Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats. –H.L. Mencken

Book Review: No Place To Hide

no-place-to-hideGlenn Greenwald’s new book, No Place To Hide, is the summation of the last year of working with Edward Snowden and publishing articles and documentation of the NSA’s totally illegal and immoral surveillance of virtually the entire world.

The book is approximately 253 pages, divided into an introduction, five chapters, and an epilogue.  The notes are not in the book, but can be accessed via Greenwald’s website as a downloadable PDF.


The first two chapters pertain to Snowden’s initial attempts to contact Greenwald about the documents he possessed, their eventual meeting in Hong Kong, the first round of publishing leaks, and the worldwide reaction to Snowden identifying himself.  These two chapters read like a spy novel to some extent, but are not the most interesting parts of the book.

At times, these chapters are almost infuriating as Greenwald describes the multiple attempts and many months it took Snowden to get Greenwald to install PGP encryption software so they could communicate securely.

At one point in his negotiations with The Guardian over whether to publish the first leaks, Greenwald almost decided to pull a Wikileaks and start his own website for publishing the documents, as he was having a hard time convincing the lawyers and editors to publish the stories.

Prior to landing in Hong Kong (and before Greenwald knew who the source actually was) Greenwald read the “README_FIRST” file in the document archive.  This is perhaps the best part of the chapter, Snowden’s explanation of why he was risking everything to leak this information.  He finishes the note with this:

I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions, and that the return of this information to the public marks my end.  I will be satisfied if the federation of secret law, unequal pardon, and irresistible executive powers that rule the world that I love are revealed for even an instant.  If you seek to help, join the open source community and fight to keep the spirit of the press alive and the internet free.  I have been to the darkest corners of government, and what they fear is light.

Edward Joseph Snowden …

One is reminded of the verses following John 3:16:

19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”

Collect It All

The book really picks up speed in chapter three, “Collect It All”, when Greenwald begins detailing the breadth of the NSA’s spying infrastructure.  Anyone who has followed Greenwald’s articles since last June will be familiar with much of the chapter’s content.  But even for those who have been keeping up, having all of the NSA’s major programs documented side-by-side is compelling and helps the reader to understand just how far the NSA will go to fulfill their mission, which is as the chapter’s title says: collect it all.

Greenwald documents several of the most egregious NSA spying programs, among them:

  • BOUNDLESS INFORMANT, a system which the NSA had to create just to keep track of exactly how many phone calls and emails they were collecting as the number is in the billions per day
  • PRISM, the NSA’s program for collecting Internet data directly from the servers of companies like Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, Google, etc.
  • BLARNEY, FAIRVIEW, OAKSTAR, and STORMBREW, systems for extracting data directly off telecommunication links, all with the aid of the telco companies which the NSA euphemistically refers to as “corporate partners”.  One of the Snowden documents lists AT&T, HP, Cisco, IBM, Oracle, Microsoft, Verizon, Intel, and more as such partners.

In addition to these ubiquitous data mining operations, Greenwald also documents some of the targeted spy systems, like BLARNEY, which are designed to provide data to various three-letter agencies about foreign companies like “Petrobras, the SWIFT banking system, the Russian oil company Gazprom, and the Russian airline Aeroflot.”  One can only imagine that intel about these foreign companies makes its way into the hands of competitive US corporations with access to the right senators.

The most “comprehensive” of these systems is called X-KEYSCORE, a database of “‘nearly everything a typical user does on the internet'”.

Throughout the chapter, and using the NSA’s own documents, Greenwald thoroughly repudiates the lies told by the likes of Keith Alexander, Michael Hayden, and James Clapper about the width and breadth of the agency’s spying.  We all knew they were liars, after all they’re spies and that’s what spies do, but to see each of their claims refuted inline using their own documents is quite pleasing.

But what struck me most about this chapter was not the details of all these programs, as interesting and/or scary as they might be, but rather the amount of candor and bravado shown in talking about and documenting these horrendous systems, even in their own top secret documents.  That anyone would brag about this level of intrusion into the private lives of millions of people just shows that they believe they could never be called to account for their actions.  The conclusion is simple: these people are psychopaths.  No one could read these documents and reasonably conclude anything different.

The Harm of Surveillance

Chapter 4, “The Harm of Surveillance”, is a very interesting discussion about the value of privacy and the state’s attempts to “train citizens to disdain their own”.  With admittedly cliched, but apropos, references to Orwell’s 1984 and Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, Greenwald explores the chilling effect that ubiquitous surveillance has on political dissent, activism, journalism, and everyday life.

He points out that, just as in Orwell’s novel, with such a total surveillance capability, it’s not actually necessary to watch everyone all the time, it’s enough just that people know that the state has the ability to watch them at will.  This knowledge alone is sufficient to alter behavior and stifle people into silence.

The title of the book comes from a quote in this chapter by Frank Church, the Idaho senator who held Senate hearings about extra-legal FBI and CIA spying.  Greenwald quotes him from an interview with Meet the Press [emphasis mine]:

That capability at any time could 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.  If this government ever became a tyrant, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know. Such is the capability of this technology.

But unlike Snowden and Greenwald, whose stated goals are merely to get the discussion going and perhaps enable some “reform” of the system, I believe this chapter highlights the need to totally demolish the NSA and the rest of the state with it.  There is no capability of reform.  Greenwald has documented that the state is incapable of policing itself and only ever seeks to expand its power and reach.  The idea that anyone at the NSA/CIA/FBI cares what a judge thinks, especially a secret FISA court judge, is beyond laughable.

The Fourth Estate

Greenwald’s final chapter, “The Fourth Estate” is perhaps his best and a great way to end the book.  If he had any bridges left at this point they were certainly smoldering ruins by the end.  Greenwald tackles head on the myth of an independent and adversarial watchdog media.

In the very first paragraph he says:

The theory of a “fourth estate” is to ensure government transparency and provide a check on overreach, of which the secret surveillance of entire populations is surely among the most radical examples.  But that check is only effective if journalists act adversarially to those who wield political power.  Instead, the US media has frequently abdicated this role, being subservient to the government’s interests, even amplifying, rather than scrutinizing, its messages and carrying out its dirty work.

Greenwald makes several interesting points throughout the chapter.

He first documents the smear campaign aimed at himself and Laura Poitras immediately after the first articles were published.  The media called him a “blogger”, “activist”, and “lawyer” to discredit him as an actual journalist.  There were even several high-profile media  employees who called for his arrest, trial, and imprisonment for “aiding and abetting” Snowden.

He also points out the obvious hypocrisy of the media’s claim that journalists should have no opinions and not advocate for anything, as if their attempt to smear and discredit Greenwald was void of all opinion about his actions.

As Greenwald says, opinions are “problematic only when they deviate from the acceptable range of Washington orthodoxy.”

He continues to show that far from being neutral on every topic, the media are almost always willing to promote the state’s current agenda, reading the talking points they are given and killing off any story which would embarrass or hurt the political careers of those involved.

Greenwald ends by contrasting Vietnam war correspondent David Halberstam with today’s media:

Today, for many in the profession, praise from the government for “responsible” reporting–for taking its direction about what should and should not be published–is a badge of honor.  That this is the case is the true measure of how far adversarial journalism in the United States has fallen.


Overall this is a fine book and was well worth the time taken to read it.

Greenwald’s epilogue is a bit weak for me, but to be expected from someone who still believes in political systems.  I do agree with him, however, that Snowden’s leaks may have an inspirational effect on future leakers.  Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden may be a sign of things to come as the younger generations become disillusioned and mistrusting of the state.

This, in my opinion, may be just as valuable, if not more so, than the actual data that get leaked.  Every advance in the fight to destroy the state’s credibility is another step closer to its demise.

Give Us Some Curmudgeonly Wisdom...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Social Media

%d bloggers like this: