For the Guardian, defected NSA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden came along at exactly the right time.
In June 2013, he greeted a trio of journalists – the Guardian’s then-US columnist Glenn Greenwald, long-serving Guardian reporter Ewan McAskill and filmmaker Lauren Poitras – in a Hong Kong hotel and unleashed on them what was to be the biggest intelligence leak in history, and the Guardian’s biggest ever scoop. Snowden’s leaked files detailed the collusion between the NSA, GCHQ and half of Silicon Valley in their attempt to intercept, collect and store almost all of the world’s communications. In the name of protecting the West from foreign threats post-9/11, intelligence agencies had constructed, in Snowden’s words, a digital ‘panopticon’.
The Guardian, having dispensed with its erstwhile political posterboy Julian Assange after he made uncompromising demands and his alleged sex crimes muddied the waters, was in search of a new face, a new personality around which to orient its political-moral compass. In these cynical times, when politicians are perceived as inherently venal, crass and conspiring, the liberal-left’s heroes are the hackers, the leakers, the whistleblowers. They are the givers of truth, those who shine a light on the dark corners of the system, activists and political figures who float saint-like above the grubbiness of modern-day politics. Snowden, appearing like Moses with the word of truth etched on his thumb-drives and laptops, proved the perfect new prophet for the Guardian and others in the wayward, cynical and politically estranged West.
Now, eight months after the initial leak, with Snowden in exile in Russia, Guardian foreign correspondent Luke Harding has penned an account of Snowden’s exploits and the political/journalistic fallout that followed. The Snowden Files, like the book on Assange Harding co-wrote in 2011, is ostensibly a holy text for the church of Snowden – this time with a touch of John Le Carre.
Indeed, for any cosmopolitan lefty looking for a good spy-thriller, The Snowden Files has it all. In the opening chapters Harding relays Snowden’s story as a kind of MacBook-generation Boy’s Own adventure. He’s painted as a scrawny computer nerd from North Carolina who saw into the heart of a tyrannical system and risked life and limb to bring it to light. At their rendezvous, Snowden told Greenwald and Poitras to look out for a guy holding a Rubik’s cube, before confirming each other’s identity’s with the arch wink-nod exchange - Greenwald, as instructed, asking ‘What time does the restaurant open?’, Snowden drily replying: ‘At noon. But don’t go there, the food sucks.’