One Kickstarter backer messaged me to ask how they could find out more about the Snowden leaks and I thought this would be a good time to provide a few pointers.
Citizenfour - Laura Poitras
Firstly, if you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend the Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour. Shot ‘in the room’ as the leaks took place, this is not only an important historical record, but also a great film in its own right.
Directed by Laura Poitras, the majority takes place in Hong Kong where the protagonists are holed up in a claustrophobic hotel room. Snowden knows he could be arrested at any moment, and the tension is incredible. It’s the kind of story which you might think is a John Le Carré novel if you didn’t know it was real.
Poitras is a fearless journalists. Stopped for years at airports after being put on a US government watchlist, she was perfectly placed to understand the importance of the story. She’s also a great film-maker. An advocate of a stripped back, observational style, she eshews complex camera work and staged interviews to let the raw footage speak for itself.
Citizenfour is a huge inspiration for me. It’s an unusual mix of journalism and entertainment which is exactly what I want with Top Secret. Emails sent between Poitras and Snowden will be a key component of the game.
TLDR: Go watch Citizenfour, you won’t regret it!
No Place to Hide - Glenn Greenwald
Penned by Glenn Greenwald (another key character in the leaks), No Place to Hide covers similar ground to Citizenfour, but also explores the contents of the leaks. If you’ve heard of PRISM, XKEYSCORE, and BOUNDLESS INFORMANT, but are not sure what they are, this is the book for you.
The great thing about this book and Citizenfour is that they are made by people who were actually there. This is all first-hand journalism and it shows.
The Shadow Factory - James Bamford
Long before Snowden leaked any documents, a hard-nosed, inquisitive journalist called James Bamford was writing about the most secretive of US intelligence agencies in extraordinary detail.
The Shadow Factory covers the rise of the NSA from 9/11 onwards and reveals the incredible scaling-up of the surveillance infrastructure in the wake of the attacks. Lots of things proven by the Snowden leaks were mentioned here first and if this book shows us anything, it is that hard evidence matters. James Bamford had numerous sources and impressive rigour, but it wasn’t until raw documents were leaked that people sat up and noticed.
This book is brilliant if you’re a security geek like me. There’s a tonne of intricate detail, and great securocrat anecdotes. Bamford shines a light on the revolving door between the public and private surveillance sector, and the illegal warrantless wiretapping program instigated by president Bush.
This is a heavier read than the other books mentioned here, but you won’t find this information anywhere else. A must read.
The Snowden Files - Luke Harding
This is probably the most well-known (and successful) book here but is the one I would recommend the least. That’s not to say it isn’t engaging (because it is) but it lacks the first-hand authenticity of Citizenfour/No Place to Hide, and the rich detail of The Shadow Factory. Much of the content covered in this book is presented better elsewhere.
What this book does offer is a deeper look at Edward Snowden himself, from his childhood, to his employment in the US army, CIA, and eventually NSA. Snowden has lead an unusual life and knowing the facts does help put the leaks into context.
So why the reservations?
When reading The Snowden Files, you can’t escape the feeling that the book was rushed out to capitalise on the leaks. Some passages seem hurried, and others lack detail. There’s also a lot of second-hand journalism. Luke Harding (the author) has never met Snowden.
In summary, it’s worth a read, but not essential.
Since covering the initial leaks, both Greenwald and Poitras helped set up The Intercept. This is definitely the news site of choice for surveillance issues and has begun covering world events with similar detail and insight. Greenwald’s acerbic prose skewers Washington hypocrisy with ease and while you might not agree with everything he says, you can’t ignore him.
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