Book Review: Snowden
by Ted Rall
Seven Stories, 2015
There it is, looking out from the cover of writer/artist Ted Rall’s new cartoon book Snowden: the chubby, tousle-haired face of The Office actor John Krasinski – which is a bit odd, since it’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt who plays NSA contractor-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden in Oliver Stone’s movie. But then, the most commonly-used polite euphemism for Rall’s artwork is “odd,” usually followed by “quirky” or “signature,” since in the age of 21st century infinitely expandable viability, “painfully bad” has been ushered out of the descriptive lexicon. Instead, readers of Snowden get 200 full-color pages of Rall’s “odd” illustrations, and they can either like it or lump it.
It’s not the book’s only oddity. There’s also, for instance, the simple question of what this is, exactly. Rall clearly purports to tell a kind of biography of Snowden, from his birth in 1983 to his Boy Scout years in a suburb of Washington, DC to his now-notorious employment history at first the CIA and then the NSA, where he downloaded reams of classified information showing that the agency was involved in massive warrantless surveillance of the entire country. This was the revelation Snowden made to the world in 2013, the revelation that made him a fugitive and eventually landed him where he is now, living as a closely-watched guest of the Russian government, unlikely ever to set foot on American soil again as a free man.
Rall covers all of this in detail, serving up liberal (in every conceivable definition of the term) amounts of facts – the book has copious end notes – mixed with more than enough personal opinion and editorializing to disqualify the book as any kind of straightforward biography, despite the obvious research behind it. When Rall is detailing the singular nature of Snowden’s rebellion against his NSA superiors, he injects himself into the story directly in a way that biographers don’t tend to do with, say, the D-Day landings:
I know that in Snowden’s position I would have done the same thing. But I would never have taken a job like working for the NSA or the CIA in the first place. This why Snowden is unique: in an organization that selects for unthinking conformists, he searched for truth and followed it to an ideological awakening. Only Snowden could blow the whistle on the NSA.
The book’s illustrated format is very effective in conveying the rush of momentum that filled the initial months after Snowden’s bombshell, when he was on planes, in airports, being strenuously demanded by the US government – although even in these sections, that “odd” quality is still very much in evidence, not only in Rall’s summaries, like “Publicly, Obama played it cool. Behind the scenes, he and his staff were freaking out because Snowden had embarrassed them, exposing their superpower as impotent and inept,” but also in his decision to draw President Obama as a Congolese lowland gorilla (and the summaries are questionable too; Snowden’s whistleblowing hadn’t, for instance, exposed ineptitude at the NSA – he was a highly-qualified applicant who sought his job there specifically to steal information; no organization is proof against that).
On the subject of Snowden ever standing trial in the US, Rall is appropriately matter-of-fact:
The Snowden revelations are all over the Internet. Legally, however, they’re still “classified.” So if Snowden were put on trial, a jury wouldn’t get to see them or hear testimony about NSA spying against Americans. Similarly, Snowden’s duties as an NSA and CIA contractor are all still classified. A trial wouldn’t be televised, so he wouldn’t be able to argue his case to the American people. A trial would focus on one question: Did Snowden break the law? The verdict was a foregone conclusion: guilty. Meanwhile, the real criminals would remain free to continue breaking the law.
Snowden is laced throughout with warnings against the totalitarianism of George Orwell’s 1984, but the saddest truth about the Edward Snowden case is how thoroughly it’s been outpaced in the outrage sweepstakes. Snowden revealed that the US government was systematically spying on its own citizens without any kind of due process, and for roughly four news cycles, those citizens – the American public – more or less cared, but it’s doubtful 15 people out of 319 million put black tape over their computer’s camera, or disabled the tracking on their cellphones, or experienced more than a moment’s hesitation about the fact that their new wall-mounted plasma TV is watching them have sex on the living room couch with somebody other their their spouse.
Snowden has said that the triggering point for him to come forward was watching James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, being questioned by Congress in March of 2013. When asked whether or not the NSA collects any type of data on millions of Americans without warrant, Clapper responded, under oath, “No” – a black-and-white lie, for which there are clearly laid out legal penalties. Clapper (drawn by Rall with a shaggy black beard, presumably for “odd” reasons) has never been prosecuted and didn’t lose his job. And it’s subsequently been revealed that the NSA has been systematically spying not just on Americans but on the people and leaders of other countries. And President Obama has authorized the murder by drone-strike of Americans, without any kind of due process – also explicitly illegal, also entirely unpunished, and also largely a matter of indifference to the American public. A domestic spying program, in opposition to which Edward Snowden sacrificed anything like a normal life, begins to look almost tame by comparison.
So it’s difficult to guess whether or not the story detailed in Rall’s book is essentially over (lacking only the arrest and extradition that would certainly follow hard upon Russian President Putin’s removal from power), and what it all means. The meaning part will be clear at least to Rall’s presumed audience: this is the story of a hero.