The former NSA employee, who exposed a massive u.S. surveillance system created around the world in 2013, talks about his journey in the book “Personal Case,” which is due out in France on September 19. Excerpts from the book are quoted by the French edition. Speaking of political asylum in Russia, Snowden believes that the United States itself inflicted a terrible defeat, giving Russia such a victory in terms of propaganda.
Snowden’s memoir: “We were all too naive” (Le Monde, France)
Given the American nature of the global communications infrastructure, it was expected that the government would engage in mass surveillance. It was supposed to be in my eyes. However, this did not happen, mainly because the American authorities so categorically and with such pressure denied such things in the media and courts so that few skeptics reproached them for lying were called obsessed with conspiracy theories.
We, me, you, we were all too naive. For me, it was all the more painful because the last time I allowed myself to spend, I supported the invasion of Iraq and joined the army. When I started working in intelligence, I was sure that no one would deceive me anymore, especially since I had access to a secret, a serious thing. After all, why should the authorities hide secrets from those who should keep them? In other words, it just didn’t occur to me that the obvious fact, and that all changed only in 2009 when I was assigned to Japan to the NSA’s electromagnetic intelligence office.
It was the perfect position because I became part of the world’s most effective intelligence. Although officially I had the status of a freelancer, entrusted not to my duties and the city where I lived, was
to make sure of that. Ironically, it was only working in the private sector that I was able to understand what my country’s leadership was doing. As in the past with the CIA, it was just a cover, and I’ve always worked on NSA premises. For the first time in my life, I really understood what it means to be the only person in the room who understands not only the inner workings of the system but also its interaction with other systems.
Plant under a pineapple field
One of their NSA bases was at a huge Pearl Harbor-era aircraft factory under a pineapple field in Kunia on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. This complex of reinforced concrete and a kilometer tunnel dug along the hillside went out into three protected rooms, where servers and offices were located. It was about the Security Center for Operations in the region of Kunia. Officially, I was still a Dell employee, but I worked for the NSA again. I was sent there in early 2012. One beautiful summer day (it was my birthday) when I went through CPR, I suddenly realized that the future is here in front of me.
I will not say that I made a decision at this very moment. By the way, with the main decisions in life, it never happens. We make up our minds without being aware of it, and only then, when we are strong enough to admit that our consciousness has made a choice for us, we realize that this is the behavior we have to follow. Such a gift I made myself for 29 years: I realized that I entered the tunnel, at the end of which my life will be limited to only one. Sounds hazy, but it is.
Hawaii has become an important hub for American communications. In particular, this applies to intelligence sharing between the 48 continental states and Japan where I worked, as well as other facilities in Asia. As an administrator of SharePoint, the NSA placed the primary responsibility for processing documents on me, and as a result, it was I who became familiar with the messages.
Before I continue the story, I would like to emphasize that my investigations into NSA abuses began not with copying documents but simply with reading them. I wanted to find confirmation of the suspicions that I had back in 2009 when I was working in Tokyo. Three years later, I was determined to find out whether my country had actually created a mass surveillance system and, if so, how it worked. Although I didn’t know how to investigate, I needed to understand the system before deciding on potential actions.
I will refrain from accurately describing how I made copies and encrypted them to make the NSA sleep worse at night. Anyway, I’m going to mention the storage technology I used for copied files. Forget flash drives: they are too inconvenient given their small capacity. Instead, I used Secure Digital cards. To be more precise, I’ve used mini-SD and micro-SD cards. They almost never come out with metal detectors, and how could anyone reproach me for forgetting such a small thing?
However, the small size of the SD cards has its price: data transfer is extremely slow. And while the band was filling up to meet me with a huge relief of 100%, I was all sweat, I could see the shadows everywhere and I could hear the steps. After filling out the map, I had to leave the building with this vital archive, walk past the bosses and people in uniform, go down the stairs, walk down an empty corridor, scan the badge, pass by security and through security cameras. We are talking about areas with two doors, where to open the second you need to close the first and pass the check of the badge. If something goes wrong, the guard points a gun at you, the doors are blocked, and you say, “It looks like it’s not my day…” Every time I left, I was terrified. I made myself not think about the SD card, because if I thought about it, I could behave differently, suspiciously. Once I hid the card in a sock, and once put it by the cheek to swallow if necessary.
I kept imagining that a group of FBI agents was waiting for me on the other side of the Tunnel. I used to try to make jokes with the guards, and then I needed my Rubik’s Cube. The guards and all the other people in the Tunnel knew me as a “Rubik’s cube guy.” He became my totem and a way to distract myself, both for me and for my colleagues. Most people probably thought I was trying to create a smart look, or they saw it as an invitation to talk on a stick-themed. It did be so, but in doing so I tried to deal with anxiety in the first place. The Rubik’s Cube calmed me down.
I usually could relax only on my return home. I was always haunted by the idea that my house could be tapped: it was one of the FBI’s charming methods when the bureau had doubts about the agent’s loyalty. I lay down on the couch and climbed with the computer under the blanket because the cotton is stronger than the cameras. Since the danger of immediate detention receded, I could focus on transferring files from my laptop to an external hard drive and encrypting them using multiple algorithms so that even if one of them failed, the others would provide security.
In the end, the documents I had selected were on one hard drive on my desk. I knew this data was there in the same security as the agency. Probably even more secure thanks to the different methods and levels of encryption I used. This is the incomparable beauty of the art of cryptology. A little math is capable of what the rifles and barbed wire can’t provide: keep the secret.
40 days at the airport
We landed in Sheremetyevo on June 23, 2013, and in theory, I had to spend 24 hours in the country. But soon it will be for six years… Exile is an endless expectation. In the intelligence community, particularly in the CIA, you are taught to avoid customs problems. Your goal is to become the most boring person in the whole queue, whose face will be forgotten as soon as possible. However, all this will help you a little, if the passport indicates the name, which is full of front pages of newspapers.
I held out the beard papers in the passport control window, which scanned them and looked through every page. Sarah (Harrison, journalist, and Editor of WikiLeaks) stood behind me with a confident look. I estimated how much time it took the people standing in front of me to pass the customs, and concluded that I was clearly engaged for too long. Then the inspector took off the phone, muttered a few words in Russian, and almost immediately (much faster than you might expect) came two security officers in uniform. One of them took the documents from the man from the window and turned to me: “There were problems with the passport. Please come with me.”
Security officers were leading us quickly. I thought we’d be in a special room for a more detailed inspection, but we came to the luxurious business lounge of Sheremetyevo Airport. Sarah and I entered into a kind of conversation, where people in gray suits sat at the table. There were about half a dozen of them, all with military haircuts. One sat slightly to the side with a pen in his hand. He was making notes, he was some kind of secretary. At least that’s how I imagined it. In front of him was a folder of paper. A black-and-white coat of arms could be seen on the cover of the folder, and I didn’t need to know Russian to understand the meaning: a sword and a shield are the main symbols of the Federal Security Service.
Like the FBI in the United States, the FSB is not limited to espionage and investigations, but also conducts arrests. On the center seat at the table sat a more age-old person, whose costume was more elegant than the rest. His gray hair gave him credibility. He confidently gestured to us to sit across from him, and his smile pointed at him as an officer crowned with laurels.
He coughed and in good English, as the CIA says, made a “cold pitch”: a proposal from foreign intelligence, which can be briefly described as “come to work with us.” In exchange for cooperation, foreigners are offered a variety of services, from mountains of cash to a kind of “Release from Prison” card, which can relate to almost everything, as a simple fraud and murder. The catch, of course, is that in exchange they want to get something of the same or greater value. But all this never begins with a clear and clear proposal. If you think about it, it is strange that it is called “cold serve” because the “pitcher” always begins to speak with warmth, ease, benevolence, a smile on the lips.
I knew I needed to stop this conversation as soon as possible. If you don’t stop it right away, they can undermine your reputation by leaking a record of how you’re mulling a proposal. While this man was apologizing for the inconvenience, I imagined the hidden cameras placed, so carefully picked up the words: “Look, I understand who you are and what you are doing now. Let me be clear that I have no desire to cooperate with any intelligence agency. Don’t see it as disrespectful, but I’m warning you I won’t discuss it. If you want to search my bag, it’s here.”
Then he asked me:
” I mean, you didn’t come here to stay in Russia?
No, I don’t think so.
“In that case, could you tell me where you’re going next?” Where is your destination?
“Ecuador, Ecuador, through Caracas and Havana,” I replied, though I was well aware that he already knew that.
But then the conversation went in the wrong direction.
“You don’t know?” he asked. He stood up and looked at me as if he were about to announce the news of the death of a family member: “I have to tell you that your passport is unfortunately no longer valid.”
I was so amazed that I could only mutter, “I’m sorry, but… I don’t believe you.”
I was shocked: my own government locked me up in Russia. The United States itself inflicted a terrible defeat on itself, giving Russia such a victory in terms of propaganda. In total, we sat at the airport for 40 days and 40 nights. During this period, I filed 27 applications for political asylum, but no one was prepared to incur the wrath of the United States. On August 1, it gave me temporary asylum.