No Place to Hide
“Turning a corner we saw an open door and a green plastic alligator, lying across the floor. As instructed, we sat on the couch…” The voice of Glenn Greenwald, intrepid civil liberties reporter, on the trail of Edward Snowden, NSA leaker extraordinaire, in Hong Kong. With ace filmmaker Laura Poitras by his side, Greenwald had been instructed by Snowden to meet him in a particular room of the cavernous hotel he had lodged in at Kowloon. Soon the pair met a thin young man playing with a Rubik’s cube, the designated sign that they had met their man. Any resemblance to cheap ’70s spy movies is purely coincidental.
The first chapters of Greenwald’s No Place to Hide are full of this sort of stuff, and so they should be. This is the breathless account of how Greenwald and Poitras made contact with the US National Security Agency whistleblower Snowden, who had left the Hawaii office of the NSA days before, with two thumb drives containing thousands of internal documents detailing the near-incomprehensible scope of US and global surveillance by America’s less-well-known security agency, usually hidden behind the CIA. When they made selections of these documents available to the world in The Guardian, uproar ensued.
Many had suspected that US surveillance of the world was total; many had no idea. For all, Snowden’s disclosed secrets were a revelation. Through a bewildering array of programs with names such as “PRISM”, the NSA was reaching into every area of hundreds of millions of lives, using the flimsiest of legal pretexts, and the justification that 9/11 licensed total interference in private life.
Snowden, a private subcontractor, had a high-level security clearance, which allowed him access to vast amounts of the NSA archive. In the wake of 9/11 it had been determined that “siloing” – lack of widespread access to disparate intelligence – had been in part responsible for 19 Saudi punks getting through the radar, and that wider interconnection would make “joined-up” intelligence possible. The same philosophy had allowed an intelligence private, Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, to dump down nearly half a million documents onto what had been a Lady Gaga CD, and upload them to WikiLeaks’ secure leak site.
The most explosive file was the snuff video “Collateral Murder”, showing a US helicopter gunship needlessly and sadistically killing Iraqi civilians, including a number of Reuters journalists, the crew joking all the while. Across 2010, WikiLeaks and selected media partners dropped these into the public sphere, culminating with the “Cablegate” archive, a quarter of a million documents showing the full cynicism of US and Western diplomatic relations in the post-9/11 era. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange had steered towards this moment through a crucial theoretical insight – that mass leaks were more effective than piecemeal leaking, since they challenged the legitimacy of security systems themselves, and that making it possible for people to leak would ensure that more followed. “Courage is contagious”, Assange had argued. Snowden was living proof.
Poitras and Greenwald ensured that Snowden’s leaks became global news. Assange and WikiLeaks staffer Sarah Harrison helped Snowden gain asylum guarantees from multiple Latin American progressive governments. When the US had European powers force down Bolivian President Evo Morales’s plane over Spain, plan B was put into action and they got Snowden a year’s asylum in Russia.
Greenwald, meanwhile, found that the US mainstream media saw themselves as little more than an arm of the US national security state, crystallised in Meet the Press’s David Gregory asking him, “Why shouldn’t you be arrested?” Gregory’s was the least egregious of this attitude (and Greenwald makes too much of it), but there were plenty to affirm he and Snowden were traitors who should be hauled to the bastinado forthwith.
As Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, was detained by British police under anti-terrorism laws while transiting through Heathrow, because it was suspected he had a copy of Snowden’s documents with him, this book was crunched out, a mix of breathless le Carré-esque intrigue and wonkish detail.
Greenwald starts off with the pointless detail of making contact with Snowden, which is of course utterly addictive, but then segues into an important but dull account of the actual nature of NSA surveillance. This is all tease and no strip. Naturally, we want access to the overview of the surveillance programs. But having got a taste of the cloak and dagger, we can’t help but want more. Having heard of Hong Kong, secret phone calls, pillows stuffed in wall-gaps and phones disabled, we want the full trip. What happened when Snowden went to Russia? How did WikiLeaks get involved? What was the role of Harrison, glamorous, lethal and snub-nosed as a Glock pistol, winging her way across Eastern Europe to rescue the gormless geek Snowden? The narrative could have been continuous, much of the detail consigned to appendices.
Quite aside from these frivolities, Greenwald’s account, important and courageous though it is, underplays the degree to which WikiLeaks created a framework in which leaks could occur. Americans, no matter how critical, remain fatally in love with the individual conscience, giving insufficient credit to collective states of mind and the process of political work. So it is here. Yet this remains crucial – mass leaking has been supported by networks of the global radical left, while the liberal/libertarian right (in Australian think tanks such as the Institute of Public Affairs and Centre for Independent Studies) has shown characteristic cowardice as regards anything that challenges the national security state.
Nevertheless, whatever the book’s shortcomings, it’s a valuable record and one looks forward to the second edition, following the next mass leak, changing everything. Due in July. About the 19th. XS
Hamish Hamilton, 272pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 24, 2014 as "Glenn Greenwald, No Place to Hide". Subscribe here.