After receiving a trove of documents from the whistleblower, I found myself under surveillance and investigation by the U.S. government.
“What time exactly does your clock say?” asked the voice on the telephone, the first words Edward Snowden ever spoke to me aloud. (Our previous communications had all been via secure text chats over encrypted anonymous links on secret servers.) I glanced at my wrist—3:22 p.m. “Good. Meet me exactly at four. I’ll be wearing a backpack.” Of course he would; Snowden would never leave his laptop unattended.
The rendezvous point Snowden selected that day, December 5, 2013, was a gaudy casino hotel called the Korston Club, on Kosygina Street in Moscow. Enormous flashing whorls of color adorned the exterior in homage to Las Vegas. In the lobby, a full-size grand player piano tinkled with energetic pop.
The promenade featured a “Girls Bar” with purple-neon decor, stainless-steel chairs and mirrors competing for attention with imitation wood paneling, knockoff Persian rugs, and pulsing strobe lights on plastic foliage. Also, feathers. The place looked like a trailer full of old Madonna stage sets that had been ravaged by a tornado.
As I battled sensory overload, a young man appeared near the player piano, his appearance subtly altered. A minder might be anywhere in this circus of a lobby, but I saw no government escort. We shook hands, and Snowden walked me wordlessly to a back elevator and up to his hotel room. For two days, throughout 14 hours of interviews, he did not once part the curtains or step outside. He remained a target of surpassing interest to the intelligence services of more than one nation.
He resisted questioning about his private life, but he allowed that he missed small things from home. Milkshakes, for one. Why not make your own? Snowden refused to confirm or deny possession of a blender. Like all appliances, blenders have an electrical signature when switched on.
He believed that the U.S. government was trying to discover where he lived. He did not wish to offer clues, electromagnetic or otherwise. U.S. intelligence agencies had closely studied electrical emissions when scouting Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan. “Raising the shields and lowering the target surface” was one of Snowden’s security mantras.
On bathroom breaks, he took his laptop with him. “There’s a level of paranoia where you go, ‘You know what? This could be too much,’ ” he said when I smiled at this. “But it costs nothing. It’s—you get used to it. You adjust your behavior. And if you’re reducing risk, why not?”
Over six hours that day and eight hours the next, Snowden loosened up a bit, telling me for the first time why he had reached out to me the previous spring. “It was important that this not be a radical project,” he said, an allusion to the politics of Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, the other two journalists with whom he’d shared digital archives purloined from the National Security Agency a few months earlier.
“I thought you’d be more serious but less reliable. I put you through a hell of a lot more vetting than everybody else. God, you did screw me, so I didn’t vet you enough.” He was referring to my profile of him in The Washington Post that June, in which I had inadvertently exposed an online handle that he had still been using. (After that he had disappeared on me for a while.)