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Book Review

CapitaLetters Review of 'No Place to Hide'

Ronald Goldfarb

“We
stand at a historic crossroads. Will the digital age usher in the individual
liberation and political freedoms that the Internet is uniquely capable of
unleashing? Or will it bring about a system of omnipresent monitoring and
control, beyond the dreams of even the greatest tyrants of the past?”

Probably
both. But it is the essential question raised in the aftermath of Edward
Snowden’s notorious exposure of our government’s policies of surveillance in its
response to the awful terrorist acts of 9/11, according to freelance journalist
and lawyer-author Glenn Greenwald, author of the just-released No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State. While the world debates whether Snowden is
a villain or a martyr, Greenwald asks readers to consider this important
assessment of current policies.

Profound
questions will be debated long and passionately as a result of Snowden’s
disclosures. Greenwald raises them in No
Place to Hide
. But the unique part of this book is the riveting, behind-the-scenes
story of Greenwald, and his story-breaking partner, TV documentarian Laura Poitras’
recruitment, and work with Snowden in breaking the story worldwide. It is a
thriller surpassing the most successful TV action dramas or bestseller spy
books. It is real, as well as consequential, and Greenwald describes in
exciting detail what happened.

Greenwald was approached over the internet by a mysterious “Cincinnatus,” and slowly drawn into the inner workings of complicated communications technology — thumb drives, passphrases, encryption, roving bugs and listening devices, malware. Snowden had chosen Greenwald and Poitras as trusted vehicles for him “to tell the world about the massive spying apparatus the U.S. government was secretly building.” In Snowden’s words, “I want to spark a worldwide debate about privacy, internet freedom, and the dangers of the surveillance state…I’m not afraid of what will happen to me…I know it’s the right thing to do.”

Greenwald and Poitras, known and respected as independent journalist crusaders, agreed that they’d soon need the association of a press institution. Though they were critical of even the best of them, they needed the resources and support only a major newspaper could muster. Snowden, Greenwald, and Poitras would face the awesome power of the government, which would not be pleased with what they were planning to do. So they teamed up with the Guardian. (Read more about this in CapitaLetters’ review of The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man.)

The
most exciting chapter of Greenwald’s book is “Ten Days in Hong Kong,” where he
describes the exhausting, intense, secret meetings with Snowden, and their clandestine
around-the-clock efforts to break the international story in a “hyper-cautious,
cloak and dagger” effort where days and nights blended into one extraordinarily
thrilling escapade.

Snowden
had worked for the CIA and NSA and, at the time, for a private contractor as a
high-level cyber operative. He became wrought by the government’s lack of
accountability and oversight in its secret work surveilling Americans and other
countries, “building a system whose goal was the elimination of all privacy,
globally,” he told Greenwald.

Snowden
didn’t want to destroy the system, but to allow the public to decide whether
its questionable practices should go on. Neither Congress nor the essentially
“rubber stamp” FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance) court was providing
oversight. Since 1978, FISA has rejected only eleven government applications —
none before 2002. They concluded: “The process is more of an empty pantomime
than a successful and meaningful check on NSA.”

To
make matters worse, the Obama administration’s record amounted to “an
unprecedented war on whistle-blowers.” Snowden felt he had to do something, and
as Greenwald got to know Snowden, he says he “felt a duty to report the story
in the spirit that had animated Snowden’s original act.”

An
interesting feature of Greenwald’s book is his cynical and distrustful view of
the establishment media — timid, risk-averse, obedient to the government, and, he
concluded, guilty of a corrupting dynamic unworthy of the constitutional
protection it enjoys. If the press allows the government to control or “neuter”
its adversarial relationship, Greenwald posits, it sacrifices its essential
raison d’etre. However, the Guardian — and later other major newspapers (the
Washington Post and the New York Times) — became the necessary right partners,
and when the story broke, worldwide media coverage followed.

Greenwald’s
chapter on his own treatment by mainstream media will trouble admirers of a
freewheeling, independent fourth estate. As serious press insiders reported
during the earlier Valerie Plame episode, the establishment press lives on
anonymous leaks. And the government participates regularly in the process. But
when the words “national security” are invoked, Greenwald painfully learned,
leakers and, recently, journalists are treated as pariahs if not criminals.

Greenwald’s
treatment by the same press that ran after his story should embarrass First
Amendment devotees. In his book, Greenwald names names and documents his claim
that many top-flight media stars abdicated their roles and were subservient to
the government, applying a double standard to outsiders. They have become
“integrated into the nation’s dominant political power.”

Snowden’s
archive of documents was “stunning in size and scope,” and its accumulation and
applications had virtually no accountability, no transparency, and no limits.
It was “a complex web of surveillance” that tapped into compliant domestic and foreign
telephone systems, and personal computers. Billions of emails and phone calls
are gathered daily in a breathtaking amassing of meta-data, most of which seemed
unconnected to the terrorism and national security justification offered for the
program.

All
this is carried out by a vast and growing bureaucracy. NSA employs about 30,000
people to operate this system, and contracts with 60,000 private employees — Snowden
was one — to conduct this operation in an acronymic collection of programs: STORMBREW,
PRISM, BLARNY, and others.

Whatever
else anyone thinks about Edward Snowden, and Glenn Greenwald, as well, they have
forced the public to ask itself what kind of world it wants to live in, how
important privacy is, what kind of First and Fourth amendments they wish to
endorse and enforce, and the level of surveillance they would countenance (without
reasonable checks and balances) to monitor it.

Greenwald
argues that question should be decided by the public, not by elites acting
unchecked. His book is a persuasive brief for that position.

Reprinted with permission of Washington Independent Review of Books. Ronald Goldfarb’s column, CapitaLetters, appears there regularly.

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