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This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Permanent Record" by Edward Snowden. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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What came out in the Snowden leak? What came out in the revealed top secret documents? What was the Snowden leak strategy?

After learning of mass surveillance, Edward Snowden leaks documents proving the government is carrying it out on its citizens. His 2013 leak came after evaluating and strategizing.

Read more about the Snowden leak and how it came about.

Snowden: Leak or Blowing the Whistle?

Ed thinks leaking and whistleblowing are different. Leaking is releasing information for your own gain, while whistleblowing is releasing information for the good of the public. The intelligence community sometimes leaks their own information, which is often poorly thought out. For example, to announce the death of US citizen Anwar al-Aulaqi, the CIA had to admit their top secret drone program and kill list existed. The government tends to be okay with leaks when they benefit them. They ignore leaks that caused problems.

Ed couldn’t blow the whistle by talking to someone higher up the chain of command because the highest authorities knew—and had authorized—mass surveillance. Between blowing the whistle and a leak, for Snowden, leak was the right thing to do. 

Ed decided he was going to leak the intelligence community’s original documents rather than simply describe STELLARWIND to the press. This meant that he had to access the documents, organize them, and then remove them from the NSA building.

Snowden: Leak Strategy 

Self-publishing (posting the docs online and sharing a link) was the safest and easiest option. Still, Ed rejected it because it didn’t lend him enough authority. People on the Internet are always claiming to be leaking top secret information. He didn’t want the Snowden leak to be dismissed as the work of just another conspiracy theorist. Additionally, no one would understand the documents without context.

Ed had already found the documents he needed to leak through Heartbeat, but the NSA logs everything that’s done on their network-connected computers, so Ed couldn’t organize or make copies of the files without attracting attention. He switched to the night shift and invented a compatibility-testing project that gave him a legitimate reason to transfer Heartbeat files onto older computers that weren’t connected to the NSA’s main networks. On these old computers, Ed compressed and encrypted the documents and transferred them onto small SD cards. Then he smuggled the SD cards out of the NSA in his cheek, in his socks, or behind the panels of a Rubik’s Cube.

Before Edward Snowden, Leaks Impacted Morale

After 9/11, morale at the CIA was at an all-time low. CIA employees viewed the reorganization and other political maneuverings as betrayal. They felt blamed for some of the Bush administration’s mistakes and they didn’t like Goss as a director because he was a politician. They felt that having a partisan director was an attempt to weaponize the agency. Additionally, Goss was unpopular because he forced retirements, laid people off, and fired people. The CIA, now understaffed, used even more contractors than before. 

The CIA was also unpopular with the public because information about black site prisons and other activities was leaked around the same time.

Snowden: Leak Anonymously or Publicly?

It would have been possible, at least temporarily, to remain anonymous after leaking the documents. In fact, for Edward Snowden, leaks in a secret fashion were a consideration. In the end, he decided to come forward from the beginning. 

Access to all of the files that were being leaked was limited. Within the intelligence community, he was likely the only person that had access to every single one of those files. After Edward Snowden leaks files that only he has access to, it wouldn’t take the intelligence community long to figure out he was the source. He could have shared fewer files, but that would have weakened his credibility.

The Snowden Leak: Blowing the Whistle at the NSA

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Edward Snowden's "Permanent Record" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full Permanent Record summary :

  • What Ed Snowden discovered that caused him to completely lose faith in the government
  • How Snowden led the bombshell reports of US mass surveillance
  • How Snowden is coping with his treatment as both patriot and traitor

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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