The people charged with keeping us safe from terrorists and other enemies complain that they have the nearly impossible task of hunting for a needle in a haystack: a single bad guy in a world with billions of people.
But what if, instead of searching for a single needle, they could just grab the entire haystack?
The haystack in this case is the data created by cell phones, internet searches, and other electronic communications. Not just the communications of the bad guy, but of everybody.
As Barton Gellman shows in his thoughtful and engaging new book Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden and the American Surveillance State, collecting the entire haystack was the goal of U.S. intelligence, a goal that might have been a good military strategy but also threatened American ideals of privacy and the rule of law.
The book is part detective story, part reporter’s handbook on how to cover a dangerous and sensitive topic, and part explainer on government surveillance. The two main characters are the author, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, and Edward Snowden, a former member of the surveillance state who now lives in Russia to avoid U.S. prosecution for revealing highly classified secrets.
Gellman and Snowden have chosen two different ways to live their professional lives, one as a reporter trying to explain the U.S. government’s surveillance programs, and the other as a whistleblower who thinks the system has been abused and could easily be turned against American citizens. Gellman, who I know from many years ago when we both were reporters in Washington, DC, is outgoing and has chased stories around the world, while Snowden spends every waking minute online, mostly alone, and calls himself a “house cat.”
They do share an intensity of purpose, a precision over the details, a belief in the importance of their work, the ability to be a “giant pain in the ass,” and the enduring wrath of members of the intelligence community who think they did far more harm than good by exposing global surveillance programs.
The dramatic part of the narrative is how these two very different men come together as reporter and source, overcome their mutual distrust, and agree to disagree about their respective roles.
Gellman writes early in the book, “The reader is entitled to know up front that I think Snowden did substantially more good than harm, even though I am prepared to accept (as he is not) that his disclosures must have exacted a price in lost intelligence.”
Admiral William McRaven, who lead all U.S. Special Operations forces, is just one of the people quoted in the book who are furious with the whistleblower and the reporter: Snowden “violated the law, so at the end of the day, in divulging that information, you are dealing with a criminal,” McRaven told Gellman in an uncomfortable confrontation. “So where is the integrity in that?”
McRaven, who is almost trembling with rage, tells Gellman: “You as a reporter make the call that it’s more important for the public—and I would contend, more important for the reporter—to get that story out before somebody scoops you. … And you can always make a case in your own mind why the American people need to know something.”
Gellman was not an uncritical conduit for Snowden’s leaks, however, and he agonized over the benefit of every exposure against the damage to U.S. security. Gellman was not always aware of how a given exposure might hurt U.S. intelligence, and that was part of the dilemma, but clearly Snowden’s leaks damaged the government’s surveillance programs.
The reporter printed only a fraction of the information Snowden had, he refused to publish secrets that he believed would hurt ongoing U.S. operations or personnel, and he protected Snowden’s information from curious foreign intelligence services. “Speaking for myself, I am not agnostic about my loyalties,” Gellman tells the government’s senior intelligence lawyer. “I am not—in this context—a global citizen, indifferent to the outcomes of national conflict.”
Gellman was not happy about being put in the role of deciding which disclosures would harm U.S. operations, however, and that is a key point of the book. The surveillance programs that Snowden exposed were not known to the public, or even to most people in government, so there never was any public debate over whether the programs had gone too far.
Even Snowden, who is not a transparency absolutist, admits that the challenge in a democracy is letting everyone know what the government is doing, without the bad guys knowing.
Even though Gellman tried to ask government officials about the impact of releasing Snowden’s information, many of his former sources refused to discuss the details before publication, turning their back on Gellman and labeling him “nasty and suspicious.”
“At heart, national security secrecy presents a conflict of core values: self-government and self-defense,” Gellman concludes. “If we do not know what our government is doing, we cannot hold it accountable. If we do know, our enemies know, too.”
During wartime, the contradiction over secrecy versus openness is sharpened because secrecy is so important to military victory. But, as Gellman explains so well, whether to wage war is one of the most important decisions a democracy needs to make, and that decision must be well informed.
Peter Copeland is a former foreign correspondent and Washington bureau chief. His most recent book is Finding the News: Adventures of a Young Reporter.