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Justice Dept. sues for proceeds from Edward Snowden’s book

Copies of the book “Permanent Record” by Edward Snowden at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass., on Tuesday. (CJ Gunther/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

The Justice Department on Tuesday filed a lawsuit seeking the proceeds from Edward Snowden’s book, alleging the ex-NSA contractor violated nondisclosure agreements he signed with the government by publishing the manuscript without seeking the required approval.

In a news release, the Justice Department noted it was not seeking to “stop or restrict the publication or distribution” of the book, titled “Permanent Record,” but rather “to recover all proceeds earned by Snowden because of his failure to submit his publication for pre-publication review in violation of his alleged contractual and fiduciary obligations.”

“Intelligence information should protect our nation, not provide personal profit,” G. Zachary Terwilliger, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said in a statement announcing the suit. “This lawsuit will ensure that Edward Snowden receives no monetary benefits from breaching the trust placed in him.”

Snowden, a former CIA employee and National Security Agency contractor who leaked a trove of documents detailing top-secret U.S. surveillance programs, is abroad in Russia. He is charged in the United States with espionage and recently told CBS News he would like to return — but only if he would be allowed to defend himself at trial by asserting his actions were in the public interest. That type of defense is not allowed under U.S. law.

The lawsuit: United States of America v. Edward Snowden

The 26-page lawsuit is separate from the criminal charges against Snowden, and it also names as defendants the companies involved in publishing the book: Macmillan Publishers, Henry Holt and Co. and Holtzbrinck Publishers. Spokespeople for the companies did not immediately return messages seeking comment. The suit notes it is only seeking Snowden’s earnings or those given to his agents but names publishers because they are likely to control the funds.

On Twitter, Snowden noted the lawsuit with a link to buy the book, writing, “This is the book the government does not want you to read.” He added later, “It is hard to think of a greater stamp of authenticity than the US government filing a lawsuit claiming your book is so truthful that it was literally against the law to write.”

The suit details the secrecy agreements that Snowden signed with the CIA and NSA and asserts Snowden knew he had to submit for pre-publication review any materials he planned to publish about his government work.

“Snowden did not, at any time, submit the manuscript for Permanent Record to either the CIA or NSA for pre-publication review,” the suit alleges. “Nor did Snowden obtain written approval from CIA or NSA prior to sharing manuscripts with Macmillan or prior to the book’s publication.”

Macmillan promoted the book, published Tuesday, as a story of Snowden’s time in the CIA and NSA and “the disillusionment he felt with the American intelligence establishment that led him to give up his future to share the truth about the U.S. government’s pursuit of a mass surveillance system.”

Book review: Snowden explains how he pulled off one of the largest leaks in U.S. history

Ben Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberty Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project and an attorney for Snowden, said in a statement: “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.”

Jesselyn Radack, a whistleblower lawyer who has represented Snowden, said the government was “tacitly recognizing” that Snowden “has a First Amendment right to speak and to publish,” by not seeking to block distribution or publication of the book.

But she said that the lawsuit would nonetheless scare those in government who might want to share or comment on episodes of wrongdoing and noted that the government had chosen a venue — federal court in the Eastern District of Virginia — that has a reputation for aggressively pursuing those who share information. Snowden was charged there, as was WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

“Clearly, when the government does something like this, I would argue that it has a chilling effect on people’s speech,” Radack said.

Radack said Snowden probably anticipated such a suit by the government and had “worked out arrangements with the publisher about how to handle that,” though she was uncertain of the details. But even if the government was able to take back earnings or prevent him from profiting, she said, Snowden was probably more concerned with sharing his story. It is unclear whether Snowden already has been paid any money for work on the book or, if so, what steps the government might be able to take to get it back.

“For me, just knowing Ed, I don’t think he was in this for the moneymaking-venture aspect of it,” Radack said.

Wizner said Snowden hoped the lawsuit would “bring the book to the attention of more readers throughout the world.”

The case would not be the first time the government has sought proceeds from a former government official’s book published without approvals. In 2016, the government reached an agreement with Matt Bissonnette, a former Navy SEAL, to take $6.8 million in royalties from his book, “No Easy Day,” which detailed the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

Former government officials who go through the pre-publication review process often complain that it is an opaque and lengthy procedure. Five former federal employees recently filed a lawsuit over it, alleging it was an unconstitutional “system of censorship” that is often politicized.