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Book Review: No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State by Glenn Greenwald

Published by Metropolitan Books (2014)
Reviewed by Benjamin Wittes
Monday, May 26, 2014 at 6:01 PM

The most important passages of Glenn Greenwald’s new book, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, are those in which Greenwald states what he believes the larger significance of the Snowden disclosures to be—the passages where he gets out of the weeds of the material Snowden has given him and out of the weeds of the story he is telling. They are the passages, in other words, in which Greenwald breaks through to the higher ground he is trying to reach with his reader. Why does the National Security Agency collect all this stuff, anyway? Why does it have these remarkable capabilities? What is the meaning of it all?

Here’s Greenwald’s somewhat remarkable answer:

Taken in its entirety, the Snowden archive led to an ultimately simple conclusion: the US government had built a system that has as its goal the complete elimination of electronic privacy worldwide. . . . The agency is devoted to one overarching mission: to prevent the slightest piece of electronic communication from evading its systemic grasp.

In Greenwald’s world, the agency’s very purpose, in all of its activities, is political control—including of you:

It is vital that the NSA monitor all parts of the Internet and any other means of communication, so that none can escape US government control. Ultimately, beyond diplomatic manipulation and economic gain, a system of ubiquitous spying allows the United States to maintain its grip on the world. When the United States is able to know everything that everyone is doing, saying, thinking, and planning—its own citizens, foreign populations, international corporations, other government leaders—its power over those factions is maximized.

And the purpose of that political control? Repression of dissent, according to Greenwald:

All of the evidence highlights the implicit bargain that is offered to citizens: pose no challenge and you have nothing to worry about. Mind your own business, and support or at least tolerate what we do, and you’ll be fine. Put differently, you must refrain from provoking the authority that wields surveillance powers if you wish to be deemed free of wrongdoing. This is a deal that invites passivity, obedience, and conformity. The safest course, the way to ensure being “left alone,” is to remain quiet, unthreatening, and compliant.

If these passages sounds to you like the country you live in, if you instinctively believe that keeping you politically compliant is very the reason we have an NSA, if you believe the agency’s purpose is to control the internet and to destroy privacy, if you don’t believe that terrorism or legitimate geopolitical threats or cybersecurity have anything real to do with any of it, then this is the book for you.

If, on the other hand, these passages sound strangely paranoid, if they sound just juvenile—like their author is a fevered 18-year-old conducting a Manichean teach-in in the administration building of some college somewhere—or if you just wonder why an all-powerful spy agency bent on suppressing dissent would tolerate the publication of No Place to Hide (or, for that matter, tolerate Glenn Greenwald himself), Greenwald’s book is going to be a frustrating and ultimately unavailing read.

No Place to Hide is really two books. The first, roughly the first half, is a narrative thriller, a journalistic memoir of how Greenwald got the Edward Snowden documents. It is the story of how Greenwald broke the story. The second book, roughly the second half, is a polemic, a purported account of what is in the documents Greenwald received, what they all mean, and how we should understand U.S. surveillance policy and practice. The first book is a pleasant surprise. The second is exactly as shrill and uninformative and full of Greenwald’s tired themes as you might expect. My suggestion is to read the first half and skip the second.

Greenwald isn’t usually fun to read. His blogging is windy and didactic, full of breathless adjectives and hyperbole and consistently aimed at rallying those who already agree with him, rather than persuading those who do not. But it turns out that Greenwald actually can tell a story when he puts his mind to it. And in the first of half of this book, that’s what he does.

Greenwald’s story is not the least bit self-reflective and betrays not a moment of self-doubt as to the rightness of his own—or Snowden’s—course of action. It’s a morality tale of good and evil: the intrepid reporters and their noble source who take on the evil spy agency and have to contend, along the way, with the mewling apparatchiks who make up the mainstream media. That said, the story is well told, even gripping in spots, and it adds some interesting texture to the Snowden story as I had previously understood it.

For one thing, it shows how assiduously Snowden worked to recruit Greenwald, whom he approached initially by email under the pseudonym “Cincinnatus.” Snowden stayed on Greewald when the journalist could not be troubled to begin using encryption for his email. And he ultimately went around Greenwald entirely, approaching Laura Poitras when he grew frustrated with Greenwald’s non-responsiveness. This is not the story of a journalist’s recruiting a source. It’s a case, rather, of a source’s recruitment and cultivation of a journalist.

Not all of Greenwald’s story flatters Snowden, though Greenwald clearly means it to. Greenwald describes a degree of planning and organization associated with Snowden’s collection of NSA documents that he presents as evidence of his source’s being principled and sophisticated and intelligent. But it may well come off to those who don’t start with an assumption of Snowden’s nobility as evidence of deep and early criminal intent. Snowden approached Greenwald a long time before the story broke and was, at that time, already intending to make major disclosures, for example, and Greenwald spends a good deal of time describing the scope and organization of the digital archive of stolen materials Snowden created. This is man who, in Greenwald’s account, even took a job with the specific intent of using it to harvest documents to leak:

In early 2013, [Snowden] realized that there was one set of documents he needed to complete the picture he wanted to present to the world that he could not access while at Dell. They would be accessible only if he obtained a different position, one where he would be formally assigned as an infrastructure analyst, allowing him to go all the way into the raw surveillance repositories of the NSA. With this goal in mind, Snowden applied for a job opening in Hawaii with Booz Allen Hamilton, one of the nation’s largest and most powerful private defense contractors, filled with former government officials. He took a pay cut to get that job, as it gave him access to download the final set of files he felt he needed to complete the picture of NSA spying. Most important, that access allowed him to collect information on the NSA’s secret monitoring of the entire telecommunications infrastructure inside the United States.

Greenwald also describes Snowden’s deep peace with the idea that he would likely spend many years in prison. He describes this admiringly, but it comes off less as noble than as faintly crazy—like someone who is aiming to martyr himself. Put simply, in Greenwald’s account, Snowden’s disclosures were in no sense an impulsive act. They resulted from a planned mission undertaken over a long period of time with an eerie awareness of the consequences.

Notably, Snowden does not come off in this account as likely the recruit—witting or unwitting—of some foreign intelligence service (though he is clearly under the protection of the Russian FSB these days). In contrast to the theory advanced by Economist writer Edward Lucas, he does not seem like anyone’s dupe. He seems, rather, much more like the ringleader than the follower—a true believer who, at least at first, was acting very much on his own initiative and for his own reasons.

The narrative portion of Greenwald’s book is self-congratulatory, to be sure, but the truth is that even the fiercest of Greenwald’s detractors will have a hard time putting it down—and will get something out of it. Probably, you’ll get reinforcement of whatever assumptions you had going into it. If you believed Greenwald and Poitras were engaged in a heroic effort to hold power accountable, you’ll find that in the book. If you believe this was a criminal conspiracy, you’ll find that in it. And to his credit, through a lot of self-satisfied editorializing, Greenwald gives you the facts you need to form your own opinion.

But just under halfway through the book, Greenwald pivots—and he pivots into juvenile absurdity. He drops the narrative thread and returns to his usual style and many of his familiar themes. The remainder of the book is very predictable and altogether conspiratorial. It will rally the faithful, but it won’t shed light for anyone else. In Greenwald’s world, NSA is unrelentingly evil, its appetite voracious, its purpose political control and the suppression of dissent. Terrorism and other national security interests are mere smokescreens and pretexts for collection that is, in fact, just a repressive instrument. Mainstream journalists—and, for that matter, anyone who disagres with Greenwald—are corrupt handmaidens of power.

Through it all, Greenwald barely pauses, when he pauses at all, to dismiss parades of inconvenient facts: the complex array of oversight instruments that regulate and limit NSA activity, the significant restrictions on NSA’s ability to collect against U.S. persons, the difference between the capability to do something and the rules under which that thing can and does happen, the many stories that the mainstream press he derides have broken about U.S. intelligence capabilities, and many other things—including Greenwald’s own continuing freedom—that his dark view of the U.S. security establishment cannot quite account for. Greenwald sees the world in black and white—but mostly in black. And the second half of this book is largely an exercise in obliterating color and gray scale with a big black marker. If that’s not your thing, put down No Place to Hide after the first two chapters. You won’t have missed much.

Filed under: Book Reviews