Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Barton Gellman's "Dark Mirror"

Barton Gellman, a critically honored author and journalist, is a staff writer at The Atlantic and senior fellow at the Century Foundation in New York. He is the author, most recently, of Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden and the American Surveillance State and Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency. His awards include the Pulitzer Prize, an Emmy for documentary filmmaking, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

Gellman applied the “Page 99 Test” to Dark Mirror and reported the following:
Page 99 of Dark Mirror begins at a crucial moment in the narrative. I have been communicating privately for weeks with Edward Snowden, but this is the first time he sends me a classified document— at first a single file, describing an NSA program code-named PRISM, and then an archive, which he calls Pandora, that contains tens of thousands. Now I begin to ask myself what to do with it.
The PRISM slides arrived the next day, Pandora the day after that. I quickly became uneasy about losing them. Spinning magnetic platters in a cheap plastic case were no vessel for irreplaceable data. I pictured the drive shattered on the floor or fumble-fingered into the coffeepot. I imagined a subway snatch-and-grab, a black bag search of my home or office, a predawn visit from men and women with badges.

Was it a crime to make backup copies? Maybe so, by a black-and-white reading of the Espionage Act of 1917. The statute was notoriously broad…. Receiving, possessing, or communicating what I had learned, none of which was optional in my line of work, could theoretically lead to felony charges. If I took the statute literally, there was no lawful course for me at all: I could not keep the NSA documents, give them to someone else, or destroy them. Making copies might add another few counts to the list.

To hell with that. There was evidence here of domestic espionage that the government had dissembled and sometimes flat-out lied about. Game-changing rules had been written in secret, concealed from the public and even from judges with active cases before them. I took for granted that secrecy was inherent in spycraft. Intelligence operations could not be run by plebiscite. But powers so enormous called for free debate at least about their limits and principles. No one in a democracy got to assume new authority and hide it, least of all when it came to surveillance of the sovereign public….

My decision was visceral, but I knew what it meant. I would not willingly comply with an order to hand over these documents….
Much to my surprise, the Page 99 test provides a vivid and representative impression of what I tried to do with this book. Dark Mirror is above all a narrative, and one of its recurring story lines is about the risks and dilemmas of national security journalism itself. This passage offers a glimpse of my anxiety at the moment of my first encounter with the Snowden documents.

There are three intertwining story lines in Dark Mirror. One is about Ed Snowden himself, with a great deal of new information about who he is, what drove him to rebel against the NSA, and how exactly he made off with the patrimony of a global surveillance giant. The second is about the secrets he revealed, a kind of insider’s tour of the surveillance Leviathan and the people who run it, featuring interviews with leading players like James Clapper, Jim Comey, and some powerful people whose names you haven’t heard. The third and last story line is my own, an honest and sometimes embarrassing account of doing journalism while under attack from hackers, foreign intelligence services and elements of my own government.
Visit Barton Gellman's website.

--Marshal Zeringue