ELLE Book Club

Exclusive: An excerpt from Arundhati Roy's encounter with Edward Snowden

Here's how the top-secret meeting played out

ICYMI Man Booker Prize-winning author and activist Arundhati Roy talks about everything from writing, fighting and aerobics with ELLE this month. She also gave us a glimpse of her forthcoming book: Things That Can And Cannot Be Said (Juggernaut) on her meeting with Edward Snowden. "It’s a small book co-authored by me and actor John Cusack, who actually came up with the idea of us going to meet Snowden in Russia. Snowden is extraordinary in many ways. I’ve never known anyone who can speak continuously in complete sentences the way he can. His is an amazing journey, from being a Bush supporter—pretty right-wing as far as I can tell, he signed up for the invasion of Iraq—to where he is now. We spent two days together, John Cusack, Daniel Ellsberg—the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers, he’s known as the Snowden of the ’60s—and I. It was a fascinating, freewheeling conversation."

Could she get anything on record? "Snowden was okay about us recording, but later, when we sent him a transcribed and edited manuscript, he didn’t want it published. Maybe because there was a lot of banter, too many jokes. He’s in a tough place and needs to be careful. But that was the nature of the conversation. It was entirely irreverent. So unfortunately Things That Can And Cannot Be Said doesn’t have much direct speech from Snowden. It’s a great pity, because when he speaks about the things he knows—the internet, surveillance and how it’s done—he is jaw-dropping brilliant. Behind the jokes and lightheartedness, the book is a meditation on serious things: nationalism, imperialism, war, capitalism, corporate philanthropy, the defeat of communism… There’s a shocking section at the end where Ellsberg talks about how the nuclear arms race was based on information the US government knew to be false."

Here's a taste:

Edward Snowden was much smaller than I thought he’d be. Small, lithe, neat, like a housecat. He greeted Dan ecstatically and us warmly.

“I know why you’re here,” he said to me smiling.

“Why?”

“To radicalize me.” 

I laughed. We settled down on various perches, stools, chairs, and John’s bed.

Dan and Ed were so pleased to meet each other, and had so much to say to each other, that it felt a little impolite to intrude on them. At times they broke into some kind of arcane code language: “I jumped from nobody on the street straight to TSSCI.” “No, because, again, this isn’t DS at all, this is NSA. At CIA, it’s called COMO.” “. . . It’s kind of a similar role, but is it under support?” “PRISEC or PRIVAC?” “They start out with the TALENT-KEYHOLE thing. Everyone then gets read into TS, SI, TK, and GAMMA—G clearance . . . Nobody knows what it is . . .” 

It took a while before I felt it was alright to interrupt them. Snowden’s disarming answer to my question about being photographed cradling the American flag was to roll his eyes and say: “Oh, man. I don’t know. Somebody handed me a flag, they took a picture.” And when I asked him why he signed up for the war in Iraq, when millions of people all over the world were marching against it, he replied, equally disarmingly: “I fell for the propaganda.”

Dan talked at some length about how it would be unusual for US citizens who joined the Pentagon and the NSA to have read much literature on US exceptionalism and its history of warfare. (And once they joined, it was unlikely to be a subject that interested them.) He and Ed had watched it play out live, in real time, and were horrified enough to stake their lives and their freedom when they decided to be whistleblowers. What the two of them clearly had in common was a strong, almost corporeal sense of moral righteousness—of right and wrong. A sense of righteousness that was obviously at work not just when they decided to blow the whistle on what they thought to be morally unacceptable, but also when they signed up for their jobs—Dan to save his country from Communism, Ed to save it from Islamist terrorism. What they did when they grew disillusioned was so electrifying, so dramatic, that they have come to be identified by that single act of moral courage.

I asked Ed Snowden what he thought about Washington’s ability to destroy countries and its inability to win a war (despite mass surveillance). I think the question was phrased quite rudely—something like “When was the last time the United States won a war?” We spoke about whether the economic sanctions and subsequent invasion of Iraq could be accurately called genocide. We talked about how the CIA knew—and was preparing for the fact—that the world was heading to a place of not just inter-country war but of intra-country war in which mass surveillance would be necessary to control populations. 

And about how armies were being turned into police forces to administer countries they have invaded and occupied, while the police, even in places like India and Pakistan and Ferguson, Missouri, in the United States, were being trained to behave like armies to quell internal insurrections. 

Ed spoke at some length about “sleepwalking into a total surveillance state.” And here I quote him, because he’s said this often before:

If we do nothing, we sort of sleepwalk into a total surveillance state where we have both a superstate that has unlimited capacity to apply force with an unlimited ability to know [about the people it is targeting]—and that’s a very dangerous combination. That’s the dark future. The fact that they know everything about us and we know nothing about them—because they are secret, they are privileged, and they are a separate class . . . the elite class, the political class, the resource class—we don’t know where they live, we don’t know what they do, we don’t know who their friends are. They have the ability to know all that about us. This is the direction of the future, but I think there are changing possibilities in this . . .

Excerpted with permission of Juggernaut Books from Things That Can And Cannot Be Said by Arundhati Roy and John Cusack, out in August 

You may also want to read: The wisdom of Arundhati Roy in 10 quotes