Authors: Edward Snowden
Everything about that kid, everything about his father, reminded me of my own father, whom I met for dinner one evening during my stint at Fort Meade. I hadn’t seen him in a while, but there in the midst of dinner, over bites of Caesar salad and a pink lemonade, I had the thought:
I’ll never see my family again
. My eyes were dry—I was exerting as much control as I could—but inside, I was devastated. I knew that if I told him what I was about to do, he would’ve called the cops. Or else he would’ve called me crazy and had me committed to a mental hospital. He would’ve done anything he thought he had to do to prevent me from making the gravest of mistakes.
I could only hope that his hurt would in time be healed by pride.
Back in Hawaii between March and May 2013, a sense of finality suffused nearly every experience for me, and though the
experiences themselves might seem trivial, they eased my path. It was far less painful to think that this was the last time I’d ever stop at the curry place in Mililani or drop by the art-gallery hacker space in Honolulu or just sit on the roof of my car and scan the nighttime sky for falling stars than to think that I only had another month left with Lindsay, or another week left of sleeping next to her and waking up next to her and yet trying to keep my distance from her, for fear of breaking down.
The preparations I was making were those of a man about to die. I emptied my bank accounts, putting cash into an old steel ammo box for Lindsay to find so that the government couldn’t seize it. I went around the house doing oft-procrastinated chores, like fixing windows and changing lightbulbs. I erased and encrypted my old computers, reducing them to the silent husks of better times. In sum, I was putting my affairs in order to try to make everything easier for Lindsay, or just for my conscience, which periodically would switch allegiance from a world that hadn’t earned it to the woman who had and the family I loved.
Everything was imbued with this sense of an ending, and yet there were moments when it seemed that no end was in sight and that the plan I’d developed was collapsing. It was difficult to get the journalists to commit to a meeting, mostly because I couldn’t tell them who they were meeting with, or even, for a while at least, where and when it was happening. I had to reckon with the prospect of them never showing up, or of them showing up but then dropping out. Ultimately I decided that if either of those happened, I’d just abandon the plan and return to work and to Lindsay as if everything was normal, to wait for my next chance.
In my wardrives back and forth from Kunia—a twenty-minute ride that could become a two-hour Wi-Fi scavenger hunt—I’d been researching various countries, trying to find a location for my meeting with the journalists. It felt like I was picking out my prison, or rather my grave. All of the Five Eyes countries were obviously off-limits. In fact, all of Europe was out, because its coun
tries couldn’t be counted upon to uphold international law against the extradition of those charged with political crimes in the face of what was sure to be significant American pressure. Africa and Latin America were no-go zones too—the United States had a history of acting there with impunity. Russia was out because it was Russia, and China was China: both were totally out of bounds. The US government wouldn’t have to do anything to discredit me other than point at the map. The optics would only be worse in the Middle East. It sometimes seemed as if the most challenging hack of my life wasn’t going to be plundering the NSA but rather trying to find a meeting venue independent enough to hold off the White House and free enough not to interfere with my activities.
The process of elimination left me with Hong Kong. In geopolitical terms, it was the closest I could get to no-man’s-land, but with a vibrant media and protest culture, not to mention largely unfiltered Internet. It was an oddity, a reasonably liberal world city whose nominal autonomy would distance me from China and restrain Beijing’s ability to take public action against me or the journalists—at least immediately—but whose de facto existence in Beijing’s sphere of influence would reduce the possibility of unilateral US intervention. In a situation with no promise of safety, it was enough to have the guarantee of time. Chances were that things weren’t going to end well for me, anyway: the best I could hope for was getting the disclosures out before I was caught.
The last morning I woke up with Lindsay, she was leaving on a camping trip to Kauai—a brief getaway with friends that I’d encouraged. We lay in bed and I held her too tightly, and when she asked with sleepy bewilderment why I was suddenly being so affectionate, I apologized. I told her how sorry I was for how busy I’d been, and that I was going to miss her—she was the best person I’d ever met in my life. She smiled, pecked me on the cheek, and then got up to pack.
The moment she was out the door, I started crying, for the first time in years. I felt guilty about everything except what my government would accuse me of, and especially guilty about my tears,
because I knew that my pain would be nothing compared to the pain I’d cause to the woman I loved, or to the hurt and confusion I’d cause my family.
At least I had the benefit of knowing what was coming. Lindsay would return from her camping trip to find me gone, ostensibly on a work assignment, and my mother basically waiting on our doorstep. I’d invited my mother to visit, in a move so uncharacteristic that she must have expected another type of surprise—like an announcement that Lindsay and I were engaged. I felt horrible about the false pretenses and winced at the thought of her disappointment, but I kept telling myself I was justified. My mother would take care of Lindsay and Lindsay would take care of her. Each would need the other’s strength to weather the coming storm.
The day after Lindsay left, I took an emergency medical leave of absence from work, citing epilepsy, and packed scant luggage and four laptops: secure communications, normal communications, a decoy, and an “airgap” (a computer that had never gone and would never go online). I left my smartphone on the kitchen counter alongside a notepad on which I scribbled in pen:
Got called away for work. I love you.
I signed it with my call-letter nickname, Echo. Then I went to the airport and bought a ticket in cash for the next flight to Tokyo. In Tokyo, I bought another ticket in cash, and on May 20 arrived in Hong Kong, the city where the world first met me.
The deep psychological appeal of games, which are really just a series of increasingly difficult challenges, is the belief that they can be won. Nowhere is this more clear to me than in the case of the Rubik’s Cube, which satisfies a universal fantasy: that if you just work hard enough and twist yourself through all of the possibilities, everything in the world that appears scrambled and incoherent will finally click into position and become perfectly aligned; that human ingenuity is enough to transform the most broken and chaotic system into something logical and orderly where every face of three-dimensional space shines with perfect uniformity.
I’d had a plan—I’d had multiple plans—in which a single mistake would have meant getting caught, and yet I hadn’t been: I’d made it out of the NSA, I’d made it out of the country. I had beaten the game. By every standard I could imagine, the hard part was over. But my imagination hadn’t been good enough, because the journalists I’d asked to come meet me weren’t showing up. They kept postponing, giving excuses, apologizing.
I knew that Laura Poitras—to whom I’d already sent a few documents and the promise of many more—was ready to fly any
where from New York City at a moment’s notice, but she wasn’t going to come alone. She was busy trying to get Glenn Greenwald to commit, trying to get him to buy a new laptop that he wouldn’t put online. Trying to get him to install encryption programs so we could better communicate. And there I was, in Hong Kong, watching the clock tick away the hours, watching the calendar tick off the days, beseeching, begging:
please come before the NSA realizes I’ve been gone from work too long
. It was tough to think about all the lengths I’d gone to only to face the prospect of being left in Hong Kong high and dry. I tried to work up some sympathy for these journalists who seemed too busy or too nervous to lock down their travel plans, but then I’d recall just how little of the material for which I was risking everything would actually make it to the public if the police arrived first. I thought about my family and Lindsay and how foolish it was to have put my life in the hands of people who didn’t even know my name.
I barricaded myself in my room at the Mira Hotel, which I chose because of its central location in a crowded shopping and business district. I put the “Privacy Please—Do Not Disturb” sign on the door handle to keep housekeeping out. For ten days, I didn’t leave the room for fear of giving a foreign spy the chance to sneak in and bug the place. With the stakes so high, the only move I had was to wait. I converted the room into a poor man’s operations center, the invisible heart of the network of encrypted Internet tunnels from which I’d send increasingly shrill pleas to the absent emissaries of our free press. Then I’d stand at the window hoping for a reply, looking out onto the beautiful park I’d never visit. By the time Laura and Glenn finally arrived, I’d eaten every item on the room service menu.
That isn’t to say that I just sat around during that week and a half writing wheedling messages. I also tried to organize the last briefing I’d ever give—going through the archive, figuring out how best to explain its contents to the journalists in the surely limited time we’d have together. It was an interesting problem: how to most cogently express to nontechnical people who were almost
certainly inclined to be skeptical of me the fact that the US government was surveilling the world and the methods by which it was doing so. I put together dictionaries of terms of art like “metadata” and “communications bearer.” I put together glossaries of acronyms and abbreviations: CCE, CSS, DNI, NOFORN. I made the decision to explain not through technologies, or systems, but through surveillance programs—in essence, through stories—in an attempt to speak their language. But I couldn’t decide which stories to give them first, and I kept shuffling them around, trying to put the worst crimes in the best order.
I had to find a way to help at least Laura and Glenn understand something in the span of a few days that it had taken me years to puzzle out. Then there was another thing: I had to help them understand who I was and why I’d decided to do this.
T LONG LAST
, Glenn and Laura showed up in Hong Kong on June 2. When they came to meet me at the Mira, I think I disappointed them, at least initially. They even told me as much, or Glenn did: He’d been expecting someone older, some chain-smoking, tipsy depressive with terminal cancer and a guilty conscience. He didn’t understand how a person as young as I was—he kept asking me my age—not only had access to such sensitive documents, but was also so willing to throw his life away. For my part, I didn’t know how they could have expected some graybeard, given my instructions to them about how to meet: Go to a certain quiet alcove by the hotel restaurant, furnished with an alligator-skin-looking pleather couch, and wait around for a guy holding a Rubik’s Cube. The funny thing was that I’d originally been wary of using that bit of tradecraft, but the cube was the only thing I’d brought with me that was likely to be unique and identifiable from a distance. It also helped me hide the stress of waiting for what I feared might be the surprise of handcuffs.
That stress would reach its visible peak just ten or so minutes later, when I’d brought Laura and Glenn up to my room—#1014,
on the tenth floor. Glenn had barely had the chance to stow his smartphone in my minibar fridge at my request when Laura started rearranging and adjusting the lights in the room. Then she unpacked her digital video camera. Though we’d agreed, over encrypted email, that she could film our encounter, I wasn’t ready for the reality.
Nothing could have prepared me for the moment when she pointed her camera at me, sprawled out on my unmade bed in a cramped, messy room that I hadn’t left for the past ten days. I think everybody has had this kind of experience: the more conscious you are of being recorded, the more self-conscious you become. Merely the awareness that there is, or might be, somebody pressing Record on their smartphone and pointing it at you can cause awkwardness, even if that somebody is a friend. Though today nearly all of my interactions take place via camera, I’m still not sure which experience I find more alienating: seeing myself on film or being filmed. I try to avoid the former, but avoiding the latter is now difficult for everyone.
In a situation that was already high-intensity, I stiffened. The red light of Laura’s camera, like a sniper’s sight, kept reminding me that at any moment the door might be smashed in and I’d be dragged off forever. And whenever I wasn’t having that thought, I kept thinking about how this footage was going to look when it was played back in court. I realized there were so many things I should have done, like putting on nicer clothes and shaving. Room-service plates and trash had accumulated throughout the room. There were noodle containers and half-eaten burgers, piles of dirty laundry and damp towels on the floor.
It was a surreal dynamic. Not only had I never met any filmmakers before being filmed by one, I had never met any journalists before serving as their source. The first time I ever spoke aloud to anyone about the US government’s system of mass surveillance, I was speaking to everyone in the world with an Internet connection. In the end, though, regardless of how rumpled I looked
and stilted I sounded, Laura’s filming was indispensable, because it showed the world exactly what happened in that hotel room in a way that newsprint never could. The footage she shot over the course of our days together in Hong Kong can’t be distorted. Its existence is a tribute not just to her professionalism as a documentarian but to her foresight.
I spent the week between June 3 and June 9 cloistered in that room with Glenn and his colleague from the
, Ewen MacAskill, who joined us a bit later that first day. We talked and talked, going through the NSA’s programs, while Laura hovered and filmed. In contrast to the frenetic days, the nights were empty and desolate. Glenn and Ewen would retreat to their own hotel, the nearby W, to write up their findings into articles. Laura would disappear to edit her footage and do her own reporting with Bart Gellman of the
, who never made it to Hong Kong but worked remotely with the documents he received from her.
I’d sleep, or try to—or else I’d put on the TV, find an English-language channel like the BBC or CNN, and watch the international reaction. On June 5, the
broke Glenn’s first story, the FISA court order that authorized the NSA to collect information from the American telecom Verizon about every phone call it handled. On June 6, it ran Glenn’s PRISM story, pretty much simultaneously with a similar account in the
by Laura and Bart. I knew, and I think we all knew, that the more pieces came out the more likely it was that I’d be identified, particularly because my office had begun emailing me asking for status updates and I wasn’t answering. But though Glenn and Ewen and Laura were unfailingly sympathetic to my ticking time-bomb situation, they never let their desire to serve the truth be tempered by that knowledge. And following their example, neither did I.
Journalism, like documentary film, can only reveal so much. It’s interesting to think about what a medium is forced to omit, both by convention and technology. In Glenn’s prose, especially in the
, you got a laser-focused statement of fact, stripped
of the dogged passion that defines his personality. Ewen’s prose more fully reflected his character: sincere, gracious, patient, and fair. Meanwhile, Laura, who saw all but was rarely seen, had an omniscient reserve and a sardonic wit—half master spy, half master artist.
As the revelations ran wall to wall on every TV channel and website, it became clear that the US government had thrown the whole of its machinery into identifying the source. It was also clear that when they did, they would use the face they found—my face—to evade accountability: instead of addressing the revelations, they’d impugn the credibility and motives of “the leaker.” Given the stakes, I had to seize the initiative before it was too late. If I didn’t explain my actions and intentions, the government would, in a way that would swing the focus away from its misdeeds.
The only hope I had of fighting back was to come forward first and identify myself. I’d give the media just enough personal detail to satisfy their mounting curiosity, with a clear statement that what mattered wasn’t me, but rather the subversion of American democracy. Then I’d vanish just as quickly as I’d appeared. That, at least, was the plan.
Ewen and I decided that he’d write a story about my IC career and Laura suggested filming a video statement to appear alongside it in the
. In it, I’d claim direct and sole responsibility as the source behind the reporting on global mass surveillance. But even though Laura had been filming all week (a lot of that footage would make it into her feature documentary,
), we just didn’t have the time for her to go through everything she’d shot in search of snippets of me speaking coherently and making eye contact. What she proposed, instead, was my first recorded statement, which she started filming right there and then—the one that begins, “Uh, my name is Ed Snowden. I’m, ah, twenty-nine years old.”
once regretted tugging aside the curtain and revealing my identity, I do wish I had done it with better diction and a better plan in mind for what was next. In truth, I had no plan at all. I hadn’t given much thought to answering the question of what to do once the game was over, mainly because a winning conclusion was always so unlikely. All I’d cared about was getting the facts out into the world: I figured that by putting the documents into the public record, I was essentially putting myself at the public’s mercy. No exit strategy could be the only exit strategy, because any next step I might have premeditated taking would have run the risk of undermining the disclosures.
If I’d made preexisting arrangements to fly to a specific country and seek asylum, for example, I would’ve been called a foreign agent of that country. Meanwhile, if I returned to my own country, the best I could hope for was to be arrested upon landing and charged under the Espionage Act. That would’ve entitled me to a show trial deprived of any meaningful defense, a sham in which all discussion of the most important facts would be forbidden.
The major impediment to justice was a major flaw in the law, a purposeful flaw created by the government. Someone in my position would not even be allowed to argue in court that the disclosures I made to journalists were civically beneficial. Even now, years after the fact, I would not be allowed to argue that the reporting based on my disclosures had caused Congress to change certain laws regarding surveillance, or convinced the courts to strike down a certain mass surveillance program as illegal, or influenced the attorney general and the president of the United States to admit that the debate over mass surveillance was a crucial one for the public to have, one that would ultimately strengthen the country. All these claims would be deemed not just irrelevant but inadmissible in the kind of proceedings that I would face were I to head home. The only thing my government would have to prove in court is that I disclosed classified information to journalists, a fact that is not in dispute. This is why anyone who says I have to come back to the States for trial is essentially saying I have to
come back to the States for sentencing, and the sentence would, now as then, surely be a cruel one. The penalty for disclosing top secret documents, whether to foreign spies or domestic journalists, is up to ten years per document.
From the moment that Laura’s video of me was posted on the
website on June 9, I was marked. There was a target on my back. I knew that the institutions I’d shamed would not relent until my head was bagged and my limbs were shackled. And until then—and perhaps even after then—they would harass my loved ones and disparage my character, prying into every aspect of my life and career, seeking information (or opportunities for disinformation) with which to smear me. I was familiar enough with how this process went, both from having read classified examples of it within the IC and from having studied the cases of other whistleblowers and leakers. I knew the stories of heroes like Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo, and more recent opponents of government secrecy like Thomas Tamm, an attorney with the Justice Department’s Office of Intelligence Policy and Review who served as a source for much of the warrantless wiretapping reporting of the mid-2000s. There were also Drake, Binney, Wiebe, and Loomis, the digital-age successors to Perry Fellwock, who back in 1971 had revealed the existence of the then-unacknowledged NSA in the press, which caused the Senate’s Church Committee (the forerunner of today’s Senate Select Committee on Intelligence) to try to ensure that the agency’s brief was limited to the gathering of foreign rather than domestic signals intelligence. And then there was US Army Private Chelsea Manning, who for the crime of exposing America’s war crimes was court-martialed and sentenced to thirty-five years in prison, of which she served seven, her sentence commuted only after an international outcry arose over the treatment she received during solitary confinement.