Global Politics

The story of Edward Snowden is so unbelievable, sometimes you forget it's nonfiction

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Dado Ruvic/Reuters

A man uses his cell phone to read updates about former US spy agency contractor Edward Snowden answering users' questions on Twitter in this photo illustration, in Sarajevo, on January 23, 2014.

There've been so many revelations based on Edward Snowden's leaks, and so many stories about the National Security Agency's snooping that it's hard to keep it all straight.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

I mean, how do we write that first draft of history when history is still unfolding?

This week, the NSA added a new wrinkle. In a letter to Congress, the agency revealed the resignation of an NSA civilian employee who admitted giving Snowden access he shouldn't have had. Snowden had previously said he didn't steal any passwords or trick his co-workers.

So you can see the difficulties author Luke Harding must have had gathering information for his new book, "The Snowden Files."

Harding, a journalist with The Guardian in Britain, says it's still not possible to paint a complete picture of this saga.

“We don’t still entirely know how this extraordinary thing happened,” he says. “We know what happened, Snowden swiping a huge number of documents from the NSA’s servers in Fort Meade while sitting in Hawaii. But I think the agency is still trying to find out how he did it.”

Other details missing in the Snowden narrative include the question most everyone wants to know: How did he end up in Moscow? Harding says it’s not entirely clear. He talked with Snowden’s lawyer who just said the reason is “complicated.”

Even without the full-account, "The Snowden Files," is the first accounting of what happened last year with Edward Snowden and the NSA. It’s a read that sometimes feels like fiction. There are elements involving plastic alligators, a man holding a Rubik’s cube and the destruction of computers by British spies that feel as though Harding plucked them straight out of Alan Furst’s head.

Harding says he wrote it as a thriller. You can tell. It’s fun. You can’t stop turning the pages. The goal with the book was to bring all the strands together for people who haven’t been following the story closely. But even for someone who has been following the story, it’s great to have the account put together into a whole.

So how did this idea for a book start?

According to Harding, days after Snowden released his tell-all video in Hong Kong, explaining to the world why he did what he did. At the time, the Guardian’s Editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger pulled Harding aside and said a book is necessary.

“We felt this was a historical moment,” he says. “It’s something very special, something epochal.”

Harding says Snowden was the guy who pulled back the curtain on mass surveillance. He’s right. You can think Snowden a hero or a villain, but you can’t argue that he showed the world that most of our private communications are not really private. They’re being collected and stored and sifted through by the NSA and its contractors.

One of the challenges of telling such a story is that The Guardian is a character in the story. It can be tough to do rigorous reporting on the group that pays your bills.

But it doesn’t seem this way for Harding. He says it’s really Snowden’s story and the Guardian journalists who interacted with him. Theses journalists, Harding included, reported under tough conditions. The White House and British government applied pressure to the newspaper and its journalists.

“[The British government] more or less threatened to throw us all in jail,” he says.

And that lack of rights for the press is a big reason why Harding feels the UK needs a "first amendment." It doesn’t have anything of the sort, so the unthinkable happens. And by unthinkable I mean the government forcing Guardian journalists to destroy computers containing the leaked material in the basement of the Guardian offices.

Imagine if the feds did that to The New York Times.

So where does the story of Edward Snowden go from here? It’s tricky.

“There are no options. The Europeans are furious, but neither the Germans nor the French nor even the Scandinavians offered Snowden asylum,” he says. “Meanwhile, if he goes back to the US it’s pretty clear he will face espionage charges. So I think by default, he’s stuck.”

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be any more documents leaked. Prior to his book on Snowden, Harding worked on the Wikileaks story back in 2010. At the time, he and fellow journalists felt the massive document dump was the story to end all stories.

“We felt this would never happen again in our lifetime.”

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