Greenwald Offers No Evidence of NSA Overreach — No Place to Hide Book Review

By Mitchell Blatt | Literature

Jun 25

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.

“None of them [defenders of the NSA] would willingly give me the passwords to their email accounts,” Greenwald argues in one passage. That is essentially what has happened with the NSA. The NSA can read our emails!

Of course, it wouldn’t make sense to give your email password to Glenn Greenwald or to a random stranger. A stranger could use your email address to hack into your other internet accounts and even steal your identity. He could even read your emails and find potentially embarrassing or incriminating information and use it against you. Maybe he could even leak the information to a journalist who could write a book about it.

Well, that was all kind of irrelevant, because the question the book is supposedly about is: Would it make sense to allow the NSA to have access to email information and telephony metadata? It certainly doesn’t seem like it would violate our rights, and Greenwald has thus far failed to prove it would. Perhaps he meant the original question as a metaphor, but metaphors don’t work when they aren’t logical equivalents. The government could, perhaps, use incriminating information against someone if that incriminating information appears to involve the execution of a crime. If they just found some embarrassing messages from your online dating profile, they probably wouldn’t arrest you and throw you in Gitmo.

The best Greenwald does is arguing that the government has used spying in the past against political opponents and activists. Anti-war activists, socialists, and civil rights activists, including Martin Luther King, were targeted by Hoover’s Justice Department, Greenwald writes.

Today’s activists might be targeted, or at the least be cowed into self-censorship by fears of being targeted. Greenwald raises the conception of the Panopticon, a building with a tall, central watchtower that would create the constant illusion that everyone was constantly being watched.

If someone is scared that they are constantly being watched by the NSA, they can thank Greenwald. The NSA is no Panopticon. It doesn’t advertise its surveillance programs. It doesn’t want anybody to know that they are watching. Indeed, the government often denies the extent of its programs and tries to prevent newspapers from reporting on it. Critics might accuse it of excessive secrecy, but that’s not exactly the same thing as going out of your way to publicize its spying capabilities.

The real threat of being injured by government anti-terror programs is next to nothing, as Greenwald’s own book proves. One chart in the book shows that only 550 people have had their business records investigated, in accordance with the Patriot Act, between 2005 and 2011. On another page, he takes on British anti-terrorism programs, revealing that 0.3% of passengers are stopped by the British anti-terrorism law at airports, and only 0.09% are detained for more than 1 hour.

Some of those people certainly were innocent and didn’t deserve to be stopped. One was Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, who held for 9 hours after going to Britain to facilitate the transport of Snowden’s documents. That was the point Greenwald was getting at–that the government clearly targeted Miranda for his support of Greenwald’s publishing. That is a shameful show of power for the government to engage in. (In the chart about the Patriot Act, Greenwald would like to emphasize that none of the government’s requests during that time had been declined by the FISA court.)

But a government program–no matter how well-run–is inevitably going to have a greater-than-zero amount of abuses, mistakes, and fraud. The broader numbers help show that the vast majority of people are neither injured, nor wrongfully injured. That is an important point to make, because the government serves the interests or its citizens. Policy should be made with an eye toward what will benefit most people.

The government could ensure that no one was wrongfully imprisoned if criminals were no longer incarcerated, but they couldn’t protect people from the widespread violence that would plague cities when criminals ran free and committed crimes with no fear of punishment. If there is a prison system, however impartial the justice system is, it will be impossible to be sure that everyone convicted and sentenced is indeed guilty.

Greenpeace alleges that in 2004 it, along with the NAACP, was subject to a politically-motivated tax audit. The Greenpeace letter also makes reference to allegations of politically-motivated actions targeting the Tea Party. Politically-motivated audits from the IRS could be stopped dead if only the IRS were abolished, but if that happened, the government might struggle to pay for programs like incarcerating criminals.

Even Glenn Greenwald (says he) doesn’t think the government should stop spying. In the epilogue, he briefly writes, “Nobody disagrees with that [assertion that some spying is always necessary]. The alternative to mass surveillance is not the complete elimination of surveillance.”

But what is he saying? Does he think the NSA should gather intelligence on its own citizens–some of whom may be domestic terrorists or threats? What would a Greenwald-approved spying regime look like?

In the preface to the book, Greenwald says that any kind of “mass surveillance” program would be abused. “No matter the specific techniques involved, historically mass surveillance has had several constant attributes. Initially, it is always the country’s dissidents and marginalized who bear the brunt of the surveillance… …[R]egardless of how it is used, it is in itself sufficient to stifle dissent.”

If Greenwald doesn’t disagree that some spying is always necessary, then does he not agree that some of the consequences of spying are always necessary? He did use the word “mass surveillance” in contrast to “surveillance” as if there is any difference between the two. But “mass” is an adjective without a specified meaning, so it could be used to define any kind of surveillance.

In his shouting match on Bill Maher’s show (linked in the opening sentence), he says that his leaks didn’t damage the country’s anti-terrorism abilities. He wants to damage the NSA’s spying abilities, and he has written as much in his book. That’s why he was excited to not only publish the leaks but also argue against the programs. Not only does the publication of said documents make people more aware of the programs to the effect that they might be able to better evade them, they also raise the possibility that Congress will eliminate or weaken the programs–as Congress has attempted to do with some recent bills.

It would be strange if Greenwald would really want the U.S. to operate such a program to fight terrorism. After all, Greenwald thinks terrorism doesn’t exist. On February 19, 2010, he said terrorism is a “meaningless” word. On May 13, 2013, he said that the word is “functional[ly] meaningless.”

Greenwald is a radically anti-government, pro-civil liberties activist journalist. The term “radically” shouldn’t be thrown around as a smear-term. It has a real meaning, and it means he is much farther to the pro-civil liberties side than most people. To say that is just to establish where he stands, because it is important in the next chapter about journalism.

Another thing, which you will quickly find about Greenwald in that chapter, if you didn’t already know by reading his work or watching him on TV, is that he really likes to get into fights with other journalists who he thinks are not supportive enough of civil liberties. The last chapter is a broadside against a number of journalists and media personalities and the journalism industry as a whole. He feels the industry is too cozy with the government.

He seems to have a view that journalists should all be activists like him. Earlier in the book, he cited the Washington Post media columnist Erik Wemple to deride “middle-of-the-road-ese: never saying anything definitive but instead vesting with equal credence the government’s defenses and the actual facts.”

(When Greenwald was initially reporting on the PRISM story, internet companies denied their involvement in it. Greenwald gave “equal credence” to the company’s denials. In the book, he quoted himself as saying, “Let’s not take a position on who’s right. Let’s just air the disagreement and let them work it out in public.”)

It takes a level of arrogance to believe you know beyond any doubt not only “the actual facts” but also what opinion someone should take on those facts. Is the NSA an assault on our rights? Are the benefits worth the drawbacks? As an opinion journalist, Greenwald often asserts his answers. On any issue, there is not only a question of opinion on the facts but also as to what facts are most important and often what the facts are themselves. Indeed, there is contentious debate over whether the NSA program is legal or constitutional.

Greenwald just throws the opposing side out when it suits him. He wrote much about a court ruling that found the NSA programs to be illegal. He dismissed a later ruling as “exploiting the memory of 9/11.”

Journalism benefits from what is called “objective reporting.” The public is better served by understanding all aspects of an issue, not just the aspects that Glenn Greenwald thinks are most important. If a journalist who disagreed with Greenwald were to intentionally tilt a straight news piece towards the government’s position, that journalist would rightly draw Greenwald’s ire.

Having said that, there’s nothing wrong with the kind of opinion journalism that Greenwald practices or the kind of opinionated book reviews and columns that I publish. We just need to recognize it for what it is and not attack journalists who are trying to be objective.

On Bill Maher, Greenwald asks if we should trust the government’s arguments defending the NSA. Maybe not. We should hear them before we make up our minds.

Greenwald’s combatant on Maher asked if we should trust him. Not always.

In the journalism chapter, he says the role of a journalist is to “disprove the falsehoods that power invariably disseminates to protect itself.” He’s right about the first part, but he’s not right that disproving falsehoods should only apply to those in power. If the government or big business is wrong about something, journalists should report it. But if a less powerful person is wrong, journalists should also report it, and if the government is right, journalists should report it. In short, journalists should report the world as it is, independent of any ideology.

As such, I need to disprove some falsehoods Greenwald spread in his book.

He said that the government has designated “broad swaths of antigovernment right-wing groups” as “terrorists.” Some, who had heard about the deadbeat farmer who threatened to murder federal agents who were trying to kick him off federal land he had been illegally occupying for 20 years, might find that to be a welcome development for their safety. When I read that, reports from Tea Party groups in 2009 about a DHS memo that supposedly labeled conservatives as terrorists. Alas, no such thing has happened. The 10-page report said that some right-wing extremists might become radicalized in the current environment because,

“The current economic and political
climate has some similarities to the
1990s when rightwing extrem
ism experienced a resurgen
ce fueled largely by an
economic recession, crit
icism about the outsourcing of jobs
, and the perceived threat to
U.S. power and sovereignty
by other foreign powers.”

It is undeniable that some conservative extremists have engaged in acts of violence in recent days–Bundy, Jerad Miller, and such (as I wrote for To try to put out a threat assessment without mentioning the very threat would be like Greenwald writing about the influence of pro-Israel political lobbying groups in American politics without mentioning AIPAC.

In the chapter on journalism, Greenwald dismisses MSNBC commentator Larry O’Donnell’s arguments in defense of the NSA by saying O’Donnell wouldn’t have to worry about being targeted because, “It is the case that the US government ‘has absolutely no incentive’ to target people like them… …journalists who devote their careers to venerating the country’s most powerful official… …and defending his political party.”

O’Donnell famously defended George W. Bush in 2010 by saying, “He invited the first attack [9/11].” O’Donnell is a radical political activist–he calls himself a socialist–and he harshly attacks politicians on a regular basis.

Near the end of the book, Greenwald expresses the hope that Snowden’s actions will inspire others to leak classified documents. “There is a powerful lesson here for future whistle-blowers,” he writes. “Speaking the truth does not have to destroy your life.”

But even that lesson is undermined by what Snowden wrote earlier in the book: “Democratic congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz … condemned Snowden, who had just ruined his life to make the NSA disclosures, as a ‘coward.’”

Greenwald’s opinionated style causes the language of the book at times to feel overwrought.

Hearings about terrorism are “McCarthyite hearings.” The Washington Post has a “fear-driven approach” to journalism. Weighty adjectives are thrown in to clarify many nouns lest we come to our own conclusion. Greenwald would do well to be reminded of the advice, “Show, don’t tell.”

When he tried to argue that the NSA programs are scandalous, there just wasn’t much for him to show.

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About the Author

Mitchell Blatt is a travel writer, editor, and columnist who has lived and worked in China for six years. He is an author of two guidebooks, Panda Guides Hong Kong and Panda Guides China. He has been published in National, The Korea Times, The Shanghai Daily, Roads & Kingdoms, Vagabond Journey, City Weekend, Silkwinds and The World of Chinese, among other outlets. See examples of his published articles.