The Snowden Emails

edward-snowden-e1392785377635I’m holding Ed Snowden up as an example. Not of a patriot, or a whistle-blower, or a scoundrel, or traitor. But as an example of what I’ve been telling students and fellow teachers for years: that if you have something to express in your writing, you believe it wholeheartedly, and it carries the urgency of original thought, it will come out by way of elegant syntax and more or less error-free construction. We can yammer on about dangling modifiers and passive voice and incongruity and topic sentences till the cows come home, and none of it will make more than 10 percent of the difference. That Which Must Be Said is the big enchilada.

At a dinner party the other night, we spent three hours debating the ethics, or lack thereof, of Edward Snowden’s actions. This column does not mean to take up that debate. Instead, I invite you to take a writerly look at the emails Snowden sent to Laura Poitras, the documentary filmmaker he first contacted about the cache of government documents he planned to release. He begins:

At this stage I can offer nothing more than my word. I am a senior government employee in the intelligence community.

Note how the opener is the prepositional “at this stage,” implying that other stages have preceded and will follow; we have entered the play, as it were, in medias res. Snowden offers his word, his truth, not as “only my word,” or as “can’t offer anything except my word.” He offers nothing more than his word, giving his word a place beyond which we ought not to expect anything more; one’s word is the greatest thing a man can give. Of course, we are also merely “at this stage”; there may be more to come. And in the next sentence, his word yields its first demonstration, crisp and forceful, describing the individual who owns it not by gender, race, or any affiliation, but by the role he plays in the government, the position from which he speaks.


Understand that the above steps are not bullet proof, and are intended only to give us breathing room. In the end if you publish the source material, I will likely be immediately implicated. This must not deter you from releasing the information I will provide.

The “Understand” here, framed as a command, opens the paragraph; Snowden has now taken full charge of the dialogue, and the “us” later in that same sentence brings his interlocutor in as his partner. In the next sentence, just in case he has pressed his persuasion too hard, he lets up—and, moreover, slips in a hint about a much later stage, “the end,” where Poitras will be the one in charge. What also strikes me in this sentence is the syntax of “I will likely be immediately implicated,” which in its placement of adverbs achieves an odd but strikingly efficient—almost an onomatopoeic—description of Snowden’s fate.

In another email:

You ask why I picked you. I didn’t. You did. The surveillance you’ve experienced means you’ve been selected, a term which will mean more to you as you learn about how the modern sigint system works.

From now, know that every border you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cell phone tower you pass, friend you keep, article you write, site you visit, subject line you type, and packet you route, is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited but whose safeguards are not.

The first of these paragraphs turns Poitras’s question around rhetorically in a pair of crisp two-word sentences followed by a longer explicative sentence using a careful bit of passive voice (“you’ve been selected”) to implicate the government without naming it. The paragraph that follows has been the subject of some jokes for its syntactical theft of Sting’s “Every Breath You Take”—but of course, that echo produces a chill all the greater when you reach the word system (not a pining lover). To add to the horror of the picture, Snowden personifies the system by giving it hands, and then he executes a deft pair of parallel adjective clauses modifying that dexterous system, leaving the word unlimited tantalizingly implied at the end of the sentence.

Finally, after excusing his clumsiness (“I am not a writer, and I have to draft this in a great hurry”), Snowden piles up a series of short accusatory paragraphs. The first two end with the noun clauses “which I can prove.” The next two convert that claim to separate sentences, each headed by a demonstrative pronoun: “This I can also prove.” My 10th-grade teacher would have marked Snowden for vague reference on both the “whiches” and the “thises,” but she would have been wrong—because the scope and reach of the wrongdoings he has just described in terse, specific language call, rhetorically, for the pointed finger of a which and a this.

Now, Snowden’s claim not to be a writer may be a tad disingenuous. He immersed himself in the Greek classics as a teenager, and there are few better preparations for rhetoric. Still, I would argue that the clarity and elegance of most of the syntax and diction in his email communications are the results of his knowing his own mind and knowing what he wanted to say. So simple, right? And so impossible to teach.



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