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.