Glenn Greenwald’s central role in enabling Edward Snowden to disclose the U.S. National Security Agency's (NSA’s) data collection is detailed by The Guardian reporter Luke Harding’s The Snowden Files, (Vintage Books, 2014). Greenwald’s record of tough reporting on national security issues prompted Snowden to establish contact with him, and even to anonymously send him a set of instructions on how to install PGP (pretty good privacy) encryption on his computer before Snowden would send him any of his NSA materials.
In No Place to Hide, Greenwald, author of With Liberty and Justice for Some and How Would a Patriot Act, among others, presents a narrative similar to The Snowden Files. He describes Snowden's odyssey from teenage loner-turned-hacker; his rise though the ranks of the intelligence community; his disillusionment with the U.S. government in general and the NSA in particular; his disclosures, and his current exile. A story this fascinating is worth reading twice and will doubtless be retold again, but Greenwald earns his readers’ attention by adding to the story line his historical analysis of surveillance and surprising reporting as a percipient witness to the press coverage of the Snowden story.
The book begins with a context of surveillance history and the mainstream media's documented neglect of it. Greenwald takes readers back to the initial disclosures of NSA surveillance by The New York Times in the fall of 2005. This warrantless eavesdropping on thousands of Americans in the wake of 9/11 had been going on since 2001, the Times reported. Greenwald says the Times' withholding of the story until after the 2004 election, at the behest of the Bush administration, “changed history” in Snowden’s mind and contributed to his decision to expose NSA surveillance.
Greenwald uses this example to begin his recurring analysis of the NSA’s activities in the context of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and the First Amendment right to free speech and a free press.
Not surprisingly, the NSA’s activities fair poorly, to say the least, when measured against these standards, but Greenwald does not simply rely upon shrill admonishments. Instead, he takes the argument to its most rudimentary level with a detailed breakdown of why privacy and freedom of expression were historically protected and prized and why they retain their fundamental importance.
The United States government has perfected a technological capability that enables us to monitor the messages that go through the air. That capability at any time could be turned on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left. There would be no place to hide.
- Sen. Frank Church (D-ID), four decades ago
Greenwald reminds readers that the Fourth Amendment grew out of the pre-Revolutionary practice by British soldiers of ransacking colonists’ homes without any stated reason, out of which later arose the legal requirement for a search warrant. The modern parallel context is impossible to overlook. The title of the book, after all, comes from Sen. Frank Church’s (D-ID) eerie comment, made in the context of Federal Bureau of Investigation surveillance in the mid-1970s: “The Unites States government has perfected a technological capability that enables us to monitor the messages that go through the air. That capability at any time could be turned on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left. There would be no place to hide.”
Greenwald first catalogues the breadth and scope of the programs Snowden exposed and, with them, the government’s ultimate goal of monitoring all communications worldwide. He then develops his argument by observing that the deprivation of privacy is one of the first principles of institutional population control. He illustrates this by recalling Bentham’s Panopticon, a building design adapted in prison construction, whereby all subjects are susceptible to observation at all times, by way of a central tower from which every quarter can be seen. By creating the appearance of omnipresent, constant surveillance, the institution enhances its ability to control inhabitants because they must assume they are being observed even when they are not.
Greenwald then cites Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish to illustrate that ubiquitous surveillance by governments serves to induce conformity to expected norms due to a fear of reprisal and can even eliminate the need for overt repressive force because the governed follow expectations without the need for further control. If this frightening scenario seems overblown in the context of American society, Greenwald argues, this is likely due to the lack of a sense of personal intrusion among the general public, and the acceptance of the maxim that only those with something to hide need fear such observation.
Ironically, the reaction to Snowden’s revelations, and Greenwald’s participation in the publication process, prove the fragility of America’s sense of invulnerability. While virtually every significant news outlet in the world carried the Snowden story, mainstream reporters also at best questioned Greenwald’s motives and, in many cases, especially in the Washington press corps, vilified him as an enemy of American interests. Few came to his defense when he and his partner were harassed and detained for attempting to publish Snowden’s information, even among publications like The New York Times, which participated in the publication. Greenwald’s indictment of the fourth estate for its abdication of its responsibilities in the Snowden affair stands on its own as justification for the publication of his account.
Finally, Greenwald debunks the false choice between security and privacy and the ease with which this argument is accepted in criticizing his work and Snowden’s actions. He accomplishes this by demonstrating that the U. S. and British governments are collecting more data than can possibly be processed or put to any use that serves any security purpose. In so doing, both governments are squandering finite resources that could be put to better use in more specific, targeted endeavors.
Both Harding's and Greenwald’s books serve useful purposes, not the least of which is to astound readers with the mind-numbing scope of modern surveillance. Harding goes into more factual detail, but Greenwald takes the facts and explains their significance with analysis that any of his or Snowden’s detractors should, at least, have to confront and, in doing so, leaves them, like the public, with no place to hide.
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