Read Permanent Record Online

Authors: Edward Snowden

Permanent Record (10 page)

I sympathized, though there wasn’t much I could do but send him to speak to the chaplain. I tried to offer advice, suck it up, it might be better once you’re used to it. But then he put his bulk in front of me and, in an endearingly childlike way, told me point-blank that he was going AWOL—a crime in the military—and asked me whether I would tell anybody. It was only then that I noticed he’d brought his laundry bag. He meant that he was going AWOL that very moment.

I wasn’t sure how to deal with the situation, beyond trying to talk some sense into him. I warned him that going AWOL was a bad idea, that he’d end up with a warrant out for his arrest and any cop in the country could pick him up for the rest of his life. But the guy only shook his head. Where he lived, he said, deep in
the mountains, they didn’t even have cops. This, he said, was his last chance to be free.

I understood, then, that his mind was made up. He was much more mobile than I was, and he was big. If he ran, I couldn’t chase him; if I tried to stop him, he might snap me in half. All I could do was report him, but if I did, I’d be penalized for having let the conversation get this far without calling for reinforcements and beating him with a crutch.

I was angry. I realized I was yelling at him. Why didn’t he wait until I was in the latrine to make a break for it? Why was he putting me in this position?

He spoke softly. “You’re the only one who listens,” he said, and began to cry.

The saddest part of that night is that I believed him. In the company of a quarter thousand, he was alone. We stood in silence as the fireworks popped and snapped in the distance. I sighed and said, “I’ve got to go to the latrine. I’m going to be a while.” Then I limped away and didn’t look back.

That was the last I ever saw of him. I think I realized, then and there, that I wasn’t long for the army, either.

My next doctor’s appointment was merely confirmation.

The doctor was a tall, lanky Southerner with a wry demeanor. After examining me and a new set of X-rays, he said that I was in no condition to continue with my company. The next phase of training was airborne, and he told me, “Son, if you jump on those legs, they’re going to turn into powder.”

I was despondent. If I didn’t finish the basic training cycle on time, I’d lose my slot in 18X, which meant that I’d be reassigned according to the needs of the army. They could make me into whatever they wanted: regular infantry, a mechanic, a desk jockey, a potato peeler, or—in my greatest nightmare—doing IT at the army’s help desk.

The doctor must have seen how dejected I was, because he cleared his throat and gave me a choice: I could get recycled and try my luck with reassignment, or he could write me a note putting
me out on what was called “administrative separation.” This, he explained, was a special type of severance, not characterized as either honorable or dishonorable, only available to enlistees who’d been in the services fewer than six months. It was a clean break, more like an annulment than a divorce, and could be taken care of rather quickly.

I’ll admit, the idea appealed to me. In the back of my mind, I even thought it might be some kind of karmic reward for the mercy I’d shown to the Appalachian who’d gone AWOL. The doctor left me to think, and when he came back in an hour I accepted his offer.

Shortly thereafter I was transferred to the Medical Unit, where I was told that in order for the administrative separation to go through I had to sign a statement attesting that I was all better, that my bones were all healed. My signature was a requirement, but it was presented as a mere formality. Just a few scribbles and I could go.

As I held the statement in one hand and the pen in the other, a knowing smile crossed my face. I recognized the hack: what I’d thought was a kind and generous offer made by a caring army doctor to an ailing enlistee was the government’s way of avoiding liability and a disability claim. Under the military’s rules, if I’d received a medical discharge, the government would have had to pay the bills for any issues stemming from my injury, any treatments and therapies it required. An administrative discharge put the burden on me, and my freedom hinged on my willingness to accept that burden.

I signed, and left that same day, on crutches that the army let me keep.

10
Cleared and in Love

I can’t remember exactly when, in the midst of my convalescence, I started thinking clearly again. First the pain had to ebb away, then gradually the depression ebbed, too, and after weeks of waking to no purpose beyond watching the clock change I slowly began paying attention to what everyone around me was telling me: I was still young and I still had a future. I only felt that way myself, however, once I was finally able to stand upright and walk on my own. It was one of the myriad things that, like the love of my family, I’d simply taken for granted before.

As I made my first forays into the yard outside my mother’s condo, I came to realize that there was another thing I’d taken for granted: my talent for understanding technology.

Forgive me if I come off like a dick, but there’s no other way to say this: I’d always been so comfortable with computers that I almost didn’t take my abilities seriously, and didn’t want to be praised for them or to succeed because of them. I’d wanted, instead, to be praised for and to succeed at something else—something that was harder for me. I wanted to show that I wasn’t just a brain in a jar; I was also heart and muscle.

That explained my stint in the army. And over the course of my convalescence, I came to realize that although the experience had wounded my pride, it had improved my confidence. I was stronger now, not afraid of the pain as much as grateful to be improved by it. Life beyond the barbed wire was getting easier. In the final reckoning, all the army had cost me was my hair, which had grown back, and a limp, which was healing.

I was ready to face the facts: if I still had the urge to serve my country, and I most certainly did, then I’d have to serve it through my head and hands—through computing. That, and only that, would be giving my country my best. Though I wasn’t much of a veteran, having passed through the military’s vetting could only help my chances of working at an intelligence agency, which was where my talents would be most in demand and, perhaps, most challenged.

Thus I became reconciled to what in retrospect was inevitable: the need for a security clearance. There are, generally speaking, three levels of security clearance: from low to high, confidential, secret, and top secret. The last of these can be further extended with a Sensitive Compartmented Information qualifier, creating the coveted TS/SCI access required by positions with the top-tier agencies—CIA and NSA. The TS/SCI was by far the hardest access to get, but also opened the most doors, and so I went back to Anne Arundel Community College while I searched for jobs that would sponsor my application for the grueling Single Scope Background Investigation the clearance required. As the approval process for a TS/SCI can take a year or more, I heartily recommend it to anyone recovering from an injury. All it involves is filling out some paperwork, then sitting around with your feet up and trying not to commit too many crimes while the federal government renders its verdict. The rest, after all, is out of your hands.

On paper, I was a perfect candidate. I was a kid from a service family, nearly every adult member of which had some level of clearance; I’d tried to enlist and fight for my country until an unfortunate accident had laid me low. I had no criminal record,
no drug habit. My only financial debt was the student loan for my Microsoft certification, and I hadn’t yet missed a payment.

None of this stopped me, of course, from being nervous.

I drove to and from classes at AACC as the National Background Investigations Bureau rummaged through nearly every aspect of my life and interviewed almost everyone I knew: my parents, my extended family, my classmates and friends. They went through my spotty school transcripts and, I’m sure, spoke to a few of my teachers. I got the impression that they even spoke to Mae and Norm, and to a guy I’d worked with one summer at a snow cone stand at Six Flags America. The goal of all this background checking was not only to find out what I’d done wrong, but also to find out how I might be compromised or blackmailed. The most important thing to the IC is not that you’re 100 percent perfectly clean, because if that were the case they wouldn’t hire anybody. Instead, it’s that you’re robotically honest—that there’s no dirty secret out there that you’re hiding that could be used against you, and thus against the agency, by an enemy power.

This, of course, set me thinking—sitting stuck in traffic as all the moments of my life that I regretted went spinning around in a loop inside my head. Nothing I could come up with would have raised even an iota of eyebrow from investigators who are used to finding out that the middle-aged analyst at a think tank likes to wear diapers and get spanked by grandmothers in leather. Still, there was a paranoia that the process created, because you don’t have to be a closet fetishist to have done things that embarrass you and to fear that strangers might misunderstand you if those things were exposed. I mean, I grew up on the Internet, for Christ’s sake. If you haven’t entered something shameful or gross into that search box, then you haven’t been online very long—though I wasn’t worried about the pornography. Everybody looks at porn, and for those of you who are shaking your heads, don’t worry: your secret is safe with me. My worries were more personal, or felt more personal: the endless conveyor belt of stupid jingoistic things I’d said, and the even stupider misanthropic opinions I’d abandoned, in the
process of growing up online. Specifically, I was worried about my chat logs and forum posts, all the supremely moronic commentary that I’d sprayed across a score of gaming and hacker sites. Writing pseudonymously had meant writing freely, but often thoughtlessly. And since a major aspect of early Internet culture was competing with others to say the most inflammatory thing, I’d never hesitate to advocate, say, bombing a country that taxed video games, or corralling people who didn’t like anime into reeducation camps. Nobody on those sites took any of it seriously, least of all myself.

When I went back and reread the posts, I cringed. Half the things I’d said I hadn’t even meant at the time—I’d just wanted attention—but I didn’t fancy my odds of explaining that to a gray-haired man in horn-rimmed glasses peering over a giant folder labeled
PERMANENT RECORD
. The other half, the things I think I had meant at the time, were even worse, because I wasn’t that kid anymore. I’d grown up. It wasn’t simply that I didn’t recognize the voice as my own—it was that I now actively opposed its overheated, hormonal opinions. I found that I wanted to argue with a ghost. I wanted to fight with that dumb, puerile, and casually cruel self of mine who no longer existed. I couldn’t stand the idea of being haunted by him forever, but I didn’t know the best way to express my remorse and put some distance between him and me, or whether I should even try to do that. It was heinous to be so inextricably, technologically bound to a past that I fully regretted but barely remembered.

This might be the most familiar problem of my generation, the first to grow up online. We were able to discover and explore our identities almost totally unsupervised, with hardly a thought spared for the fact that our rash remarks and profane banter were being preserved for perpetuity, and that one day we might be expected to account for them. I’m sure everyone who had an Internet connection before they had a job can sympathize with this—surely everyone has that one post that embarrasses them, or that text or email that could get them fired.

My situation was somewhat different, however, in that most of the message boards of my day would let you delete your old posts. I could put together one tiny little script—not even a real program—and all of my posts would be gone in under an hour. It would’ve been the easiest thing in the world to do. Trust me, I considered it.

But ultimately, I couldn’t. Something kept preventing me. It just felt wrong. To blank my posts from the face of the earth wasn’t illegal, and it wouldn’t even have made me ineligible for a security clearance had anyone found out. But the prospect of doing so bothered me nonetheless. It would’ve only served to reinforce some of the most corrosive precepts of online life: that nobody is ever allowed to make a mistake, and anybody who does make a mistake must answer for it forever. What mattered to me wasn’t so much the integrity of the written record but that of my soul. I didn’t want to live in a world where everyone had to pretend that they were perfect, because that was a world that had no place for me or my friends. To erase those comments would have been to erase who I was, where I was from, and how far I’d come. To deny my younger self would have been to deny my present self’s validity.

I decided to leave the comments up and figure out how to live with them. I even decided that true fidelity to this stance would require me to continue posting. In time, I’d outgrow these new opinions, too, but my initial impulse remains unshakable, if only because it was an important step in my own maturity. We can’t erase the things that shame us, or the ways we’ve shamed ourselves, online. All we can do is control our reactions—whether we let the past oppress us, or accept its lessons, grow, and move on.

This was the first thing that you might call a principle that occurred to me during this idle but formative time, and though it would prove difficult, I’ve tried to live by it.

Believe it or not, the only online traces of my existence whose past iterations have never given me worse than a mild sense of
embarrassment were my dating profiles. I suspect this is because I’d had to write them with the expectation that their words truly mattered—since the entire purpose of the enterprise was for somebody in Real Life to actually care about them, and, by extension, about me.

I’d joined a website called HotOrNot.com, which was the most popular of the rating sites of the early 2000s, like RateMyFace and AmIHot. (Their most effective features were combined by a young Mark Zuckerberg into a site called FaceMash, which later became Facebook.) HotOrNot was the most popular of these pre-Facebook rating sites for a simple reason: it was the best of the few that had a dating component.

Basically, how it worked was that users voted on each other’s photos: Hot or Not. An extra function for registered users such as myself was the ability to contact other registered users, if each had rated the other’s photos Hot and clicked “Meet Me.” This banal and crass process is how I met Lindsay Mills, my partner and the love of my life.

Looking at the photos now, I’m amused to find that nineteen-year-old Lindsay was gawky, awkward, and endearingly shy. To me at the time, though, she was a smoldering blonde, absolutely volcanic. What’s more, the photos themselves were beautiful: they had a serious artistic quality, self-portraits more than selfies. They caught the eye and held it. They played coyly with light and shade. They even had a hint of meta fun: there was one taken inside the photo lab where she worked, and another where she wasn’t even facing the camera.

I rated her Hot, a perfect ten. To my surprise, we matched (she rated me an eight, the angel), and in no time we were chatting. Lindsay was studying fine art photography. She had her own website, where she kept a journal and posted more shots: forests, flowers, abandoned factories, and—my favorite—more of her.

I scoured the Web and used each new fact I found about her to create a fuller picture: the town she was born in (Laurel, Maryland), her school’s name (MICA, the Maryland Institute College of
Art). Eventually, I admitted to cyberstalking her. I felt like a creep, but Lindsay cut me off. “I’ve been searching about you, too, mister,” she said, and rattled off a list of facts about me.

These were among the sweetest words I’d ever heard, yet I was reluctant to see her in person. We scheduled a date, and as the days ticked down my nervousness grew. It’s a scary proposition, to take an online relationship off-line. It would be scary even in a world without ax murderers and scammers. In my experience, the more you’ve communicated with someone online, the more disappointed you’ll be by meeting them in person. Things that are the easiest to say on-screen become the most difficult to say face-to-face. Distance favors intimacy: no one talks more openly than when they’re alone in a room, chatting with an unseen someone alone in a different room. Meet that person, however, and you lose your latitude. Your talk becomes safer and tamer, a common conversation on neutral ground.

Online, Lindsay and I had become total confidants, and I was afraid of losing our connection in person. In other words, I was afraid of being rejected.

I shouldn’t have been.

Lindsay—who’d insisted on driving—told me that she’d pick me up at my mother’s condo. The appointed hour found me standing outside in the twilight cold, guiding her by phone through the similarly named, identical-looking streets of my mother’s development. I was keeping an eye out for a gold ’98 Chevy Cavalier, when suddenly I was blinded, struck in the face by a beam of light from the curb. Lindsay was flashing her brights at me across the snow.

“Buckle up.” Those were the first words that Lindsay said to me in person, as I got into her car. Then she said, “What’s the plan?”

It’s then that I realized that despite all the thinking I had been doing about her, I’d done no thinking whatsoever about our destination.

If I’d been in this situation with any other woman, I’d have improvised, covering for myself. But with Lindsay it was different.
With Lindsay, it didn’t matter. She drove us down her favorite road—she had a favorite road—and we talked until we ran out of miles on Guilford and ended up in the parking lot of the Laurel Mall. We just sat in her car and talked.

It was perfection. Talking face-to-face turned out to be just an extension of all our phone calls, emails, and chats. Our first date was a continuation of our first contact online and the start of a conversation that will last as long as we will. We talked about our families, or what was left of them. Lindsay’s parents were also divorced: her mother and father lived twenty minutes apart, and as a kid Lindsay had been shuttled back and forth between them. She’d lived out of a bag. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays she slept in her room at her mother’s house. Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays she slept in her room at her father’s house. Sundays were the dramatic day, because she had to choose.

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