Arts book review

Snowden’s revelations: the backstory

Glenn Greenwald’s guide to the NSA leaks and their portrayal in the press

No Place to Hide

By Glenn Greenwald

Leaking secrets in the public interest requires not only a ready and courageous whistleblower. It also demands an able and courageous deliverer to carry the precious message to the world. This year’s graduation week marks the one-year anniversary of the unveiling of Edward Snowden’s identity and the first wave of explosive NSA disclosures delivered by journalist Glenn Greenwald and filmmaker Laura Poitras.

In his informative new book, No Place to Hide, Greenwald recounts meeting Snowden, verifying his story, and getting the NSA documents published. The book reveals correspondence between Snowden and Greenwald, including Snowden’s manifesto on privacy as a human right. Apart from explaining the significance and scope of the documents, Greenwald tackles head-on the question of what it means to be a journalist as he chronicles the systemic failures of the U.S. media in covering whistleblowers.

Greenwald’s account reveals that journalists who work with whistleblowers face a web of roadblocks — roadblocks largely self-imposed by an obedient press. Prior to connecting with The Guardian, Snowden shared documents describing the PRISM surveillance program with Barton Gellman of The Washington Post. Worried about the legal implications of these disclosures, the Post consulted a team of lawyers — potentially compromising Snowden’s identity — and ultimately refused to send Gellman to Hong Kong to meet Snowden.

By his own account, Greenwald too was devastatingly close to letting the most significant government leak in U.S. history pass him by — not for fearfulness, but for technical reasons. Snowden contacted Greenwald repeatedly using a pseudonym since late 2012, but was unable to share information due to Greenwald’s lack of encryption software. Laura Poitras, in a way the unsung hero of the story, was able to securely communicate with Snowden and brought Greenwald into the loop.

Once some of the leaked documents were vetted, Greenwald and his colleagues faced the usual stalling at the press-government interface. Lawyers warned Guardian editor Janine Gibson that the FBI might shut down the paper. To cover its legal bases, the paper chose to inform the government of their plans, resulting in more bullying of Gibson by officials. Greenwald describes delays and prolonged back-and-forths with editors that nearly caused him to quit The Guardian and release the materials independently.

While The Guardian was able to publish relatively quickly, this isn’t always the case, and stalling has consequences. Bullying by the Bush administration in 2004 and fear on the part of The New York Times led to the story of warrantless NSA eavesdropping being suppressed for over a year. The administration managed to censor the Times, letting the Bush administration face the music only after the 2004 elections.

The paper gave in when Times reporter James Risen planned to break the story in a book, and following publication the government spied on Risen in an attempt to uncover his source. Regarding the press’s unwritten protocol of consulting the government about leaks, as in the case of the Times, Greenwald writes: “The rules in place allow the government to control and neuter the news-gathering process and eliminate the adversarial relationship between press and government.”

When described together in No Place to Hide, the documents unequivocally demonstrate the NSA’s mission to “Know it all”, “Collect it all”, “Exploit it all” (the agency’s phrases). Starting with the secret court order to Verizon to disclose metadata concerning millions of Americans’ phone calls, through the PRISM, BOUNDLESS INFORMANT, and MUSCULAR programs, Greenwald shows that the NSA tracks users through either explicit alliances with internet providers or by hacking into their networks.

Greenwald also demonstrates that the government spies for economic and strategic gains not even remotely connected to national defense. The NSA has a branch whose aim is to supply “unique intelligence on worldwide energy production and development in key countries that affect the world economy,” and it lists the departments of Treasury and Agriculture as its “Customers.” The agency targets energy companies in Latin America and energy conferences, exposing the lie of an NSA official who told The Washington Post that the agency does not engage in “economic espionage.”

The book underscores the NSA’s willingness to ignore international law. Team BLARNEY is devoted to “yield access to U.N. Secretary General talking points” so that the U.S. can game U.N. procedures in advance too. The NSA spied on eight members of U.N. Security council, and an internal memo boasted that spying “gave us an upper hand in negotiations.”

Another memo states that Susan Rice, then U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., “reached out to the NSA” to request intelligence on countries “riding the fence” regarding a U.N. vote on sanctions against Iran. The memos debunk the notion that the NSA is a rogue group operating without the administration’s backing. As a rule, the U.S. is guilty of virtually all accusations it made against other ‘adversary’ states like China and Russia. From spying for economic gain to installing surveillance “beacons” in Cisco routers, U.S. hypocrisy abounds.

Throughout the book, Greenwald documents the press’s method of speaking in “middle-of-the-road-ese”: attempting to give equal weight to both sides of any story, no matter how absurd. The media is eager to dissect the legality of Snowden’s actions, criminalizing investigative journalists as “co-conspirators” along the way. Meanwhile evidence of a mountain of government crimes — including government officials like James Clapper lying to Congress — sits in front of them.

In other instances, the press has been relentlessly yellowing and personalizing Snowden’s leaks. This is exemplified by a recent New York Times review of Greenwald’s book by Michael Kinsley, who complained that the book would be “more entertaining” if Greenwald wasn’t such an “unpleasant” and “self-righteous sourpuss.” Snowden, by any rational account a national hero, was described as having the “sweet, innocently conspiratorial worldview of a precocious teenager.” Sadly, this is the intellectual discourse one has come to expect from the Times. Others in the media speculated on Snowden’s psyche, labeling him a “narcissistic young man.” When given a first TV interview with Snowden, Brian Williams asked, “Are you a patriot?” and focused on the baseless hypothetical that Snowden might leak secrets to Russia. The press’s rehearsal of official doctrine, and their manufactured symmetry between the government’s position and reality, simply diverts our attention from the magnitude and unnerving implications of the leaks.

Snowden argued that privacy can be guaranteed “only if the technical community is willing to face the threat” and implement a system where “the only way the powerful may enjoy privacy is when it is the same kind shared by the ordinary: one enforced by the laws of nature, rather than the policies of man.”

In a note that appears in No Place to Hide, Snowden wrote: “I have been to the darkest corners of government, and what they fear is light.” A free press must provide the light, and a technical community like ours can build the infrastructure to support it.