November 11, 2019

Review of Snowden's book Permanent Record - Part I: At the CIA

(Updated: December 27, 2019)

More than 6 years after the first disclosure of Top Secret documents from the NSA, after numerous video appearances and more than 4000 tweets, Edward Snowden has now written an autobiography. It's titled Permanent Record and was published simultaneously in over 20 countries on September 17.

Here I will provide an extensive discussion of this book, in which I will focus on what Snowden shares about his experiences with Signals Intelligence and Communications Security. I will also fill in some gaps by adding details from other sources like the official report by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) from 2016.


The book in general

Permanent record isn't a very coherent book as it combines Snowden's coming-of-age story with a civil liberties and anti-surveillance manifesto. Only in between we learn something about the NSA's interception capabilities, but without any new revelations like those from the years after June 2013.


It seems that for Edward Snowden the manifesto was the most important part of his book. Already shortly after he had arrived in Hong Kong, Snowden asked Micah Lee from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) to help build a website to publish an anti-surveillance manifesto along with a petition that people could sign. Snowden also choose the domain name but eventually the site wasn't launched.

Micah Lee's design for the petition website, with the US Declaration
of Independence as a placeholder for Snowden's manifesto
(source - click to enlarge)

Among the first NSA documents that Snowden had sent to Glenn Greenwald was also a copy of his manifesto. In his book No Place to Hide Greenwald considered it "dramatic and severe" and he feared the editors of The Guardian would think it came from someone unstable, but they said: "ultimately, the documents are what matters, not him or his motives for giving them to us".

The problem, however, is that Snowden continued to speak out, so his motive, his fear for unrestricted global mass surveillance, shaped the public narrative even when his claims were not or just partly supported by what's in the original documents.

Ultimately, Snowden's manifesto was never published, but large parts of it may have found their way into his book. What signals this is the date of its release: September 17, which is Constitution Day in the United States. But according to his American lawyer Ben Wizner, Snowden was eventually "persuaded that people would be much more interested in his story than in his manifesto" and so he got the help of novelist Joshua Cohen.


Over the course of eight months, Cohen traveled to Russia to shape the book into a Bildungsroman, a literary genre that focuses on the psychological and moral growth from youth to adulthood. A review for The New Republic says: "Both Cohen’s and Snowden’s gregariousness can shade into garrulousness; their writing and speech teem with grandiosity and introspection."

They also seem to have in common that they confuse fact and fiction, especially when it's about mass surveillance: it's often not clear whether something is an existing situation, or whether it's something that might happen in the future. This already starts on page one, when Snowden says: "I helped make it technologically feasible for a single government to collect all the world's digital communications, store them for ages, and search through them at will."


Another deficiency of Permanent Record is that quite a number of things from Snowden's life and his (short) career in the Intelligence Community that we know from other sources are not mentioned in it, including some unanswered questions.

The book also provides a very limited and one-sided picture of the NSA because it doesn't explain that this is a military intelligence agency which spends much of its time supporting military operations and is therefore not solely trying to simply collect as much data as possible from ordinary citizens.

Another issue, not only in the book, but also in Snowden's numerous speeches and interviews, is that he constantly conflates (foreign) intelligence and (domestic) law enforcement. The latter brings people to justice who already committed a crime, the first gathers information for military and civilian decision makers in order to prevent damage to national security.


Permanent Record also lacks photos and, more importantly, an index, which makes it rather difficult to look things up. It almost looks as if Snowden didn't want to create metadata on the content, but the reason is probably more mundane, that is to say pushing people to buy the ebook too.

To compensate the lack of an index, everything that is derived from the book here will be followed by the relevant page numbers in gray.

The house in the Anne Arundel County neighborhood of Crofton, Maryland,
where Snowden lived with his parents from 1992 to 2001.
(photo: The Washington Post/Getty Images)

Snowden's early years

As most autobiographies, Permanent Record starts with a description of Snowden's youth, often a bit too detailed, which is somewhat in contrast to his contemplation that his generation was the last in American history for whom their childhood isn't digitally available in a cloud, but only in fragmented and analog ways. (p. 14)

For the young Ed, first the computer and then the early internet became a way to escape an often unfair society: he experienced that school is "an illegitimate system [that] wouldn't recognize any legitimate dissent" while computers were "consistent and fair, so unequivocally unbiased" compared to humans - an attitude that seems to explain much of his later actions and his strong faith in encryption. (p. 31, 52)

Clockwork Chihuahua

In 1998, at the age of 16, Snowden began working for Clockwork Chihuahua Studios, which in the book is called "Squirreling Industries". This was a small web design studio run from the house of its owner, which was at Fort Meade, the large military base where NSA headquarters are also located. It was there that Snowden learned of the 9/11 attacks and witnessed the chaos at the NSA compound. (p. 70-76)

Clockwork Chihuahua also maintained a website for anime fan art called Ryuhana Press, for which Snowden worked as a web editor from June 2002 to February 2004. This isn't mentioned in the book, aside from the fact that he was interested in anime and manga. The Internet Archive contains the old website of Ryuhana Press, including Snowden's profile, which combines facts and fiction:

Snowden's profile on the Ryuhana Press website (2002)
(source: Internet Archive - click to enlarge)


When it comes to his early online activities, Snowden says that "Half the things I'd said I hadn't even meant at the time - I'd just wanted attention". But he didn't want to delete those old and embarrassing postings either: "I didn't want to live in a world where everyone had to pretend that they were perfect, because that would be a world that had no place for me or my friends." (p. 96-97)

One forum on which he posted between December 2001 and May 2012, was that of the website Ars Technica, first under the username The One TrueHooha, which he later changed to TheTrueHOOHA. As such, he bragged about his life in Switzerland for example, which didn't seem very smart given the fact that he was working there under diplomatic cover for the CIA (see below).

In an attempt to prove to himself that he was not just a "brain in a jar", Snowden wanted to join the US Army in 2004, but this failed due to an accident during a physical exercise. He says that his initial support for the war against Al-Qaida is now "the greatest regret of my life". But because he still wanted to serve his country, he turned to the intelligence agencies, which were desperately looking for IT people. (p. 81-82, 93)

Sysadmin at CIA headquarters

A short job as a night-shift security guard at the Center for the Advanced Study of Language (CASL), set up as a partnership between the University of Maryland and the Department of Defense, provided Snowden with a security clearance at the highest level: Top Secret/SCI. Through a specialized job fair he then became employed by one of the many intelligence contractors: "the CIA had hired BAE Systems, which had hired COMSO, which hired me." (p. 116-118)

In the book, Snowden says that he didn't remember the exact chronology of his job contracts because he doesn't have a copy of his résumé anymore: it was on one of his home computers seized by the FBI. Much of this is available online though, like on Wikipedia or from this detailed timeline.

Snowden's first contractor job at the CIA was from November 2005 to August 2006. His workplace, a secure office called a "vault", was in "a grimy cinder-block-walled room with all the charm of a nuclear fallout shelter and the acrid smell of government bleach" in the basement of the New Headquarters Building (NHB) of the CIA in McLean, Maryland. (p. 114-121)

This NHB was opened in 1991 and is located right behind the Old Headquarters Building (OHB) from 1961 which can be seen in numerous films, television series and documentaries:

The CIA's New Headquarters Building (NHB), where Snowden worked from 2005-2006
Right behind it we see the Old Headquarters Building (OHB)
(click to enlarge)

Snowden describes how his team of contractors was attached to the CIA's Directorate of Support (DS), which among many other things, maintains the agency's computer servers. Half of the servers at the CIA headquarters were in the OHB, while the other half was in the NHB, both set up on the opposite sides of their buildings, minimizing the risk of being destroyed at the same time. (p. 125)

The CIA also had its peculiarities: Snowden recalls a colleague who appeared to be one of the very few who still knew how to maintain a tape recorder for the agency's Directorate of Operations (DO), which didn't trust modern servers and therefore wanted backups on magnetic tapes, which were stored in a safe. (p. 129-131)

According to the HPSCI-report Snowden was responsible for managing installations and application rollouts, which apparently required that he was "read into" SIGINT and HUMINT classification compartments as well as a COMSEC compartment "that allowed me to work with cryptographic key material". (p. 125)


Here at CIA, Snowden already started to do what would eventually lead to his massive data-theft at the NSA. After he moved to the quiet night shifts he tried to automate as many of his dull tasks as possible so he had a lot of time for himself. (p. 127-131)

He used this time to look for information both on the public internet and on the CIA's internal networks. He called this his "education", which would be nice in most other working places, but not at an intelligence agency, where you are only supposed to read things that you "need-to-know".

On the CIA's internal networks Snowden found hardly anything noteworthy: nothing about aliens or a 9/11 conspiracy and the agency's internal reports were often "very similar to the accounts that would eventually show up on network news, CNN, or Fox days later. The primary differences were merely in the sourcing and the level of detail." (p. 132-133)

Snowden had managed to get into the Intelligence Community, but he wanted to see more of the world and so he applied for a CIA tech job abroad. He changed his green badge for a blue badge, which means he went from contractor to government employee, and as such he "solemnly swore to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic." (p. 132-135)

Training at The Hill

His new job at the CIA was that of a Technical Information Security Officer (TISO), for which Snowden first had to attend the Basic Telecommunications Training Program (BTTP). For him, this took place from September 2006 to February 2007 at the Warrenton Training Center (WTC) in Virginia, nicknamed The Hill.

This facility was disguised as a training center for the State Department, but is also used by the CIA and not just for training purposes as it also serves as the heart of the CIA's global communications network:
"One drill involved lugging the "off-site package," which was an eighty pound suitcase of communications equipment that was older than I was, up onto a building's roof. With just a compass and a laminated sheet of coordinates, I'd have to find in all that vast sky of twinkling stars one of the CIA's stealth satellites, which would connect me to the agency's mothership, its Crisis Communications Center in McLean - call sign "Central"- and then I'd use the Cold War-era kit inside the package to establish an encrypted radio channel." (p. 143)


In his memoir, Snowden describes how his class mates at the Warrington Training Center complained about violations of federal labor laws and asked him to write an e-mail about it to the head of the school. He was told to let it go, but he couldn't and sent a second e-mail, this time to the director of the Field Service Group (FSG), and also to his boss. (p. 145-146)

He was then summoned to the office of the head of the school, where his superiors were also present. They told Snowden that his e-mail was regarded as an act of insubordination because he did not follow the chain of command. He saw it as a retaliation that he was then sent to Geneva - instead of to the Special Requirements Division (SRD) which serves the more dangerous CIA sites, like he had wanted. (p. 146-148)

This issue is also part of the HPSCI-report, which specifies that Snowden had sent his concerns to the "Deputy Director of CIA for Support - the head of the entire Directorate of Support" and adds that after the meeting with the superiors, he contacted the agency's Inspector General (IG) seeking guidance because he felt he was "being unfairly targeted" by his supervisor.

He told the IG that his superiors were "extremely hostile" and "seem[ed] to believe I have trouble bonding with my classmates". He wanted the IG to help protect him from "reprisal for speaking truth to power". Like similar things from the HPSCI-report, this correspondence with the CIA's IG is not mentioned in Permanent Record.

When this report was declassified in December 2016, Snowden said on Twitter that it was "rifled with obvious falsehoods", but instead of correcting things, the book completely ignores the HPSCI-report, just like many other facts that emerged after the start of the revelations in June 2013.

TISO at the CIA in Geneva

Edward Snowden's first job abroad was at the CIA station inside the permanent US mission to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, where he worked as a Telecommunications Informations Systems Officer (TISO) from March 2007 to January 2009.

According to the book, a TISO works under diplomatic cover, usually as an attaché (Snowden's alias was Dave M. Churchyard), and is responsible for maintaining and repairing all the technical facilities at CIA stations abroad. The largest stations have 5 of them, larger ones maybe 3, but most stations only have one such technician. (p. 139-140)

In his book No Place to Hide, Glenn Greenwald says that Snowden "was considered the top technical and cybersecurity expert in Switzerland, ordered to travel throughout the region to fix problems nobody else could. He was hand-picked by the CIA to support the president at he 2008 NATO summit in Romania." Neither of this is in Snowden's book, which also doesn't mention that he worked at the CIA station in Milan for a couple of days.

The United States mission to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland,
where Snowden worked from March 2007 to February 2009
(image: Google Maps - click to enlarge)

Another incident described in the HPSCI-report but not in Permanent Record is that a "few months after starting in [Geneva], Snowden asked to apply for a more senior position in [Brussels] as a regional communications officer. [...] When he was not selected for that job, Snowden responded by starting a controversial e-mail exchange with very senior officers in which he questioned the selection board's professional judgment."

Something that Snowden was more eager to share is how he found out that the CIA had no workable method for anonymous searches on the public internet, so he taught the agency's rather old-fashioned case officers to use the Tor network. (p. 154-156)

Later he says that he had also been "introduced to the Tor Project in Geneva", which could point to early contacts with hacktivists. Since then Snowden used the Tor browser not only for his private web browsing, but also to do his professional work from home. Even when this was just for his unclassified work as a Dell consultant (see below), his employer may not have liked it. (p. 209)

The Swiss banker story

For their traditional HUMINT operations, the CIA's case officers often went to social events and on some occasions they let Snowden accompany them because he could be useful for contacting potential targets from research centers like CERN. It was at such an event that he became involved in the Swiss banker story, which was first described by The Guardian on June 9, 2013.

According to The Guardian, the CIA tried to recruit a Swiss banker to obtain secret banking information. This was achieved by purposely getting the banker drunk and encouraging him to drive home in his car. "When the banker was arrested for drunk driving, the undercover agent seeking to befriend him offered to help, and a bond was formed that led to successful recruitment."

This story was received with scepticism and Swiss president Maurer stated "This would mean that the CIA successfully bribed the Geneva police and judiciary. With all due respect, I just can't imagine it." The Swiss police couldn't find any evidence for the story either.

A view of the city of Geneva and the lake in 2005
(photo via Wikimedia Commons - click to enlarge)

In Snowden's memoir, the story is less spectacular. First it wasn't a Swiss, but a Saudi private banker. Also, there was no bribing of Swiss officials: after the CIA officer wasn't able to recruit the banker by the usual means, he made a final move by letting him drive home drunk and get the Swiss police to arrest him.

The help offered by the case officer consisted of nothing more than lending the banker money to pay the high fine and driving him to work for some time. Eventually (and contrary to The Guardian's report) all of this didn't result in recruiting the banker as he refused to cooperate. He lost his job and had to return to Saudi Arabia. (p. 157-160)

According to The Guardian, Snowden said that "Much of what I saw in Geneva really disillusioned me about how my government functions and what its impact is in the world" but the book gives no clear substantiation for that. Snowden describes the operation to recruit the banker merely as a waste, after which "the prioritizing of SIGINT over HUMINT made all the more sense to me". (p. 160-161)

First concerns in Geneva?

The Swiss banker story isn't in the HPSCI-report, but it does say that several years after Snowden left the CIA, he "claimed that, while in [Geneva] he had ethical qualms about working for CIA. None of the memoranda for the record detailing his numerous counseling sessions mention Snowden expressing any concerns about [redacted]."

Greenwald's book says that it was "at the end of his stint in Geneva, that he first began to contemplate becoming a whistle-blower and leaking secrets that he believed revealed wrongdoing." Snowden didn't act at that time, first because he hoped that the election of Obama would change things, and secondly because "When you leak the CIA's secrets, you can harm people" but "when you leak the NSA's secrets, you only harm abusive systems."

In Oliver Stone's biographical thriller we see how the fictional Snowden already became concerned about the NSA's surveillance tools after an NSA hacker in Geneva, supporting the (fictionalized) operation to recruit a banker, showed him how intrusive the XKEYSCORE system was (although the examples were also from PRISM and Section 215).

In Permanent Record there's only a more realistic encounter: when he spoke to local personnel of the Special Collection Service (SCS, consisting of NSA and CIA officers specialized in intercepting the hardest targets), one of them told Snowden that when he would meet a potential target he should "just give us his email address and we'll take care of it". (p. 160)

In line with that, Snowden emphasizes that "the obvious [NSA being engaged in mass surveillance] didn't even become thinkable for me until some time after I moved to Japan in 2009 to work for the NSA". (p. 164)

A scene from Oliver Stone's movie in which NSA hacker Gabriel Sol
shows Snowden the NSA's surveillance capabilities
(click to enlarge)

Resignation from the CIA

According to the HPSCI-report, Snowden requested to leave Geneva in September 2008, but because this was before the scheduled rotation date, it was denied. "Disobeying orders, Snowden traveled back to the Washington, D.C., area for his and his fiancée's medical appointments. Because of his disobedience, Snowden's supervisors recommended he not return to [FSG service?]."

In January 2009, the CIA eventually assigned him to a position in the Washington, D.C. area so he could be available for any medical appointments. Snowden officially resigned from the CIA on April 16, 2009, after which the agency's Security Office updated his record in Scattered Castles, the central database of security clearance holders for the US Intelligence Community.

The report suggests that the CIA put a red flag or some derogatory information in Snowden's record, which the NSA Security Office missed when it had accessed the database 3 weeks earlier to verify Snowden's security clearance - because meanwhile he had applied for a systems administrator job with NSA contractor Perot Systems.

Nothing of the above is in Snowden's book. The only reason he gives for his job change is that his new job "was a dream job, not only because it was with the most advanced intelligence agency on the planet, but also because it was based in Japan, a place that had always fascinated Lindsey and me." (p. 164-165)

> Snowden's jobs at the NSA will be discussed in Part II

Solutions consultant for the CIA

In September 2010, Edward Snowden returned to Maryland, where he got a new job at Dell, the company for which he had already worked at the NSA facility in Japan since August 2009. In his memoir, Snowden says that someone had convinced him that he should shift to the sales side of Dell, where he could make much more money.

His new job title was solutions consultant and as such he was the technical adviser to the account manager who had to sell as much of Dell's equipment and expertise to the CIA as possible, especially its cloud computing system. (p. 189)

Once again, the HPSCI-report has a different version and says that Dell tried to move Snowden to a position where he would support IT systems at the CIA. But because of the remark in the Scattered Castles database, the CIA refused to grant him access to classified information.

Therefore, Dell put Snowden on leave for three months while waiting for a position that did not require a security clearance to open up. Eventually, one did and in December 2010, Snowden started to work in an uncleared "systems engineer/pre-sales technical role" for Dell's CIA contract.


One of the more personal things revealed in Permanent Record is how Snowden found out he has epilepsy, which was diagnosed somewhere in the Summer of 2011: "I felt defeated. The two great institutions of my life had been betrayed and were betraying me: my country and the Internet. And now my body was following suit." (p. 199-201)

Because of the epileptic seizures, Snowden had to take a disability leave from Dell and the HPSCI-report specifies that this was from August 31, 2011, to January 11, 2012: "His Dell co-workers offered conflicting accounts of how he spent his leave" which is followed by a sentence that is redacted, maybe to protect details of his medical situation.

Tor bridge relay

While Snowden was bound to his couch he witnessed and was moved by the Arab Spring, which resulted in reflections on the concepts of authoritarianism and privacy. He also wanted to help the protesters, but the only thing he could do was setting up a bridge relay for the Tor network to bypass the Iranian internet blockades. (p. 205-210)

This probably refers to the events from February 2012, when the Iranian government blocked Internet access to sites like Facebook, Twitter, and other foreign sites. It's not clear why Snowden chose to help Iranian dissidents as during the Arab Spring, internet access was blocked or limited in other countries too.

According to the weblog emptywheel, setting up the Tor bridge relay would require contact with the Tor developers, one of whom was Jacob Appelbaum. This means Snowden could have been in contact with a rather radical hacktivist already before he started his job at the NSA in Hawaii.
Appelbaum was indeed involved in helping Arab Spring activists: in an interview with Democracy Now! from April 23, 2012, he said that he had to stop the "work that I've done around the world trying to help pro-democracy activists starting an Arab Spring, for example, because I present a threat, in some cases, to those people" (Appelbaum was targeted by US law enforcement because of his affiliation with Julian Assange).

> Continue: Part II

Links & sources

- Le Monde: Bug Brother: Pourquoi je préfère la BD sur Snowden à son autobiographie (Dec. 18, 2019)
- Emptywheel: Snowden Needs a Better Public Interest Defense, Part I - Part II (Nov.-Dec. 2019)
- Rolf's Blog: Review of Ed Snowden's "Permanent Record" (Oct. 10, 2019)
- The New York Review of Books: Snowden in the Labyrinth (Oct. 2019)
- Matthew Green: Looking back at the Snowden revelations (Sept. 24, 2019)
- The New Yorker: Edward Snowden and the Rise of Whistle-Blower Culture (Sept. 23, 2019)
- The New Republic: Edward Snowden's Novel Makeover (Sept. 17, 2019)
- Wired: After 6 Years in Exile, Edward Snowden Explains Himself (Sept. 16, 2019)
- The Guardian: Interview by Ewen MacAskill (Sept. 13, 2019)
- Der Spiegel: 'If I Happen to Fall out of a Window, You Can Be Sure I Was Pushed' (Sept. 13, 2019)
- House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence: Review of the Unauthorized Disclosures of Former National Securitty Agency Contractor Edward Snowden (Sept. 15, 2016)
- Wired: Edward Snowden: The Untold Story (Aug. 2014)
- Vanity Fair: The Snowden Saga: A Shadowland of Secrets and Light (May 2014)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fascinating review. Eager to read next parts.

In Dutch: Meer over het wetsvoorstel voor de Tijdelijke wet cyberoperaties