Book Review: The surveillance state: No place to hide, really

Page after page reveals to us with ever increasing horror that we are the most surveilled and spied upon people to ever walk the earth. This is not fiction.

No Place to Hide

Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State

By Glenn Greenwald

Illustrated. 259 pages. Metropolitan Books. $27.

There’s the story and the story about the story. There’s Edward Snowden, and then there’s Glenn Greenwald, the man who tells Snowden’s story in “No Place to Hide.

And, for most, before you ever get the book in hand, there’s wading through a veritable opinion storm: what all the book-reviewers and newspaper columnists and TV folks think about both men.

It doesn’t take long to learn the mainstream press isn’t fond of these guys. To realize that the central messages that Snowden and Greenwald are bringing us are so easily lost as their critics scream into the wind.

I’ve never met Snowden and I don’t know Greenwald. Quite frankly, I have no idea how neurotic either of them is. But, clearly, many of their critics have put an awful lot of effort into psychoanalyzing and dismissing them.

Early on, Roger Simon of Politico wrote that Snowden was “a total slacker” who sadly yearned to be a “global savior.”

Jeffrey Toobin of The New Yorker assured us that Snowden is no hero, no whistle-blower, but rather “a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison.”

More recently, Michael Kinsley of the New York Times suggests Snowden yearns “for martyrdom.”

And closer to home, George Packer, most poetically, places Snowden in a contemporary, uncompromising Thoreauvian constellation, living “in the hyperconnected isolation of the internet, more interested in his own moral imperative.” Snowden, Packer tells us, is more focused on being “the kind of person he wanted and imagined himself to be” than caring about the outcome of his actions. He is a “Libertarian” who distrusts institutions. Because Libertarianism, “a temperament as much as a philosophy,” often rejects “politics with its dissatisfying but necessary trade-offs; it tends towards absolutist positions, which grow best in the hermetic laboratory environment.”

Glenn Greenwald
Glenn Greenwald

Packer suggests Glenn Greenwald, too, might be a bit of an uncompromising Libertarian. Packer is particularly incensed by Greenwald’s uncompromising attacks on the mainstream media, “of establishment journalism” and Snowden’s “abiding distrust of the leading newspaper in America,” the New York Times.

Kinsley makes it personal. Greenwald is “unpleasant.” He “seems like a self-righteous sourpuss, convinced that every issue is ‘straightforward,’ and if you don’t agree with him, you’re part of something he calls ‘the authorities,’ who control everything for their own nefarious but never explained purposes.” But then, according to Kinsler, “Reformers tend to be difficult people.”

Not surprisingly, considering how little Snowden and Greenwald think of the Times, the paper is particularly peeved with them. There is an old, ongoing argument between the New York Times and Glenn Greenwald. First, there was Bill Keller, now Michael Kinsley, and Michiko Kakutani have weighed in.

Kakutani, at least, acknowledges Greenwald’s journalistic accomplishments: “He amplifies our understanding of the N.S.A.’s sweeping ambitions, methods and global reach, and provides detailed insights into what he calls the agency’s corporate partnerships,’ which ‘extend beyond intelligence and defense contractors to include the world’s largest and most important Internet corporations and telecoms.’ ”

But quickly Kakutani takes issue with Greenwald’s critique of what he believes is an increasingly corporate-minded, corporate controlled press. “Substantial sections of this book deal not with Mr. Greenwald’s relationship with Mr. Snowden and the N.S.A., but with his combative view of ‘the establishment media,’ which he has denounced for ‘glaring subservience to political power’ and to which he condescends as inferior to his more activist kind of journalism.”

Mr. Kakutani has turned to the New York Times bullpen for the “glaring subservience” quote: reminding us of an October 2013 digital conversation between the Times’ Bill Keller who proclaimed himself the standard bearer for “aggressive but impartial” reporting versus Greenwald, whom he called a proponent of the “activist tradition” whose “writing proceeds from a clearly stated point of view.”

Katutani continues the debate: “In ‘No Place to Hide,’ Mr. Greenwald is critical of the process by which publications like The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Guardian speak with government officials before publishing sensitive articles dealing with national security issues; he contends that this process allows the ‘government to control disclosures and minimize, even neuter, their impact.’ He also makes self-dramatizing boasts about his own mission: ‘Only audacious journalism could give the story the power it needed to overcome the climate of fear the government had imposed on journalists and their sources’ …”

But Katutani writes, “Many establishment media outlets obviously continue to pursue the Snowden story. Further, many of Mr. Greenwald’s gross generalizations about the establishment media do a terrible disservice to the many tenacious investigative reporters who have broken important stories on some of the very subjects like the war on terror and executive power that Mr. Greenwald feels so strongly about.”

Keller shrewdly uses praise to paint Greenwald into a corner: first invoking Thomas Paine and the early pamphleteers, but swiftly making the case for the New York Times version of proper journalism: “Journalists in this tradition have plenty of opinions, but by setting them aside to follow the facts — as a judge in court is supposed to set aside prejudices to follow the law and the evidence — they can often produce results that are more substantial and more credible.”

And at the end of the day, don’t you want to go with Keller’s “substantial” and “credible?”

This is, of course, but a cursory Google-fueled journey through the roiling opinion-sphere. But you get the idea. Snowden and Greenwald ought not to be trusted.

And all this before the U.S. Secretary of State, both a former war/anti-war hero, weighed in to tell us that Snowden was a coward and a traitor for not surrendering to the Department of Justice. Not quite innocent before proven guilty, suggested Secretary Kerry, reminding us “this is a man who has done great damage to his country.” Telling us, in case we don’t know, that “a patriot would not run away.”That this could all end if only Snowden would “man-up.” With the quite lovely offer of transportation from his forced sanctuary in Russia: “If Mr. Snowden wants to come back to the United States … we’ll have him on a flight today.”

Was Snowden the only one imagining a one-way trip to Guantanamo?

Well, I’ll leave it to others more qualified to figure out the precise bravery/bravado quotients, to determine exactly how much of Snowden’s actions reveal an audacious courage or is evidence of some new fangled internet-inspired self-absorption.

But, in all honesty, dear reader, I’ve got my own bias here. At this point, and until he runs for President, I’d trust Snowden more than Kerry.

Now to the book. If you’ve survived the many critics, I do believe there are so many reasons to read Glenn Greenwald’s thorough recounting of the Snowden story.

It’s not easy. Yes, early on it’s like watching “Person on Interest” or any of the new television dramas with their deep-seated government/quasi-government conspiracies. And it is very exciting as Greenwald comes so very close to blowing the opportunity to tell the story of a lifetime.

But once the thrill is gone, Greenwald and, most importantly, Snowden, force us again and again to confront the so very pervasive and powerful forces of denial. My denial. And I imagine, yours.

Because you can’t read “No Place to Hide”without acknowledging that there is no place to hide. Really. Page after page reveals to us with ever increasing horror that we are the most surveilled and spied upon people to ever walk the earth.

And so this is not reading Kafka. Or Orwell. Or Huxley. This is not about the willing suspension of disbelief for an hour or two, an afternoon curled up in armchair, or with a book on the beach.

This is not fiction. Yes, there’s Greenwald’s descriptions and his analysis, his grievances, and maybe a bit too much of his passionate advocacy. But beyond all that, there is the proof. The paper trail, as the TV attorneys remind us. Document after document. Some matter-of-fact, some smug, self-righteous, bragging even.

And so the denial rises from the depths, and we try not to see. We try not to know. So what if they collect metadata? Meta what? I mean so what if they read my email? Suck from my Facebook account every lame post, every photo I’ve taken of me, of you, of them, and every photo you’ve taken of me and taken of them? So they know that last Tuesday I surrendered to the most base impulse of internet-browsing voyeurism and clicked the link about Kate Middleton’s bum?

I’m that frog in the pot having a carefree float as ever so slowly the water turns from cool to warm to hotter and hotter. Slow and steady wins the race.

The problem for the gatekeepers, for all of us, is that Snowden managed to walk away with a treasure trove. Some critics suggest there’s nothing new here. But that’s certainly not true for most of us. Because no sooner have we confronted one extraordinary revelation than we have to deal with another. Beginning with Greenwald’s first story for the UK Guardian: “NSA Collecting Phone Records of Millions of Verizon Customers Daily,” and its subhead: “Exclusive: Top Secret Court Order Requiring Verizon to Hand Over All Call Data Shows Scale of Domestic Surveillance Under Obama.” Obama, really? Doing what Bush had done?

Then, in no particular order, there’s the NSA Prism Program with its direct access to the servers of Google, Apple and Facebook. And Project Bullrun, the joint effort of NSA and their British counterparts to defeat the encryptions used to safeguard online transactions. There’s evidence of Microsoft working hand-in-hand with the NSA to access the new improved Outlook and monitor Skype; to help the NSA get their hands on everything you’ve put onto the Microsoft Cloud, including access to Microsoft Word docs and pdfs. Or Boundless Informant, the NSA’s data-tracking program that collects, analyzes, and stores billions of telephone calls and emails.

About Boundless Informant, Greenwald notes:

“Overall, in just thirty days the unit had collected data on more than 97 billion emails and 124 billion phone calls from around the world. Another BOUNDLESS INFORMANT document detailed the international data collected in a single thirty-day period from Germany (500 million), Brazil (2.3 billion), and India (13.5 billion). And yet other files showed collection of metadata in cooperation with the governments of France (70 million), Spain (60 million), Italy (47 million), the Netherlands (1.8 million), Norway (33 million), and Denmark (23 million).”

Quite frankly my middling mind was often overloaded.

Greenwald reminds us:

“The thousands of discrete surveillance programs described by the archive were never intended by those who implemented them to become public knowledge. Many of the programs were aimed at the American population, but dozens of countries around the planet — including democracies typically considered U.S. allies, such as France, Brazil, India, and Germany — were also targets of indiscriminate mass surveillance.

“Snowden’s archive was elegantly organized, but its size and complexity made it extremely difficult to process. The tens of thousands of NSA documents in it had been produced by virtually every unit and subdivision within the sprawling agency, and it also contained some files from closely aligned foreign intelligence agencies. The documents were startlingly recent: mostly from 2011 and 2012, and many from 2013. Some even dated from March and April of that year, just months before we met Snowden in Hong Kong.”

Greenwald claims: “The documents left no doubt that the NSA was equally involved in economic espionage, diplomatic spying, and suspicionless surveillance aimed at entire populations.

“Taken in its entirety, the Snowden archive led to an ultimately simple conclusion: the U.S. government had built a system that has as its goal the complete elimination of electronic privacy worldwide. Far from hyperbole, that is the literal, explicitly stated aim of the surveillance state: to collect, store, monitor, and analyze all electronic communication by all people around the globe. The agency is devoted to one overarching mission: to prevent the slightest piece of electronic communication from evading its systemic grasp.”

And this does sound so very grandiose. It’s often hard to imagine that Greenwald is serious. That Snowden isn’t delusional. But here it is in black and white:


Try denying this: “Sniff it all. Know it all. Collect it all. Process it all. Exploit it all. Partner it all.”

So who really is grandiose? Who’s delusional?

You can see why Kerry is apoplectic and why the mainstream press is beside itself with envy: Snowden and Greenwald tear down one wall of denial after another, ripping away the oh-so-many veils of secrecy. Driving the gatekeepers mad.

Maybe Snowden is a digital Thoreau; maybe Greenwald secretly wants to run the Times? Who cares when the message is so very clear. There is no privacy. There are no secrets, large or small. Can you imagine yourself Snowden? At your desk, one moment watching in real time, as a drone spies on a Pakistani village. Or watching someone surf the Internet. Then, the next moment, typing in the email address of your ex of a decade ago, the President of the United States, or Lady GaGa to access their used-to-be private account.

One NSA document after another shows there was no end to their reach. The NSA documents reek with their utter contempt for the notion of personal space. For the quaint but oh-so-outdated Fourth Amendment: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

No wonder the private sector is so worried. The NSA trumpets their cooperation:


Greenwald writes: “The archive revealed the technical means used to intercept communications: the NSA’s tapping of Internet servers, satellites, underwater fiber-optic cables, local and foreign telephone systems, and personal computers. It identified individuals targeted for extremely invasive forms of spying, a list that ranged from alleged terrorists and criminal suspects to the democratically elected leaders of the nation’s allies and even ordinary American citizens. And it shed light on the NSA’s overall strategies and goals.” (Emphasis added)


Of course, the gatekeepers, and many others, mindful of the real threats we face, will argue this is all for the best. Possibly, occasionally, intrusive, these programs are the necessary costs to keep us free. 9/11. 9/11. 9/11. Shoebombers and more shoebombers. Muslim extremists and Extreme Muslims.


Many will argue that only the guilty should fear surveillance. The innocent have nothing to hide. While the guilty will be justly metadated.


Greenwald, a former attorney, takes on these arguments. Charting the psychic, social costs of a world with ever-present watchers, making the case again for a place, and a time that is ours alone. That it is no one’s business that we’ve searched for Lindsey Lohan or scheduled a penile implant or told the President he’s out to lunch for suggesting a ban on assault rifles.


Those who argue it’s only the guilty who should worry have obviously lived a charmed life, and read a sanitized American history. They are either extremely naïve or deliberately obtuse about the abuses of “the authorities.” To have so easily forgotten what happened to the Native Americans, the Salem witches, the Negro slaves, the early abolitionists, the women who wanted to vote, those who were lynched, the union organizers, the striking coal miners and textile workers and auto workers, and on and on to Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman and the Black Panthers, to those who died at Kent and Jackson State. Or the victims of our most recent unnecessary wars. Those who pay attention well know there are mountains of dead innocents.


But until you are falsely accused, it’s just not real. I mean, it’s kind of preposterous to think they’d imagine you a threat. Until they do.


In the meantime, we don’t want to know. We don’t want to see.


And we, like the frogs in slowly boiling water, tolerate all kinds of incipient tyranny.


Luckily, there are some amongst us offering their warnings, our own humankind canaries in the coalmine.


Snowden and Greenwald asking us to see. Our privacy. Being lost moment by moment.




Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State

By Glenn Greenwald

Illustrated. 259 pages. Metropolitan Books. $27.