Book review: The Snowden Files, by Luke Harding

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 May, 2014, 1:55pm
UPDATED : Monday, 05 May, 2014, 7:09pm

The Snowden Files
by Luke Harding
Guardian Faber
3.5 stars

David Runciman

There are two big mysteries at the heart of the Edward Snowden story. First, why did he do it? Second, how did he do it?

Luke Harding's breathless page-turner, which reads more like a spy thriller than a dry political analysis, does its best to answer these questions. Harding gives us Snowden's backstory, which is not as straightforward as it seemed.

What's striking is not so much the range of Snowden's fantasies as the depth of his political commitment. Despite dropping out of college and a failed interlude in the army (he broke both legs in a training accident), Snowden had tech skills that got him good defence jobs, first at the CIA, then at the NSA, and finally at a private firm, Booz Allen Hamilton, which serviced the NSA's computer systems.

While the Democrats were complaining about government overreach during the Bush years, Snowden hoped that regime change in the White House would signal a return to proper oversight. But when President Barack Obama morphed from a critic of the security state in opposition to its number one enabler in government, the whistleblower concluded that any safeguards were gone.

One of the most astonishing revelations in Harding's book is that Snowden had already blotted his copybook at the CIA, where a row with a superior had him marked down as unreliable. But when he transferred to the NSA, no one thought to pass on the personnel file, so they employed him without checking his background.

At Booz, Snowden took vast amounts of data off the NSA computers, using what now appears to have been relatively old-fashioned technology, without anyone detecting what he was up to.

Harding slightly overdoes the plucky journalists versus the overweening state: his is an insider's account that suffers from the vice of all such accounts in bigging up the experience of the people who were actually in the room. You had to be there. What they were doing was extremely important, but some of the excitement of being at the heart of world events reads overegged on the page.

Also, for a writer whose book depends on understanding how tech works, he sometimes seems hazy on the basics.

Still, The Snowden Files is a riveting read and it unravels the mystery better than anything that's been published so far.

Guardian News & Media