I must begin with a confession of incompetence: much of this book is beyond me. When Barton Gellman recounted the methods by which Edward Snowden extracted some 50,000 documents from the deep store of information garnered by the USA’s National Security Agency (NSA), and devised means to protect the fruits of his theft, I understood next to nothing.

Saturday, 30th May 2020, 6:34 pm

Updated Saturday, 30th May 2020, 8:20 pm
Barton Gellman PIC: Robin Davis Miller Copyright: Freelance

Fortunately this mattered less than I feared it would, even though “Heartbeat,” the second section of the book, might be sub-titled “What Snowden did,” and, in passing, one should observe that Gellman believes that he “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.”

Gellman, a winner of three Pulitzer Prizes for investigative journalism, persuaded the Washington Post (where he had been a staff reporter) to take the risk of publishing some of what Snowden had given him. It should be said that, throughout the book, Gellman shows himself to have been less interested in the content of the documents than in the implications of their existence.

“At its core,” he writes, “this is a book about power. Information is the oxygen of control. Secrecy and surveillance, intertwined, define its flows. ‘Who knows what?’ is a pretty good proxy for ‘’Who governs whom?’ Are citizens equipped to hold their government accountable. Are they free to shield themselves from an unwanted gaze? Can anyone, today, draw a line and say ‘None of your business’ and make it stick?”

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This is the question at the heart of the book. The government, in the form of the NSA, has acquired an unprecedented degree of knowledge about its citizens and their communications thanks to the work of the great tech companies. They acquire and store knowledge and this is at the disposal of the agencies of the state which are charged with surveillance. Their ability to track the words and activities of ordinary people is without a parallel in history. The NSAs’ ability to spy on American citizens makes the KGB, the East German Stasi and Hitler’s Gestapo look like clumsy novices. And of course the technology continues to advance. An executive of one at the tech giants asked Gellman if he would like to have a phone which could tell him where his mislaid car keys were.The suggestion horrified him.

Much of the book consists of conversations Gellman had with high-ups in the NSA, the FBI and the CIA. They were mostly indignant, naturally enough. They were engaged in protecting the security of the United States and the American people. There were regulations by which they had to abide, even, they usually claimed, when dealing with the bad guys. Yes, some admitted, occasionally the regulations might be bent, but this was done only in the public interest. Investigative journalists like Gellman were irresponsible, seeking out information which it was in the public interest to keep secret. Moreover, such publicity endangered operatives. One sees their point. Gellman sees their point, certainly better than they see his.

The modern state has unprecedented knowledge of its citizens. We have come to live in a world which is abolishing privacy. The CIAs’ chief technical officer once said “it is nearly within our grasp to compute on all human generated information.” That was eight years ago. Perhaps the word “nearly “ is now out of date.

Further back, in 1975, an American senator, Frank Church, was already worried. “If this country ever became a tyranny, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back.” It would be what Edward Snowden called “turnkey tyranny.”

Gellman’s book is very meaty, requires digestion. It is like so many big books today, especially American ones, too long and too repetitive. I would guess than many readers will find themselves skipping passages. Nevertheless, the subject is so important that it is a book which ought to be read by anyone concerned with the way the world is going.

Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden and the Surveillance State, by Barton Gellman, Bodley Head, 412pp, £20

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