Prologue: The Rendezvous
It began with an email.
'I am a senior member of the intelligence community. . .'
No name, no job title, no details. The Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, who was based in Brazil, started to correspond with this mysterious source. Who was he? The source said nothing about himself. He was an intangible presence, an online ghost. Possibly even a fiction.
After all, how could it be real? There had never before been a big leak out of the National Security Agency. Everybody knew that America's foremost intelligence-gathering organisation, based at Fort Meade near Washington DC, was impregnable. What the NSA did was a secret. Nothing got out. 'NSA, No Such Agency', as the Beltway wits had it.
Yet this strange person did appear to have access to some remarkable top-secret documents. The source was sending Greenwald a sample of highly classified NSA files, dangling them in front of his nose. How the ghost purloined them with such apparent ease was a mystery. Assuming they were genuine, they appeared to blow the lid off a story of global importance. They suggested the White House wasn't just spying on its enemies (bad guys, al-Qaida, terrorists, the Russians), or even on its supposed allies (Germany, France), but on the communications of millions of private US citizens.
Joined with the US in this mass snooping exercise was the UK. The NSA's British counterpart, GCHQ, was based deep in the English countryside. The UK and USA had a close intelligence-sharing relationship dating back to the second world war. To the uncharitable, Britain was the US's reliable poodle. Alarmingly, the documents revealed that the NSA was stumping up millions of dollars for British surveillance activities.
And now Greenwald was about to meet his Deep Throat. Promising further disclosures, the source was summoning him to fly from his home in Rio de Janeiro to Hong Kong, run by communist China and thousands of miles away. Greenwald felt the location was 'bizarre' and confusing: did he have a senior foreign posting there?
The rendezvous was to be in Kowloon's Mira Hotel, a chic, modern edifice in the heart of the tourist district, and a short cab ride away from the Star Ferry to Hong Kong Island. Accompanying Greenwald was Laura Poitras, also an American citizen, documentary film-maker and notable thorn in the side of the US military. She had been a matchmaker, the first to point Greenwald in the ghost's direction.
The two journalists were given meticulous instructions. They were to meet in a less-trafficked, but not entirely obscure, part of the hotel, next to a large plastic alligator. They would swap pre-agreed phrases. The source would carry a Rubik's cube. Oh, and his name was Edward Snowden.
It appeared the mystery interlocutor was an experienced spy. Perhaps one with a flair for the dramatic. Everything Greenwald knew about him pointed in one direction: that he was a grizzled veteran of the intelligence community. 'I thought he must be a pretty senior bureaucrat,' Greenwald says. Probably 60-odd, wearing a blue blazer with shiny gold buttons, receding grey hair, sensible black shoes, spectacles, a club tie. . .Greenwald could visualise him already. Perhaps he was the CIA's station chief in Hong Kong; the mission was down the road.
This theory, mistaken as it was, was based on two clues: the very privileged level of top-secret access the source appeared to enjoy, and the sophistication of his political analysis. With the very first batch of secrets the source had sent a personal manifesto. It offered his motive -- to reveal the extent of what he regarded as the 'suspicion-less' surveillance state. It claimed the technology to spy on people had run way beyond the law. Meaningful oversight had become impossible.
The scale of the NSA's ambition was extraordinary, the source said. Over the past decade the volume of digital information coursing between continents had increased. Exploded, even. Against this backdrop the agency had drifted from its original mission of foreign intelligence gathering. Now, it was collecting data on everybody. And storing it. This included data from both the US and abroad. The NSA was secretly engaged in nothing less than electronic mass observation. Or so the source had said.
The pair reached the alligator ahead of schedule. They sat down. They waited. Greenwald briefly pondered whether the alligator had some significance in Chinese culture. He wasn't sure. Nothing happened. The source didn't show. Strange.
If the initial meeting failed, the plan was to return later the same morning to the same anonymous corridor, running between the Mira's glitzy internal shopping mall and one of its restaurants. Greenwald and Poitras came back. They waited for a second time.
And then they saw him -- a pale, spindle-limbed, nervous, preposterously young man. In Greenwald's shocked view, he was barely old enough to shave. He was dressed in a white T-shirt and jeans. In his right hand he was carrying a scrambled Rubik's cube. Had there been a mistake? 'He looked like he was 23. I was completely discombobulated. None of it made sense,' Greenwald says.
The young man -- if indeed he were the source -- had sent encrypted instructions as to how the initial verification would proceed:
GREENWALD: What time does the restaurant open?
THE SOURCE: At noon. But don't go there, the food sucks. . .
The exchange was faintly comic. Greenwald -- nervous -- said his lines, struggling to keep a straight face.
Snowden then said simply: 'Follow me.' The three walked silently towards the lift. No one else was around -- or, at least, nobody they could see. They rode to the first floor, and followed the cube-man to room 1014. He opened the door with his swipe card, and they entered. 'I went with it,' Greenwald says.
Excerpted from "The Snowden Files" by Luke Harding. Copyright © 2014 by The Guardian. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.