In the journalist Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden found a perfect match. I don’t mean to slight the contributions of Laura Poitras and Barton Gellman, the other two journalists who first dug into Snowden’s amazing and unprecedented trove of National Security Agency documents. Poitras was the one who realized Snowden was for real, and Gellman brought experience to the party. But Greenwald is the fighter—the one you want in your corner when the world comes after you. Snowden knew what he was in for, and he chose his cornerman well.
Greenwald’s pugilistic skills are on full display in his new book, No Place to Hide. My copy came with CONFIDENTIAL stamped on every page and a nondisclosure agreement that expires today. The prepublication insistence on secrecy seemed a little self-conscious given the topic. And in the end, it wasn’t newsy revelations that kept me reading. Greenwald provides great new details on his most dramatic recent story, including the growth in collection of all kinds of Internet data from major tech companies (up “32 percent in FY12”). But the Snowden leak has of course already produced blockbusters, from PRISM (for vacuuming up everything from search history to email content to live chats) to BOUNDLESS INFORMANT (for cataloging and mapping metadata from phone calls and emails) to whatever the acronym is for tapping Angela Merkel’s phone. Greenwald’s job in this book is to put the pieces together and tell the story of how it all came to light. And, most of all, to convince us to care.
A million jokesters have invited the NSA to listen in on their calls about feeding the cat or picking up the kids, noting that most Americans aren’t doing anything exciting enough to interest the government. You are missing the point if you’re in this camp, Greenwald urges:
Of course, dutiful, loyal supporters of the president and his polices, good citizens who do nothing to attract negative attention from the powerful, have no reason to fear the surveillance state. This is the case in every society: those who pose no challenge are rarely targeted by oppressive measures, and from their perspective, they can then convince themselves that oppression does not really exist. But the true measure of a society’s freedom is how it treats its dissidents and other marginalized groups, not how it treats good loyalists. ... We shouldn’t have to be faithful loyalists of the powerful to feel safe from state surveillance. Nor should the price of immunity be refraining from controversial or provocative dissent. We shouldn’t want a society where the message is conveyed that you will be left alone only if you mimic the accommodating behavior and conventional wisdom of a Washington establishment columnist.
Many writers would stop there, short of naming names. After all, if you want to be welcome in the home of the establishment (and most journalists wouldn’t mind being invited for the weekend at least), it’s better to attack a faceless Washington columnist than a cadre of real ones. But Greenwald skewers the media outlets and individual journalists who he believes proved his point about how “subservient to the government’s interests” the press can be. He thinks the New York Times has become a “mouthpiece for those in power.” And he singles out Bob Schieffer of Face the Nation, Walter Pincus of the Washington Post, Andrew Ross Sorkin of the New York Times, and Jeffrey Toobin of The New Yorker for wrong-footedly denouncing Snowden, Greenwald, or both as narcissists, plotters, or traitors. Some (genius) members of the press justified the idea of prosecuting Greenwald along with Snowden by insisting that he wasn’t a journalist at all. Beginning with the Times, in a profile that appeared soon after the first Snowden-driven stories, reporters and columnists labeled Greenwald a “blogger,” a “polemicist,” or an “activist” to more easily dismiss him. Never mind that Greenwald was publishing article after investigative article in the Guardian based on the biggest scoop in half a century. (He’s now working on a Pierre Omidyar-funded investigative journalism startup, and he promises in GQ this month that the biggest Snowden shoe is yet to drop.)