The Snowden who emerges from these pages is neither a hero nor a traitor. Gellman sketches him as “fine company, funny and profane” with a “nimble mind and eclectic interests”. He can also be “stubborn, self-important and a scold”. Gellman sees his role as that of a curious journalist, rather than advocate. Snowden isn’t a Russian asset, he concludes, but may well have damaged national security – a view Snowden rejects. The most enthralling chapters cover the race to get the story out.
The author finally gets to meet Snowden in Moscow. They meet in the lobby of a gaudy casino hotel, take the back lift and sit together for 14 hours of interviews over two days. He describes how Snowden doesn’t once part the curtains or step outside. Snowden admits to missing milkshakes but refuses to say whether he has a blender with him — apparently, US intelligence studied electrical emissions when scouting Osama bin Laden’s lair in Pakistan. Given that so much is known of the Snowden story, unlikely detail such as this brings Dark Mirror to life.
Gellman, a winner of three Pulitzer Prizes for investigative journalism, persuaded the Washington Post (where he had been a staff reporter) to take the risk of publishing some of what Snowden had given him. It should be said that, throughout the book, Gellman shows himself to have been less interested in the content of the documents than in the implications of their existence. "At its core,” he writes, “this is a book about power. Information is the oxygen of control. Secrecy and surveillance, intertwined, define its flows.
Although Gellman’s book is at times overwritten and self-serving, with the author frequently seeking to settle scores with former editors, fellow journalists and even Snowden himself, his concerns about the state’s ability to spy on its own citizens are particularly relevant today – as governments seek to monitor our movements even more closely on the pretext of overcoming the coronavirus pandemic. Even so, I cannot agree with Gellman’s claim that Snowden did more good than harm.
Even after reading this interesting book, I still don’t really know why the whistleblower sacrificed so much to blow the whistle. While certainly fascinating on surveillance and all that, it is better read as a study of the travails of a journalist who seeks to investigate national security. Shortly before publication Gellman realises that Snowden wants not only to leak, but also to be able to prove that he is the person who has done so, so he can claim asylum elsewhere. This sends Gellman into a panic. “Alarm gave way to vertigo,” he writes.
The value of this book is that Gellman eschews the binary “traitor or hero” assessment of Snowden. Rather he highlights the dangers of the surveillance state’s vast reach. I would expect nothing less from him, but I suspect that if the NSA were to create a user agreement page that opened before you could operate your new phone or laptop, the vast majority of people would simply tick it, unread, and move on.