NSA leaker Edward Snowden just published a new book and the U.S. government wants to get all the money he makes from it.
On Tuesday, the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Snowden in an attempt to stop him from earning any proceedings from sales of his new book, called Permanent Record. The government accused Snowden of breaking his promise to protect the secrets of the CIA and the NSA, his previous employers, by writing a book and giving paid speeches without the government’s permission.
The government is not trying to keep Snowden’s memoir off bookstores, it’s merely trying to stop him from making any money off of it.
“Intelligence information should protect our nation, not provide personal profit,” G. Zachary Terwilliger, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, where the suit was filed, was quoted as saying in a press release.
In theory, if the government were to win this lawsuit, that would mean readers who buy the book to support the whistleblower and protest NSA surveillance would actually be giving money to the very government Snowden has spoken out against.
In the lawsuit, government lawyers explain that Snowden signed non-disclosure agreements with the NSA and the CIA in which he agreed not to divulge classified information. As part of that agreement, Snowden was supposed to submit his book’s manuscript to the CIA and NSA to get their clearance.
“The purpose of this prepublication review ‘is to determine whether material contemplated for public disclosure contains protected information and if so, to give the NSA an opportunity to prevent the public disclosure of such information,’” the government wrote in the lawsuit, quoting the NSA Secrecy Agreement that any employee or contractor like Snowden is required to sign.
Trevor Timm, the founder of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, where Snowden sits on the board of directors, criticized the lawsuit.
“If only the Justice Department was as concerned with the systematic legal violations carried out by the US government’s mass surveillance programs as they are about trying to blunt the impact of a personal memoir by the person who alerted to public,” Timm said in a statement. “This misguided lawsuit is all the more reason everyone should read Snowden’s book.”
There are precedents where the U.S. government has successfully gone after former employees or contractors for this reason. In 2016, a member of the team that killed Osama Bin Laden had to give up $6.8 million in royalties for violating their pre-publication clearance rule. In 2012, a judge ruled that a former CIA officer who wrote the book "The Human Factor" had to relinquish all his future earnings because he published without getting the agency's permission.
“The government has a very strong legal argument in cases like this," said Steven Aftergood, who studies government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.
Snowden did not immediately respond to a request for comment via Twitter direct message.
Ben Wizner, the director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project American Civil Liberties Union and Snowden's attorney, said that "this book contains no government secrets that have not been previously published by respected news organizations. Had Mr. Snowden believed that the government would review his book in good faith, he would have submitted it for review. But the government continues to insist that facts that are known and discussed throughout the world are still somehow classified."
“Mr. Snowden wrote this book to continue a global conversation about mass surveillance and free societies that his actions helped inspire. He hopes that today’s lawsuit by the United States government will bring the book to the attention of more readers throughout the world,” Wizner said in an emailed statement.
Meanwhile, some are already coming out in support of Snowden. Peter Sunde, the founder of the Pirate Bay, joked on Twitter that he’d be happy to offer help since he is “almost as good as you at pissing these people off.”
“You know how to find me, contrary to them,” Sunde wrote.
We will update this story as soon as we hear back.
Subscribe to our new cybersecurity podcast, CYBER.