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No Place to Hide:

Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the US Surveillance State

It would be an understatement to say that debates arose after Edward Snowden began leaking information about NSA surveillance programs in the summer of 2013. Talking heads argued over all sorts of allegations about Snowden’s patriotism, whether or not he and associated journalists were terrorists, and whether or not the NSA’s goal was actually to “protect the nation from another 9/11.” The corporate news networks scrambled to keep up with revelations coming from the select few news outlets that had access to the Snowden documents. Among the fiercest and most persistent journalists involved was Glenn Greenwald. 

Anyone who has seen Greenwald on a corporate news show knows that mainstream “journalists” are no fans of his. He is no stranger to heated debates and all sorts of vicious allegations, but he consistently responds with biting truths about the national security state. The same goes for his written works, including his many articles on Snowden and his new book, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the US Surveillance State. The book is a great summary of the Snowden-NSA phenomenon, dealing with all the relevant political issues: insightful detail about the events in Hong Kong, the content of the Snowden documents, the political establishment’s backlash, and the harms of state surveillance. 

The core of No Place to Hide is a critique of the post-9/11 national security state, that goes beyond the NSA’s massive surveillance. It also involves intense state secrecy, a compliant spectrum of mainstream media and “journalists,” and the lack of democratic representation within the two-party system. Importantly, Greenwald provides no quarter for liberals like President Obama, maintaining his position as an independent journalist that the Obama administration is “waging unprecedented attacks on journalism.” 

Greenwald’s sharp independence makes his narrative particularly engaging for activists, as we can relate to his frustrations in dealing with the political establishment. Greenwald’s trip to Hong Kong is a compelling case study in the obstacles that independent journalists face when working on major stories. He, along with the equally independent journalist Laura Poitras, have to repeatedly deal with the qualms of establishment journalists, the political cowardice of major news outlets, and perhaps Greenwald’s least favorite, the “unwritten protective rules that govern how the establishment media report on official secrets . . . which allow the government to control disclosures and minimize, even neuter, their impact.” 

Greenwald uses many historical examples to back up his claims; the New York Times, for example, obeyed the Bush administration’s request that it not publish information on warrantless surveillance programs until after Bush was reelected. He also points out that the Times only published at that point because journalist James Risen was about to “publish the revelations in his book and the paper did not want to be scooped by its own reporter.” 

Greenwald is an engaging writer, bringing his personality and sharp wit out in the book. This is particularly helpful for those readers who are uninitiated with regard to the content of the Snowden documents and their consequences—they learn alongside Greenwald as his narrative progresses. Greenwald opens the book with a humorous episode of how Snowden (calling himself Cincinnatus) first contacted Greenwald and requested that he install encryption software to communicate securely before revealing his identity. Confused over the technical aspects of Snowden’s request, Greenwald’s reluctance to follow Snowden’s guidelines prevented him from ever installing the software, and so Snowden stopped communicating. As Greenwald puts it, “That’s how close I came to blowing off one of the largest and most consequential national security leaks in US history.” Much of the narrative is about this story—how a group of individuals who, while highly trained, are understandably very new to the intensity of the secrecy, the leaks, and their consequences. This makes it all the more inspiring to see them collaborate and learn so quickly, just in time to take the political establishment by storm when the publishing begins. Snowden himself becomes a key inspirational figure for everyone involved, and for good reason: he risked his life to blow the whistle. 

Greenwald provides extensive analysis of the Snowden documents and what they show about the NSA. Specifically, he backs up Snowden’s realization that the NSA’s goal was “the elimination of all privacy globally. To make it so that no one could communicate electronically without the NSA being able to collect, store, and analyze the communication.” The NSA, however, is not omniscient. While it has unimaginably large troves of data, this does not translate into knowledge. In fact, more than one federal review has concluded that the NSA may be “drowning” in excess data that it cannot effectively analyze and thus convert into usable knowledge (or in NSA parlance, intelligence). 

But while the NSA doesn’t know everything, its goal is to be able to know anything: its huge scope of access means if there is something it wants to know, it can specifically analyze that data and get that knowledge. So, the NSA grows by identifying areas where its data collection is impeded, and works to overcome that. 

Greenwald gives an example of how the NSA and GCHQ (the British counterpart) developed programs called “Thieving Magpie” and “Homing Pigeon” to intercept communications from cell phones during flights (this is a difficult technological problem, but the partnered agencies are determined to gain access). The NSA’s goal is accurately summed up by former NSA director Keith Alexander’s motto: “collect it all.” This is also apparent from its mass collection programs such as telephone metadata, PRISM, and X-KEYSCORE. The NSA is not concerned with stopping terrorist attacks, and its own documents confirm this. X-KEYSCORE is designed to hack the HTTP protocol not because that would somehow give access to secure terrorist communications, but because “nearly everything a typical user does on the Internet uses HTTP.”

The NSA, however, is not a rogue agency—it is fully funded by and fully serves the US government. The NSA doesn’t simply “collect it all”—it also engages in specific priorities to support the US state, and Greenwald maps these out. This includes diplomatic espionage, a major example being spying on foreign representatives during international negotiations leading up to UN votes for authorizing the Iraq War. A more recent example is spying on negotiations leading up to UN votes for new sanctions on Iran. The NSA regularly spies at economic and trade summits, especially on major economic powers like the Brazilian oil giant Petrobras—unsurprisingly, this means President Obama and other officials are lying and hypocritical when they slam China for engaging in economic espionage. The Snowden documents directly quote US trade and diplomatic representatives who laud the NSA’s espionage as giving them an upper hand.

The US government is not the only culprit in creating a mass surveillance system. Greenwald also maps out how the major telecom and tech companies’ willingness to hand over their massive troves of data is critical for the NSA’s “collect it all” goal. This “public-private partnership” reveals the degree to which the state and big capital collaborate. Indeed, the NSA would be incapable of its mass collection without the oligopoly that these companies have established. If there were a hundred competitive companies rather than ten colluding ones, the NSA would have insurmountable difficulty in convincing all of the companies to cooperate. Even its alternative of hacking the key “chokepoints” on the Internet where their data flows wouldn’t work, because there would be thousands (instead of under a hundred) of such chokepoints. Instead, the NSA has a cozy relationship with the few relevant companies, and hacks a few chokepoints when necessary. Notably, this seriously disproves the idea that the Internet is a free and democratic commons, notwithstanding the rhetorical flourishes of Mark Zuckerberg and other tech CEOs.

The main argument that Greenwald makes in his book is that Western governments’ mass surveillance programs should be opposed, largely on the basis of our right to privacy. But there are other reasons to oppose it. The evidence for this is clear from the Snowden documents cited in the book: the NSA is intimately involved in the drone assassination program, spies on economic trade summits and other international negotiations, supports the Islamophobic profiling of the “terrorist watch lists,” and so on. This is important because a deeper understanding of the problem is necessary to demand more far-reaching solutions. Like Snowden, Greenwald advocates either policy solutions such as reforming the FISA Court, or individual consumerist solutions such as using encryption. Socialists will benefit from the wealth of details and analysis that Greenwald gives about the relevant political issues and will agree with his conclusions, but we should use these to also develop a more far-reaching socialist critique of state surveillance.

Though Greenwald’s story is one of ubiquitous state surveillance and secrecy, his final message is inspiring: 

Even the most committed activists are often tempted to succumb to defeatism. The prevailing institutions seem too powerful to challenge; orthodoxies feel too entrenched to uproot; there are always many parties with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. But it is human beings collectively, not a small number of elites working in secret, who can decide what kind of world we want to live in.

Issue #100

Spring 2016

100 Issues of the ISR

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