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Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State comes with a built-in challenge: creating a sense of drama when we all know the basics of the tale.


In December 2012, the Rio de Janeiro-based journalist, then writing for the Guardian, received an email from someone calling himself Cincinnatus, after the Roman farmer “who, in the fifth century BC, was appointed dictator of Rome to defend the city against attack.”


cover art

No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State

Glenn Greenwald

(Henry Holt & Company, Inc.; US: May 2014)

This cyber-Cincinnatus turned out to be Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who, over the next six months, would release to Greenwald and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras documents implicating the NSA in indiscriminate electronic surveillance, aided and abetted by tech companies such as Facebook, Google and Yahoo.


The Snowden story is, of course, a work in progress; he has been granted temporary asylum in Russia, but his future is unclear. You won’t find news about his status in No Place to Hide, which is essentially backward looking — a self-portrait, in a sense, of how Greenwald got the Snowden story and what he thinks it means.


On a certain level, this is as it should be, for what makes Snowden interesting is not the man himself but what he revealed. Even when he appears in the book, he is more or less a cipher: a patriot, yes, who sees the leak of information as an act of conscience but who refuses, even under Greenwald’s prodding, to put himself at center stage.


He is self-contained, enigmatic; even though he was prepared, he later explained, “to risk my liberty, perhaps even my life, to hand (over) thousands of Top Secret documents from the nation’s most secretive agency — a leak that will produce dozens if not hundreds of huge journalistic scoops,” he matter-of-factly contacted Greenwald and Poitras, and after a series of negotiations they met in a Hong Kong hotel.


“Snowden,” Greenwald explains, “was staying at the hotel quite openly, paying with his credit card because, he explained, he knew that his movements would ultimately be scrutinized by the government, the media, and virtually everyone else… He had set out to demonstrate, he said, that his movements could be accounted for, there was no conspiracy, and he was acting alone.” And yet, this lack of drama, in its way, becomes a kind of drama, for if you believe that Snowden and Greenwald are American heroes, then there is something compelling about their transparency, the decision to operate in plain sight.


“We agreed,” Greenwald writes, “on what we had learned: national security officials do not like the light. They act abusively and thuggishly only when they believe they are safe in the dark. Secrecy is the linchpin of abuse of power, we discovered, its enabling force. Transparency is the only real antidote.”


No Place to Hide is very much an argument for that sort of transparency, broken down, roughly, into three parts. First, there is the story of Greenwald and Snowden’s interactions, concluding with the June 2013 publication of a series of articles in the Guardian that ultimately yielded a George Polk Award and a Pulitzer Prize.


This is followed by a discussion of the NSA’s surveillance program and how it works, complete with screen grabs from the Snowden files. Finally, there is an extended bit of commentary on the dangers of surveillance, in which Greenwald takes on not only the government but also the mainstream media.


“The iconic reporter of the past,” he writes, “was the definitive outsider. Many who entered the profession were inclined to oppose rather than serve power.” Now, however, that has shifted, with “(m)any of the influential journalists in the United States… (living) in the same neighborhoods as the political figures and financial elites over which they ostensibly serve as watchdogs.”


Greenwald takes particular issue with figures such as David Gregory and Bob Schieffer, who “denounced” him and Snowden on the air. “To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current moments,” Gregory asked him on Meet the Press, “why shouldn’t you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?” This is troubling, to be sure, a journalist taking sides against another journalist — although Greenwald tends to overstate the dramatics in a self-aggrandizing way.


More effective is his ability to frame the larger picture: the way journalistic reticence dovetails with attempts by the Justice Department to go after the Associated Press and Fox News to create a culture in which journalism itself runs the risk of being criminalized. Especially in the Fox case, where Washington bureau chief James Rosen was labeled a “co-conspirator” for obtaining classified material, Greenwald sees a dangerous precedent, with the threat of prosecution stifling investigative work.


Clearly Snowden approached Greenwald because he was relatively independent. A constitutional rights attorney who began blogging in response to the Valerie Plame affair, he wrote as a media outsider for Salon and then for the Guardian, which he left to start the online publication Intercept (co-edited with Poitras and Jeremy Scahill) for First Look Media.


For Greenwald, and by extension Snowden, the NSA program was contrary to the spirit of the digital culture. “Converting the Internet into a system of surveillance,” he writes, “... guts it of its core potential. Worse, it turns the Internet into a tool of repression.” As an example, he cites Microsoft’s SkyDrive service, which told users, “We believe it’s important that you have control over who can and cannot access your personal data in the cloud,” even as it turned that data over to the NSA.


No Place to Hide is uneven; it doesn’t really tell us anything we didn’t know already, and Snowden himself disappears about 100 pages in. Still, and despite Greenwald’s more self-important tendencies, it’s part of a necessary conversation about surveillance and privacy.


“The right to be left alone (is) the most comprehensive of rights, and the right most valued by a free people,” Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in 1928. Nearly a century later, Greenwald insists, in a culture Brandeis couldn’t have imagined, we could do no better than to keep such an argument in mind.


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