Reviews of Dark Mirror


“’Dark Mirror’ would be simply pleasurable to read if the story it told didn’t also happen to be frighteningly real…. His wariness makes Gellman a thorough, exacting reporter; it also makes him a marvelous narrator for this particular story, as he nimbly guides us through complex technical arcana and some stubborn ethical questions. Instead of rushing toward a conclusion, he hangs back. He’s clear about what he knows and what he doesn’t. He deploys plenty of metaphors, not to adorn the stakes but to clarify them. He shows how discussions of medieval ramparts and Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon are surprisingly pertinent to the architecture of mass surveillance. His voice is laconic and appealingly wry.”
Jennifer Szalai, The New York Times

Gellman’s illuminating book, in effect, turns a faux contradiction into a real question: Was it necessary to harm U.S. national security in the short term to secure the Internet in the long run? It’s hard to admit that the answer may be yes, especially for the many intelligence officers and diplomats and civil servants who were so offended by the biggest intelligence leak in U.S. history…. ‘Dark Mirror’ stands out from all the other accounts. Gellman … didn’t just use the Snowden files as sources; he used them as starting points for deep, labor-intensive reporting.
Thomas Rid, The Washington Post

“Gellman narrates all the twist and turns of this story with a gusto worthy of John le Carré…. undoubtedly an important book.
Steve Donoghue, Christian Science Monitor

“Gellman’s masterful narrative proceeds along two primary tracks. One relates the life story of the whistleblower, the now-famous Edward Snowden. The other is a primer about investigative journalism regarding one of the highest-risk exposés in U.S. history. As the author unspools his own saga, he also delivers an endlessly insightful narrative about the practice of investigative journalism, a book that deserves its place alongside All the President’s Men, Five Days at Memorial, Nickel and Dimed, and other classics of the genre. A riveting, timely book sure to be one of the most significant of the year.
Kirkus (starred review)

“In Dark Mirror, by journalist Barton Gellman, we have a ringside seat on the extraordinary few months which led to the greatest data breach in history… a cyberspace thriller where even knowing the ending renders it no less gripping…. It is impossible not to admire Gellman’s industry and journalistic courage….
– Robert Verkaik, Standpoint

– The Approval Matrix, New York magazine

“In May 2013, when Edward Snowden leaked classified documents about government surveillance to a select group of journalists, Barton Gellman was among them. ‘Dark Mirror’ is Gellman’s engrossing account of their fraught relationship and his own reckoning with the American surveillance state.
– Editors’ Choice, The New York Times

[A] fine and deeply considered portrait of the US-dominated 21st-century surveillance state…. Gellman has waited seven years to give his version. He has spent the time well…. The dark mirror is a metaphor for the modern surveillance state: the security agencies can’t be seen, we can…. The Snowden who emerges from these pages is neither a hero nor a traitor. Gellman sketches him as ‘fine company, funny and profane’ with a ‘nimble mind and eclectic interests’. He can also be ‘stubborn, self-important and a scold’…. Snowden isn’t a Russian asset, he concludes, but may well have damaged national security – a view Snowden rejects…. The most enthralling chapters cover the race to get the story out…. Gellman is frank about the pressures of taking on the Obama administration. Someone tried to hack his iPhone and laptops. He bought a safe for his New York apartment, rode the subway using burner phones. All this had a cost in terms of ‘time, mental energy and emotional equilibrium’, he writes. Yet his paranoia was justified.”
–Luke Harding, The Guardian

“Barton Gellman’s new book … makes a major contribution largely absent in the earlier efforts. Gellman offers the most detailed, comprehensive and balanced take on the impact of Snowden’s 2013 revelations and what they mean today, as the debate on national security versus individual privacy keeps evolving…. Gellman tells Snowden’s story from a unique vantage point. He had direct access to Snowden and the secret documents. And as a reporter who spent most of his career covering national security, Gellman was also in contact with the top U.S. intelligence officials, past and present…. this back-and-forth, between Gellman and Snowden, and Gellman and national security officials, is the best part of a compelling book.
Greg Myre, NPR

“Gellman rightly judges Snowden’s cumulative disclosures as ‘the most consequential leak in the history of US intelligence’, and in Dark Mirror, his compulsively readable autobiographical history of the episode, he quotes former US FBI director James Comey as opining that ‘the world changed as a result of Edward Snowden, in a significant way’….Gellman’s extensive endnotes … are so impressively comprehensive as to put many academics to shame.”
David Barrow, The Critic

“In Dark Mirror, Gellman tells the story with verve…. [T]he tale — the secret meetings via back staircases, the concealment and encryption of the files — is most compelling…Snowden admits to missing milkshakes but refuses to say whether he has a blender with him — apparently, US intelligence studied electrical emissions when scouting Osama bin Laden’s lair in Pakistan. Given that so much is known of the Snowden story, unlikely detail such as this brings Dark Mirror to life. In early 2015, the producers of Homeland, the long-running spy series, invited Gellman to meet the cast at a private club in Georgetown that once served ale to George Washington and John Adams. Unbeknown to them, the author has arranged for Snowden to be beamed in from Russia. ‘Insane!’ declares Claire Danes, the star of the show, before asking: ‘Have you made friends? Do you have dinner parties? What’s life like there?’”
—John Kampfner, Financial Times

“Thoughtful mix of reportage and revelation. What Gellman provides us with, in fact, as he trawls through the investigations he undertook into NSA malfeasance in the wake of Snowden’s data drop, is a necessary and deep meditation about how far our online lives can or indeed should remain completely private. Gellman, unlike Snowden, is able to interrogate American spymasters as well as tech companies about where the limits should lie, and he also has a sufficient sense of his responsibilities not to reveal much of the sensitive operational detail that the leaker gave him. After a conference session with one of those intelligence chiefs, Gellman confronted him about the apparent bare-faced lie of American officials denying bulk collection of phone records. ‘Our exchange turned almost metaphysical,’ he writes, as the intelligence chief told him that ‘collection’ is the wrong term. ‘I think the proper word here is “store” in order to be able to have access to them when permission is granted.’ In another memorable exchange the author shows a Google tech type an NSA slide that makes clear how the agency has beaten the company’s encryption. ‘Motherf******’, says the shocked systems guy, taking in the scale of the breach…. The value of this book is that Gellman eschews the binary “traitor or hero” assessment of Snowden. Rather he highlights the dangers of the surveillance state’s vast reach.”
–Mark Urban, The Sunday Times

“An eloquent behind-the-scenes account of [Gellman’s] reporting on NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s leak of top-secret U.S. intelligence documents. . . . Enriching the high-level technical and legal analysis with a sharp sense of humor, Gellman presents an exhaustive study of intelligence gathering in the digital age. Even readers who have followed the Snowden story closely will learn something new.”
Publishers Weekly

“Here he delves even deeper into the maze of government secrecy and surveillance, but at the book’s core is his wary, exasperating relationship with his source, who slides between principled candor, exaggeration, and evasion. Gellman takes us through his efforts while reporting to weigh the public’s right to know against the need for secrecy on national-security matters, as he carefully charts the course toward transparency.”
The New Yorker

Gellman delivers a compelling story while recounting difficult predicaments and behind-the-scenes events. He takes a deep dive into the surveillance state while recalling being subjected to government investigations, legal pressures, and threats from foreign agencies determined to steal his files. Readers will be drawn into the conversational style of [Dark Mirror].”

“The nerds who work for the NSA, Gellman writes, ‘use “dork” and “bork” as verbs. As in: dork the operating system to exploit a device, but don’t bork it completely.’ They mock amateur adversaries as ‘leet’ or ‘l33t’, a sneering corruption of ‘elite’. They share memes, and sometimes porn, and refer to fictional Muslim opponents as ‘Abu Raghead’… Gellman worries, constantly, about how much to trust his source. Towards the end of the book there’s a fascinating section in which Snowden video-chats with the cast of Homeland, the hit spook TV show starring Claire Danes…. While certainly fascinating on surveillance and all that, it is better read as a study of the travails of a journalist who seeks to investigate national security….The author, you can tell, remains conflicted about Snowden, with his soaring ego balanced against his apparent brilliance, and his tricks and occasional dishonesty balanced against his laser-like determination to have the truth known.”
–Hugo Rifkind, The Times

“The frenzy of that spring and summer…fill the first half of Gellman’s long-awaited Dark Mirror…. Here was a writer with the credibility of a legacy-media career and deep sources in the national security establishment who had also demonstrated a willingness to piss people off. Gellman had written, with Angler, the definitive biography of the Cheney vice presidency. That book ticked like a bomb. It was one taut set piece after another…. One of the main arguments of Dark Mirror, you might say the book’s organizing principle, is the worthwhileness of the kind of journalism that Gellman practices…. Gellman wants us to know that he’s not in the pocket of Big Snowden…. One of Snowden’s early claims to Gellman was that ‘on the authority of nothing but a self-certification made to a software program, I have wiretapped the internet communications of Congress’ current Gang of Eight and the Supreme Court.’ This wasn’t true… He believed that he could have tapped the justices but never did. You can see why Gellman cares about this as a journalist…. Where Dark Mirror shows the advantage of Gellman’s more methodical approach is in its second half, in particular the section on a program called…MAINWAY…. ‘The government can watch us in retrospect as easily as if it had tracked us in real time,’ Gellman writes.”
–Jesse Barron, Bookforum

‘Can anyone, today, draw a line and say “None of your business” and make it stick?’ This is the question at the heart of the book. The government, in the form of the NSA, has acquired an unprecedented degree of knowledge about its citizens…. We have come to live in a world which is abolishing privacy…. Gellman’s book is very meaty, requires digestion…. [T]he subject is so important that it is a book which ought to be read by anyone concerned with the way the world is going.”
–Allan Massie, The Scottsman

“Gellman, who even found himself the subject of surveillance as he conducted his Snowden-led investigations, argues that this fundamental breach of civil liberties is the key issue that has emerged as a result of the revelations….[H]is concerns about the state’s ability to spy on its own citizens are particularly relevant today – as governments seek to monitor our movements even more closely on the pretext of overcoming the coronavirus pandemic.”
–Con Coughlin, The Telegraph