Glenn Greenwald is back in the United States for the first time since launching his expose on the NSA’s intelligence-gathering programs, and he’s already back to getting into shouting matches with his critics. Although I’m a little bit late to the fight, it’s time for me to launch my polemical missile at his new book, No Place to Hide, published on May 13, 2014.
The book is divided into five chapters, that chronicle the story of Greenwald’s reporting on the issue, some of the facts behind the NSA’s spying activities, and his arguments against those activities. The book is entertaining and informative with its deep dive into the world of shadowy agents and far-reaching technologies. It is supplemented with many images of documents taken from NSA powerpoints and internal reports. It is also wrong in its arguments about the NSA.
It starts with Greenwald receiving mysterious emails from someone named “Cincinnatus”. That would be Edward Snowden, but Greenwald didn’t know it at the time and almost missed the story. The first chapter details Greenwald’s initial contact with Snowden, and the next chapter, his meetings with him in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong chapter reads like a thriller. Greenwald and Snowden meet in conference rooms of a 5 star hotel in the most crowded district in the world, planning their movements to evade attention, and Greenwald putting his phone in the refrigerator in Snowden’s room.
The third chapter lays out the NSA’s programs in detail. That’s where we hear about how the NSA wants to “Collect It All.” The chapter includes figures citing huge amounts of communications information intercepted and stored–97 billion emails in one month by a program called Global Access Operations–or about 1.8% of all emails sent in a month, if the estimate by the Radicati Group on the number of emails per month is accurate. With access to a treasure trove of documents–many of which are reprinted in the book–Greenwald has information to cite to corroborate facts about the programs from multiple angles.
But much of his information isn’t about Americans’ rights being violated. Pages after pages are dedicated exclusively to foreign spying, much of it routine. We read that the NSA has an interest in providing the government with information about “Counter Proliferation”, “Counter Terrorism”, “Diplomatic”, “Economic”, “Military”, and “Political/Intention of Nations” of foreign countries.” The NSA apparently engages in economic espionage and for espionage to gain benefits in trade or diplomatic negotiations. Whether or not that constitutes unfair economic tactics could be debatable, but it hardly constitutes as a scandal.
Most countries do so, and, as Greenwald wrote, “Countries have spied on heads of state for centuries, including allies. This is unremarkable…” If the American government wasn’t doing all it could do to ensure its citizens reap the most possible benefits from defense treaties and trade treaties, one could argue the government wasn’t doing its job. After all, according to one document the book cites, the signals intelligence support provided by the NSA at the Fifth Summit of the Americas “ensured that our diplomats were well prepared to advise President Obama and Secretary Clinton on how to deal with contentious issues, such as Cuba, and interact with difficult counterparts, such as Venezuelan President Chavez.”
Greenwald also famously exposed the fact that the NSA had spied on Angela Merkel and on other high foreign government leaders. Props to the NSA for doing such a good job. Spying is, after all, a major part of the job description for the NSA and CIA.
The NSA does go pursue its mission with an incredible zeal. Greenwald writes that much U.S. technology for export is modified so that it is easier for the U.S. to spy on foreign citizens. Even Americans concerned about domestic rights violations could be a little put off about that.
But the real bones of the Snowden story are the concerns about NSA’s domestic intelligence gathering programs. Greenwald tried hard to portray the post-9/11 security mechanisms as a violation of Americans’ civil liberties, but he doesn’t have much to work with. Chapter four makes his argument for why the broad powers of the NSA–and the government’s anti-terrorism forces in general–are abuses of power. He relies mostly on theoretical arguments, and the few times he cites concrete numbers, the numbers belie his case.