Book review: No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald


I finished the book (its full title is No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State) in two sittings. It is not too long (about 250 pages) and Greenwald has a direct style where he says what he means without weasel words that makes it easy to follow. It describes how Edward Snowden came to gain access to all the materials he chose to reveal, what made him decide to reveal it, the main contents of the revelations, why it is important, and the reactions to his disclosures. (Notes on each chapter, the index to the contents, and many of the source documents from the NSA that are not in the book or are hard to read because of the size of the font can be found here.)

Even though I have been following the story pretty closely (even obsessively, some might argue), I had found it bewildering to keep track of all the various programs that the NSA and GCHQ ran with all their acronymic names and what they do, compounded by the fact that I am pretty ignorant, both in terms of hardware and software, of the technical aspects of computing and the internet. While all the information is out there, this book helps in that it is a valuable reference in one place of all the key elements.

The book consists of five chapters. The first short one of about 30 pages briefly sketches Greenwald’s own personal history from the time he started a political blog in 2005 and started to get concerned about how the political system in the US had become one in which one small class of people operated by a completely different set of rules from the vast majority, enjoying an unprecedented level of immunity from any legal or ethical constraints in their efforts to suck up all the money in the system. These people were enabled by a political and media elite that served their needs, had the same level of immunity, and waged wars based on lies without any accountability. His 2011 book With Liberty and Justice for Some that I reviewed then was an outgrowth of his anger at the way that democracy and justice was being subverted.

This led to him to abandoning his constitutional law practice and writing more-or-less full time, gaining more and more visibility as he shifted his writing first to Salon and then later to the Guardian, each time with guarantees that he would have full editorial independence, so that he would not have to have his articles cleared by editors unless there were obvious legal consequences to consider. This is important because it enabled him to continue his hard-hitting critiques of the political-media-financial collusion without caring if he offended anyone, which was what attracted Snowden to him. This chapter also deals with his almost comical repeated failure to recognize the importance of Snowden’s overtures to him as the chosen recipient of his trove of documents and how they finally made contact thanks to Laura Poitras’s grit and intervention.

The second chapter of about 60 pages deals with the ten days that Greenwald, Poitras, and Ewen MacAskill of the Guardian spent in Hong Kong debriefing Snowden. This reads like a spy thriller with all the precautions to make sure they were not followed and their conversations overheard. Their initial fears that Snowden might turn out to be a crank or even a government agent were quickly dispelled.

The third chapter is the longest at 80 pages and walks the reader through the main features of the worldwide spying program unleashed by the US government in collusion with the other ‘Five Eyes’ countries of the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. It contains facsimiles of secret documents to support the case that these countries have engaged in massive and often illegal spying, and that key figures have systematically lied about it. (The originals of the documents can be seen here.)

The fourth chapter of 40 pages deals with why all this matters greatly. Greenwald gives two reasons. He says that having privacy is essential to our growth as individuals because it is what enables us to explore ourselves and our relationships with others freely. The other is that the internet is no longer a niche add-on to our lives but the very heart of the world we live in and where our privacy must be most jealously guarded. He says that a system of ubiquitous surveillance distorts our behavior both subtly and overtly, making us act in ways that we think are acceptable to the observers and this ends up stifling dissent, creativity, and challenges to orthodoxy.

In the final chapter of 40 pages he lets fly at the media elites and their craven subservience to the political-financial ruling class. The reaction to the Snowden revelations exposed this rift very clearly with those who were the lackeys of that class condemning both Snowden and Greenwald in personal terms. With Snowden, they sneered that such a young man, a high school dropout from a lower middle class background, would have the nerve to think that he had the right to tell everyone what the government was doing in secret instead of trusting his ‘betters’. And to compound his crime, he ignored the ‘respectable’ press and its courtier journalists but chose as his conduit someone they did not even consider to be worthy of being called a journalist.

Fortunately for us and unfortunately for them, Snowden and Greenwald and Poitras were the ideal team because they were not interested in currying favor with the elites. And in this they were greatly aided by the Guardian editors and reporters who, despite occasional wobbles and missteps, came through at crucial times. The editors’ unilateral decision to give some of the Snowden documents to the New York Times, which was desperate to be part of the story, was one rift and angered the trio and Snowden especially since he despised the Times for its past history of colluding with the government and he especially wanted to exclude them from receiving anything.

This book is essential reading for anyone who wants to know about the whirlwind unleashed by Edward Snowden. I can strongly recommend it.

Comments

  1. Glenn says

    A very readable book that I finished in 3 days.

    I was aware that so much data is being collected on American citizens who have no reason to be suspects in any criminal investigation.

    I was not aware that Israel has complete access to this raw data so collected on Americans.

    The USA kills foreign non-citizens without acknowledgment or need to justify (and does so even with American citizens in foreign countries).

    I expect all states to claim and exercise these killings as their right. I expect Israel to exercise the same right to kill as all other nations do.

    I object to information on American citizens being given to foreign countries who will be even less transparent and accountable to American citizens for the murders they commit than our own government is.

    Read the book.

  2. Glenn says

    American Exceptionalism: The belief that no matter how many foreign governments and their elections the US subverts; no matter how many baseless wars devastate no matter how many millions; no matter how many are tortured and imprisoned without cause for no matter how long; no matter how many non-white Americans populate the extreme lower classes and prisons: The Government of America would NEVER do anything so underhanded and deceptive to its own people.

  3. colnago80 says

    Re Glenn

    I always find it interesting how many leftists complain about the US overthrowing governments, as happened in Chile and Iran and otherwise interfering in other nations internal affairs. Interestingly enough, I never read any complaints about the Clinton Administration’s machinations in the 1999 election in Israel, where the government of Benjamin Netanyahu was ousted from power. The Clintons sent their attack dog, James Carville, to manage the campaign of Bibi’s opponent, Ehud Barak, and encouraged their wealthy supporters to donate money to his campaign. This effort was successful and Bibi was, indeed, removed from power. But, I guess that because the State of Israel is so unpopular on this blog, that was AOK.

  4. dickspringer says

    Bibi’s policies are a disaster for the future of Israel. He has done everything he could to prevent giving up any of the West Bank to Palestinians. At the same time, by defining Israel as a “Jewish State” he is denying Palestinians equality in the territories controlled by Israel, thereby creating an “apartheid state.” Many religious Jews think that is the way things should be, but that is outrageous for those of us who believe in the equal value of all people. A solution advocated by some on the Israeli right, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, is expulsion of Palestinians from all of the Wext Bank, another moral abomination.

  5. says

    I never read any complaints about the Clinton Administration’s machinations in the 1999 election in Israel

    Really? Then how did you hear about it?

  6. says

    I guess that because the State of Israel is so unpopular on this blog

    No, silly. It’s the kind of things that Israel does that are unpopular. I can’t speak for everyone on this blog but I suspect that we’re disgusted by the apartheid – not Israel. We’re disgusted by the displacement of people – not Israel. We’re disgusted by the land grabs and revenge attacks – not Israel. We’re disgusted by seeing the people who used to live in a region, displaced into concentration camps, excuse me, refugee camps – not Israel. We were disgusted when it happened in Germany in the 1940s, in Rwanda in the 90s, in Kosovo in the 90s and in Israel as well. It’s not Israel per se that’s unpopular, it’s Israel’s abominable behavior.

    And it’s apologists are pretty slimy too.

  7. colnago80 says

    Re Marcus Ranum @ #6

    I heard about because James Carville bragged about it.

    Re Marcus Ranum @ #7

    Shorter Ranum: Israel = Nazi Germany.

  8. colnago80 says

    Re dickspringer @ #7

    A solution advocated by some on the Israeli right, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, is expulsion of Palestinians from all of the Wext Bank, another moral abomination.

    Although a number of extreme right wingers in Israel have advocated expelling the Palestinians on the West Bank to Jordan, Lieberman is not among them. What he has proposed is that certain Arab villages in Israel near the Green Line be ceded to the Palestinian Authority, as a part a land swap in which some settlements near the Green Line be ceded to Israel. His position is that nobody would have to move from his/her current location. Let’s criticize the man for what he is proposing, not for something he is not proposing.

  9. daft says

    @#3

    Because spending money on advertising etc to influence an election is just as bad as staging a coup to permanently remove a democratic government isn’t it.

  10. dysomniak "They are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred!" says

    @10 It is when Israel/Islamists/Hitler!

    @Mano Thanks for the review, I bought the kindle version and am looking forward to starting it soon.

  11. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    It is not too long (about 250 pages)

    What’s the font size? A book written in large font (say 18) will be a lot shorter than one written in, say, near microscopic font (say 6) would be!

  12. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    @4. dickspringer :

    Bibi’s policies are a disaster for the future of Israel. He has done everything he could to prevent giving up any of the West Bank (1) to Palestinians. At the same time, by defining Israel as a “Jewish State” he is denying Palestinians equality in the territories controlled by Israel, (2) thereby creating an “apartheid state.” (3) Many religious Jews think that is the way things should be, but that is outrageous for those of us who believe in the equal value of all people. (4) A solution advocated by some on the Israeli right, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, is expulsion of Palestinians from all of the West Bank,(1) another moral abomination.(5)

    Numbers added for reference to facts as follows :

    1. The correct term for those ancient regions of Jewish (& Samaritan) land is Judea and Samaria, refering to the area by the incorrect “West Bank” term reveals an anti-Israel bias on your part.

    2. Um, territories controlled by Israel there would actually be Israel itself. Where the inhabitants include Israeli Arabs who have Israeli citizenship and rights and some of them are even in the knesset. (Israeli parliament.) The Gaza strip is ruled by Hamas and some parts of Judea and Samaria are governed by the Palestinian authority.

    3. Apartheid has a specific meaning and is NOT what Israel practices. To claim otherwise is a vile anti-Semitic Israel bashing lie that sadly, many people have been fooled into treating seriously. Israel does NOT disciminate on the basis of skin colour – and discriminating the basis of security threat and protecting people from Jihadists seeking to destroy the tiny Jewish nation is entirely reasonable. Not todo thatwoudlbe suicidal.

    4. Dubious premise is dubious. Wrong in fact. People are treated equally under Israeli law and are judged by their words and actions.

    5. Abomination or reasonable depending on how it is done? Was it an abomination when Turkey forced out Greeks in its territory or when Pakistan expelled Hindu Indians? When you have a group supporting and enabling terrorism and seeking to exterminate the nation is it fair and reasonable to expect that nation to shelter and reward them? If they belong elsewhere culturally and politically why shouldn’t they move to where they belong and will be happy? Jordan was after all created for the Arabs now known as palestinians and they already have 2/3rds of the original mandate..

  13. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    @7. Marcus Ranum

    “I guess that because the State of Israel is so unpopular on this blog.” (Colnago80 -ed.)

    No, silly. It’s the kind of things that Israel does that are unpopular. I can’t speak for everyone on this blog but I suspect that we’re disgusted by the apartheid – not Israel. We’re disgusted by the displacement of people – not Israel.

    So you’re disgusted at all the Arab nations that expelled their Jewish populations after Israel was founded then?

    We’re disgusted by the land grabs and revenge attacks – not Israel.

    So you’re disgusted at the Hamas , Hezbollah and PLO terrorism “revenge” attacks and the wars started by tehArabs o grab the land of Israel off its rightful Jewish inhabitants then?

    We’re disgusted by seeing the people who used to live in a region, displaced into concentration camps, excuse me, refugee camps – not Israel.

    Arafat was born in Cairo, Egypt, most of the so-called “paelstinians” are / were recent immigrants to the Mandate from Syria which is what the Ottomans considered what is now Israel and Jordan and other areas to be part of. Many Israeli Arabs are living happily and better off in Israel than they ever were under Islamic rulers.

    Oh and the refugee problem is largely the direct result and responsibility of the Arab nations that urged the refugees to “flee briefly whilst our all powerful Arab armies drive the Jews into the sea” in the series of Arab -Israeli wars most notably Israel’s war of Independence in 1948 and the Six Day War of 1967. Do excuse sane, unbiased, knowledgeable and reasonable people if they (unlike you) struggle to summon up any sympathy for “refugees” who chose to leave in the expectation that they were aiding the genocide of the Jewish people and Israel’s extermination.

    We were disgusted when it happened in Germany in the 1940s, in Rwanda in the 90s, in Kosovo in the 90s and in Israel as well. It’s not Israel per se that’s unpopular, it’s Israel’s abominable behavior.

    Yet somehow its always only Israel you seem to bash online. Funny that – not.

    And it’s apologists are pretty slimy too.

    But nowhere near as slimy as those who support the genocide of Israel and who bash the most democratic and free state in the region whilst overlooking the vastly larger Arab and Iranian atrocities. Supporters of Israel aren’t slimy. Those who take the Jihadists side, OTOH, are truly horrid.

  14. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    @3. colnago80 : Its interesting to note that Ehud Barak was the Israeli PM who offered the Palestinians almost everything (95% of their ambit claims) they’d been demanding – and Arafat still turned him and Clinton down and opted for renewed warfare instead.

    So that whole election shifting effort on Clinton’s part, turned out to result in an ultimate failure and a poor administration that the Israelis and palestinians rejected.

    Bibi Netanyahu, OTOH, was eventually re-elected in 2009 and remains Israeli PM today – only the second person to win three terms of Israeli top office after David Ben Gurion* – so clearly the majority of people who know best and have most at stake – the Israeli citizens – disagree with the likes of #4 dickspringer.

    * http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bibi_Netanyahu

  15. Mano Singham says

    Oh, goody, the ever-verbose StevoR has returned to join his colleague colnago80, two people who have enthusiastically advocated for the mass-murder of tens and even hundreds of thousands of innocent people as long as they are Arabs and Muslims, to hijack yet another thread to justify the actions of Israel.

  16. colnago80 says

    Re StevoR @ #15

    Not entirely accurate. The 95% figure was proposed by Clinton and his surrogate, Dennis Ross. Barak tentatively accepted it, Arafat rejected it.

    Re Daft @ #10

    Of course, the left in the US complained bitterly when Bibi went before the Congress and all but endorsed McCain and later Rmoney. So I guess it’s all right for the US to interfere in Israel’s internal affairs by having the president all but publicly endorse Bibi’s opponent but not all right for Bibi to interfere in the US internal affairs by all but endorsing Obama’s opponent. Bit of hypocrisy there?

    Now much has been made of the US interfering in Venezuela’s internal affairs by all but endorsing Chavez’s opponent. Somehow, Israel is different. I wonder why?

    Re Singham @ #16

    IMHO, by complaining about US interference in the internal affairs of other nations, Glenn opened the door to my comment. We certainly interfered in Israel’s internal affairs in 1999, just as we interfered in Venezuela’s internal affairs in our opposition to Chavez.

  17. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    @ 17. Mano Singham :

    I have never advocated for the crime of mass murder of anyone. War and military self defence against terrorism or enemy attacks is something very different.

    Both myself and Colnago80 have previously stated our preference for a peaceful resolution to the problems posed by the intolerance and hatred of the Islamists. See :

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/singham/2014/05/07/boko-harams-atrocities-in-nigeria-increase/#comment-2121560

    So your mischaracterisation there is simply wrong.

    Concise enough for you?

  18. Mano Singham says

    @StevoR #18,

    You say:

    I have never advocated for the crime of mass murder of anyone. War and military self defence against terrorism or enemy attacks is something very different.

    Both myself and Colnago80 have previously stated our preference for a peaceful resolution to the problems posed by the intolerance and hatred of the Islamists.

    You repeatedly saying that you and colnago80 ‘prefer’ a peaceful option means nothing. Who doesn’t want a peaceful solution over a violent one? Only a psychopath would think otherwise.

    The point is that you think that using nuclear and other weapons that cause massive destruction are perfectly reasonable options to consider. The reason they are called ‘weapons of mass destruction’ is that they kill masses of people, tens and hundreds of thousands, and you can be sure that almost all of them will be innocent of the crime that you think justifies their slaughter.

    So you and colnago80 are supporting the slaughter of masses of innocent people for the crimes of a few. That fact that you do not ‘prefer’ it is irrelevant. I am willing to believe that Dick Cheney probably did not ‘prefer’ to torture people. The fact that he saw it as a reasonable option is what makes him despicable.

    Furthermore, you seem to think that as soon as one calls something a ‘war’, then anything is justified in pursuing it. That argument can be, and has been, used to justify atrocities worldwide.

  19. colnago80 says

    Re Mano Singham @ #10

    Just as a hypothetical, would you have opposed use of nuclear weapons against Germany as an alternative to Operation Overlord, had they been available in June of 1944?

  20. Mano Singham says

    I don’t know what Operation Overlord is but my answer is yes anyway. I think that every nation should pledge to a “no first use” policy on nuclear weapons so that it is seen strictly as a deterrent. Ideally all nations should dismantle their weapons.

    By the way, you still have not answered my earlier question to you to back up your allegation.

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