Authors: Edward Snowden
She told me how bad my taste was, and criticized my date apparel: a button-down shirt decorated with metallic flames over a wifebeater and jeans (I’m sorry). She told me about the two other guys she was dating, whom she’d already mentioned online, and Machiavelli would’ve blushed at the ways in which I set about undermining them (I’m not sorry). I told her everything, too, including the fact that I wouldn’t be able to talk to her about my work—the work I hadn’t even started. This was ludicrously pretentious, which she made obvious to me by nodding gravely.
I told her I was worried about the upcoming polygraph required for my clearance and she offered to practice with me—a goofy kind of foreplay. The philosophy she lived by was the perfect training: say what you want, say who you are, never be ashamed. If they reject you, it’s their problem. I’d never been so comfortable around someone, and I’d never been so willing to be called out for my faults. I even let her take my photo.
I had her voice in my head on my drive to the NSA’s oddly named Friendship Annex complex for the final interview for my security clearance. I found myself in a windowless room, bound like a hostage to a cheap office chair. Around my chest and stom
ach were pneumographic tubes that measured my breathing. Finger cuffs on my fingertips measured my electrodermal activity, a blood pressure cuff around my arm measured my heart rate, and a sensor pad on the chair detected my every fidget and shift. All of these devices—wrapped, clamped, cuffed, and belted tightly around me—were connected to the large black polygraph machine placed on the table in front of me.
Behind the table, in a nicer chair, sat the polygrapher. She reminded me of a teacher I once had—and I spent much of the test trying to remember the teacher’s name, or trying not to. She, the polygrapher, began asking questions. The first ones were no-brainers: Was my name Edward Snowden? Was 6/21/83 my date of birth? Then: Had I ever committed a serious crime? Had I ever had a problem with gambling? Had I ever had a problem with alcohol or taken illegal drugs? Had I ever been an agent of a foreign power? Had I ever advocated the violent overthrow of the United States government? The only admissible answers were binary: “Yes” and “No.” I answered “No” a lot, and kept waiting for the questions I’d been dreading. “Have you ever impugned the competence and character of the medical staff at Fort Benning online?” “What were you searching for on the network of the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory?” But those questions never came and, before I knew it, the test was over.
I’d passed with flying colors.
As required, I had to answer the series of questions three times in total, and all three times I passed, which meant that not only had I qualified for the TS/SCI, I’d also cleared the “full scope polygraph”—the highest clearance in the land.
I had a girlfriend I loved and I was on top of the world.
I was twenty-two years old.
I’m going to press Pause here, for a moment, to explain something about my politics at age twenty-two: I didn’t have any. Instead, like most young people, I had solid convictions that I refused to accept weren’t truly mine but rather a contradictory cluster of inherited principles. My mind was a mash-up of the values I was raised with and the ideals I encountered online. It took me until my late twenties to finally understand that so much of what I believed, or of what I thought I believed, was just youthful imprinting. We learn to speak by imitating the speech of the adults around us, and in the process of that learning we wind up also imitating their opinions, until we’ve deluded ourselves into thinking that the words we’re using are our own.
My parents were, if not dismissive of politics in general, then certainly dismissive of politicians. To be sure, this dismissal had little in common with the disaffection of nonvoters or partisan disdain. Rather, it was a certain bemused detachment particular to their class, which nobler ages have called the federal civil service or the public sector, but which our own time tends to refer to as the deep state or the shadow government. None of those
epithets, however, really captures what it is: a class of career officials (incidentally, perhaps one of the last functional middle classes in American life) who—nonelected and non-appointed—serve or work in government, either at one of the independent agencies (from the CIA and NSA to the IRS, the FCC, and so on) or at one of the executive departments (State, Treasury, Defense, Justice, and the like).
These were my parents, these were my people: a nearly three-million-strong professional government workforce dedicated to assisting the amateurs chosen by the electorate, and appointed by the elected, in fulfilling their political duties—or, in the words of the oath, in faithfully executing their offices. These civil servants, who stay in their positions even as administrations come and go, work as diligently under Republicans as under Democrats because they ultimately work for the government itself, providing core continuity and stability of rule.
These were also the people who, when their country went to war, answered the call. That’s what I had done after 9/11, and I found that the patriotism my parents had taught me was easily converted into nationalist fervor. For a time, especially in my run-up to joining the army, my sense of the world came to resemble the duality of the least sophisticated video games, where good and evil are clearly defined and unquestionable.
However, once I returned from the Army and rededicated myself to computing, I gradually came to regret my martial fantasies. The more I developed my abilities, the more I matured and realized that the technology of communications had a chance of succeeding where the technology of violence had failed. Democracy could never be imposed at the point of a gun, but perhaps it could be sown by the spread of silicon and fiber. In the early 2000s the Internet was still just barely out of its formative period, and, to my mind at least, it offered a more authentic and complete incarnation of American ideals than even America itself. A place where everyone was equal? Check. A place dedicated to life, lib
erty, and the pursuit of happiness? Check, check, check. It helped that nearly all the major founding documents of Internet culture framed it in terms reminiscent of American history: here was this wild, open new frontier that belonged to anyone bold enough to settle it, swiftly becoming colonized by governments and corporate interests that were seeking to regulate it for power and profit. The large companies that were charging large fees—for hardware, for software, for the long-distance phone calls that you needed back then to get online, and for knowledge itself, which was humanity’s common inheritance and so, by all rights, should have been freely available—were irresistible contemporary avatars of the British, whose harsh taxation ignited the fervor for independence.
This revolution wasn’t happening in history textbooks, but now, in my generation, and any of us could be part of it solely by dint of our abilities. This was thrilling—to participate in the founding of a new society, one based not on where we were born or how we grew up or our popularity at school but on our knowledge and technological ability. In school, I’d had to memorize the preamble to the U.S. Constitution: now its words were lodged in my memory alongside John Perry Barlow’s “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” which employed the same self-evident, self-elect plural pronoun: “We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth. We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.”
This technological meritocracy was certainly empowering, but it could also be humbling, as I came to understand when I first went to work in the Intelligence Community. The decentralization of the Internet merely emphasized the decentralization of computing expertise. I might have been the top computer person in my family, or in my neighborhood, but to work for the IC meant testing my skills against everyone in the country and the world. The
Internet showed me the sheer quantity and variety of talent that existed, and made clear that in order to flourish I had to specialize.
There were a few different careers available to me as a technologist. I could have become a software developer, or, as the job is more commonly called, a programmer, writing the code that makes computers work. Alternatively, I could have become a hardware or network specialist, setting up the servers in their racks and running the wires, weaving the massive fabric that connects every computer, every device, and every file. Computers and computer programs were interesting to me, and so were the networks that linked them together. But I was most intrigued by their total functioning at a deeper level of abstraction, not as individual components but as an overarching system.
I thought about this a lot while I was driving, to and from Lindsay’s house and to and from AACC. Car time has always been thinking time for me, and commutes are long on the crowded Beltway. To be a software developer was to run the rest stops off the exits and to make sure that all the fast-food and gas station franchises accorded with each other and with user expectations; to be a hardware specialist was to lay the infrastructure, to grade and pave the roads themselves; while to be a network specialist was to be responsible for traffic control, manipulating signs and lights to safely route the time-crunched hordes to their proper destinations. To get into systems, however, was to be an urban planner, to take all of the components available and ensure their interaction to maximum effect. It was, pure and simple, like getting paid to play God, or at least a tinpot dictator.
There are two main ways to be a systems guy. One is that you take possession of the whole of an existing system and maintain it, gradually making it more efficient and fixing it when it breaks. That position is called a systems administrator, or sysadmin. The second is that you analyze a problem, such as how to store data or how to search across databases, and solve it by engineering a solution from a combination of existing components or by inventing entirely new ones. This position is called a systems engineer. I
eventually would do both of these jobs, working my way into administration and from there into engineering, oblivious throughout about how this intense engagement with the deepest levels of integration of computing technology was exerting an influence on my political convictions.
I’ll try not to be too abstract here, but I want you to imagine a system. It doesn’t matter what system: it can be a computer system, an ecosystem, a legal system, or even a system of government. Remember, a system is just a bunch of parts that function together as a whole, which most people are only reminded of when something breaks. It’s one of the great chastening facts of working with systems that the part of a system that malfunctions is almost never the part in which
the malfunction. In order to find what caused the system to collapse, you have to start from the point where you spotted the problem, and trace the problem’s effects logically through all of the system’s components. Because a sysadmin or engineer is responsible for such repairs, they have to be equally fluent in software, hardware, and networking. If the malfunction turns out to be a software issue, the repair might involve scrolling through line after line of code in a UN General Assembly’s worth of programming languages. If it’s a hardware issue, it might require going over a circuit board with a flashlight in the mouth and a soldering gun in hand, checking each connection. If networking is implicated, it might mean tracing every twist and turn of the cables that run above the ceiling and under the floor, connecting the distant data centers full of servers with an office full of laptops.
Because systems work according to instructions, or rules, such an analysis is ultimately a search for which rules failed, how, and why—an attempt to identify the specific points where the intention of a rule was not adequately expressed by its formulation or application. Did the system fail because something was not communicated, or because someone abused the system by accessing a resource they weren’t allowed to, or by accessing a resource they were allowed to but using it exploitatively? Was the job of one
component stopped, or impeded, by another? Did one program, or computer, or group of people take over more than their fair share of the system?
Over the course of my career, it became increasingly difficult for me to ask these questions about the technologies I was responsible for and not about my country. And it became increasingly frustrating to me that I was able to repair the former but not the latter. I ended my time in Intelligence convinced that my country’s operating system—its government—had decided that it functioned best when broken.
I had hoped to serve my country, but instead I went to work for it. This is not a trivial distinction. The sort of honorable stability offered to my father and Pop wasn’t quite as available to me, or to anyone of my generation. Both my father and Pop entered the service of their country on the first day of their working lives and retired from that service on the last. That was the American government that was familiar to me, from earliest childhood—when it had helped to feed, clothe, and house me—to the moment when it had cleared me to go into the Intelligence Community. That government had treated a citizen’s service like a compact: it would provide for you and your family, in return for your integrity and the prime years of your life.
But I came into the IC during a different age.
By the time I arrived, the sincerity of public service had given way to the greed of the private sector, and the sacred compact of the soldier, officer, and career civil servant was being replaced by the unholy bargain of
, the primary species of US Government 2.0. This creature was not a sworn servant but a transient worker, whose patriotism was incentivized by a better
paycheck and for whom the federal government was less the ultimate authority than the ultimate client.
During the American Revolution, it had made sense for the Continental Congress to hire privateers and mercenaries to protect the independence of what was then barely a functioning republic. But for third-millennium hyperpower America to rely on privatized forces for the national defense struck me as strange and vaguely sinister. Indeed, today contracting is most often associated with its major failures, such as the fighting-for-hire work of Blackwater (which changed its name to Xe Services after its employees were convicted of killing fourteen Iraqi civilians, and then changed its name again to Academi after it was acquired by a group of private investors), or the torture-for-hire work of CACI and Titan (both of which supplied personnel who terrorized prisoners at Abu Ghraib).
These sensationalist cases can lead the public to believe that the government employs contractors in order to maintain cover and deniability, off-loading the illegal or quasi-legal dirty work to keep its hands clean and conscience clear. But that’s not entirely true, or at least not entirely true in the IC, which tends to focus less on deniability and more on never getting caught in the first place. Instead, the primary purpose served by IC contracting is much more mundane: it’s a workaround, a loophole, a hack that lets agencies circumvent federal caps on hiring. Every agency has a head count, a legislative limit that dictates the number of people it can hire to do a certain type of work. But contractors, because they’re not directly employed by the federal government, aren’t included in that number. The agencies can hire as many of them as they can pay for, and they can pay for as many of them as they want—all they have to do is testify to a few select congressional subcommittees that the terrorists are coming for our children, or the Russians are in our emails, or the Chinese are in our power grid. Congress never says no to this type of begging, which is actually a kind of threat, and reliably capitulates to the IC’s demands.
Among the documents that I provided to journalists was the
2013 Black Budget. This is a classified budget in which over 68 percent of its money, $52.6 billion, was dedicated to the IC, including funding for 107,035 IC employees—more than a fifth of whom, some 21,800 people, were full-time contractors. And that number doesn’t even include the tens of thousands more employed by companies that have signed contracts (or subcontracts, or sub-subcontracts) with the agencies for a specific service or project. Those contractors are never counted by the government, not even in the Black Budget, because to add their ranks to the contracting total would make one disturbing fact extraordinarily clear: the work of American Intelligence is done as frequently by private employees as it is by government servants.
To be sure, there are many, even in government, who maintain that this trickle-down scheme is advantageous. With contractors, they say, the government can encourage competitive bidding to keep costs down, and isn’t on the hook to pay pensions and benefits. But the real advantage for government officials is the conflict of interest inherent in the budgeting process itself. IC directors ask Congress for money to rent contract workers from private companies, congresspeople approve that money, and then those IC directors and congresspeople are rewarded, after they retire from office, by being given high-paying positions and consultancies with the very companies they’ve just enriched. From the vantage of the corporate boardroom, contracting functions as governmentally assisted corruption. It’s America’s most legal and convenient method of transferring public money to the private purse.
But however much the work of Intelligence is privatized, the federal government remains the only authority that can grant an individual clearance to access classified information. And because clearance candidates must be sponsored in order to apply for clearance—meaning they must already have a job offer for a position that requires clearance—most contractors begin their careers in a government position. After all, it’s rarely worth the expense for a private company to sponsor your clearance application and then pay you to wait around for a year for the government’s ap
proval. It makes more financial sense for a company to just hire an already-cleared government employee. The situation created by this economy is one in which government bears all the burdens of background checks but reaps few of the benefits. It must do all of the work and assume all of the expense of clearing a candidate, who, the moment they have their clearance, more often than not bolts for the door, exchanging the blue badge of the government employee for the green badge of the contractor. The joke was that the green symbolized “money.”
The government job that had sponsored me for my TS/SCI clearance wasn’t the one I wanted, but the one I could find: I was officially an employee of the state of Maryland, working for the University of Maryland at College Park. The university was helping the NSA open a new institution called CASL, the Center for Advanced Study of Language.
CASL’s ostensible mission was to study how people learned languages and to develop computer-assisted methods to help them do so more quickly and better. The hidden corollary of this mission was that the NSA also wanted to develop ways to improve computer comprehension of language. If the other agencies were having difficulties finding competent Arabic (and Farsi and Dari and Pashto and Kurdish) speakers who passed their often ridiculous security checks to translate and interpret on the ground—I know too many Americans rejected merely because they had an inconvenient distant cousin they’d never even met—the NSA was having its own tough time ensuring that its computers could comprehend and analyze the massive amount of foreign-language communications that they were intercepting.
I don’t have a more granular idea of the kinds of things that CASL was supposed to do, for the simple reason that when I showed up for work with my bright, shiny clearance, the place wasn’t even open yet. In fact, its building was still under construction. Until it was finished and the tech was installed, my job was essentially that of a night-shift security guard. My responsibilities were limited to showing up every day to patrol the empty halls
after the construction workers—those other contractors—were finished, making sure that nobody burned down the building or broke in and bugged it. I spent hour after hour making rounds through the half-completed shell, inspecting the day’s progress: trying out the chairs that had just been installed in the state-of-the-art auditorium, casting stones back and forth across the suddenly graveled roof, admiring the new drywall, and literally watching the paint dry.
This is the life of after-hours security at a top secret facility, and truthfully I didn’t mind it. I was getting paid to do basically nothing but wander in the dark with my thoughts, and I had all the time in the world to use the one functioning computer that I had access to on the premises to search for a new position. During the daytime, I caught up on my sleep and went out on photography expeditions with Lindsay, who—thanks to my wooing and scheming—had finally dumped her other boyfriends.
At the time I was still naive enough to think that my position with CASL would be a bridge to a full-time federal career. But the more I looked around, the more I was amazed to find that there were very few opportunities to serve my country directly, at least in a meaningful technical role. I had a better chance of working as a contractor for a private company that served my country for profit; and I had the best chance, it turned out, of working as a subcontractor for a private company that contracted with another private company that served my country for profit. The realization was dizzying.
It was particularly bizarre to me that most of the systems engineering and systems administration jobs that were out there were private, because these positions came with almost universal access to the employer’s digital existence. It’s unimaginable that a major bank or even a social media outfit would hire outsiders for systems-level work. In the context of the US government, however, restructuring your intelligence agencies so that your most sensitive systems were being run by somebody who didn’t really work for you was what passed for innovation.
HE AGENCIES WERE
hiring tech companies to hire kids, and then they were giving them the keys to the kingdom, because—as Congress and the press were told—the agencies didn’t have a choice. No one else knew how the keys, or the kingdom, worked. I tried to rationalize all this into a pretext for optimism. I swallowed my incredulity, put together a résumé, and went to the job fairs, which, at least in the early aughts, were the primary venues where contractors found new work and government employees were poached. These fairs went by the dubious name of “Clearance Jobs”—I think I was the only one who found that double meaning funny.
At the time, these events were held every month at the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner, Virginia, just down the road from the CIA’s headquarters, or at one of the grubbier Marriott-type hotels near the NSA’s headquarters at Fort Meade. They were pretty much like any other job fair, I’m told, with one crucial exception: here, it always felt like there were more recruiters than there were recruits. That should give you an indication of the industry’s appetite. The recruiters paid a lot of money to be at these fairs, because these were the only places in the country where everyone who walked through the door wearing their stickum name tag badge had supposedly already been prescreened online and cross-checked with the agencies—and so was presumed to already have a clearance, and probably also the requisite skills.
Once you left the well-appointed hotel lobby for the all-business ballroom, you entered Planet Contractor. Everybody would be there: this wasn’t the University of Maryland anymore—this was Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems, Booz Allen Hamilton, DynCorp, Titan, CACI, SAIC, COMSO, as well as a hundred other different acronyms I’d never heard of. Some contractors had tables, but the larger ones had booths that were fully furnished and equipped with refreshments.
After you handed a prospective employer a copy of your résumé and small-talked a bit, in a sort of informal interview, they’d
break out their binders, which contained lists of all the government billets they were trying to fill. But because this work touched on the clandestine, the billets were accompanied not by standardized job titles and traditional job descriptions but with intentionally obscure, coded verbiage that was often particular to each contractor. One company’s Senior Developer 3 might or might not be equivalent to another company’s Principal Analyst 2, for example. Frequently the only way to differentiate among these positions was to note that each specified its own requirements of years of experience, level of certifications, and type of security clearance.
After the 2013 revelations, the US government would try to disparage me by referring to me as “only a contractor” or “a former Dell employee,” with the implication that I didn’t enjoy the same kinds of clearance and access as a blue-badged agency staffer. Once that discrediting characterization was established, the government proceeded to accuse me of “job-hopping,” hinting that I was some sort of disgruntled worker who didn’t get along with superiors or an exceptionally ambitious employee dead-set on getting ahead at all costs. The truth is that these were both lies of convenience. The IC knows better than anyone that changing jobs is part of the career track of every contractor: it’s a mobility situation that the agencies themselves created, and profit from.
In national security contracting, especially in tech contracting, you often find yourself physically working at an agency facility, but nominally—on paper—working for Dell, or Lockheed Martin, or one of the umpteen smaller firms that frequently get bought by a Dell or a Lockheed Martin. In such an acquisition, of course, the smaller firm’s contracts get bought, too, and suddenly there’s a different employer and job title on your business card. Your day-to-day work, though, remains the same: you’re still sitting at the agency facility, doing your tasks. Nothing has changed at all. Meanwhile, the dozen coworkers sitting to your left and right—the same coworkers you work with on the same projects daily—might technically be employed by a dozen different companies, and those companies might still be a few degrees removed
from the corporate entities that hold the primary contracts with the agency.
I wish I remembered the exact chronology of my contracting, but I don’t have a copy of my résumé anymore—that file, Edward_Snowden_Resume.doc, is locked up in the Documents folder of one of my old home computers, since seized by the FBI. I do recall, however, that my first major contracting gig was actually a subcontracting gig: the CIA had hired BAE Systems, which had hired COMSO, which hired me.
BAE Systems is a midsize American subdivision of British Aerospace, set up expressly to win contracts from the American IC. COMSO was basically its recruiter, a few folks who spent all their time driving around the Beltway trying to find the actual contractors (“the asses”) and sign them up (“put the asses in chairs”). Of all the companies I talked to at the job fairs, COMSO was the hungriest, perhaps because it was among the smallest. I never learned what the company’s acronym stood for, or even if it stood for anything. Technically speaking, COMSO would be my employer, but I never worked a single day at a COMSO office, or at a BAE Systems office, and few contractors ever would. I’d only work at CIA headquarters.