Report — From the May 2017 issue

Snowden’s Box

The human network behind the biggest leak of all

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For the rest of the month, disclosures from the Snowden archive continued. Life in Brooklyn was quiet, though. My worries began to abate.

Then July brought a new and startling revelation. The U.S. Postal Service had been photographing and logging every single piece of mail it processed: 160 billion items in 2012 alone. The practice was exposed by the New York Times, which declared that “postal mail is subject to the same kind of scrutiny that the National Security Agency has given to telephone calls and e-mail.”

For a while it had seemed like good old-fashioned mail was one of the final frontiers of privacy — an analog holdout in a world where digital communications were increasingly insecure. Now it was clear that the system had limitations. Still, if used judiciously, it remained one of the safer ways to send data. Several months after the Times scoop, Jimmy Carter noted that he used snail mail as a sort of low-tech countersurveillance measure. “When I want to communicate with a foreign leader privately,” he told Meet the Press, “I type or write a letter myself, put it in the post office, and mail it.”

At some point after the box arrived and I made the handoff, Dale had recapped the original smuggling plan to me: Snowden was to pass the package along to someone else, who would in turn mail it to me. Then I would bring the package to Dale, who would give it to Laura. The idea was to ensure safety by insulating both ends of the transaction. Neither the sender of the package nor its final recipient would be involved with the shipping process, where the information was most vulnerable.

But something was off. I went to my laptop to consult a photograph of the box I’d taken before delivering it to Dale. I reviewed the return address again:


94-1054 ELEU ST


Shortly after Snowden unmasked himself, the media had descended on Waipahu, where he had rented a home about seven miles south of the NSA’s Kunia Regional Security Operations Center, his former workplace. In one of the news reports I found out that he lived at 94-1044 Eleu Street. Snowden, it would appear, had addressed the package himself. And he had done it while flipping the bird to the U.S. Postal Service: using the pseudonym B. Manning, changing only a single digit of his address.

This amazed me. Why bother taking precautions if you’re going to play a joke like that? What’s more, he had written my full name and address on the box: information I had volunteered because I trusted Dale. Now anyone who wanted to track packages sent from Waipahu to New York in the month of May — how many could there have been, really? — would easily identify the shipment. Someday, I vowed, I’d ask Snowden why he had done that. Why not ship the box under a random name, from some other town? For now, I just hoped it wouldn’t jeopardize the security of the operation or get me burned.

There was something else on the box I hadn’t noticed before: a bar code with a tracking number. I was very tempted to plug it into the USPS website and find out how long the package had sat in my hallway. But I was already nervous and decided against that.5

5 A good choice, as it turns out. The USPS logs the IP addresses of all customers who track packages on its website. In 2013, a Massachusetts drug dealer was busted after tracking shipments of methylone — similar to MDMA — that he had ordered from China. According to Vice, his digital footprints were his undoing. After pleading guilty, he was sentenced to more than eight years in prison.

In fact, the whole situation was making me uneasy. Snowden had fled from Hong Kong to Moscow, where he was seeking asylum. Glenn Greenwald was in Rio de Janeiro, where he lived. Laura had decamped once again to Berlin.

The next time I spoke to Dale, I had a new question.

“Are we the only people who had anything to do with this who haven’t left the country?”

“I don’t know,” he said.

Perhaps there were others, we decided: additional bit players in the affair, living in separate silos of paranoia. There was no way to tell.

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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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