Book Reviews

“The Edward Snowden Affair – Exposing the Politics and Media behind the NSA Scandal”

*Correction: It has come to the attention of the Institute’s editor that information stated about Mr. Gurnow’s background is incorrect. The author has clarified that the NSA language analyst cited in this review was his masters thesis advisor and not an advisor in the development of this book.

edward snowdenGurnow, Michael. The Edward Snowden Affair: Exposing the Politics and Media behind the NSA Scandal. Indianapolis: Blue River Press, 2014.
The lone hero tells the tale of his uncompromising stand against an oppressive system that is designed to dominate the unsuspecting masses. For the book’s author, Michael Gurnow, there is no debate about Snowden’s personal integrity or role in the NSA scandal, saying, “Snowden makes it apparent he did not blow the whistle out of spite, for money, or fame but due to an overbearing sense of moral obligation.” (pg. 69) In The Edward Snowden Affair: Exposing the Politics and Media Behind the NSA Scandal, Gurnow casts Snowden as a morally forthright character who has exposed a cancer that is slowly eating away at the United States and western democracy.

Michael Gurnow is a former English instructor at Southeast Missouri State University and a pre-law professor.  He received linguistic training and support for his research on The Edward Snowden Affair from an NSA language analyst who worked at Kunia Regional SIGINT Operations Center in Hawaii.  Incidentally, this is where Edward Snowden was last stationed before leaving to Hong Kong.

A cross between a spy-thriller and an academic polemic, The Edward Snowden Affair leaps back and forth between these two themes without any sense of coherence. Gurnow’s work is written in chronological order using chapter titles reminiscent of the James Bond films: “Pearl of the Orient”, “Polar Bear in a Snowstorm”, and “From Russia, With Love.” The Edward Snowden Affair is meticulously researched, but the book does not have an index and leaves the reader desiring greater structure.

The Edward Snowden Affair begins with Snowden’s life—what little is currently known—before he became known worldwide in June 2013. Through snippets of information gleaned from quotes—and often contradictory sources—in a process Gurnow calls “reverse-engineering,” the author was able to piece together a rough biography of Snowden:

“An example of reverse engineering can be seen in the attempt to determine when Snowden had broken both of his legs during military training. No press report tried to pinpoint when this had taken place, but all the information was there, all a person had to do was count backward.” (pg. X)

In essence, “reverse-engineering” is simply Gurnow’s research methodology. In an instance of creeping surrealism which feels as if it was pulled from a Robert Ludlum novel was Snowden’s introductory meeting in Hong Kong with journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras:

“They [Greenwald & Poitras] had no idea what Snowden looked like. He told them to go to the third floor of the Mira and look for a man holding a Rubik’s Cube. To ensure Murphy’s Law was not in effect should another person be in coincidental possession of the puzzle toy, they were to ask him when the restaurant would open and he would advise against the establishment.” (pg. 31)

Gurnow explores Snowden’s journey—including his eventual flight to Russia and subsequent asylum petitions—through revelations made public from the release of the Snowden documents. Gurnow gives an overview of various official NSA programs such as: PRISM, an NSA surveillance data mining program; Bullrun, an NSA data decryption program; and unofficial programs like LOVEINT, a slang term to denote government surveillance workers spying on romantic interests. In each case Gurnow presents the NSA and its various surveillance apparatus’s as all-encompassing machines that border on the oppressive. Gurnow makes no attempt to nuance these programs. The NSA is presented as a clichéd Orwellian villain detached from recent historical context. National security concerns, steps toward more transparent oversight, and the balance between individual privacy and access to information that steams from a rapid technological evolution in mass communications are not explored in Gurnow’s work.

The Edward Snowden Affair clearly positions itself with Snowden’s stance on the surveillance debate. Once the characters have been cast, the hero and the villain, never stray from their roles: Gurnow does not question their motives either. Snowden is cast as the heroic whistle-blower who gave up money and security to bring to light a growing oppression on the Western world. The US government—and the Obama administration by proxy—is cast as the villain that works around the Constitution to violate civil liberties in the name of power rather than security.

Gurnow provides a thorough background of the NSA programs exposed in the Snowden files, however, the work suffers from a confirmation bias.  Civil liberty concerns—though well-founded—trump all other concerns. The Edward Snowden Affair, while an excellent chronology of the Snowden affair, ­is hampered by a black and white plot that wants to say something about the intricacies of the surveillance debate occurring in a gray world, yet does not.