Glenn Greenwald's No Place to Hide

A review of a book well worth reading.

July 7, 2014

Over the weekend I finished reading No Place to Hide, Glenn Greenwald’s book about the Snowden revelations and what they tell us about the NSA, the threat such a massive “collect it all” mentality poses to freedom, and the concerns Greenwald has about the timidity of the press. It’s a gripping read, starting with his own stumbling connection to an informant who insisted on security measures that seemed complex and burdensome for a story that might turn out to be a waste of time. (Incidentally, this chapter does a good job of showing why privacy, in the current climate, is a luxury few of us can afford. Even though there are fairly simple steps we all can take, the default position is “when I’m online, everything I do is monitored and I have no idea who will have access to the details of my life or what they will do with them.” That's messed up.)

In the next chapters he describes the “collect it all” mentality of the NSA and sums up what we know about the various programs that serve that purpose. The story that Barton Gellman and fellow reporters broke at the Washington Post on the 5th of July fills out some of the details of how non-targets can have intimate details of their lives assembled and examined by the instruments of power. This is not news, exactly – we knew it could happen – but seeing it at work and realizing that 90 percent of this detailed surveillance is of people who are not suspected of anything – underscores the audacity of top officials who have consistently lied to Congress, to the American people who they supposedly protect, and to the world. In this, and the next chapter that looks at how surveillance harms us, Greenwald shows how interconnected are the state, tech industries that use surveillance and data mining as a business model (Google, Facebook, etc.), and the extremely lucrative business of providing outsourced technical support to the intelligence agencies. The majority of people working for the NSA are employed by private contractors who have every incentive to improve their spycraft because it serves both their ability to win billions of dollars in government contracts and to develop commercially exploitable technology. Greenwald finds the statements major tech corporations issued stating that the NSA can’t access their data directly are full of legalistic dodging and weaving. He believes they are implicated. I noticed that Mark Zuckerberg’s objections to the NSA have nothing to do with invasions of privacy; he only objects because the NSA has built exploitable flaws into Internet technologies and has damaged the reputation of US tech businesses which has enjoyed near-global dominance.

Though there aren’t any real surprises in these chapters for anyone who has followed the news, having it all summarized in a single narrative is helpful. The documents included also cumulatively demonstrate how far off the rails this massive program has gone. The PowerPoint slides crow about growth and the impact of new initiatives with a salesman’s gleeful hype. A memo titled ‘BLARNEY team Provides Outstanding Support to Enable UN Security Council Collection” describes how one project team handed the US ambassador to the UN’s request for dirt on countries who were on the fence before a UN vote. Since one of the requirements of the task was that it be fast and “within legal authorities” (which kind of suggests that’s an order specific to this mission, not standard operating procedure) the memo brags about being able to bag five FISC court orders in one day. It seems clear that self-aggrandizing hype and the competition to gather more data more quickly feeds into the “collect it all” mentality of the NSA. The mixture of the illegal actions these documents describe and the salesman’s rah-rah rhetoric in which they are presented shows just how detached from the public interest these actors have become. It’s almost as if the technology has taken over and is doing everything it can to grow its own reach. It’s also clear, from both this book and from the record, that human intelligence and non-secret court orders are more effective than massive signals intelligence, which hasn’t accomplished anything other than its own unchecked metastasis.

The final chapter is a critique of the establishment press which Greenwald faults for being too attached to power and too craven in its service. Because this chapter describes both ways people in the press attacked him personally and carried water for administrative and congressional calls for his arrest, it is hardly dispassionate, and to some extent it suffers from mixing personal grievances with a larger argument that the mainstream media has become an instrument of the wealthy and powerful. Yet I can understand why he chose to write it that way. His argument is partly that journalism has become corrupted by money and partly that there is no such thing as journalistic neutrality and that when journalists claim they are being neutral, they aren’t.

This is an obvious pretense, a conceit of the profession. The perceptions and pronouncements of human beings are inherently subjective. Every news article is the product of all sorts of highly subjective cultural, nationalistic, and political assumptions. And all journalism serves one faction’s interests over another’s.

The relevant distinction is not between journalists who have opinions and those who have none, a category that doesn’t exist. It is between journalists who candidly reveal their opinions and those who conceal them, pretending they have none. (p 231)

Greenwald demonstrates that the press is fine with the administration leaking information that is entirely in the administration’s interests while criminalizing whistleblowers and journalists. (As David Gregory grilled Greenwald on Meet the Press, asking why he shouldn’t  be arrested for reporting on the contents of top secret documents, Gregory casually mentioned that he interpreted a secret court order differently, with his knowledge of it “based on people that I’ve talked to.” Gregory wasn’t a criminal because his leaker was pro-administration. Leaks are only criminal if the administration says so. Boom!) Greenwald calls on journalists to embrace an outsider identity, to refuse to run stories by authorities, as the New York Times did, delaying publication of their story about warrantless wiretapping for over a year and past a presidential election, only publishing when another news organization scooped them. He faults the Guardian for complying with GCHQ demands to ritualistically smash laptops containing copies of the Snowden documents in the presence of government officials. He feels they should have refused, even in the face of threatened closure, to force the issue. He asks journalists to place as high a value on government accountability as Snowden himself, even if it puts them at the same level of risk. He urges reporters to follow David Halberstam and Seymour Hirsch’s  example and confront power rather than cozy up to it, hoping for access to highly-placed unnamed sources. You know, like the ones who placed on the front pages of the Times a totally mendacious excuse for invading Iraq as if it was actual reporting.  

The story Greenwald tells about the NSA and its overreaching assault on civil liberties is shocking, but not surprising to me. The chapter on the news media was. I knew about most of the material he used in the chapter, but hadn’t put it all together as he does, and it’s deeply troubling. We need to stop mass surveillance, and to do that we need a free press. No Place to Hide explains why these things are so important and how they are connected. The whole world is being watched. To reclaim privacy, we need the help of an independent press that serves the public’s right to know rather than the government’s need to control the message. Our best defense against a turnkey totalitarian system is knowing that the whole world is watching. We wouldn't be able to do that without Edward Snowden and the courage of committed journalists. 

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