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Report — From the May 2017 issue

Snowden’s Box

The human network behind the biggest leak of all

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Little more than a week after making that diary entry, Laura returned to the United States to shoot footage of the NSA’s Utah Data Center, which was still under construction. According to the journalist James Bamford, the facility, which would begin operations in 2014, was designed as a repository for

all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails — parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital “pocket litter.”

With these matters on her mind, Laura flew back to New York, where she told me about getting approached by the mysterious source. “Could it be a setup?” she asked. It could. Yet she chose to keep the channel open. We adopted a code for talking about the issue, pretending that we were discussing the ongoing renovation of her loft. On the last day of January, I invited Laura to dinner at my place, and she replied, “I had a really good meeting with the contractor today. I look forward to updating you.” That meant she had communicated with the source.

We talked about the source over dinner, and Laura told me that this person wanted a physical address to use in case (as the source put it) “something happens to you or me.” We speculated that perhaps this person might want to send her a parcel. Hard copy? Data? It was unclear. Needless to say, the material couldn’t go directly to Laura: her mail was surely being scrutinized. Nor could I receive it, because of our connection. She said we needed a third party, someone who wouldn’t be on the NSA’s radar.

“Do you know someone, a journalist, whom you absolutely trust?” she said. “Someone who won’t ask any questions?”

“Sure,” I responded. I immediately thought of the perfect person. She had just moved, and I didn’t have her new address, but I told Laura that I would supply the contact information soon. The next time we met, I gave Laura the address, and then we spent some time refining our code to use on the phone and in emails, since she was going back to Berlin. (Incredible as it now sounds, I had not yet begun using encryption.) We would call the unnamed source the “architect” and refer to the mysterious shipment as “architectural materials.” The recipient of the package would be called the “sink.” Should that person prove to be unavailable, I would find a backup choice, whom we would call the “other sink.” The NSA or FBI would be called the “co-op board” — a tribute to the truculent nature of such boards in New York City. And if either of us wrote, “The carpenter quit the job,” that meant it was time to start over with a new plan.

Hours later, Laura emailed from the airport: “Thanks for checking in on the renovation work while I’m away. Hopefully it will be drama free, but that might be wishful thinking.” I wrote her back on February 12: “That first sink is definitely the cool one. You always want to go with stainless steel. I hate porcelain.”

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’s article “The End of Retirement” appeared in the August 2014 issue of Harper’s Magazine. Her book Nomadland will be published by W. W. Norton in September.

 

is the author of ten books, the most recent of which is Bringing Mulligan Home.

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