Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden and the American Surveillance State – Barton Gellman

About the Book

Edward Snowden chose three journalists to tell the stories in his Top Secret trove of NSA documents: Barton Gellman of The Washington Post, Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian and filmmaker Laura Poitras, all of whom would share the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Poitras went on to direct the Oscar-winning Citizenfour. Greenwald wrote an instant memoir and cast himself as a pugilist on Snowden’s behalf.

Gellman took his own path. Snowden and his documents were the beginning, not the end, of a story he had prepared his whole life to tell. More than 20 years as a top investigative journalist armed him with deep sources in national security and high technology. New sources reached out from government and industry, making contact on the same kinds of secret, anonymous channels that Snowden had used. Gellman’s reporting unlocked new puzzles in the NSA archive. And as Snowden’s revelations faded somewhat from the public consciousness, the machinations he exposed continue still, with many policies unaltered despite societal outrage.

Dark Mirror is a true-life spy tale that touches us all, told with authority and an inside view of extraordinary events. Within it is a chilling personal account of the obstacles facing the author, beginning with Gellman’s discovery of his own name in Snowden’s NSA document trove. Google notifies him that a foreign government is trying to compromise his account. A trusted technical adviser finds anomalies on his laptop. Sophisticated impostors approach Gellman with counterfeit documents, attempting to divert or discredit his work. Throughout Dark Mirror, the author wages an escalating battle against unknown digital adversaries who force him to mimic their tradecraft in self-defense.

With the vivid and insightful style that marked Gellman’s bestselling AnglerDark Mirror is an inside account of the surveillance-industrial revolution and its discontents, fighting back against state and corporate intrusions into our most private spheres. Along the way, and with the benefit of hindsight, it tells the full story of a government leak unrivaled in drama since All the President’s Men. 

448 pages (hardcover) 
Published on May 19, 2020
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This book was a library loan.

I honestly haven’t read much about Edward Snowden. I’ve avoided doing so, largely because there’s just so much about him and it all seems to be so polarized. Also, I’m not a computer whiz, so I was afraid that most of the stuff I’d read would go right over my head. However, this book was on my library’s list of books that were coming soon and I decided to put it on hold because… why not. 

One reason why I don’t often read books about people who are polarizing like this, is because it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t have an agenda to either love them or hate them from the outset. What I pleasantly found here, was that Gellman was pretty middle-of-the-road regarding Snowden. He’s not afraid to be critical and show the flaws in Snowden’s plans and actions, but on the other side, he’s also liberal enough with his praise. Perhaps Gellman was a bit too lukewarm regarding Snowden at times, but largely, if you’re looking for an evenhanded approach to Snowden and his actions, this might be the book you’ll want to read. 

There’s a lot in Dark Mirror, which makes this book nearly impossible to put down. It covers so much territory, from a sort of “highlights reel” of Edward Snowden’s life, to his time working for the NSA, to how he got the documents he got, and what he planned to do with them, which then dovetails into current ethical issues and the like. Gellman does a great job at taking complex topics and boiling them down to a level that someone with little computer knowledge (like me) can understand, and putting all of this in context of what Snowden hoped to achieve, and the problems he saw at the time, which drove his actions, was hugely helpful. 

I will say that part of this book will likely be hit or miss with readers. Gellman’s long and evolved chapters about how he got involved in all of this and the battles he faced to get these stories published have me a bit mixed. On the one hand, it was very interesting to see just how hard he had to fight, and all the things set against him to get any of this published anywhere. On the other hand, there were times when I felt he went on a bit too much, and while his personal journalistic adventure was interesting, I think sometimes it detracted from the meat and potatoes of the story, which is Snowden’s data and its importance.

Gellman, however, has a sort of respectful but fraught relationship with Snowden. They butted heads a lot, and I believe out of the three journalists selected for his information, Gellman was likely the most skeptical, and the one who demanded the most proof. He also really attempted just about everything to keep all of his information and computers secure, and going into all his personal security measures when he was talking to Snowden, all his attempts to keep prying eyes away from what he was working on, was pretty fascinating. That being said, while I do think he was a little lukewarm at times when he shouldn’t have been, Gellman’s middle-of-the-road, balanced approach to all of this was welcome. He wasn’t afraid to criticize, but he also wasn’t afraid to praise, and he had a levelheaded outlook to the impacts and importance of all of this, which is something you just don’t find much when talking about hot button topics such as this. 

He does go into how all of this NSA stuff worked, and it is… horrifying. The scope of these datamining programs, the number of companies involved, the fact that it’s all stored… somewhere, and is only getting larger. How it’s hidden, why no one knew about it. The fact that there was basically no oversight involved in any of this, and how these programs have evolved today, during the current President who, shall we say, has a dubious relationship with all things legal, is enough to make your blood run cold. In the end, I was left with shock more at how easy it was for these spy programs to start, and how easy it has been for them to expand and function at all, than anything else. It was amazing to me that something this extensive was able to exist in the first place, and that it took so much effort to expose it to the world. 

When I closed the book, I was kind of amazed that more people aren’t talking about this. Sure, everyone knows Edward Snowden is living in another country because he stole some NSA secrets. I doubt the bulk of the American populous knows exactly the nuts and bolts of what he stole, and that, in my opinion, is the real tragedy. There is a lot here that made me extremely uncomfortable with gestures wildly at the entire internet, and I think the discussion needs to change from “is Edward Snowden a good/bad guy” to “let’s seriously talk about the NSA and our personal rights regarding our own information.”

Ultimately, Gellman believes that Snowden did more good than harm, but he’s not averse from saying that he did some harm, despite all of his good intentions. He’s a bit critical of Snowden at times. His frustration with Snowden’s inability to discuss himself without saying, “well, hypothetically…” before nearly every personal statement is palpable, or being a bit critical of his libertarian streak, and Snowden’s overly-zealous nature at times. That, however, ended up being what I enjoyed about this book the most. It’s critical. It’s unafraid to probe into persons and programs alike, and in so doing, I felt like I was reading a very nuanced, interesting, and even-handed overview of a topic that everyone seems to have an opinion about. 

In the end, this made me want to know a lot more about issues of security, and privacy. Dark Mirror is a well written account of Edward Snowden’s saga, from a journalist who was there from the beginning. It will make you uncomfortable, but more important, I hope this book starts a conversation. 

4/5 stars


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