Hamish Hamilton, 2014, 259 pages, $29.99 (pb)
Review by Phil Shannon
Glenn Greenwald’s No Place To Hide is not just a thrilling account of the journalist’s “cloak-and-dagger” encounter with National Security Agency (NSA) whistle-blower, Edward Snowden, but a clinical and impassioned analysis of the danger posed by America’s vast surveillance state.
Greenwald, no tech-head, nearly blew his opportunity for the dramatic scoop because of his dilatoriness in installing a computer encryption program for communication with Snowden until guided mouse-click by mouse-click by the latter. Only then, in 2013, was the six-decade history of near-invisibility of the NSA, the world’s largest intelligence agency, ready to be definitively breached.
A high-school dropout (intellectually unchallenged by the curriculum) and a US Army discard (ethically challenged by the invasion of Iraq), Snowden’s native computer intelligence saw him swiftly advance from CIA security guard to information technology specialist and then to high-level cyber-spy pulling in $200,000 a year in the NSA.
The faith of this spy-with-a-conscience that President Obama would honour his pledge to reform national security abuses and lead ‘the most transparent administration in history’ was extinguished, however, when Snowden found that the NSA’s powers were being expanded, its mission upgraded, as he told Greenwald, to build ‘a system whose goal was the elimination of all privacy, globally’. If the President wouldn’t act, then, Snowden concluded, he himself would have to.
The thousands of NSA documents Snowden leaked to Greenwald exposed lie after official lie. NSA officials had repeatedly said they would not spy on innocent citizens but, with mathematical exactitude down to the last electronic tap of Internet servers, communications satellites, underwater fibre-optic cables, telephone systems and personal computers, the documents showed the NSA eavesdropping on billions of communications by millions of US and global citizens (97 billion emails and 124 billion phone calls globally in just the one month of May in 2013, for example).
This massive data trawl was enabled by the NSA’s corporate ‘partners’ (Apple, Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Gmail, Hotmail, Skype, YouTube), as the “richest and most powerful telecommunications providers in the country knowingly committed tens of millions of felonies” in providing the NSA with access to their users’ private data. Those other theoretical devotees of individual freedom and liberty, the ‘democracies’ of America’s lapdog allies (the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand), were also eager collaborators with the NSA.
More hypocrisies were revealed by the leaked documents. Washington, which had been furiously denouncing China for its penetration of the US telecommunications market with hardware allegedly implanted with surveillance devices, was itself using the NSA to intercept American Internet hardware being exported from the US and physically installing spyware – one NSA document crowed that this ‘signals intelligence tradecraft ... is very hands-on (literally!)’.
The documents also punctured the flimsy cover for the NSA’s mass surveillance – the “threat of terrorism”. The most productive spying was actually global economic and diplomatic espionage on behalf of NSA ‘customers’ such as the US trade, agriculture, treasury, commerce and state departments. Thwarting terror “is clearly a pretext”, says Greenwald, especially when official reviews have shown that conventional, and more democratically answerable, policing is much better at preventing terrorist incidents than the NSA which is yet to trouble the ‘War on Terror’ scorekeeper.
Even if the NSA were effective at its stated, anti-terrorist, job, there is less chance, notes Greenwald, of being killed in a terrorist attack than being struck by lightning, which makes the mass population surveillance and huge expense (domestic homeland security spending has increased by US$1 trillion since 9/11) a grossly irrational response to a terrorist possibility that has been exaggerated for interests that are political (watching dissidents, winding back civil liberties, diversion from domestic political unpopularity) and vested (commercial surveillance industries).
Essential to keeping the ‘national security’ panic inflated is the establishment media, says Greenwald, an unsparing critic of such media’s “excessive closeness to government, reverence for the institutions of the national security state, and routine exclusion of dissenting voices”. Briefly dazzled by the glittering new story revealed by the NSA leaks, many journalists turned a long-forgotten sceptical eye on the NSA but quickly reminded themselves of where their political values and corporate paychecks lay and reverted to form as “loyal servants to the government” whilst predictably rounding on the whistle-blower and his conduit.
The tame media downplayed the substantive issues of NSA spying in favour of personalising the story and psychologising political dissent. Snowden was portrayed as a strange coot, Greenwald discredited as an obsessive with a damning past including the heinous crime of having a dog over the weight limit allowed in his condominium apartment. Media stars joined right-wing politicians in calling for the criminal indictment of both men as traitors.
Greenwald’s journalist credentials were denied, his media peers labelling him a mere blogger, a reprehensible ‘activist’. The inflammatory stoking of terrorist dread, and the concomitant cheerleading for a strong government not too prissy about democratic niceties, by the tabloid ink-slingers is, in their universe, not activism of course whilst the national security reporting of the more ‘professional’, ‘objective’ reporters, the “the opinion-less, colour-less, soul-less” journalists as Greenwald calls them, neuters the impact of critical stories with a ‘balance’ that treats the official government voice with uncritical deference. Both species of journalist are “a threat to nobody powerful” which ensures their access to, and membership of, the political elite.
By depicting Snowden and Greenwald as weird deviants, the establishment media reinforce the message that “obedience to authority is implicitly deemed the natural state” whilst those who radically, and actively, depart from the political norm are unnatural. Remain boring and you will be safe, runs the political sedative - only bad people with something to hide should fear NSA surveillance. Limitless spying, however, is certain to be abused, says Greenwald, with the historical surveillance record crammed with targets overwhelmingly drawn from left and progressive dissidents, and from whatever marginalised population subgroup is ripe for vilification.
With an unaccountable NSA, Washington set up a “one-way mirror” in which “the US government sees what everyone else in the world does … while no one sees its own actions”. It takes the life-altering courage of rebels like Snowden, and committed journalists like Greenwald, to shatter this mirror - ‘I have’, said Snowden, ‘been to the darkest corners of government and what they fear is light’.