This article first appeared at The McAlvany Intelligence Advisor on Wednesday, May 28, 2014:
Back in 1975, when Idaho Senator Frank Church was running the U.S. Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence Activities (better known as the Church Committee), he warned:
The United States government has perfected a technological capability that enables [it] to monitor the messages that go through the air….
That capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left. Such is their capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter.
There would be no place to hide.
When Glenn Greenwald was looking for a title for his book, what better choice than that?
His book has three parts: he traces his initial reluctant connection to whistleblower Edward Snowden, through the publishing of many of his revelatory files marked Top Secret from the National Security Agency (NSA), to his final highly critical comments about the prostitute press which has sold itself out to the government instead of monitoring its illegal actions.
For the first two, he was celebrated. For the last he was excoriated.
When Greenwald saw the email from Cincinnatus in his inbox on December 1, 2012, he didn’t see anything there to get excited about: “There was nothing in the email that I found sufficiently exciting.” He didn’t know then that Cincinnatus was the code name that Edward Snowden was using, nor did he know anything about the mountain of damning documents Snowden had stored on his thumb drive that would shortly turn the world upside down. All he saw was the requirement from Snowden that he install PGP onto his computer before communicating with him. Greenwald couldn’t be bothered. Besides, as a writer for the Guardian he had deadlines to meet and tasks to perform. As Snowden put it:
Here I am ready to risk my liberty, perhaps even my life, to hand this guy thousands of Top Secret documents from the nation’s most secretive agency – a leak that will produce dozens if not hundreds of journalistic scoops – and he can’t even be bothered to install an encryption program?
Greenwald, who was a practicing constitutional lawyer before joining the staff at the Guardian, had grown increasingly concerned about the growth of the executive branch under the Bush administration following 9/11. And so when he finally connected with Snowden in May 2013, he found a kindred soul.
His story reads like an Ian Fleming novel, including the various strategies they agreed to use (à la James Bond) to keep the NSA from listening in on their conversations: removing the batteries from their cellphones and then putting the phones into the refrigerator in their room in a secretive Hong Kong hotel.
It’s just as well because, following that initial five-hour conversation, the Guardian began publishing Snowden’s files. Within days of the first files being published in June, the State Department revoked Snowden’s passport and the Justice Department charged him with espionage.
Greenwald discovered that the documents provided by Snowden revealed that the agency has the ability to monitor or collect information from hundreds of millions of people in the US and around the globe, that it has broken into the communications links of major data centers across the world, that it has circumvented or cracked much of the encryption that protects sensitive data on the Internet, and that, according to its own records, it has broken privacy laws or exceeded its authority thousands of times a year.
Snowden’s motivation came from watching video games:
The protagonist is often an ordinary person who finds himself faced with grave injustices from powerful forces and has the choice [either] to flee in fear or to fight for his beliefs.
History also shows that seemingly ordinary people who are sufficiently resolute about justice can triumph over the most formidable adversaries.
At his desk as an NSA operative in Japan the previous summer, Snowden could watch drones surveilling people they could kill. He could watch people typing words into their computers:
I could watch drones in real time as they surveilled the people they might kill. I watched NSA tracing people’s Internet activities as they typed.
I realized the true breadth of this system. And almost nobody knew it was happening.
Thus began the journey that would change Snowden’s life – and the world’s – and turn him into a pariah and Greenwald into a betrayer. Snowden now lives in obscurity in Russia while Greenwald lives in a small residence outside Rio de Janeiro.
Greenwald published in his book a number of the NSA’s power point slides and charts, including a chilling one entitled: “New Collection Posture,” which reveals not only the NSA’s capabilities but its attitudes and purposes toward using the data it is collecting: “Sniff it all. Know it all. Collect it all. Process it all. Exploit it all. Partner it all.” From his villa in Rio Greenwald explained during an interview:
The NSA wrote that slide because they believed they were doing this in total secrecy – that nobody was watching them.
They were speaking in ways that no public official would ever speak if they thought they were being overheard.
It’s precisely why privacy is so important.
Greenwald saves the best for last, lashing and bashing the prostitute press for abandoning its role as the Fourth Estate to be a watchdog over government excesses and instead becoming a party to its crimes. This was more than Michael Kinsley could take. A writer at Vanity Fair, Kinsley was asked by the New York Times to respond to Greenwald’s attacks. Wrote Kinsley:
The question is: who decides? It seems clear, at least to me, that the private companies that own newspapers, and their employees, should not have the final say over the release of government secrets [giving them] a free pass to make them public with no legal consequences.
In a democracy … that decision must ultimately be made by the government … that someone cannot be Glenn Greenwald.
For Greenwald, this proved the very point he was trying to make: that the press had sold out to the powers that be, only printing what was acceptable and approved by the government. Wrote Greenwald:
So let’s recap: The New York Times chose someone to review my book about the Snowden leaks who has a record of suggesting that journalists may be committing crimes when publishing information against the government’s wishes.
That journalist then proceeded to strongly suggest that my prosecution could be warranted. Other prominent journalists – including the one who hosts Meet the Press – then heralded that review without noting the slightest objection to Kinsley’s argument.
Do I need to continue to participate in the debate over whether many U.S. journalists are pitifully obeisant to the U.S. government? Did they not just resolve that debate for me?
What better evidence can that argument find than multiple influential American journalists standing up and cheering while a fellow journalist is given space in The New York Times to argue that those who publish information against the government’s wishes are not only acting immorally but criminally?
This is an important book. It is a piece of the most important revelation about intelligence gathering in the last 40 years. It has succeeded in starting a conversation about privacy and security – a conversation that the NSA has been holding with itself since at least 1975, and always concluding that security overrode privacy. Greenwald has proven once again the adage that the best disinfectant is sunlight.
When asked how he would define success in his attempt to enlighten the world by publishing Snowden’s files, Greenwald offered this. Victory would be
the inability of any one country to exert hegemony over the internet, as the US does today.
But the bigger picture for me will be getting people to think about these issues in a different way. And not just surveillance and privacy. [Not just] myth and reality, propaganda, the role of journalism. These are questions that are being debated in a much more significant way.
The change in public consciousness: that’s going to be the biggest victory.
With No Place to Hide, Greenwald has assured that that conversation will be held and that that change will continue.
Glenn Greenwald: A Response to Michael Kinsley
The New York Times: Snowden’s Story, Behind the Scenes
The Washington Post: Michael Kinsley on Glenn Greenwald: He “cannot” decide what secrets get published