Most egregiously, Greenwald recounts the moment in which David Gregory asked him, on Meet the Press, why he shouldn’t “be charged with a crime” for having “aided and abetted Snowden.” Gregory came off like the NSA’s handmaiden, and just as dispiritingly, no one on the panel, Greenwald points out, made a peep in objection. Greenwald ably rose to his own defense, and after the show, many journalists backed him up, but that clip remains an embarrassment. At least the profession woke up in time to award the Guardian and the Washington Post this year’s Pulitzer for public service for breaking the NSA stories.
Reading about all the disclosures again, woven together and in context, I couldn’t decide which was worse: the NSA’s massive, grim overreach, in the hands of Director Michael Hayden—or the complicity of almost every other entity involved, private as well as public. “PRISM is a team sport!” trumpeted one NSA memo. Too true: Other memos and slides show Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and Microsoft easing the way toward surveillance of their users. (Twitter was the exception in this case.) When the Guardian and the Washington Post broke that news, the tech companies tried to argue otherwise based on a technicality. But looking back, the documents “give the lie to Silicon Valley’s denials of cooperation,” as Greenwald writes.
Also supine was the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, stacked with conservative appointees chosen by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and operating in secret for years from inside the Department of Justice. Is it even a court at all? Perhaps worst of all are the Senate and House Intelligence committees, led by NSA boosters like Republican Rep. Mike Rogers and Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who until a recent spat with the CIA had never met a spying program she didn’t like.* These committees are supposed to be our watchdogs. They exist to look out for our privacy. How right Sen. Ron Wyden was, three years ago, to warn that “when the American people found out how their government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act”—the law at the heart of the NSA’s programs—“they will be stunned and they will be angry.”
After the Snowden revelations, tech CEOs took to warning the government that the NSA had to back off lest they lose their international customer base. Congress held hearings and is still debating a bill that would directly limit NSA surveillance. A federal judge said the government had probably violated the Constitution. And President Obama called for cutting back on bulk phone data collection. PRISM is no longer a team sport. All of these shifts came thanks to transparency, which means thanks to Snowden. Because the Bush and Obama administrations aggressively went after any government official who disclosed classified information, only a no-holds-barred whistleblower could have blown the NSA’s cover. The internal pressure built, and when the leak finally sprung, it let loose a torrent.
No Place to Hide doesn’t offer an in-depth portrait of the leaker. In Greenwald’s protective hands, Snowden is a two-dimensional hero, ever brave and calm, sleeping soundly every night even during the tense initial phase of collaboration a year ago, when Greenwald and Poitras flew to meet him in Hong Kong. If you want to get under Snowden’s skin, read the Vanity Fair profile of him. But if you want to get a handle on what was at stake when he downloaded the government’s most precious secrets onto a thumb drive, this book is your primer.
Greenwald is a guide who doesn’t brook dissent. For example, from his perspective ringside, it’s “ludicrous” and “inane” to have imagined that Snowden would have given away secrets to the Chinese or the Russians in his bid for asylum. Surely skeptics will argue that Greenwald is too close to his source to be trusted, but I don’t think so. I think he is vouching for Snowden because he vetted him and he knows him. Last summer the journalist and the whistleblower took a huge and risky plunge together, along with Poitras and Gellman. Now Greenwald is coming up for air and, with this incisive, slashing book, reaping the benefits of being adventuresome, dogged—and, as far as the evidence shows, right. And yes, the movie deal, Greenwald says, is on the way.
*Correction, May 13, 2014: This piece originally misstated that Rep. Mike Rogers is a senator. (Return.)
No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State by Glenn Greenwald. Metropolitan Books.