Glenn Greenwald's long-awaited No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State is more than a summary of the Snowden leaks: it's a compelling narrative that puts the most explosive revelations about official criminality into vital context.
No Place has something for everyone. It opens like a spy-thriller as Greenwald takes us through his adventures establishing contact with Snowden and flying out to meet him -- thanks to the technological savvy and tireless efforts of Laura Poitras, and those opening chapters are real you-are-there nailbiters as we get the inside story on the play between Poitras and Greenwald, Snowden, the Guardian, Bart Gellman and the Washington Post.
Greenwald offers us some insight into Snowden's character, which has been something of a cipher until now, as the spy sought to keep the spotlight on the story instead of the person. This turns out to have been a very canny move, as it has made it difficult for NSA apologists to muddy the waters with personal smears about Snowden and his life. But the character Greenwald introduces us to isn't a lurking embarrassment -- rather, he's a quick-witted, well-spoken, technologically masterful idealist. Exactly the kind of person you'd hope he'd be, more or less: someone with principles and smarts, and the ability to articulate a coherent and ultimately unassailable argument about surveillance and privacy. The world Snowden wants isn't one that's totally free of spying: it's one of well-defined laws, backed by an effective set of checks and balances ensure that spies are servants to democracy, and not the other way around. The spies have acted as if the law allows them to do just about anything to anyone. Snowden insists that if they want that law, they have to ask for it -- announce their intentions, get Congress on side, get a law passed and follow it. Making it up as you go along and lying to Congress and the public doesn't make freedom safe, because freedom starts with the state and its agents following their own rules.
From here, Greenwald shifts gears, diving into the substance of the leaks. There have been other leakers and whistleblowers before Snowden, but no story about leaks has stayed alive in the public's imagination and on the front page for as long as the Snowden files; in part that's thanks to a canny release strategy that has put out stories that follow a dramatic arc. Sometimes, the press will publish a leak just in time to reveal that the last round of NSA and government denials were lies. Sometimes, they'll be a you-ain't-seen-nothing-yet topper for the last round of stories. Whether deliberate or accidental, the order of publication has finally managed to give the mass-spying story that's been around since Mark Klein's 2005 bombshell.
But for all that, the leaks haven't been coherent. Even if you follow them closely -- as I do -- it's sometimes hard to figure out what, exactly, we have learned about the NSA. In part, that's because so much of the NSA's "collect-it-all" strategy involves overlapping ways of getting the same data (often for the purposes of a plausibly deniable parallel construction) so you hear about a new leak and can't figure out how it differs from the last one.
No Place's middle act is a very welcome and well-executed framing of all the leaks to date (some new ones were revealed in the book), putting them in a logical, rather than dramatic or chronological, order. If you can't figure out what the deal is with NSA spying, this section will put you straight, with brief, clear, non-technical explanations that anyone can follow.
The final third is where Greenwald really puts himself back into the story -- specifically, he discusses how the establishment press reacted to his reporting of the story. He characterizes himself as a long-time thorn in the journalistic establishment's side, a gadfly who relentlessly picked at the press's cowardice and laziness. So when famous journalists started dismissing his work as mere "blogging" and called for him to be arrested for reporting on the Snowden story, he wasn't surprised.
But what could have been an unseemly score-settling rebuttal to his critics quickly becomes something more significant: a comprehensive critique of the press's financialization as media empires swelled to the size of defense contractors or oil companies. Once these companies became the establishment, and their star journalists likewise became millionaire plutocrats whose children went to the same private schools as the politicians they were meant to be holding to account, they became tame handmaidens to the state and its worst excesses.
The Klein NSA surveillance story broke in 2005 and quickly sank, having made a ripple not much larger than that of Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction or the business of Obama's birth certificate. For nearly a decade, the evidence of breathtaking, lawless, endless surveillance has mounted, without any real pushback from the press. There has been no urgency to this story, despite its obvious gravity, no banner headlines that read ONE YEAR IN, THE CRIMES GO ON. The story -- the government spies on your merest social interaction in a way that would freak you the fuck out if you thought about it for ten seconds -- has become wonkish and complicated, buried in silly arguments about whether "metadata collection" is spying, about the fine parsing of Keith Alexander's denials, and, always, in Soviet-style scaremongering about the terrorists lurking within.
Greenwald doesn't blame the press for creating this situation, but he does place responsibility for allowing it square in their laps. He may linger a little over the personal sleights he's received at the hands of establishment journalists, but it's hard to fault him for wanting to point out that calling yourself a journalist and then asking to have another journalist put in prison for reporting on a massive criminal conspiracy undertaken at the highest level of government makes you a colossal asshole.
The book ends with a beautiful, barn-burning coda in which Greenwald sets out his case for a free society as being free from surveillance. It reads like the transcript of a particularly memorable speech -- an "I have a dream" speech; a "Blood, sweat, toil and tears" speech. It's the kind of speech I could have imagined a young senator named Barack Obama delivering in 2006, back when he had a colorable claim to being someone with a shred of respect for the Constitution and the rule of law. It's a speech I hope to hear Greenwald deliver himself someday.
Published 4:52 am Wed, May 28, 2014
books, crypto, gift guide, Journalism, nsa, privacy, Reviews, snowden, spooks, surveillance, web theory