February 11, 2014The Snowden Files by Luke Harding, review
Edward Snowden might have provoked a necessary debate over privacy, but he has also put lives in danger
February 11, 2014
In the internet age, gin-soaked communists wearing Trinity ties are no longer the types who betray our secrets. Instead, the biggest security breach in history was the handiwork of a 29-year-old computer geek in Hawaii.
Edward Snowden famously made off to Hong Kong last summer with about 1.7 million secret documents stolen from the US National Security Agency (NSA) and 58,000 from its British counterpart, GCHQ. Once this material was in the hands of The Guardian, the newspaper proceeded to expose how both eavesdropping agencies were hoovering up vast quantities of data from across the world, storing countless records of emails, texts and phone calls.
First things first: the debate about the balance between privacy and security was necessary. In that respect, no-one should begrudge The Guardian its scoop. The question is not whether the newspaper was entitled to publish any secrets, but whether it went too far.
Snowden was surely guilty of overreach on a cosmic scale. A man who said his only goal was to expose America’s surveillance of ordinary people stole a vast array of unrelated secrets. In his words, he gathered the “full rosters of anybody working at the NSA”, the identities of “undercover assets around the world” and the “locations of every [US intelligence] station we have”.
If you reveal that kind of information, you don’t safeguard anyone’s privacy: you just get people killed. Snowden now resides in Moscow as an informal prisoner of Russia’s intelligence agency. It takes little imagination to work out whose eyes could now be reading those secrets.
In The Snowden Files, Luke Harding has written the inside story of the whole affair as seen from The Guardian. This fine foreign correspondent, normally a master of understated prose, lapses into the breathless style of an airport blockbuster.
The Guardian does not achieve a mere scoop but a “scoop to end all scoops”; world leaders do not protest, they ignite “international firestorms”; the NSA does not suffer disaster, but a “full-blown public relations calamity”. Heaven knows what a half-blown calamity might be.
Harding’s story crackles with verve, but complexity and nuance are banished. In particular, the real dilemmas of intelligence work are ignored. If GCHQ and the NSA share everything, they risk Snowden-style breaches. If they restore pre-9/11 restrictions, then vital information that might prevent attacks is bottled up. If the agencies store data, they are accused of threatening privacy; if they do not, then the communications of terrorists simply vanish.
Harding considers none of this; only when Snowden flies to Russia does he voice any unease. As someone who was expelled from Moscow in 2011, he is honest enough to raise the catastrophic possibility that the FSB (Russia’s security service) now owns Snowden’s treasure trove.
When it comes to his newspaper’s conduct, Harding concedes nothing. The book says that Alan Rusbridger, The Guardian’s editor, ordered his journalists to narrow their search of the Snowden files to material about the “surveillance state”, adding: “We are not on a general fishing expedition”.
Later, Rusbridger assured a Whitehall official that the “focus wasn’t operations or names, but the boundaries between security and privacy”. So it’s hard to understand why The Guardian chose to reveal that GCHQ monitored foreign delegations at G20 meetings in London and penetrated the computers of South Africa’s foreign ministry.
These were specific intelligence operations. They targeted other governments, not ordinary citizens. They said nothing about the boundaries between security and privacy. They complied with British law, because GCHQ had the necessary authorisation. They were subject to oversight because independent commissioners review all ministerial warrants.
On Rusbridger’s own terms, these stories appeared to lack any justification. It only made sense for The Guardian to run them if the newspaper wanted a debate about which governments GCHQ should target – or about whether Britain should have any intelligence capabilities at all.
If the former, then logically The Guardian should have published a full list of governments monitored by GCHQ and invited all of us to chip in. If you think the question of which foreign ministries we bug and which we don’t should be up for public debate, then why not?
Alternatively, if The Guardian wanted a discussion about whether Britain should withdraw from espionage altogether, then fair enough. But Rusbridger should have said so.
Harding appears not to notice the contradiction between the editor’s definition of his mission and what the newspaper actually published. If there is a case for the defence, his book is silent. In the meantime, it’s hard to avoid concluding that The Guardian succumbed to mission creep.
In his short ebook The Snowden Operation, Edward Lucas argues that the rogue analyst’s own mission might have been even more damaging than we think. This senior journalist at The Economist suggests that Snowden was approached by Russian intelligence in Geneva in 2007, and that everything which has unfolded since is an FSB plot.
Lucas freely admits he has no proof: he is merely putting the circumstantial evidence together. I tend to think that you should only make an explosive claim of this sensitivity if you are prepared to state that it’s true and produce your evidence. Lucas’s work, neither an exposé nor a full-blooded anti-Snowden polemic, adds little to our understanding.
The Snowden affair has produced some good journalism. It has yet to produce a good book.