I confess to being among those who regard the reach of the surveillance state with a tired sense of inevitability: I’ve long since grown accustomed to the notion that the government can, and does, record everything. It’s not that I do not value privacy; I just feel that worrying about government snooping is futile. Glenn Greenwald’s new book on Edward Snowden, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, confirmed my fears, and moved me a notch or two off my sense of resignation.
I’ve watched Greenwald’s career with a puzzled sense of suspicion and envy. He reminds readers that he was a constitutional and civil rights lawyer for a decade, before leaving the law for journalism. That’s a barren boast. I practice in those areas as well. Frankly, you don’t accomplish much in those areas in a brief decade at the bar: Greenwald left the law just about the time it was for him to show the world he could so something other than take a deposition or second chair a more seasoned lawyer. I’ve often wondered if he left the law because he could not cut it.
But his work with Edward Snowden makes me a fan. He took a difficult stand on the grounds of principle, and helped change the debate about privacy worldwide by publishing the material given him by Snowden. This most recent book tells the story of how they met, what Snowden released, and the world’s reaction to it. It is a powerful indictment both of a government brazenly living outside the boundaries of the very law it purports to uphold, and of feckless mainstream journalists too embedded in privilege to serve as watchdogs. Greenwald to the Fourth Estate: Shame on you!
What is reported here is both common and endlessly surprising. The National Security Agency has more than 30,000 employees, and tens of thousands more private contractors spread throughout the world. The goal of the agency is to capture every bit of electronic communication worldwide. Agents even go so far as to intercept, and open, boxes of computer hardware shipped overseas to implant monitoring equipment to route information back to the NSA. Not only does the agency do all this, its representatives then lie to Congress about it. We the people take it all in stride, like supine sheep, afraid lest the terrorists sprout from our collective unconscious and destroy us.
We are being trained for blind obedience in a climate of fear, with power corrupting those who wield it, and voices of dissent demonized and either ridiculed or prosecuted when they speak inconvenient truths: The Obama administration, inaugurated promising transparency, has brought more criminal prosecutions under the Espionage Act than all other administrations combined. Even journalists are now regarded as criminals by a government intent on spying on everyone while keeping secret the scope of what it does.
Greenwald is unsparing in his criticism of both the government and the fourth estate. Jeffrey Toobin, legal commentator for CNN and The New Yorker, is roundly scored: Could it be that Toobin, with his insider sources on the Supreme Court and elsewhere, has grown fat, sassy and complacent now that he has become part of the very infrastructure on which he reports? Ditto for David Brooks, who plays coffee-table intellectual as columnist for The New York Times and PBS NewsHour.
This was a fabulous read. It is written in sober, plain-spoken prose. It tells a compelling story about a man our government will prosecute as a criminal, but who is, in fact, a closer cousin to the men we revere as founders of this republic than any of his critics. After reading this book, I am more convinced than ever that Edward Snowden deserves the Nobel Peace Prize: His acts of conscience have changed our perception of the world, warning us that the surveillance state is out of control. I am grat4eful to Glenn Greenwald for heeding Snowden’s warning.