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'The Snowden Files': Story of a whistle-blower

A screen shows a news report on Edward

A screen shows a news report on Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee who leaked top-secret documents about U.S. surveillance programs, in Hong Kong, June 2013. Credit: AP / Vincent Yu

THE SNOWDEN FILES: The Inside Story of the World's Most Wanted Man, by Luke Harding, Vintage, 346 pp., $14.95 paper.

I'd like to think that somewhere in Russia, which has been playing host to both the Winter Olympics and Edward Snowden, the world's most wanted whistle-blower was cheering, "USA! USA!" the past few weeks -- though maybe sotto voce.

Nearly nine months ago, he rocked the U.S. government and many of its allies and antagonists by leaking top-secret documents that exposed massive surveillance programs by Washington's National Security Agency. Along with its brief to spy on bad guys, it was bugging world leaders and monitoring the telephone and Internet traffic of millions of ordinary people at home and abroad.

Snowden, now 30, dropped his bombshell in early June, while in Hong Kong, and was indicted by the U.S. government for espionage on June 21. The unquiet American flew to Moscow two days later, seeking asylum with another Communist superpower not known for respecting privacy -- or extradition efforts.

"The Snowden Files," the first book on what British journalist Luke Harding calls "the biggest intelligence leak in history," is a readable and thorough account. The narrative is rich in newsroom details, reflecting Harding's inside access as a correspondent for the London-based Guardian newspaper, which broke the story.

When Snowden first meets his two hand-picked contacts in Hong Kong, he is carrying a Rubik's cube to identify himself. They are waiting, as ordered, by a big plastic alligator in a hotel lobby. The spycraft is amusing but not overblown for someone about to become "the world's most-wanted man." References to spies and James Bond abound, along with repeated superlatives that suggest a compulsion to oversell a story that hardly needs it.

The pair by the gator are Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, who will lead the paper's coverage of the leaks, and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, whose video will give the world its first view of this renegade. (Greenwald has a book on the affair scheduled to come out in late April.)

Harding traces Snowden's rapid evolution from clever teenage geek in Maryland -- who didn't finish high school but earned a diploma equivalent -- to a young adult with exceptional computer skills and top-secret clearance. His resume includes the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the NSA. During a stint with the CIA in Switzerland, the agency's dirty tricks began to sour him on spying.

"I realized I was part of something that was doing far more harm than good," Snowden later said to Greenwald. (It doesn't appear that Harding himself ever interviewed Snowden.)

The disillusionment deepened between 2009 and 2012 while working in Japan, as "he found out just how all-consuming the NSA's surveillance activities are." What "pushed Snowden over the edge" was an NSA report that "involved the collection of content and metadata from millions of Americans without a warrant."

Snowden began his own collection, especially during his last NSA job, in Hawaii. He also approached Poitras and Greenwald about working with him. In May 2013, he flew to Hong Kong to begin life as a fugitive. Two days after the alligator assignation, the Guardian's operation in the United States -- where the risk of official gagging or arrest was lower than in Britain -- published the first story.

Harding explores at great length the NSA's alliance with and hefty financial support of Britain's Government Communications Headquarters. It's part of the book's heavily British flavor, along with the busy Guardian, the fencing with London officials, some grammatical tics and the ubiquitous 007.

Elsewhere in the world, Harding writes, "German indignation at U.S. spying" produced a new profanity. He also notes that Chancellor Angela Merkel, on learning that the United States had been bugging her phone since 2002, promptly contacted Washington to complain -- by telephone.

Harding's book offers a refresher for those who have followed the tale closely and a useful compendium for those catching up. Its occasional rough spots and repetitions can be forgiven in light of what he has put together in a short time on a story that develops almost daily. The writer deserves unqualified praise for fueling the debate on privacy that Snowden so hoped to ignite.

Those who view Snowden as a traitor will find scant aid and comfort in this portrayal of the leaker as a thoughtful, well-meaning patriot, a man who would like to cheer on the USA wherever his hard choices take him.

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