Behind the scenes

Behind the scenes

‘No Place to Hide’ is an account of the Edward Snowden case by Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who broke the story. Michiko Kakutani reviews the controversial book...

The title of the journalist Glenn Greenwald’s impassioned new book, No Place to Hide, comes from a chilling observation made in 1975 by Senator Frank Church, then chairman of a select committee on intelligence. The US government, he said, had perfected “a technological capability that enables us to monitor the messages that go through the air.” That capability, he added, could at any time “be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide.”

That was nearly 40 years ago, and as the documents leaked last year by the former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed, the NSA’s ability to spy on our daily lives has grown exponentially to Orwellian proportions. The documents provided by Snowden revealed that the agency has an ability to monitor or collect information from hundreds of millions of people 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.

The first journalist Snowden approached by email was Glenn Greenwald, a columnist for The Guardian and former constitutional lawyer who had frequently written about civil liberties, the dangers of enhanced executive power, and surveillance abuses in post-September 11 America.

In No Place to Hide, Greenwald recounts the story of how he and Poitras, a documentary filmmaker, travelled to Hong Kong to meet with Snowden and the race to publish articles based on the documents he provided, all the while fearful of authorities’ closing in. The outlines of this story will be familiar to readers who followed it in real time last year, and to readers of the recent book The Snowden Files (by The Guardian reporter Luke Harding), just as much of the material here about the NSA will be familiar to readers of articles that have appeared in The Guardian (many with Greenwald’s byline), The Washington Post and The New York Times.

No Place to Hide is enlivened by reproductions of dozens of fascinating documents from the Snowden archive that help illustrate the NSA’s methodology and that showcase its strange corporatelike boosterism (complete with sometimes corny graphics). And Greenwald fleshes out his portrait of Snowden with fresh observations from their exchanges. He amplifies our understanding of the NSA’s sweeping ambitions, methods and global reach, and provides detailed insights into what he calls the agency’s “corporate partnerships,” which “extend beyond intelligence and defence contractors to include the world’s largest and most important Internet corporations and telecoms.”

For instance, the agency’s Stormbrew programme, Greenwald writes, “gives the NSA access to Internet and telephone traffic that enters the US at various ‘choke points’ on US soil. It exploits the fact that the vast majority of the world’s Internet traffic at some point flows through the US communications infrastructure — a residual byproduct of the central role that the country had played in developing the network.” According to the NSA, he says, Stormbrew “is currently comprised of very sensitive relationships with two US telecom providers (cover terms ARTIFICE and WOLFPOINT)”; the identity of such corporate partners, he adds, “is one of the most closely guarded secrets in the NSA.”

Greenwald portrays Snowden — regarded by some as a heroic whistle-blower, by others as a traitor — as a courageous idealist who felt he needed to act on his beliefs. That outlook, Greenwald suggests, was partly shaped by books Snowden read growing up — Greek mythology and The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, which convinced Snowden that, in his own words, “it is we who infuse life with meaning through our actions and the stories we create with them.”

Snowden also confided “with a hint of embarrassment,” Greenwald writes, that video games had taught him certain lessons. As Snowden put it: “The protagonist is often an ordinary person, who finds himself faced with grave injustices from powerful forces and has the choice to flee in fear or to fight for his beliefs. And history also shows that seemingly ordinary people who are sufficiently resolute about justice can triumph over the most formidable adversaries.”

In the course of this book, Greenwald describes how he received his first communication from Snowden on December 1, 2012, though he had no idea who it was from. The email came from someone calling himself Cincinnatus and urged Greenwald to begin using PGP encryption so that Cincinnatus could communicate with him securely. Busy with other projects, Greenwald procrastinated about installing the encryption programme, and Snowden was only able to make contact with him months later, through Poitras.

According to Greenwald, Snowden would later describe his frustration: “Here am I 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 huge journalistic scoops. And he can’t even be bothered to install an encryption programme.”

The most gripping sections of No Place to Hide recount Greenwald and Poitras’ 10-day trip to Hong Kong, where they and The Guardian’s veteran correspondent Ewen MacAskill met with Snowden in his hotel room. Greenwald describes the tradecraft they employed (removing batteries from their cellphones, or placing the phones in the minibar refrigerator) to avoid detection; his initial five-hour, litigator-like grilling of Snowden; and the “giddy gallows humour” that later crept into their conversations (“I call the bottom bunk at Gitmo,” Snowden reportedly joked).

Greenwald writes that Snowden said one turning point in his decision to become a leaker came in 2010, when he was working as an NSA contractor in Japan. “The stuff I saw really began to disturb me,” Snowden recalled. “I could watch drones in real time as they surveilled the people they might kill.” He added: “I watched NSA tracking people’s Internet activities as they typed. I became aware of just how invasive US surveillance capabilities had become. I realised the true breadth of this system. And almost nobody knew it was happening.” The makers of our Constitution, Brandeis argued, conferred “the right to be let alone.”

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