/ Cory Doctorow / 4 am Wed, May 28 2014
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  • Greenwald's "No Place to Hide": a compelling, vital narrative about official criminality

    Greenwald's "No Place to Hide": a compelling, vital narrative about official criminality

    Cory Doctorow reviews Glenn Greenwald's long-awaited No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State. 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.

    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.

    No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State


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    Notable Replies

    1. IMB says:

      Ah, so this why John Kerry is flailing his penis about calling Snowden a coward and telling him to man-up. He has the 'affraids' about the release of this book.

    2. Until people actually have a chance to hear him. Glenn is very articulate, very well prepared.

      He's also very canny. The long "drip... drip... drip..." of this story has meant a slow, relentless penetration of the story and its implications into the public discourse. Establishing it as something that seriously matters to everyone and that needs to be acted upon - in other words, to create a groundswell of opinion - takes time; it is not a matter of the instant gratification that our media so often promulgate. The effects are going to be showing up in dribs and drabs as background "noise", but those background effects are showing up. I don't think it's any coincidence that a lot of sneaky-serious bugs in Internet security have been caught recently, after years, even, of being under the radar. I'm starting to see a consensus forming between groups of people who normally wouldn't agree about anything - even the dumbest person will start asking "Why are they spying on me?" after a while, and the average person isn't that dumb.

      The main thing to remember: it took a fair amount of steady "drip... drip... drip..." to bring down Nixon, and this is a much bigger, more pervasive problem than Nixon was.

    3. I wonder how much Laura Poitras played in helping to structure the release of information as it has been done? I think that a movie maker might have a greater understanding of how to build an arc of a story.

      I think they also learned from how Wikileaks dumped information. The press only did one story and them moved on. They 24 hour news cycle needs new info because the media become bored easily. So interlaced with the technical details are the personal and policy details.

      This is a long term "product rollout" and they need to both keep building support, but also be prepared for the ways that the people will come after them. The development of "Greenwald is jerk" from people is an easy way for people to dismiss the work.

      The way that the media like to focus on the people can be expected, so anything that was done to keep the focus on the story is good.

      The other thing that is important is to understand that the journalists (who you might think would be on your side) are not. And this is something that I think people don't understand about the modern press and I'm glad that Greenwald addresses it.

      They are NOT the group holding government accountable that they might have been at one time. They are ALSO not the group that will hold corporations accountable. Especially when the messages get sent out that risk vs. reward of accountability journalism are too high. Let someone else do that work and then report on "both sides." End the stories with "the truth lies somewhere in the middle" and "we'll leave it there."

      There are hundreds of stories of corporate corruption and law breaking that could have been revealed by journalism but they will not be.

      This is also something that activists and the public needs to understand.

    4. Ygret says:

      I think you're over-thinking this, and over-estimating the power of the government. The govt has incredible power, but its not omnipotent, and this is clearly an incredible "get" for Williams and his network. The leaks were the important thing, not an interview. They've done their best to demonize Snowden and failed. And yes, the Russians are protecting Snowden because he has been a massive thorn in the side of the US government, and Putin is both enjoying protecting that thorn, and holding him as a potential bargaining chip for something he may want or need in future. Snowden is, unfortunately, not "free". That awful show 24 coming back is likely timed as a propaganda deflection of course. And Greenwald has already stated that the final big story is about who the NSA is spying on. I can't wait.

    5. I love how some people's idea of a respectful environment means they can stomp about and spew all the profane invective that comes to their frontal lobe, but if anyone so much as questions them about it, it's the OTHER guy who's in the wrong. Remind you of a certain Secretary of State?

      Look, to all the people who feel deeply offended by Ed Snowden, think he's a traitor, should be hanged, etc., etc., etc., I have one thing to say. Prove the harm.

      I can prove the good, easily. The good is that mass surveillance is now:

      1. in the public eye and most people don't want it
      2. being hotly debated in Congress and starting to be reshaped
      3. being challenged in the courts, finally at long last
      4. becoming a fly in the President's ointment; he is being forced to deal with it.

      That's 4 unquestionably good things that are a direct result of these leaks. Why are they unquestionable? Because they are tangible. They are specific things you can point to and say, "yes, these are happening."

      So, prove the harm. Not vague, oh, he undermined national security secrets, stole military secrets, jeopardized our mission, blah blah. NO. LIST THE DIRECT HARMS. Such as, "5 Americans were killed in Baghdad as a result of Snowden's leaks."

      I'm curious what Snowden-haters have to say about that. Go on, be specific.

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