Authors: Edward Snowden
These trappings of what would be called the War on Terror weren’t the only reason I gave up on Mae after 9/11, but they certainly played a part. The events of that day had left her shaken. In time, we stopped working together and grew distant. I’d chat her up occasionally, only to find that my feelings had changed and I’d changed, too. By the time Mae left Norm and moved to California, she felt like a stranger to me. She was too opposed to the war.
Try to remember the biggest family event you’ve ever been to—maybe a family reunion. How many people were there? Maybe 30, 50? Though all of them together comprise your family, you might not really have gotten the chance to know each and every individual member. Dunbar’s number, the famous estimate of how many relationships you can meaningfully maintain in life, is just 150. Now think back to school. How many people were in your class in grade school, and in high school? How many of them were friends, and how many others did you just know as acquaintances, and how many still others did you simply recognize? If you went to school in the United States, let’s say it’s a thousand. It certainly stretches the boundaries of what you could say are all “your people,” but you may still have felt a bond with them.
Nearly three thousand people died on 9/11. Imagine everyone you love, everyone you know, even everyone with a familiar name or just a familiar face—and imagine they’re gone. Imagine the empty houses. Imagine the empty school, the empty classrooms. All those people you lived among, and who together formed the fabric of your days, just not there anymore. The events of 9/11
left holes. Holes in families, holes in communities. Holes in the ground.
Now, consider this: over one million people have been killed in the course of America’s response.
The two decades since 9/11 have been a litany of American destruction by way of American self-destruction, with the promulgation of secret policies, secret laws, secret courts, and secret wars, whose traumatizing impact—whose very existence—the US government has repeatedly classified, denied, disclaimed, and distorted. After having spent roughly half that period as an employee of the American Intelligence Community and roughly the other half in exile, I know better than most how often the agencies get things wrong. I know, too, how the collection and analysis of intelligence can inform the production of disinformation and propaganda, for use as frequently against America’s allies as its enemies—and sometimes against its own citizens. Yet even given that knowledge, I still struggle to accept the sheer magnitude and speed of the change, from an America that sought to define itself by a calculated and performative respect for dissent to a security state whose militarized police demand obedience, drawing their guns and issuing the order for total submission now heard in every city: “Stop resisting.”
This is why whenever I try to understand how the last two decades happened, I return to that September—to that ground-zero day and its immediate aftermath. To return to that fall means coming up against a truth darker than the lies that tied the Taliban to al-Qaeda and conjured up Saddam Hussein’s illusory stockpile of WMDs. It means, ultimately, confronting the fact that the carnage and abuses that marked my young adulthood were born not only in the executive branch and the intelligence agencies, but also in the hearts and minds of all Americans, myself included.
I remember escaping the panicked crush of the spies fleeing Fort Meade just as the North Tower came down. Once on the highway, I tried to steer with one hand while pressing buttons
with the other, calling family indiscriminately and never getting through. Finally I managed to get in touch with my mother, who at this point in her career had left the NSA and was working as a clerk for the federal courts in Baltimore. They, at least, weren’t evacuating.
Her voice scared me, and suddenly the only thing in the world that mattered to me was reassuring her.
“It’s okay. I’m headed off base,” I said. “Nobody’s in New York, right?”
“I don’t—I don’t know. I can’t get in touch with Gran.”
“Is Pop in Washington?”
“He could be in the Pentagon for all I know.”
The breath went out of me. By 2001, Pop had retired from the Coast Guard and was now a senior official in the FBI, serving as one of the heads of its aviation section. This meant that he spent plenty of time in plenty of federal buildings throughout DC and its environs.
Before I could summon any words of comfort, my mother spoke again. “There’s someone on the other line. It might be Gran. I’ve got to go.”
When she didn’t call me back, I tried her number endlessly but couldn’t get through, so I went home to wait, sitting in front of the blaring TV while I kept reloading news sites. The new cable modem we had was quickly proving more resilient than all of the telecom satellites and cell towers, which were failing across the country.
My mother’s drive back from Baltimore was a slog through crisis traffic. She arrived in tears, but we were among the lucky ones. Pop was safe.
The next time we saw Gran and Pop, there was a lot of talk—about Christmas plans, about New Year’s plans—but the Pentagon and the towers were never mentioned.
My father, by contrast, vividly recounted his 9/11 to me. He was at Coast Guard Headquarters when the towers were hit, and
he and three of his fellow officers left their offices in the Operations Directorate to find a conference room with a screen so they could watch the news coverage. A young officer rushed past them down the hall and said, “They just bombed the Pentagon.” Met with expressions of disbelief, the young officer repeated, “I’m serious—they just bombed the Pentagon.” My father hustled over to a wall-length window that gave him a view across the Potomac of about two-fifths of the Pentagon and swirling clouds of thick black smoke.
The more that my father related this memory, the more intrigued I became by the line: “They just bombed the Pentagon.” Every time he said it, I recall thinking, “They”? Who were “They”?
America immediately divided the world into “Us” and “Them,” and everyone was either with “Us” or against “Us,” as President Bush so memorably remarked even while the rubble was still smoldering. People in my neighborhood put up new American flags, as if to show which side they’d chosen. People hoarded red, white, and blue Dixie cups and stuffed them through every chain-link fence on every overpass of every highway between my mother’s home and my father’s, to spell out phrases like
UNITED WE STAND
STAND TOGETHER NEVER FORGET
I sometimes used to go to a shooting range and now alongside the old targets, the bull’s-eyes and flat silhouettes, were effigies of men in Arab headdress. Guns that had languished for years behind the dusty glass of the display cases were now marked
. Americans also lined up to buy cell phones, hoping for advance warning of the next attack, or at least the ability to say good-bye from a hijacked flight.
Nearly a hundred thousand spies returned to work at the agencies with the knowledge that they’d failed at their primary job, which was protecting America. Think of the guilt they were feeling. They had the same anger as everybody else, but they also felt the guilt. An assessment of their mistakes could wait. What mattered most at that moment was that they redeem themselves. Meanwhile, their bosses got busy campaigning for extraordinary
budgets and extraordinary powers, leveraging the threat of terror to expand their capabilities and mandates beyond the imagination not just of the public but even of those who stamped the approvals.
September 12 was the first day of a new era, which America faced with a unified resolve, strengthened by a revived sense of patriotism and the goodwill and sympathy of the world. In retrospect, my country could have done so much with this opportunity. It could have treated terror not as the theological phenomenon it purported to be, but as the crime it was. It could have used this rare moment of solidarity to reinforce democratic values and cultivate resilience in the now-connected global public.
Instead, it went to war.
The greatest regret of my life is my reflexive, unquestioning support for that decision. I was outraged, yes, but that was only the beginning of a process in which my heart completely defeated my rational judgment. I accepted all the claims retailed by the media as facts, and I repeated them as if I were being paid for it. I wanted to be a liberator. I wanted to free the oppressed. I embraced the truth constructed for the good of the state, which in my passion I confused with the good of the country. It was as if whatever individual politics I’d developed had crashed—the anti-institutional hacker ethos instilled in me online, and the apolitical patriotism I’d inherited from my parents, both wiped from my system—and I’d been rebooted as a willing vehicle of vengeance. The sharpest part of the humiliation comes from acknowledging how easy this transformation was, and how readily I welcomed it.
I wanted, I think, to be part of something. Prior to 9/11, I’d been ambivalent about serving because it had seemed pointless, or just boring. Everyone I knew who’d served had done so in the post–Cold War world order, between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the attacks of 2001. In that span, which coincided with my youth, America lacked for enemies. The country I grew up in was the sole global superpower, and everything seemed—at least to me, or to people like me—prosperous and settled. There were no new frontiers to conquer or great civic problems to solve, except
online. The attacks of 9/11 changed all that. Now, finally, there was a fight.
My options dismayed me, however. I thought I could best serve my country behind a terminal, but a normal IT job seemed too comfortable and safe for this new world of asymmetrical conflict. I hoped I could do something like in the movies or on TV—those hacker-versus-hacker scenes with walls of virus-warning blinkenlights, tracking enemies and thwarting their schemes. Unfortunately for me, the primary agencies that did that—the NSA, the CIA—had their hiring requirements written a half century ago and often rigidly required a traditional college degree, meaning that though the tech industry considered my AACC credits and MCSE certification acceptable, the government wouldn’t. The more I read around online, however, the more I realized that the post-9/11 world was a world of exceptions. The agencies were growing so much and so quickly, especially on the technical side, that they’d sometimes waive the degree requirement for military veterans. It’s then that I decided to join up.
You might be thinking that my decision made sense, or was inevitable, given my family’s record of service. But it didn’t and it wasn’t. By enlisting, I was as much rebelling against that well-established legacy as I was conforming to it—because after talking to recruiters from every branch, I decided to join the army, whose leadership some in my Coast Guard family had always considered the crazy uncles of the US military.
When I told my mother, she cried for days. I knew better than to tell my father, who’d already made it very clear during hypothetical discussions that I’d be wasting my technical talents there. I was twenty years old; I knew what I was doing.
The day I left, I wrote my father a letter—handwritten, not typed—that explained my decision, and slipped it under the front door of his apartment. It closed with a statement that still makes me wince. “I’m sorry, Dad,” I wrote, “but this is vital for my personal growth.”
I joined the army, as its slogan went, to be all I could be, and also because it wasn’t the Coast Guard. It didn’t hurt that I’d scored high enough on its entrance exams to qualify for a chance to come out of training as a Special Forces sergeant, on a track the recruiters called 18 X-Ray, which was designed to augment the ranks of the small flexible units that were doing the hardest fighting in America’s increasingly shadowy and disparate wars. The 18 X-Ray program was a considerable incentive, because traditionally, before 9/11, I would’ve had to already be in the army before being given a shot at attending the Special Forces’ exceedingly demanding qualification courses. The new system worked by screening prospective soldiers up front, identifying those with the highest levels of fitness, intelligence, and language-learning ability—the ones who might make the cut—and using the inducements of special training and a rapid advance in rank to enlist promising candidates who might otherwise go elsewhere. I’d put in a couple of months of grueling runs to prepare—I was in great shape, but I always hated running—before my recruiter called to say that my paperwork was approved: I was in, I’d made it. I was
the first candidate he’d ever signed up for the program, and I could hear the pride and cheer in his voice when he told me that after training, I’d probably be made a Special Forces Communications, Engineering, or Intelligence sergeant.
But first, I had to get through basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia.
I sat next to the same guy the whole way down there, from bus to plane to bus, Maryland to Georgia. He was enormous, a puffy bodybuilder somewhere between two and three hundred pounds. He talked nonstop, his conversation alternating between describing how he’d slap the drill sergeant in the face if he gave him any lip and recommending the steroid cycles I should take to most effectively bulk up. I don’t think he took a breath until we arrived at Fort Benning’s Sand Hill training area—which in hindsight, I have to say, didn’t actually seem to have that much sand.
The drill sergeants greeted us with withering fury and gave us nicknames based on our initial infractions and grave mistakes, like getting off the bus wearing a brightly colored floral-patterned shirt, or having a name that could be modified slightly into something funnier. Soon I was Snowflake and my seatmate was Daisy and all he could do was clench his jaw—nobody dared to clench a fist—and fume.
Once the drill sergeants noticed that Daisy and I were already acquainted, and that I was the lightest in the platoon, at five foot nine and 124 pounds, and he the heaviest, they decided to entertain themselves by pairing us together as often as possible. I still remember the buddy carry, an exercise where you had to carry your supposedly wounded partner the length of a football field using a number of different methods like the “neck drag,” the “fireman,” and the especially comedic “bridal carry.” When I had to carry Daisy, you couldn’t see me beneath his bulk. It would look like Daisy was floating, though I’d be under him sweating and cursing, straining to get his gigantic ass to the other side of the goal line before collapsing myself. Daisy would then get up with a
laugh, drape me around his neck like a damp towel, and go skipping along like a child in the woods.
We were always dirty and always hurting, but within weeks I was in the best shape of my life. My slight build, which had seemed like a curse, soon became an advantage, because so much of what we did were body-weight exercises. Daisy couldn’t climb a rope, which I scampered up like a chipmunk. He struggled to lift his incredible bulk above the bar for the bare minimum of pull-ups, while I could do twice the number with one arm. He could barely manage a handful of push-ups before breaking a sweat, whereas I could do them with claps, or with just a single thumb. When we did the two-minute push-up tests, they stopped me early for maxing the score.
Everywhere we went, we marched—or ran. We ran constantly. Miles before mess, miles after mess, down roads and fields and around the track, while the drill sergeant called cadence:
I went to the desert
where the terrorists run
pulled out my machete
pulled out my gun.
Left, right, left, right—kill kill kill!
Mess with us and you know we will!
I went to the caves
where the terrorists hide
pulled out a grenade
and threw it inside.
Left, right, left, right—kill kill kill!
Mess with us and you know we will!
UNNING IN UNIT
formation, calling cadence—it lulls you, it puts you outside yourself, filling your ears with the din of dozens of men echoing your own shouting voice and forcing your eyes to fix on the footfalls of the runner in front of you. After a while you don’t think anymore, you merely count, and your mind dissolves into the rank and file as you pace out mile after mile. I would say it was serene if it wasn’t so deadening. I would say I was at peace if I weren’t so tired. This was precisely as the army intended. The drill sergeant goes unslapped not so much because of fear but because of exhaustion: he’s never worth the effort. The army makes its fighters by first training the fight out of them until they’re too weak to care, or to do anything besides obey.
It was only at night in the barracks that we could get some respite, which we had to earn by toeing the line in front of our bunks, reciting the Soldier’s Creed, and then singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Daisy would always forget the words. Also, he was tone-deaf.
Some guys would stay up late talking about what they were going to do to bin Laden once they found him, and they were all sure they were going to find him. Most of their fantasies had to do with decapitation, castration, or horny camels
Meanwhile, I’d have dreams about running, not through the lush and loamy Georgia landscape but through the desert.
Sometime during the third or fourth week we were out on a land navigation movement, which is when your platoon goes into the woods and treks over variegated terrain to predetermined coordinates, clambering over boulders and wading across streams, with just a map and a compass—no GPS, no digital technology. We’d done versions of this movement before, but never in full kit, with each of us lugging a rucksack stuffed with around fifty pounds of gear. Worse still, the raw boots the army had issued me were so wide that I floated in them. I felt my toes blister even as I set out, loping across the range.
Toward the middle of the movement, I was on point and scrambled atop a storm-felled tree that arched over the path at
about chest height so that I could shoot an azimuth to check our bearings. After confirming that we were on track, I went to hop down, but with one foot extended I noticed the coil of a snake directly below me. I’m not exactly a naturalist, so I don’t know what species of snake it was, but then again, I didn’t really care. Kids in North Carolina grow up being told that all snakes are deadly and I wasn’t about to start doubting it now.
Instead, I started trying to walk on air. I widened the stride of my outstretched foot, once, twice, twisting for the extra distance, when suddenly I realized I was falling. When my feet hit the ground, some distance beyond the snake, a fire shot up my legs that was more painful than any viper bite I could imagine. A few stumbling steps, which I had to take in order to regain my balance, told me that something was wrong. Grievously wrong. I was in excruciating pain, but I couldn’t stop, because I was in the army and the army was in the middle of the woods. I gathered my resolve, pushed the pain away, and just focused on maintaining a steady pace—left, right, left, right—relying on the rhythm to distract me.
It got harder to walk as I went on, and although I managed to tough it out and finish, the only reason was that I didn’t have a choice. By the time I got back to the barracks, my legs were numb. My rack, or bunk, was up top, and I could barely get myself into it. I had to grab its post, hoist up my torso like I was getting out of a pool, and drag my lower half in after.
The next morning I was torn from a fitful sleep by the clanking of a metal trash can being thrown down the squad bay, a wake-up call that meant someone hadn’t done their job to the drill sergeant’s satisfaction. I shot up automatically, swinging myself over the edge and springing to the floor. When I landed, my legs gave way. They crumpled and I fell. It was like I had no legs at all.
I tried to get up, grabbing for the lower bunk to try my hoist-by-the-arms maneuver again, but as soon as I moved my legs every muscle in my body seized and I sank down immediately.
Meanwhile a crowd had gathered around me, with laughter that turned to concern and then to silence as the drill sergeant
approached. “What’s the matter with you, broke-dick?” he said. “Get up off my floor before I make you a part of it, permanently.” When he saw the agony flash across my face as I immediately and unwisely struggled to respond to his commands, he put his hand to my chest to stop me. “Daisy! Get Snowflake here down to the bench.” Then he crouched down over me, as if he didn’t want the others to hear him being gentle, and said in a quiet rasp, “As soon as it opens, Private, you’re going to crutch your broken ass to Sick Call,” which is where the army sends its injured to be abused by professionals.
There’s a major stigma about getting injured in the army, mostly because the army is dedicated to making its soldiers feel invincible but also because it likes to protect itself from accusations of mis-training. This is why almost all training-injury victims are treated like whiners or, worse, malingerers.
After he carried me down to the bench, Daisy had to go. He wasn’t hurt, and those of us who were had to be kept separated. We were the untouchables, the lepers, the soldiers who couldn’t train because of anything from sprains, lacerations, and burns to broken ankles and deep necrotized spider bites. My new battle buddies would now come from this bench of shame. A battle buddy is the person who, by policy, goes everywhere you go, just as you go everywhere they go, if there’s even the remotest chance that either of you might be alone. Being alone might lead to thinking, and thinking can cause the army problems.
The battle buddy assigned to me was a smart, handsome, former catalog model Captain America type who’d injured his hip about a week earlier but hadn’t attended to it until the pain had become unbearable and left him just as gimpy as me. Neither of us felt up to talking, so we crutched along in grim silence—left, right, left, right, but slowly. At the hospital I was X-rayed and told that I had bilateral tibial fractures. These are stress fractures, fissures on the surface of the bones that can deepen with time and pressure until they crack the bones down to the marrow. The only thing I could do to help my legs heal was to get off my feet and stay off
them. It was with those orders that I was dismissed from the examination room to get a ride back to the battalion.
Except I couldn’t go yet, because I couldn’t leave without my battle buddy. He’d gone in to be X-rayed after me and hadn’t returned. I assumed he was still being examined, so I waited. And waited. Hours passed. I spent the time reading newspapers and magazines, an unthinkable luxury for someone in basic training.
A nurse came over and said my drill sergeant was on the phone at the desk. By the time I hobbled over to take the call, he was livid. “Snowflake, you enjoying your reading? Maybe you could get some pudding while you’re at it, and some copies of
for the girls? Why in the hell haven’t you two dirtbags left yet?”
“Drill Sarn”—that’s how everybody said it in Georgia, where my Southern accent had resurfaced for the moment—“I’m still waiting on my battle buddy, Drill Sarn.”
“And where the fuck is he, Snowflake?”
“Drill Sarn, I don’t know. He went into the examination room and hasn’t come out, Drill Sarn.”
He wasn’t happy with the answer, and barked even louder. “Get off your crippled ass and go fucking find him, goddamnit.”
I got up and crutched over to the intake counter to make inquiries. My battle buddy, they told me, was in surgery.
It was only toward evening, after a barrage of calls from the drill sergeant, that I found out what had happened. My battle buddy had been walking around on a broken hip for the past week, apparently, and if he hadn’t been taken into surgery immediately and had it screwed back together, he might have been incapacitated for life. Major nerves could have been severed, because the break was as sharp as a knife.
I was sent back to Fort Benning alone, back to the bench. Anybody on the bench for more than three or four days was at serious risk of being “recycled”—forced to start basic training over from scratch—or, worse, of being transferred to the Medical Unit and sent home. These were guys who’d dreamed of being in the army their entire lives, guys for whom the army had been their only
way out of cruel families and dead-end careers, who now had to face the prospect of failure and a return to civilian life irreparably damaged.
We were the cast-offs, the walking wounded hellguard who had no other duty than to sit on a bench in front of a brick wall twelve hours a day. We had been judged by our injuries as unfit for the army and now had to pay for this fact by being separated and shunned, as if the drill sergeants feared we’d contaminate others with our weakness or with the ideas that had occurred to us while benched. We were punished beyond the pain of our injuries themselves, excluded from petty joys like watching the fireworks on the Fourth of July. Instead, we pulled “fire guard” that night for the empty barracks, a task that involved watching to make sure that the empty building didn’t burn down.
We pulled fire guard two to a shift, and I stood in the dark on my crutches, pretending to be useful, alongside my partner. He was a sweet, simple, beefy eighteen-year-old with a dubious, perhaps self-inflicted injury. By his own account, he should never have enlisted to begin with. The fireworks were bursting in the distance while he told me how much of a mistake he’d made, and how agonizingly lonely he was—how much he missed his parents and his home, their family farm somewhere way out in Appalachia.