s been 18 years and even today three in four Americans call terror a national priority, with almost half prioritising security over civil liberties.


And the man in focus was a young Edward Snowden who was just 18 years old when it all happened in 2001. The American whistleblower who copied and leaked highly classified information from the National Security Agency (NSA) in 2013 when he was a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee and subcontractor.

Should Snowden be prosecuted? The public is divided. To most, the man responsible for the leak of US surveillance efforts is not wholly a hero or a villain. Our perceptions are shaded in grey. Against this backdrop comes Permanent Record, a well-written, self-absolving, brazen autobiography.

For someone who, by his own account, had no interest in writing a 1,000-word personal statement in high school, Snowden delivers an easy read, part confession. An accusation, especially one made public in response to a perceived injustice; a public denunciation.

Snowden is generous with facts, to a point. He lets us into his childhood as the son of a coast guard officer, the grandson of a coast guard admiral. He tells of his Puritan ancestry, his early fascination with computer games, his tropism toward defiance, a knack for hacking that became obvious early.

He hated being made to go to bed early and recalls resetting clocks to confuse the powers that be. It was downhill from there. By the time Snowden reached high school it was apparent he was not college-bound, if not for lack of smarts. He has an IQ of 145.

Rather, Snowden was too busy with computers and video games to bother with academics. Permanent Record reveals his attempts to game the system, calculating that he could pass one of his classes even if he never handed in a shred of homework.

Even as a new CIA contractor, Snowden let those in charge know they were not necessarily the boss. For his sins, he was posted to Geneva — to the envy of all, though he didn’t see it as a plus.

Both Snowden’s parents served in the government and in the aftermath of 9/11 Snowden sought to fuse his computer skills with a stint in the military. Unfortunately, he was injured in basic training and essentially forced to leave. He was upset but ultimately recovered.

In the book Permanent Record, Snowden discusses at length how the government in general, and the spy agencies in particular, rely on outside contractors.

He makes clear that they are barely distinguishable from formal employees, with one major exception: they are generally better paid. Although the taxpayers foot the bill, few voice concern, better the status quo than to rock the boat.

Snowden dishes on the shortcomings of our spy networks. According to him, the National Security Agency (NSA) is home to cutting-edge technology that is poorly safeguarded.

In contrast, the CIA is weak on gadgetry and tech but zealous in protecting its secrets. When it came time to spill the beans, Snowden opened the hatch on the NSA.

This book attempts to justify Snowden’s breach of trust with his government and his country but comes up short in the persuasion department. A good read about what is an ambiguous tale for a nation that doesn’t know what to think.

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