Review of Dark Mirror
by Barton Gellman
Edward Snowden and the American Surveillance StateI recommend this book to anyone interested in Edward Snowden and the information he leaked.
I've also read No Place to Hide
by Glenn Greenwald, seen Citizenfour
^1^ by Laura Poitras, and I've read Snowden's own Permanent Record
. I also recommend all of these.
Gellman, Greenwald, and Poitras were apparently the only three people who received the full collection of documents leaked by Snowden.Gellman is a bit different than the other two in a few ways.
Gellman was not an activist. He was a fairly mainstream reporter for newspapers like the Washington Post
. Greenwald was a constitutional lawyer before he started writing. Poitras was a documentary film maker who so challenged the US government that they basically forced her to live abroad, for a time. In other words, the other two were activists, and Gellman was a reporter.
Gellman was not there in Hong Kong. Another reporter, Ewen MacAskill, was there, but not Gellman. Gellman did eventually meet Snowden and interview him after he got stuck in Russia.
Greenwald now lives in Brazil, and Poitras, although back in the US now, lived for a time in Germany. Snowden, of course, is essentially trapped in Russia. Gellman, on the other hand, has never felt the need to live outside the US.
Gellman is a defender of the American press (some of it, at least), whereas Greenwald is a fierce critic. Gellman seems much less like an outsider than Greenwald, Poitras, and Snowden, himself.The title Dark Mirror refers to one-way mirrors:
mirrors that, from one side are a window, and from the other side a mirror. This is a metaphor for the situation of the US government and its citizens. We are totally open to view by them, but we can't see what they are doing or how they are doing it.
This, as Gellman points out, creates a power imbalance.
If I can see what you are doing all the time, I have power over you, even if I don't always exercise it. If you can't see me, that makes me safe from you, even if you don't always threaten me. Even though it's often implicit, this power imbalance is real and effective. Remember: all exercise of power is usually just maintained with the threat of force, and rarely with actual force.
Snowden has a phrase to describe this (mentioned by Gellman): turnkey tyranny
. Even if those in charge now are benevolent, that doesn't mean that they won't be malevolent tomorrow. Great power enables tyranny and creates a strong temptation to exercise it.Dark Mirror fills in some details Snowden, Greenwald, and Poitras don't.
I think it was worth reading for that reason, alone. Also, Gellman's greater detachment from the cause (preventing a total surveillance society, and promoting government transparency) also gives some value to his work. He questions what the others don't. Even though, ultimately, Gellman lands on our side in this struggle, that questioning is worthwhile.
So, definitely, I recommend Gellman's book, but I also recommend Citizenfour
, No Place to Hide
, and Permanent Record
. I would also like to see more people read James Bamford's books about the NSA (The Puzzle Palace
, The Shadow Factory
, etc.) and Shoshana Zuboff's work on the history of spying by Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc. You may agree with Cory Doctorow that Zuboff believes too uncritically in the power of "targeted advertising," but no one has done a better job of investigating just how Google and the rest are investigating us.
won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2014.