No Place To Hide

By Glenn Greenwald

Metropolitan Books

260 pages, $27

By Dan Herbeck


Some of the nation’s leaders want to put Edward Snowden behind bars for life for leaking thousands of top secret documents that revealed the American government’s huge, secret, indiscriminate spying campaign against its own people. Some government leaders – and even a few of his fellow reporters – would like to see the same rough treatment for Glenn Greenwald, the feisty journalist who took Snowden’s monster leak and presented it to the world in England’s Guardian newspaper. I’m definitely not one of those people. After reading Greenwald’s startling and disturbing new book, I think law-abiding Americans should throw a ticker tape parade for Snowden and Greenwald for letting us all know just how far our government has gone to invade our privacy. The National Security Agency has password-cracking software that is capable of guessing at 1 billion passwords a second, according to documents pilfered and made public by Snowden. Every day, according to those documents, the NSA and other federal agencies intercept, read or listen to up to 20 billion emails, phone calls and other communications, many of them sent by or to Americans.

A small percentage of those interceptions are actually involved with terrorism suspects, Greenwald writes in one chilling passage about a third of the way through this book, “but great quantities of the programs manifestly had nothing to do with national security.”

In his view, the documents leaked by Snowden lead to one, inescapable conclusion: “The U.S. government had built a system that has as its goal the complete elimination of electronic privacy worldwide. Far from hyperbole, that is the literal, explicitly stated aim of the surveillance state: to collect, store, monitor and analyze all electronic communication by all people around the globe. The [NSA] is devoted to one overarching mission: to prevent the slightest piece of electronic communication from evading its systemic grasp.”

If you ever use a telephone or the Internet, whether you are an evil criminal or a person who has never broken the law in your entire life, you ought to read the above paragraph at least twice, and give it some serious thought. If it all sounds a little too far out, a little on the paranoid side, just too much to believe, I don’t blame you for feeling that way. That was my initial reaction when I heard about Snowden’s leaks. Read the book. Greenwald uses the government’s own documents to build a pretty strong case for his contentions. And he’s not alone in his criticism of the government.

After Snowden’s revelations, the Wall Street Journal reported that the NSA’s interception system has the capability to “reach roughly 75 percent of all Internet traffic.” Other major newspapers also followed up with disturbing discoveries, based on Snowden’s leaks.

NSA documents quoted in the book show that just one of the agency’s many spy programs – one with the innocuous name of FAIRVIEW – collected data on about 6 billion phone calls during just one month of 2012. That’s 200 million phone records a day, and we reiterate, FAIRVIEW is just one of many NSA spy programs. Our government also has bugged leaders and businesspeople in other nations, and even some of the leaders of the United Nations. Does this mean a federal agent is sitting in a cubicle somewhere, listening every time we call our friends, co-workers or loved ones? Most likely not, but according to Greenwald, it could happen to any one of us. He writes that America stands at a “historical crossroads.”

“Will the digital age usher in the individual liberation and political freedoms that the Internet is uniquely capable of unleashing?” he asks. “Or will it bring about a system of omnipresent monitoring and control, beyond the dreams of even the greatest tyrants of the past? Right now, either path is possible.”

The first section of his book reads like a gripping espionage novel. He tells how Snowden – whom he did not know – began sending him emails, using a fictitious name. The mystery man offered Greenwald the news scoop of this century – a treasure trove of documents from one of the most secret and powerful agencies in the world. But to get them, Greenwald would have to learn how to use a sophisticated encryption program for his Internet conversations with his new source. Then, he would have to travel to Hong Kong, to meet a man he couldn’t even be sure actually existed.

Just as I was wondering how any newspaper editor would ever authorize such a trip, Greenwald revealed that Snowden began sending him samples of NSA documents that convinced the journalist that the source was legitimate. He found that a brave documentary filmmaker named Laura Poitras also was in touch with the same source, and she further convinced Greenwald that a trip to Hong Kong was worthwhile.

The story of the trip that Greenwald and Poitras took to Hong Kong in May 2013 is told in intense, unnerving detail. They constantly worried that government agents were following and watching. Snowden, a 29-year-old NSA contractor and computer genius who never finished high school, sometimes put blankets over his head because he feared he was being watched by hidden ceiling cameras.

Snowden told Greenwald that he would never leak documents that listed names of American spies or put individuals in danger, but he would leak documents detailing government policies that he thought were illegal, unconstitutional and outrageous. Snowden gave up a lot to become a whistle-blower – including his right to live in America, a $200,000-a-year job, many friendships, and possibly, his freedom.

“I want to spark a worldwide debate,” Snowden said, explaining his actions. “I do not want to live in a world where there is no privacy and no freedom.”

Snowden told Greenwald that his biggest fear was not being targeted by the strongest government in the world. It was not the prospect of jail. His biggest fear was that no one in America would care about the government’s conduct.

At the moment, Snowden lives in exile in Russia. The U.S. government wants to bring him home, put him on trial, and imprison him. His future is very uncertain.

Our government calls Snowden a traitor, but can a person who risks so much to expose widespread government wrongdoing really be considered a traitor?

The middle section of the book comprises quotes, copy and diagrams lifted from the government documents that Snowden leaked. Many of the most damning documents have not yet been published, Greenwald writes. The third section is essentially a long, sometimes emotional editorial by Greenwald – his critics would probably call it a “harangue” – making his case against overzealous government bugging of Americans. He writes that the surveillance programs began to spin out of control under President George W. Bush, but got even worse, much worse, under President Obama. He also spends a lot of time blasting some of the “mainstream media,” including the New York Times and NBC’s “Meet The Press,” claiming they have become mouthpieces and defenders of big government.

While he’s blasting away at America’s media, Greenwald makes one claim that I consider to be completely preposterous. He claims that one reason why the media are too deferential to government is that many influential journalists are “multimillionaires” who live in the same neighborhoods and spend too much time hanging out with wealthy government leaders. Some reporters do get too close to their government sources, I would agree, but it very rarely happens because the journalists are “multimillionaires.”

America’s fear of terrorism after 9/11 has “been exploited by U.S. leaders to justify a wide array of extremist policies,” Greenwald writes. “It has led to wars of aggression, a worldwide torture regime and the detention (and even assassination) of both foreign nationals and American citizens without any charges. But the ubiquitous, secretive system of suspicionless surveillance that it has spawned may very well turn out to be its most enduring legacy. This is because ... there is a genuinely new dimension to the current NSA surveillance scandal: the role now played by the Internet in daily life.”

Although Greenwald won the prestigious George Polk journalism award last year, and although he and other Guardian staffers who worked on the Snowden stories won a Pulitzer prize for their accomplishments, not everyone looks at Greenwald as a hero. New York Times book reviewer Michael Kinsley blasted Greenwald last month, suggesting that the author comes off as “a self-righteous sourpuss” and raising questions about his and Snowden’s ethics. “There are laws against government eavesdropping on American citizens, and there are laws against leaking official government documents. You can’t just choose the laws you like and ignore the ones you don’t like,” Kinsley wrote last month. The “sneering tone” of Kinsley’s review was later criticized in a column by Margaret Sullivan, the former Buffalo News editor who now serves as the Times’ public editor. I don’t agree with every one of Greenwald’s opinions, and yes, he does come off as pompous and self-righteous at many points in his book. But I also think the man has good reason to be angry about the government’s surveillance programs. In fact, we all do.

Dan Herbeck is a veteran News reporter and the co-author, with Lou Michel, of “American Terrorist” about Timothy McVeigh.