Glenn Greenwald’s new book, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, is many things: an account of his relationship with Snowden, an indictment of political leaders who have used the pretext of "terrorism" to mask their unlimited power-lust, a technical analysis (complete with illustrations culled from the National Security Agency’s own secret archives) of America’s emerging police state. Most significant and enjoyable for me, however, it is a searing indictment of what "mainstream" journalists have become – servitors of a corrupt political class blinded by their own arrogance.
It opens with an account of how the biggest story of the decade fell into Greenwald’s lap – and almost fell out. Many of Greenwald’s readers will be familiar with its genesis: an anonymous email sent to him by someone calling himself "Cincinnatus" promising a big story but insisting Greenwald install cumbersome and difficult-to-learn encryption programs on his computer before communication could begin. Greenwald did not reply to the first missive, but did reply to the second: yes, he should have encryption but just hadn’t gotten around to it, and, not being a tech type, he would have to find someone to help him.
Yet he continued to put it off. Ten weeks later, as he was landing in New York from Rio de Janeiro, where he presently lives, he received an email from Laura Poitras, the documentary filmmaker, whose harassment by US authorities he had written about for Salon. Poitras’s films – My Country, My Country, filmed inside the Sunni Triangle in Iraq, and The Oath, filmed in Yemen – had angered the US government to such an extent that they continually harassed her whenever she reentered the United States. Greenwald’s article had exposed this brazen attempt at intimidation – and put a stop to it, at least temporarily. So he took seriously the email from her saying they had to meet on an important matter.
They met the next day. She told him she had received emails from an anonymous insider who had access to documents proving that the US government had been "spying on its own citizens and the rest of the world." Convinced that the leaker was real, Poitras handed Greenwald printouts of the emails: "He’s real," said Greenwald, after he had finished reading. "I can’t explain exactly why, but I just feel intuitively that this is serious, that he’s exactly who he says he is." Poitras concurred – and thus began an odyssey that neither of them could have anticipated.
This part of the book reads so smoothly and effortlessly that it has all the hallmarks of a Graham Greene spy thriller – action-packed, yes, but deadly serious in intent and tone. Yet the thriller aspects of the story are interspersed with the problem Greenwald would run into time and again in getting the NSA story out there: the implacable conservatism of the "mainstream" media. Poitras had early on gotten Washington Post national security report Barton Gellman in on the scoop, but as Greenwald relates, that quintessential Establishment paper had created obstacles from the very beginning:
"Rather than report the story quickly and aggressively, the Washington Post had assembled a large team of lawyers who were making all kinds of demands and issuing all sorts of dire warnings."
Snowden was furious at these obfuscations and delays, and was insistent that Greenwald himself do the story: but first he had to come to Hong Kong, where the world’s soon-to-be-most-famous-leaker was holed up. Greenwald, who still didn’t know the leaker’s name, was somewhat reluctant. He wanted more motivation: a sampling of the documents. After installing encryption programs on his computer, Snowden sent him the files which contained, among other things, the details of the PRISM program. Greenwald needed no further convincing.
As Poitras and Greenwald approached JFK airport, Laura pulled a thumb drive out of her backpack and said: "Guess what this is?"
"The documents," she replied. "All of them."
On the plane Greenwald read obsessively until he had to stop, like a diver coming up for air. He and Poitras would go to the back of the plane and just stand there, looking at each other in shocked silent amazement. The Panopticon was revealed. "Only now," Greenwald writes, "did I feel that I was truly beginning to process the true magnitude of the leak."
Again and again, Greenwald comes back to the issue of our subservient media and how the complicity of editors and reporters allows Washington – and other Western governments – to get away with their crimes. They obey the unwritten rules of Establishment journalism:
"According to these rules, which allow the government to control disclosures and minimize, even neuter, their impact, editors first go to officials and advise them what they intend to publish. National security officials then tell the editors all the ways in which national security will supposedly be damaged by the disclosures. A protracted negotiation takes place over what will and will not be published. At best, substantial delay results. Often, patently newsworthy information is suppressed."
Greenwald cites the New York Times’s delay of over a year of a story exposing the Bush regime’s warrantless wiretapping and the Post’s outright suppression of the location of that same regime’s "black sites" – "thus allowing the lawless CIA torture sites to continue."
"Fear-driven obsequious journalism" – that’s what he calls it, and that’s what it is. It’s what got us into the Iraq war, led by the nose by the New York Times, which provided a sounding board for Ahmed Chalabi and his US-funded "heroes in error," and supplemented by "Meet the Press," which served a similar function. It’s what gives credence to neocon-driven narratives about Iran’s nonexistent nuclear weapons program. It’s what energizes the new cold war "journalism" that erases the Odessa massacre and portrays a motley coalition of Ukrainian fascists and grasping oligarchs as "freedom-fighters." And it’s corrupting everything it touches – or, perhaps, it’s merely reflecting the inner corruption of an entire society.
While many of the details of the NSA’s surveillance programs and their history have come out in Greenwald’s reporting, of special interest is the origins of this behemoth in the Iraq war. While the NSA had been around for many years – and, indeed, in the 1970s, Sen. Frank Church warned about the potential danger, saying that if its powers were ever unleashed on the American public they would have "no place to hide" – it was Keith Alexander, Bush’s NSA chieftain, who unleashed the monster’s unlimited capacity for evil. It was Alexander who decided that the way to win the Iraq war was to sweep up all of Iraq’s communications and stuff them into the NSA’s insatiable maw, ensuring that none could resist the occupiers. (Except it didn’t work out that way.) And it speaks volumes about the way the political class conceives of the American public that Alexander – with their enthusiastic consent – applied the system of ubiquitous surveillance on the American people. Just like any other occupied country.
There is much more to this book than I can convey in a single column: you need to read it for yourself in order to get the full scope and flavor of it. I read it in a single sitting not just because I had to but because it’s hard to put down. Especially informative is a clear, concise description of the NSA’s surveillance programs, what they do, and whom they’re aimed at – and it isn’t the "terrorists." It’s all of us.
I do, however, have one nit to pick: Greenwald is a bit too harsh on Silicon Valley, whom he accuses of acting in all too willing complicity with the NSA. Yet he himself cites Yahoo’s heroic courtroom effort to avoid being complicit, and doesn’t seem to understand a simple fact: when a gun is pointed at your head you don’t have much choice in the matter. Yes, no doubt some corporate types were a bit too averse to resisting the government’s demands, but Greenwald fails to make the morally important distinction between reluctant collaborators acting under the threat of force and those who were (and are) eager to do the NSA’s bidding.
Yet this is a minor flaw: all in all, No Place to Hide is a vitally important contribution to the fight for a free society. No wonder statists on the right and the left are up in arms over it – and that, all by itself, is reason enough to read it, enjoy it, and recommend it to your friends.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.