Edward Snowden, Graphic Novel Hero

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Former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden appears live via video during a meeting about whistle blowers at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France, June 23. Vincent Kessler/Reuters

Most Americans have, at best, a hazy understanding of what the National Security Agency can and can't see through its many surveillance programs. That idea is what an unconventionally informative segment of John Oliver's Last Week Tonight sought to address in April, framing each complex program in the simple terms of "Can they see my dick?"

Meanwhile, even fewer Americans are familiar with Edward Snowden—the man who defied the world's most powerful government and exposed those NSA surveillance programs. That's what political cartoonist Ted Rall attempts to tackle in his new graphic novel, Snowden, out August 25.

Through comically drawn figures and thorough yet uncomplicated blocks of text, Rall chronicles former NSA contractor Snowden's early life, work experience, personality and political evolution. The unabashedly pro-Snowden deep-dive serves to help answer the questions: Of the countless government employees who knew of these programs, why was Snowden the one to risk everything to uncover them? And would we have done the same had we been in his position?

In Rall's illustrated history, Snowden was in the NSA's orbit from the get-go; his parents had jobs in the federal government and he grew up in Crofton, Maryland, just five miles from NSA headquarters. "Everyone in my family has worked for the federal government in one way or another," Rall quotes Snowden as saying. "I expected to pursue the same path."

It was the culmination of Snowden's life experiences, Rall suggests, that laid the groundwork for him to become "the world's most wanted cybercriminal—and its biggest hero." At age 15, for instance, Snowden contracted mononucleosis, causing him miss most of the 10th grade. Instead of making up the overwhelming amount of work, Snowden opted to take the GED test. By 16, he had enrolled in a local community college, where "the NSA's presence loomed large." A few years later, his parents divorced, and Rall proposes that this experience taught Snowden that "security can be an illusion" and that "a sacred promise can be broken."

In Rall's rendering, Snowden was both patriotic and naive in the early 2000s, wanting to enter the elite special forces to save Iraqis from Saddam's brutal dictatorship. But the Army hopeful broke both of his feet in a training accident, leading him back to the familiar—the intelligence community. After a brief stint at the NSA, Snowden joined the Central Intelligence Agency. It was his experiences working for the agency in Switzerland that chiseled away at his belief in American exceptionalism—because he was simultaneously exposed to new political attitudes and U.S. abuses of power.

In 2008 and 2009, Snowden came face-to-face with bungling bureaucracy. He found a vulnerability in the CIA's personnel software, which his supervisors instructed him to hack. The higher-ups, however, disapproved of this tactic and he was reprimanded. This incident, according to Rall, instilled in Snowden that working within the system was for naught. That year, he transferred to a job with the NSA. The things his security clearance allowed him to see—drone mission live feeds, overreaching surveillance of average citizens—aggravated the disillusionment that was already brewing. In 2012, he decided to gather top-secret NSA files over the course of four weeks and he subsequently handed them to journalists.

Snowden's leak was calculated; he learned the dos and don'ts from the government leakers who came before him. From Thomas Drake, Snowden once again learned that raising concerns through official government channels would yield little change. From Chelsea Manning, he realized that handing a cache of files to Wikileaks could go unnoticed by the public and that he should avoid arrest (Manning was court martialed and sentenced to 35 years in prison).

Those cases also showed that prosecution was guaranteed, which is why Snowden fled. As Rall notes, many Americans, including President Obama, want Snowden to return to "face the music" in American courts. But as Rall explains it, any trial would be unfair: Because the documents Snowden leaked are still classified, a jury wouldn't be allowed to see or hear about his revelations, meaning they wouldn't get to assess whether his actions were justified.

As the graphic novel concludes, Rall asserts that "where you stand on Snowden tends to be linked to how much you trust the government." If you see the U.S. government as "a flawed institution that employs patriotic people trying to do their best to keep the country safe and strong" and you "take politicians at their word when they say they don't abuse their power," you're likely to oppose Snowden, says Rall. If, however, you see the U.S. as "a militaristic empire out to conquer most of the world and dominate the rest," you probably stand in support of Snowden. But just like the Snowden saga that Rall carefully repackaged, Americans' relationship with their government is complicated. And even with this easy-to-understand chronology in tow, American attitudes toward Snowden may be a bit more nuanced.

Edward Snowden, Graphic Novel Hero | Culture