NSA

I Went to Work for the Government and I Found a Failing System

Freedom could never be imposed at the point of a gun, but perhaps it could be sown by the spread of silicon and fiber. Or so I thought.

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At the age of 22, when I entered the American intelligence community, I didn't have any politics. Like most young people, I had solid convictions that I refused to accept weren't truly mine but rather a contradictory cluster of inherited principles. My mind was a mashup of the values I was raised with and the ideals I encountered online. It took me until my late twenties to finally understand that so much of what I believed—or what I thought I believed—was just youthful imprinting. We learn to speak by imitating the speech of the adults around us, and in the process of that learning we wind up also imitating their opinions until we've deluded ourselves into thinking that the words we're using are our own.

My parents, if not dismissive of politics in general, then certainly dismissive of politicians. This dismissal had little in common with the disaffection of nonvoters or partisan disdain. It was a certain bemused detachment particular to their class, which nobler ages have called the federal civil service or the public sector, but which our own time tends to refer to as the deep state or the shadow government. None of those epithets, however, really captures what it is: a class of career officials (perhaps one of the last functional middle classes in American life) who—unelected and unappointed—serve or work in government, either at one of the independent agencies (from the CIA and NSA to the IRS, the FCC, and so on) or at one of the executive departments (State, Treasury, Defense, Justice, and the like).

These were my parents, these were my people: a nearly 3 million-strong professional government workforce dedicated to assisting the amateurs chosen by the electorate, and appointed by the elected, in fulfilling their political duties—or, in the words of the oath, faithfully executing their offices. These civil servants, who stay in their positions even as administrations come and go, work as diligently under Republicans as under Democrats because they ultimately work for the government itself, providing core continuity and stability of rule. 

These were also the people who, when their country went to war, answered the call. That's what I had done after 9/11, and I found that the patriotism my parents had taught me was easily converted into nationalist fervor. For a time, especially in my run-up to joining the Army, my sense of the world came to resemble the duality of the least sophisticated video games, where good and evil are clearly defined and unquestionable. 

But once I returned from the Army and rededicated myself to computing, I gradually came to regret my martial fantasies. The more I developed my abilities, the more I matured, the more I realized that the technology of communications had a chance of succeeding where the technology of violence had failed. Democracy could never be imposed at the point of a gun, but perhaps it could be sown by the spread of silicon and fiber. In the early 2000s, the internet was still just barely out of its formative period and, to my mind at least, it offered a more authentic and complete incarnation of American ideals than even America itself. A place where everyone was equal? Check. A place dedicated to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Check, check, check. It helped that nearly all of the major founding documents of internet culture framed it in terms reminiscent of American history: here was this wild, open new frontier that belonged to anyone bold enough to settle it, swiftly becoming colonized by governments and corporate interests that were seeking to regulate it for power and profit. The large companies that were charging large fees—for hardware, software, the long-distance phone calls that you needed back then to get online, and knowledge itself, which was humanity's common inheritance and so, by all rights, should have been available for free—were irresistible contemporary avatars of the British, whose harsh taxation ignited the fervor for independence. 

This revolution wasn't happening in history textbooks, but now, in my generation, and any of us could be part of it solely by dint of our abilities. This was thrilling—to participate in the founding of a new society, one based not on where we were born or how we grew up or our popularity at school but on our knowledge and technological ability. In school, I'd had to memorize the preamble to the U.S. Constitution; now its words were lodged in my memory alongside John Perry Barlow's "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace," which employed the same self-evident, self-elect plural pronoun: "We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth. We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity." 

This technological meritocracy was certainly empowering, but it could also be humbling, as I came to understand when I first went to work in the intelligence community. The decentralization of the internet merely emphasized the decentralization of computing expertise. l might have been the top computer person in my family, or in my Beltway neighborhood, but to work for the IC meant testing my skills against everyone in the country and the world. The internet showed me the sheer quantity and variety of talent that existed, and made clear that, in order to flourish, I had to specialize. 

There were a few different careers available to me as a technologist. I could have become a software developer (a programmer), writing the code that makes computers work. Alternatively, I could have become a hardware or network specialist, setting up the servers in their racks and running the wires, weaving the massive fabric that connects every computer, every device, and every file. 

Computers and computer programs were interesting to me, and so were the networks that linked them together. But I was most intrigued by their total functioning at a deeper level of abstraction, not as individual components but as an overarching system. 

I thought about this a lot while I was driving to and from Lindsay's house and to and from community college; car time has always been thinking time for me, and commutes are long on the crowded Beltway. To be a software developer or programmer was to run the rest stops off the exits and to make sure that all the fast-food and gas station franchises accorded with each other and with user expectations; to be a hardware specialist was to lay the infrastructure, to grade and pave the roads themselves; to be a network specialist was to be responsible for traffic control, manipulating signs and lights to safely route the time-crunched hordes to their proper destinations. To get into systems, however, was to be an urban planner, to take all of the components available and ensure their interaction to maximum effect. It was, pure and simple, like getting paid to play God, or at least a tinpot dictator. 

There are two main ways to be a systems guy. One is that you take possession of the whole of an existing system and maintain it, gradually making it more efficient and fixing it when it breaks. That position is called a systems administrator, or sysadmin. The second is that you analyze a problem, such as how to store data or how to search across databases, and solve it by engineering a solution from a combination of existing components or by inventing entirely new ones. This position, the most prestigious, is called a systems engineer. I eventually would do both of these, working my way into administration and from there into engineering, oblivious throughout about how this intense engagement with the deepest levels of integration of computing technology was exerting an influence on my political convictions. 

I'll try not to be too abstract here, but I want you to imagine a system. It doesn't matter what system: It can be a computer system, a legal system, or even a system of government. Remember—a system is just a bunch of parts that function together as a whole, which most people are only reminded of when something breaks. It's one of the great chastening facts of working with systems that the part of a system that malfunctions is almost never the part in which you notice the malfunction. In order to find what caused the system to collapse, you have to start from the point where you spotted the problem, and trace it logically through the system's components. 

Because systems work according to instructions, or rules, such an analysis is ultimately a search for which rules failed, how, and why—an attempt to identify the specific points where the intention of a rule was not adequately expressed by its formulation or application. Did the system fail because something was not communicated, or because someone abused the system by accessing a resource they weren't allowed to, or by accessing a resource they were allowed to but using it exploitatively? Was the job of one component stopped, or impeded, by another? Did one program, or computer, or group of people take over more than their fair share of the system?

Over the course of my career, it became increasingly difficult for me to ask these questions about the technologies I was responsible for and not about my country. And it became increasingly frustrating to me that I was able to repair the former but not the latter. I ended my time in intelligence convinced that my country's operating system—its government—had decided that it functioned best when broken.

Adapted from Permanent Record, by Edward Snowden. Published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company. Copyright © 2019 by Edward Snowden. All rights reserved.

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  1. He needs clemency or a full pardon.

    1. and a medal

      1. Yes. God bless Edward Snowden.

        1. A true american hero if there ever was one.

          1. To his credit, he didn’t purvey his “whistle-blowing” through the medium of inappropriate “satire.” But that still doesn’t put him above the law. Here at NYU, we’ve worked very closely together with prosecutors to make sure the law is applied when “speech” crimes are committed. Snowden may wish to study our contributions in this regard before deciding whether to return to American to face the very real justice that he deserves. See the documentation of our great nation’s leading criminal “parody” case at:

            https://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/

            1. But that still doesn’t put him above the law

              WTF. Yes one is always above thelaw when the law is immoral.

              Would yo convict he man who hid Anne Frank?

              1. It is by no means “moral” to expose delicate matters that need to be dealt with discreetly, or to damage the reputations of distinguished members of the academic community by subjecting them to inappropriate mockery. Is that the rough and tumble of the Internet?

            2. we’ve worked very closely together with prosecutors to make sure the law is applied when “speech” crimes are committed.

              There’s no such thing as a ‘speech crime’, slaver.

              What is wrong with you?

              1. Surely you would not dare to defend the “First Amendment dissent” of a single, isolated, so-called judge in our nation’s leading criminal “satire” case? Everyone knows inappropriate speech when they see it, and when reputations and discretion are involved, criminalization is called for. This is why the so-called “protections” should be removed from all whistleblowers, and it is also why libel, particularly when directed towards members of the academic community, should be recriminalized everywhere in our great nation (a point supported very nicely, I might add, by Eugene Volokh in his eloquent writings). These people belong in jail, nowhere else.

    2. Or a course in concise writing.

      1. This is adapted from a book.

    3. If I was him I’d still be leery. I wouldn’t put it past the CIA to make him have an “accident” just to remind everyone that Big Brother always wins.

      1. It didn’t have anything to do with the Clinton’s, that is why he is still alive.
        Jeffery Epstein didn’t kill himself.

  2. When was it not broken?

    1. The time between Washington’s inauguration and his suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion?

  3. my sense of the world came to resemble the duality of the least sophisticated video games, where good and evil are clearly defined and unquestionable.

    Shots fired at Bioware and Bethesda. Damn!

    Obsidian and CD Projeckt Red over there feeling good, though.

  4. Edward Snowden is an American Patriot.

    This country owes him a debt of gratitude for exposing the daily surveillance of American citizens in plain violation of our constitutional rights.

    1. +1000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000

      1. Got room for another bit, cause I’ll a few too!

    2. I just bought this book; if for no other reason than to show my support for Snowden.

      1. A good, practical action that proves that not all libertarians are selfish greedy pigs, just taking what they can grab for free.

        Bravo!

    3. Agreed. Edward Snowden is a hero.

  5. Edward Snowden, thank you for sacrificing your life to provide clear evidence that the US Government was violating the US Constitution by domestically spying on Americans without warrants.

    With that being said, the US Government can write you off and dismiss the seriousness of their crimes because you are in Russia.

    You need to return to the USA to face the wrath of the US Government bureaucrats. Your patriotic actions will be met by being placed in solitary confinement and the MSM will turn every part of your life into a crime against their beloved state. Martyrdom is hard. You released classified information and should be held accountable for that. However, your sacrifices to expose the violations of the US Constitution should garner a reprieve from actual prison time.

    Additionally, you will have people like me who support what you did and would ask Trump to pardon you. You are lucky that Trump might be one of the few Presidents to do it. The Deep State tried to coup him, so he would love a chance to piss them off.

    Good luck!

    1. Hmmm, that’s an interesting point. Maybe we could start a campaign directly to Trump to pardon him, strictly appealing to his desire to flip the bird to the deep state.

  6. I ended my time in intelligence convinced that my country’s operating system—its government—had decided that it functioned best when broken.

    “Consider the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, or Inland Revenue, or just about any bureaucratic agency which interacts with the public. As these systems grew, they began to require citizens to communicate with them in ever-more-formal ways. The interface between a citizen and the IRS came to consist of the citizen being required to fill out a maddeningly complicated form (four times a year for the self-employed). The work originally meant to be performed by the system–the administration of revenue collection–was slowly shifted to the users of that system as it grew. To add insult to injury, any deviation by the user in the formal structure of that work–say, failing to include one of the many pieces of paper demanded–is severely punished.

    Another example, as a system grows, of the focus shifting from satisfying the users of a system to easing the work of the administrators of a system. ”

    From Systemantics by John Gall.

    1. Things “function best when broken” because running a broken system is easier than running an effective one.

      1. Government 101?

    2. I would have to read the whole book, but from that blurb, “easy” is an oversimplification. Sometimes, systems need to be made easier for the admins because the difficulties imposed on users prevent the system from being destroyed. Ex. financial security procedures make it harder to get your money, but saves the system from fraud and litigation that could bankrupt the company and destroy the system entirely

  7. It should also be remembered that none of these programs ever caught a single terrorist or prevented a single attack. Don’t believe these programs’ defenders when they claim otherwise. If these programs could show any concrete successes, they would have leaked those successes to their media mouthpieces long before now. The fact that no such things have been leaked, despite these people having shown that they will leak virtually anything if it benefits them politically, is pretty convincing evidence no such examples exist.

    So we had all of these programs and violated the Constitution and it didn’t even make us any safer. These programs were not some dark conspiracy to spy on the nation. They were the desperate and stupid response of mediocre people who were terrified they would be held accountable for something. Actually finding and stopping terrorists is hard. What is easy is listening to phone calls and creating giant databases of information that you really have no idea what to do with. And that is what they did. These programs are not just unconstitutional and rife with abuse, they are at their heart security theater and utterly worthless for the purposes they are claimed to further.

    1. Even if these programs DID stop or catch a terrorist, they are unconstitutional and illegal.

      Government is supposed to have a hard time catching criminals and getting convictions. The Founders created no less than 10 different ways to make it difficult for government to bring criminals to justice.

      1. “Even if these programs DID stop or catch a terrorist, they are unconstitutional and illegal.”

        Glad to see a few other folks catching up with this basic moral premise: it’s wrong, it was always wrong, and it will always be wrong.

        1. Yes because everything is black and white and all ethical debates were settled by the invention of the categorical imperative.

          1. You just can’t handle a discussion, can you, PortaJohnny?
            You’re such a thin-skinned little Trumpenbitch.

          2. John, it’s already been established that your moral compass froze ages ago, but some of us still try to be decent people, putting morality above utilitarian justifications.

    2. “They were the desperate and stupid response of mediocre people who were terrified they would be held accountable for something.”

      A perfect description of zero tolerance, typically found in school systems.

  8. Fixing government is simple, apply the NAP and prohibit it from initiating force.

    1. much like losing weight is easy: just eat less.

      beating alcoholism is easy: just stop drinking

      ending murder is easy: just make it illegal.

      (i agree with your solution, just not the easy part)

      1. “Simple” does not equal “Easy.”

        1. I’d start with the 28th amendment, “Government shall not initiate force.”, and go from there.

          1. repeal all amendments 11, 12 and 14 through 27.

            Repeat as necessary

    2. If by “fixing” government you mean abolishing it.

      I suppose a voluntarist minarchy survives the NAP, maybe? But there’s damned little that even “reasonable libertarians” consider to be legitimate government functions that survives a strict application of the NAP. Taxes certainly don’t, and without those you’re hard pressed to have much of a state.

  9. now its words were lodged in my memory alongside John Perry Barlow’s “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,”

    Barlow’s other words apply too:

    You’re lost sailor
    You’ve been way too long at sea
    Now the shore-lights beckon
    Yeah there’s a price for being free

  10. Hey Ed, our civil servants aren’t really “middle class.” They’re the second-richest industry group in the US, behind the financial sector. This wealth is easily on display when you visit New York City, northern New Jersey, and Connecticut, as well as Montgomery County, MD, Arlington, VA, and Fairfax and Loudoun Counties in VA.

    I hope your relationship with your parents has developed in complexity like your attitude toward right and wrong so obviously has. I think recognizing resentment toward, or at least recognizing the biases of your parents is an important element of growing up. The final turn in that arc is to recognize that they probably made ideological trade-offs to advance your options and quality of life.

    1. Hey Ed, our civil servants aren’t really “middle class.”

      WG5 through WG13 certainly are as are GS5 through GS13. Every bit the cogs bureaucracy defines

  11. Edward Snowden is quite obviously a leftie, who is trying hard to justify his existence and his hideous miscalculations that allowed him to become subversive. He will have to do much more soul-searching until he can openly repent and aplogiize for his disloyal acts against our nation, no matter how he excuses himself.

    He was an arrogant member of the Deep State and he violated the law. The glorious justifications for his unlawful actions are delusions of grandeur.

    1. Luckily his exposure of even worse disloyal acts against the US Constitutional and Americans outweigh his violations of federal law.

      He could have kept “doing his job” instead of exposing the crimes of the Deep State.

    2. Callinectus Dumbasses, did you just drop in from The Federalist?
      Now go back to your bunker, rightwingnutjob.

    3. This post is devoid of anything other than tribal virtue signaling. And it’s a pretty fuckin’ narrow tribe at that, given that loads of people on “the right” support Snowden as well.

  12. You know how I feel about Edward Snowden? Here’s how: ehhuhuggggewww.

    This article should be read with the theme song of Inception in the background or, better yet, the Trey Parker and Matt Stone parody of the song of that movie. That makes this list of the great things Mr. Snowden did for the sheeple much better.

    How do you guys feel about Chelsea Manning?

    1. You just can’t help but love the State, can you?

      Why is that?

      1. Have you seen some of my posts on the military or the Drug War? I’m the only one here telling people they are the problem when they join the army. I’m not here to work around the corners (I.e. bitching about a 2% increase in taxes for billionaires) like the rest of you.

        1. Manning leaked a bunch of diplomatic communications that didn’t show any government misconduct. Manning is in no way comparable to Snowden.

          1. Snowden (IMO) acted to show how the government was acting illegally against its citizens.

            Manning was having a hissy fit and tried to harm the country.

        2. The real problem with taxes is it’s violation of people’s right to self-ownership, which is pretty much at the heart of everything truly evil in the world.

      2. Are you saying you got some coherent point from that?

    2. How do you guys feel about Chelsea Manning?

      S/he/It is a traitor, who deliberately risked the lives of fellow brothers and sisters in arms. Death penalty preferred; life in prison could be acceptable. And I don’t like the idea of taxpayer funded ‘transition’ at all….Fuck that, do that on your own dime.

  13. At the age of 22, when…

    My eyes started to cross at “when”

  14. when I entered the American intelligence community

    Better known as the Reason Commentariat, amirite?

  15. Ever so slowly, the American public is waking up to the fact that their country’s foreign policy is a blight on the world. I believe if Snowden’s fate were to be given to the public in the form of a plebiscite, he would be exonerated and allowed to come home. What he has had to endure is a disgrace.

  16. We learn to speak by imitating the speech of the adults around us, and in the process of that learning we wind up also imitating their opinions until we’ve deluded ourselves into thinking that the words we’re using are our own.

    Oh My God, he’s going to ruin the whole thing!

    /Teachers Unions

  17. I just want to say that Edward Snowden is a true American hero. He deserves a medal, not a “pardon.”

  18. Snowden seemed pretty badass until he recently decided to throw his weight behind Bernie Sanders. If you think the spying on Americans is bad now just wait until we have an actual communist as President.

  19. Snowden is a traitor that broke trust with his country well beyond the scope of the valid constitutional questions raised by some of his disclosures. He dumped information on intelligence operations all over the world that have nothing to do with overreach in the USA.

    He was probably not a spy but he clearly acted out of a motive that is commonly used to recruit spys–Ego. Snowden could not with just being an “IT guy” and he wanted the max impact so dumped everything he could get regardless how damaging it is to the country’s global intelligence effort. The Kremlin could not have hoped for a more useful idiot in damaging the USA and then seeking asylum in Russia, undoubtably giving them more disclosures, he provides them cover for their favorite lie, “the west is no better”, they just pretend to be less corrupt/oppressive.”

    Both things are true; that Snowden exposed over-reach and that he acted beyond that criminally. Had he limited the exposure to constitutional issues, and took the legal consequences, Obama would have pardoned him, just like manning. But he dumped it all for vainglory and ego and for that he has earned a lifetime in a deep dark hole.

    1. Our global intelligence efforts are generally pointless, often harmful, and carried out by a class of people who universally give themselves way more credit than they deserve. Fuck ’em. I can’t bring myself to care in the slightest.

    2. Do you have any examples of the “information on intelligence operations all over the world that have nothing to do with overreach in the USA”?
      Because all I can ever find is assurances that he did, “but we can’t say what it was, due to national security”.
      IMHO, that is bullshit, designed to make him more of a criminal in the minds of those, who think his exposure of domestic surveillance was a good thing.

  20. Snowden is a traitor that broke trust with his country well beyond the scope of the valid constitutional questions raised by some of his disclosures. He dumped information on intelligence operations all over the world that have nothing to do with overreach in the USA.

    He was probably not a spy but he clearly acted out of a motive that is commonly used to recruit spys–Ego. Snowden could not deal with a life of just being an “IT guy” and he wanted the max fame so dumped everything he could get regardless how damaging it is to the country’s global intelligence effort. The Kremlin could not have hoped for a more useful idiot in damaging the USA and then seeking asylum in Russia, undoubtably giving them more disclosures, he provides them cover for their favorite lie, “the west is no better”, they just pretend to be less corrupt/oppressive.”

    Both things are true; that Snowden exposed over-reach and that he acted beyond that criminally. Had he limited the exposure to constitutional issues, and took the legal consequences, Obama would have pardoned him, just like manning. But he dumped it all for vainglory and ego and for that he has earned a lifetime in a deep dark hole.


    1. Had he limited the exposure to constitutional issues, and took the legal consequences, Obama would have pardoned him, just like manning.

      Except Manning didn’t limit himself at all and also didn’t expose anything at all. That’s why he got a pardon and Snowden gets to use a food taster the rest of his life. Conflating the two is dishonest.

      1. Let me help you google that:

        “On January 5, 2010, Manning downloaded the 400,000 documents that became known as the Iraq War logs.[106] On January 8, she downloaded 91,000 documents from the Afghanistan database, known later as part of the Afghan War logs. ”

        “Manning decided instead to pass it to WikiLeaks, and on February 3 sent them the Iraq and Afghan War logs via Tor. She returned to Iraq on February 11, with no acknowledgment from WikiLeaks that they had received the files.[115]”. wikipedia.

        So yea if Snowden limited the disclosure and not run to Russia–its not hard to imagine him getting a pardon, or perhaps not even convicted before a pardon.

        1. At the time of these transgressions, Manning was a he. A post hoc status change should not retroactively impact the description of past activities.

          1. I don’t think that Manning’s pronouns are central or important to this discussion.

    2. Error analysis.

      Snowden in terms of a system designed for a purpose , is both human and systemic error. He knowingly violated secrecy protocols. The system should now allow for such errors.

      At the same time it opens up a larger question. What are the goals and rules. For myself I accept that this post is transparent if you have the proper tools. By definition he was a spook, a spy, one who uses deception to gain information. He did that but not in the way intended.

      What he traded to open this door I cannot judge. John, it is not Kant’s categorical imperative. We do not need epistemology to understand what happened here. We are dealing with a very human interaction.

  21. Christ, what an intellectual dilettante

  22. “I’ll try not to be too abstract here, but I want you to imagine a system. It doesn’t matter what system: It can be a computer system, a legal system, or even a system of government. Remember—a system is just a bunch of parts that function together as a whole, which most people are only reminded of when something breaks. It’s one of the great chastening facts of working with systems that the part of a system that malfunctions is almost never the part in which you notice the malfunction.“

    Nah help me out. First day and all.

  23. It works against the people, but otherwise it is a functioning system for the deranged people running it. Government has been broken since the end of the 1800’s.

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