An anonymous message signed by “Cincinnatus”; a secret meeting in a hotel room in Hong Kong; an intelligence specialist who travels the world developing ways of intercepting global communications. It has all the makings of a Hollywood feature, and yet the tale is true. It is the story behind the biggest government leaks in history, revealing the largest mass surveillance scheme in the world run by the National Security Agency (NSA).
On June 5, 2013, much of the world learned what had been an open secret for years: the US government has been intercepting international and domestic communications without a warrant, and it continues to do so. In fact, the warrantless eavesdropping operation had been previously reported in 2005 by New York Times journalist James Risen.
The Edward Snowden case, however, stands apart. This time the source is an insider, an NSA contractor, and he has the classified documents to prove his allegations. “The media pays attention when top secret documents are leaked. And the fact that the warning was coming from someone on the inside of the national security apparatus… surely meant that it would have added weight,” writes Glenn Greenwald, the lawyer turned journalist who was on the receiving end of that anonymous message by Snowden and the leaks that followed.
Greenwald’s No Place to Hide is an inside look at the events that led to the confirmation of a US government domestic spying program. The size and scope of the NSA’s surveillance program bests the snooping capabilities of the worst dictatorships throughout the world.
“A top secret presentation to the 2011 annual conference of the Five Eyes [an alliance formed by intelligence agencies from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom, and United States], for instance, shows that the NSA has explicitly embraced [Keith] Alexander’s motto of omniscience as its core purpose.” Greenwald presents a series of documents within the book to evidence the security agency’s insatiable appetite for information.
But without Edward Snowden, there would be no Glenn Greenwald. The first part of the book focuses on the story behind the meeting between the journalist and the NSA contractor, who “in mid-May of 2013… requested a couple of weeks off to receive treatment for epilepsy.” In actuality, Snowden was preparing for the final phase before leaking thousands of classified documents.
To accomplish his task, Snowden needed a journalist. Greenwald recounts his initial contact with Snowden, receiving an email from “Cincinnatus” requesting he install PGP encryption tools to continue their exchange. Unlike the excitement Cincinnatus displayed toward his chosen journalist, Greenwald initially considered the mysterious email just another item on his “always too-long list of things to take care of.”
It was then that a frustrated Snowden contacted Laura Poitras, a documentary filmmaker, who then reached out to Greenwald once again. The first email Poitras received from Snowden gave an early glimpse into the motivations behind the leak: “In the end, we must enforce a principle whereby the only way the powerful may enjoy privacy is when it is the same kind shared by the ordinary.” Snowden’s analysis of privacy in terms of a power struggle is a recurring topic throughout Greenwald’s book.
“Citizenship carries with it a duty to first police one’s own government before seeking to correct others,” wrote Snowden in a computer file marked “read me first” within a folder of thousands of secret NSA files. Snowden first decided to begin collecting documents that would expose the mass surveillance program once he realized “how easy it is to divorce power from accountability, and how the higher the levels of power, the less oversight and accountability there was.”
Through Greenwald’s interrogation of Snowden, we see how the former spy grew to distrust authority. Not surprisingly, Snowden reportedlydonated US$250, twice, to Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign.
Greenwald also describes his interactions with the lawyers and editors of The Guardian, the British newspaper he worked for, and how compromises were made to get the story published. Greenwald’s attitude toward the media is another persistent topic throughout the book. Greenwald points to the “establishment media” which “mandates that reporters avoid any clear or declarative statements and incorporate government assertions into their reporting, treating them with respect no matter how frivolous they are.”
Much of the book is devoted to reviewing various NSA surveillance programs, the agency’s intent, objectives, ambitions, and cooperation with other intelligence agencies. The documents within the book also reveal the arrogance of a security agency that spies with impunity.
Greenwald’s book is nothing if not well documented and sourced. Evidence is what separates conspiracy theories from reality, and in this sense, the book does not disappoint. Most of its 313 pages are slides of presentations, memorandums, and graphs that give the reader a sense of this secretive agency’s inner workings.
Brazil stands out as one of the NSA’s favorite targets. The agency intercepted the communications of President Dilma Rousseff, as well as information from Brazilian embassies in several cities. The NSA also collected communications from Brazil’s state-owned oil company Petrobras, and looked into the business dealings of other energy companies in Mexico and Venezuela as well.
Greenwald closes out the book with his own take on privacy, arguing that the “compulsion to obedience exists in the individual’s mind.” He says the effect of constant surveillance “eliminates the need for all the visible hallmarks of compulsion, and thus enables control over people who falsely believe themselves to be free.”
His argument includes an analysis of how political support for domestic spying programs oscillates depending on which political party wields control in Washington. He compares the reality of the surveillance state in the United States to Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, and offers an elaborate rebuttal to NSA apologists, both in government and in the media.
Snowden feared the public would react with indifference at the information he leaked. “I want to spark a worldwide debate about privacy, internet freedom, and the dangers of state surveillance,” he said. Snowden gave Greenwald the crucial task of releasing the documents, asking him to determine what to publish, how, and when. Greenwald was the man chosen to transform a mountain of sensitive data into digestible information and has undoubtedly succeeded in this dangerous and difficult task.