Thoughts: The Snowden Files, by Luke Harding

Before you raise your eyebrows, I didn’t think I’d be writing this so soon! The ebook I was reading on my Kindle said I was 59% through, and then I turned the page and it was immediately 100% and I was at the acknowledgements! My Kindle is a few years old by now (and well-used) so maybe it’s just getting a bit elderly? Maybe there’s a weird issue with the ebook? Or maybe some government doesn’t want us to read something??? I have no idea!

Let me be honest, I’m a little wary of the non-fiction books that inspire Sneak films, as a lot of them seem to be hobby projects or a bit mediocrely written (or terribly written) and you know, the world seems pretty terrible right now so I wasn’t really in the mood for depressing non-fiction about how everything we do is pointless and nothing helps.

My goodness, was this a book about how everything is terrible in ways that we didn’t even know it was terrible. But I was totally hooked all the way through!

Cut for length, obviously we are not being spoilered for the largest news and cultural event of 2013.

This book is so compelling. I mean obviously it helps that the events themselves were pretty interesting, but the pacing was great, keeping all the balls in the air and the threads moving, and the cast of politicians and activists and spy chiefs distinct and followable. The writing itself was just good (Harding is a journalist). I kept trying to put it down but it was like a scab I had to pick. I kept going back.

That said, it wasn’t a joyous obsession. I spent most of my time alternating between vaguely sick and furious. I mean. Not really a slight on the book.

Possibly my main issue with the writing is that Harding loves to hunt for meaning everywhere. He gives the etymological background behind NSA codenames, potted histories of the families the Russians name their airports after, and honestly not everything adds to the experience. It’s perfectly good trivia, but a little distracting.

What I found interesting possibly more than anything, and this says a lot about me I know, is that early Snowden (and I could have done without some of the Bildungsroman talk about his Ars Technica posts – we all of us of my age and younger write our own Bildungsromans on internet message boards, forums, Livejournals, comments sections, social media, TikTok…) comes across as a bit of a cock. And not even an interesting cock. A conservative libertarian who comments the welfare state should be abolished but also high unemployment is fine and desired or whatever. The most basic bitch of edgelords.

But within that basic bitchlord heart was this genuinely impressive, admirable moral sense, and the even more impressive resolve to see it through. He can spout all the nonsense he wants in the past, because he did this thing and no one can undo it. Does that not give you hope? I’m not going to lie, it gave me some hope for humanity.

Also I know I’m hopelessly naive, but, how does this keep happening, where being evil/malicious is really obviously going to make everything worse, but the people in power are evil and malicious anyway and then surprise, everything gets worse for them? We keep seeing this over and over again, where people in power refuse to admit to wrongdoing and change, and everything goes to hell for them and everyone else.

And the US is the worst* for it because it’s such a big country, and it is incapable of getting and keeping its shit together on a monumental scale. We saw it with Snowden (better literally break the entire internet for the world so we can spy on people for absolutely no reason!), we’re seeing it with the environment (better just… actively ruin the environment for no reason???) and we’re seeing it with Covid-19 (better make sure this deadly pandemic goes on for longer and kills more people by actively hindering the global effort to control it for absolutely no reason!). The Snowden Files is a contained look at an example of this depressing and baffling behaviour.

Had you forgotten about Snowden and the NSA revelations? I sort of had let them drift to the back of my mind, as the media coverage of it faded away and other things happened. I assumed it had fizzled out and nothing at all had changed, nor would it now. I’ve changed my online behaviour in reaction to it – I cover laptop cameras and I no longer post personal things to Facebook (only these reviews), and for a long time I shied away from being open on Twitter. Bearing in mind I’ve moved away from my home country, I’ve shut off a pretty big part of myself that only Covid-19 and the resultant boom in online communication is starting to open up again, and that cautiously.

If you’d forgotten, or lost interest, or don’t remember how this whole thing went (at least for the first year), I’d recommend this book to you. We shouldn’t forget this. It’s not over. These are rights and freedoms we’re going to have to fight for again and again.

*Yes, I am from the UK! And honestly the only thing keeping you all safe from us right now is that our incompetence outweighs our resources and our global influence is dwindling impressively! You’re welcome!

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