WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange investigates the book behind Snowden, Oliver Stone’s forthcoming film starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Nicolas Cage, Scott Eastwood and Zachary Quinto. According to leaked Sony emails, movie rights for the book were bought for $700,000.
Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden speaking via video during a student-organized world affairs conference at Upper Canada College private high school in Toronto. (photo: Mark Blinc/Reuters)
he Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man (Guardian/Faber & Faber, 2014) by Luke Harding is a hack job in the purest sense of the term. Pieced together from secondary sources and written with minimal additional research to be the first to market, the book’s thrifty origins are hard to miss.
The Guardian is a curiously inward-looking beast. If any other institution tried to market its own experience of its own work nearly as persistently as The Guardian, it would surely be called out for institutional narcissism. But because The Guardian is an embarrassingly central institution within the moribund “left-of-center” wing of the U.K. establishment, everyone holds their tongue.
In recent years, we have seen The Guardian consult itself into cinematic history—in the Jason Bourne films and others—as a hip, ultra-modern, intensely British newspaper with a progressive edge, a charmingly befuddled giant of investigative journalism with a cast-iron spine.
The Snowden Files positions The Guardian as central to the Edward Snowden affair, elbowing out more significant players like Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras for Guardianstablemates, often with remarkably bad grace.
I am referred to as the “self-styled editor of WikiLeaks.” In other words, the editor of WikiLeaks. This is about as subtle as Harding’s withering asides get. You could use this kind of thing on anyone.
The book is full of flatulent tributes to The Guardian and its would-be journalists. “[Guardian journalist Ewen] MacAskill had climbed the Matterhorn, Mont Blanc and the Jungfrau. His calmness now stood him in good stead.” Self-styled Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger is introduced and reintroduced in nearly every chapter, each time quoting the same hagiographic New Yorker profile as testimony to his “steely” composure and “radiant calm.”
That this is Hollywood bait could not be more blatant.
Adaptation rights for Harding’s book were acquired last year by Oliver Stone, whose Edward Snowden film began principal photography in January, and is due for release just before Christmas. I wince to think of the money that has now soaked into this turkey of a book.
According to the budget for the production, found in the Sony archive leak published by WikiLeaks on Thursday, April 16, the film rights for Harding’s book fetched $700,000, none of which, it must be remarked, has been contributed to Snowden’s legal defense. Having spoken to Stone, I’m confident that he is aware of the humdrum nature of his source material, and that his script does not lean too heavily on the book.
If any A-list director can put the sour omen of a Luke Harding film rights purchase behind him, it is probably Stone. And yet I’m still surprised that this author is not kryptonite to movie financiers by now. Harding was also the co-author of 2011’s WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy, another tour de force of dreary cash-in publishing, which went on to be the basis for Dreamworks’ catastrophic box-office failure: 2013’s The Fifth Estate.
Harding’s co-author on that book—the self-styled former senior Guardian editor David Leigh—is absent in The Snowden Files. This is good: In writing about his work with me on the WikiLeaks material, Leigh chose—over my explicit warnings—to print a confidential encryption password as a chapter heading, undoing eight months of our work (and of over a hundred other media organizations) and resulting in the dumping of hundreds of thousands of State Department cables onto the Internet without the selective redactions that had been carefully prepared for them.
In a Goebbelsian projection, Leigh and The Guardian promptly blamed me for this. Harding repeats the libel without irony in The Snowden Files.
In any case, gone is Leigh. Consequently, no sensitive passwords appear to have been disclosed in the making of Harding’s book. Furthermore, there is evidence in these pages that The Guardian is now attempting to embrace basic operational security procedures, a positive development, even if it is years late and being done haphazardly.
Back in 2010, when we were publishing classified Pentagon and State Department documents, the paper’s journalists jovially branded me “paranoid” for refusing to discuss sensitive information over email. Would-be lifestyle journalist Decca Aitkenhead later even took this as far as insinuating that I might be losing my mind. But I was just doing my job, and I am relieved that it’s starting to sink in at The Guardian that it’s their job, too.
Since I’ve started praising the book, I might as well continue. As hack jobs by Luke Harding go, a lot of work has gone into this one. Mr. Harding has clearly gone to uncharacteristic lengths in rewriting most of his source material, although it remains in large part unattributed.
WikiLeaks founder Assange gestures during a news conference on August 18, 2014, at the Ecuadorian embassy in London. (photo: John Stillwell/pool/Reuters)
Plagiarist of the Year
Notoriously, as the Moscow bureau chief for The Guardian, Harding used to ply his trade ripping off work by other Moscow-based journalists before his plagiarism was pointed out by The eXile‘s Mark Ames and Yasha Levine, from whom he had misappropriated entire paragraphs without alteration. For this he was awarded “plagiarist of the year” by Private Eye in 2007.
But—disciplined by experience—he covers his tracks much more effectively here. This book thereby avoids the charge of naked plagiarism.
Yet the conclusion cannot be resisted that this work is painfully derivative. Snowden has never spoken to Harding. The two have never met. The story is largely pieced together from more original work by James Risen, Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, Peter Maas, Janet Reitman, writers from the South China Morning Post and others.
The subtitle of the book, “The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man,” is therefore disingenuous. If this is an inside story of Snowden, then anyone can write an inside story of anything.
Something in me has to applaud the chutzpah. There simply isn’t a book here. Tangents and trivia serve as desperate page-filler, padding out scarce source material to book length. We are subjected to routine detours through Snowden’s historical namesakes, rehearsals of the plot of the James Bond movie Skyfall and lengthy forays into Harding’s pedestrian view of Soviet history.
Elsewhere, Harding runs out of external material to recycle and begins to rehash his own, best evidenced in the almost identical Homeric introductions Harding’s boss, Alan Rusbridger, receives every time he arrives on the page.
To be fair, not all of the book is secondhand information. The middle chapters, which document The Guardian‘s internal struggles over the publication of the Snowden information, contain mostly novel anecdotes. True, I’d already heard many of them (The Guardian leaks like a sieve), but it’s convenient to have them all written down in one place.
For most of his narrative, however, Harding is riding on the coattails of other journalists. His is more of a “backside story” than an “inside story.” It reveals a glaring lack of expertise in just about every topic it touches on: the Internet and its subcultures, information and operational security, the digital rights and policy community, hacker culture, the cypherpunk movement, geopolitics, espionage and the security industry.
For our author, “computer skills” are about as comprehensible as magical powers in a J.K. Rowling novel. Although examples of this can be found throughout the book, it is nowhere more apparent than in a transparent promo piece in The Guardian where Harding claimed that while he was writing The Snowden Files, his word processor would occasionally start to delete paragraphs while he watched.
Mundane explanations abound, but Harding is apparently desperate to attribute the episode to clandestine actors. “Was it the NSA? GCHQ? A Russian hacker?” the article asks breathlessly. Or, a reader might be forgiven for wondering, a bit of clotted cream stuck under the backspace key?
As a computer security expert who’s been in this business for a long time, I can assure Harding that if a well-resourced intelligence agency has compromised his computer, it will not be going out of its way to advertise itself to him by playing silly games with his word processor. As we like to say at WikiLeaks, “the quieter you become, the more you can hear.”
But maybe Harding isn’t as paranoid or gullible as he appears. After all, the “self-deleting paragraph” episode is only the latest in a string of self-aggrandizing promotional “likely stories” he has penned. As Richard de Lacy points out in his article “Face It, the FSB Is Just Not That Into You,” an earlier Harding book on Russia was announced with another article in The Guardian where the author constructed an elaborate Russian secret police conspiracy against him from such telltale signs as problems with his screen saver, stiff door handles and bouncing emails. The article was called—with characteristic immodesty—“Enemy of the State.”
This kind of breezy approach to facts is reflected throughout the volume. The persecution of NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake by the U.S. Justice Department—so central to this story—is summarized clumsily and then forgotten. And even I know that Namco’s “Tekken” is not—as Harding claims—a “role-playing game.”
We are left with a “Bullshitter’s Guide” to the world of the world’s most wanted man. It is a book by someone who wasn’t there, doesn’t know, doesn’t belong and doesn’t understand.
Where the book is accurate, it is derivative. And where it is not derivative, it is not accurate. In the chapter on Snowden’s exit from Hong Kong, I discover that I had been “frantically trying to make contact with Edward Snowden” and that I had “barged [my] way into [his] drama.”
I was present at these events (Harding was not), and it was Edward Snowden who contacted me for help, not the other way around. This is something Snowden will happily confirm, at least to those who have access to him. The entire chapter is irredeemably specious. “Much is mysterious, but…” writes the self-styled journalist Harding, a polite way of saying that what follows has been made up.
Clues abound that Harding is filling in the blanks himself. All too often, we are presented with sentences such as “Snowden may have allowed himself a wry smile,” reminding us of the paucity of actual content. The result is a story that is a non-story—a generic rendition of the Snowden cycle where lifeless bromide and imagined melodrama stand in for authentic human narrative.
There is no attempt to make the arguments consistent, either. American newspapers are “deferential to authority,” but The Guardian is brave because it emerged from the “Darwinian” publish-or-perish London arena, supposedly a breeding ground for apex predators in the journalist food chain.
But later on, claims Harding, The Guardian holds out alone against the U.K. government while the rest of the London press cowers before a draconian Defense Advisory notice. It is hard to reconcile these stories, except insofar as they dignify The Guardian.
In reality, The Guardian also caved to government pressure—something it continues to do. Originally, the paper wasn’t even going to publish the Snowden leaks—Glenn Greenwald had to force its hand. On request of the government, the paper later voluntarily destroyed its copies of the Snowden documents—and the computers they were saved on—in the basement of its London offices, under the supervision of [Britain’s electronic spying headquarters] GCHQ.
Solidarity with The Guardian from the U.K. press was, indeed, thin on the ground in 2013, but this was not, as Harding wants us to believe, because the rest of the London press was trembling in its boots. It was because the holier-than-thou Guardian had rounded on the News of the World in 2011, something for which it is still loathed within the industry.
Cliché After Cliché
And it is certain that more papers would have run Snowden stories in the U.K. if TheGuardian had shared its material with the rest of the London press. Who wants to recycle someone else’s scoops?
As you’d expect from a serial plagiarist, the book is a stylistic wasteland. There are no regular impasses in here, only the more refined kind of “impasse we can’t get past.” Never simply “deny” when you can “categorically deny.” Sympathetic characters are always either “wry” or “calm”; that is their entire emotional repertoire.
The words “Orwellian,” “Kafkaesque” and “McCarthyite” seem to apply to everything. Far too much is found to be “ironic,” all too often “cruelly” so. Cliché after cliché sweeps by in a wash of ugly prose until you are overwhelmed with the cynical functionalism of the thing.
It wouldn’t be a Guardian book without some institutional axe-grinding. I made the mistake of glancing at the index before I read the book. There I spotted my name, with the following reference:
Assange, Julian; Manichean world view of……….224.
There is something about seeing my “Manichean world view” casually assigned its own index entry that epitomizes the Guardian’s longstanding, cartoon-like vendetta against me.
Whence issues the charge of Manicheanism? In 2012, I independently produced and presented a television show where I interviewed a range of world figures, from Noam Chomsky and Hassan Nasrallah to the presidents of Tunisia and Ecuador.
Among those I invited was Alexei Navalny, hoping to discuss the “managed democracy” of post-Yeltsin Russia. I was game, but Navalny declined. It was worth a try. But I sold a broadcast license to—among others—Russia Today, which is financed by the Russian taxpayer. I am therefore to be held complicit—at least in Harding’s judgment—in Russian state repression.
Harding’s buddies are spared this sort of nonsense. Ewen MacAskill, who spent years in Hong Kong writing for The China Daily, gets the benefit of the doubt, having been, says Harding “in theory at least”—meaning “not really”—employed in “the Chinese Communist Party’s official propaganda unit.” And yet it is considered self-evident that I identify with Vladimir Putin. This is the level of sophistication of the author who imputes to me a “Manichean world view.”
If anyone should answer to the charge of “Manicheanism,” it is Harding, who, when he is not slogging through clumsy Hollywood film treatments smearing whistleblowers, can be found busily obsessing over Putin in the pages of The Guardian.
Decades after the Cold War, British liberal antipathy to Russia continues to distort the perception of human rights transgressions at home. Harding just cannot resist insinuating that the “high-minded and melodramatic” Snowden’s residency in Russia makes him a useful idiot, a “gift to Putin.” He spends a whole chapter seriously trying to argue that Russia is holding Snowden “captive.”
Outside of Harding’s alternative reality, Snowden is a refugee. Russia is not holding him captive. I know this. I had one of my employees stay with him 24 hours a day for four months to make sure his rights were respected.
Anyway, it is quite odious that Snowden is being beaten over the head with Russia by The Guardian—a publication he ought to have been able to trust. Snowden has to be in Russia. Russia is now the only place asylum for him can be meaningful. If he is anyone’s captive, he is a peculiar kind of captive of the United States, which, having canceled his passport, will not allow him to safely leave Russia’s borders, trapping him there.
Snowden Deserves Better
Even if Russia may not be kind to its journalists or its dissidents, granting Snowden asylum was a good thing to do and it deserves praise. Thanks to Russia (and thanks toWikiLeaks), Snowden remains free. Only someone with a “Manichean world view” would be unable to acknowledge this.
The most disappointing thing of all about The Snowden Files is that it is exploitative. It should not have existed at all. We all understand the pressures facing print journalism and the need to diversify revenue in order to cross-subsidize investigative journalism. But investigative journalism involves being able to develop relationships of trust with your sources.
There is a conflict of interest here. Edward Snowden was left in the lurch in Hong Kong by The Guardian, and WikiLeaks had to step in to make sure he was safe. While WikiLeaks worked to find him a safe haven, The Guardian was already plotting to sell the film rights.
How can one reconcile the duty to a source with the mad rush to be the first to market with a lucrative, self-glorifying, unauthorized biography? For all the risks he took, Snowden deserves better than this.
The Snowden Files is a walloping fraud, written by frauds to be praised by frauds. Michiko Kakutani, the renowned New York Times book critic, wrote that it “reads like a le Carré novel crossed with something by Kafka.” Really? It’s more Tom Clancy meets Dan Brown, but without the crowd-pleasing plot, a thriller without thrills by the man who wasn’t there.
That a work so artless, so exploitative, so self-congratulatory, so cynical, so perfectly mediocre as The Snowden Files could receive such blinding praise from such a reputed critic completes the farce. The Snowden Files is—in effect if not in substance—a window into the tiny, shrinking world of industrial journalism and the swindling hacks that live in it.
For Snowden’s sake, it is fortunate that Oliver Stone and his production team seem to know what they are doing. Without their intervention, we might now have been facing another Guardian-inspired box office catastrophe.