One Year Later: Still, No Place to Hide
There’s no denying that Edward Snowden’s actions have changed the political landscape surrounding the surveillance state.
Unfortunately, at this very moment, the national security statists are preparing to toast each other in victory for having overcome overwhelming odds and beat back the push for citizens to take their privacy back.
I’m referring of course to the House’s gutting, and subsequent passage, of the so-called USA FREEDOM Act, H.R. 3361, or the “USA FREEDUMB Act” as Marcy Wheeler has dubbed it (and warned the Senate will likely make it the “USA FREEDUMBEST Act”).
But that just makes it all the more important for Americans to be informing themselves to the threats posed by the surveillance state. It’s vital Americans are informed about the details of the information Snowden provided the American public about how our government is conducting sweeping surveillance on our daily lives.
Once you’re armed with the information, then you can pass it on to your friends, family, neighbors, and hold your politicians accountable if they continue to approve of the surveillance state operations.
Which is why, on this first anniversary of the Snowden leaks, I’m happy to review Glenn Greenwald’s new book, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the Surveillance State.
The introduction and first two chapters were absolutely gripping. It reads almost like some international spy novel, and you really get a sense of how high the tension must have been for Greenwald, and documentary film maker Laura Poitras, as they traveled to Hong Kong to meet an anonymous source who held some of the most secret documents in the world, straight out of the National Security Agency.
Why Hong Kong? Who was this mysterious contact? What did he hope to accomplish from handing over top secret documents to reporters?
Greenwald answers all this and more in those first few chapters. Of course, a week after the first story, the world found out who the mysterious contact was, 29-year-old Edward Snowden, working then as a contractor for Booz Allen Hamilton, one of the largest defense and intelligence contractors in the nation.
But that wasn’t all to Edward Snowden’s story. As you learn in the book, Snowden was more than just some low-level analyst. He worked for the CIA under diplomatic cover, the Defense Intelligence Agency under corporate cover, and the NSA under corporate cover.
Chapter three is where Greenwald really delves into the heart of the story, going through program by program, complete with slides, internal memos, descriptions, and emails bragging of the success of various programs and codenames that now feel so familiar, but were once top secret, like PRISM, BOUNDLESS INFORMANT, and X-KEYSCORE.
One particular slide that Greenwald referenced in the recent Munk Debates describes the NSA’s official collection posture as recent as 2011:
Sniff it all; Know it all; Collect it all; Process it all; Exploit it all; and Partner it all
In the NSA’s drive to do this, Snowden began to recognize the architecture being established was creating a very dangerous situation for the privacy of American citizens. It was in effect, creating a system for turnkey tyranny, wherein at some point, the switch could be flipped and the civil liberties Americans treasure, that sets them apart from authoritarian governments around the world, would be gone forever.
Chapter four describes the threats Americans face at the hands of the surveillance state. Greenwald writes,
While the government, via surveillance, knows more and more about what its citizens are doing, its citizens know less and less about what their government is doing, shielded as it is by a wall of secrecy.
In a healthy democracy, the opposite is true…. The presumption is that, with rare exception, [citizens] will know everything their political officials are doing, which is why they are called public servants, working in the public sector, in public service, for public agencies. Conversely, the presumption is that the government, with rare exception, will not know anything that law-abiding citizens are doing. That is why we are called private individuals, functioning in our private capacity. Transparency is for those who carry out public duties and exercise public power. Privacy is for everyone else.
In Chapter five, Greenwald takes the establishment media to task for being subservient to their government masters. “Objectivity,” Greenwald writes, “means nothing more than reflecting the biases and serving the interests of entrenched Washington.” There were journalists, like David Gregory, who publicly mused over whether or not Greenwald should be prosecuted for “aiding and abetting” Snowden.
Politicians like Peter King went on national television calling for the prosecution of Greenwald and repeatedly labeled Snowden a “traitor,” all the while remaining unchallenged by much of the mainstream press. Assertions that Snowden was a Chinese or Russian spy were freely bantered about without any evidence. Perhaps hoping to prove true the claim by Joseph Goebbels, ““If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
In the Epilogue, Greenwald writes,
In the very first online conversation I had with Edward Snowden, he told me he had only one fear about coming forward: that his revelations might be greeted with apathy and indifference, which would mean he unraveled his life and risked imprisonment for nothing. To say that this fear has gone unrealized is to dramatically understate the case.
I suppose I can understand Greenwald’s enthusiasm while writing this. After all, the case he cites to prove how much things have changed was the Amash-Conyers amendment that would have defunded the NSA’s domestic surveillance program — which came within a mere 12 votes of passing. A true cross-party coalition of 111 Democrats joined with 94 Republicans to defang the NSA — the strongest of any bipartisan coalition voting to restore civil liberties, at least since 9/11.
And he’s right, that would certainly not have been possible without Snowden’s whistleblowing.
Quite simply, [Snowden] has reminded everyone about the extraordinary ability of any human being to change the world. An ordinary person in all outward respects…he has, through a single act of conscience, literally altered the course of history.
Even the most committed activists are often tempted to succumb to defeatism. The prevailing institutions seem too powerful to challenge; orthodoxies feel too entrenched to uproot; there are always many parties with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. But it is human beings collectively, not a small number of elites working in secret, who can decide what kind of world we want to live in. Promoting the human capacity to reason and make decisions: that is the purpose of whistleblowing, of activism, of political journalism. And that’s what is happening now, thanks to the revelations brought about by Edward Snowden.
For someone like myself who closely tracked this story from the beginning, eagerly reading every story, pouring over every published document, the introduction and first two chapters provide a sort-of, “behind-the-scenes” explanation of what led to the first published story, a year ago today, about the FISA Court order requiring Verizon to turn over metadata to the NSA on all their customers.
It helps to give some explanation as to why Snowden did what he did. As Greenwald points out, Snowden was very aware of the repercussions of his actions. He had watched as President Obama aggressively waged his war on whistleblowers, as Greenwald writes,
Obama’s administration has prosecuted more government leakers under the Espionage Act of 1917 – a total of seven – than all previous administrations in US history combined: in fact, more than double that total.
Greenwald then noted of Snowden,
He did not want to go to prison, he said. “I’m going to try not to. But if that’s the outcome from all of this, and I know there’s a huge chance that it will be, I decided a while ago that I can live with whatever they do to me. The only thing I can’t live with is knowing I did nothing.” [emphasis mine]
As someone who’s worked for Ron Paul the past five years, that last sentence struck me for its familiarity. In a floor speech titled, “On Patriotism,” or “Who Are the Patriots?” in May 2007, Ron Paul said,
Before… all Americans become so suppressed we can no longer resist, much has to be done. Time is short, but our course of action should be clear. Resistance to illegal and unconstitutional usurpation of our rights is required. Each of us must choose which course of action we should take: education, conventional political action, or even peaceful civil disobedience to bring about necessary changes.
But let it not be said that we did nothing. Let not those who love the power of the welfare/warfare state label the dissenters of authoritarianism as unpatriotic or uncaring. Patriotism is more closely linked to dissent than it is to conformity and a blind desire for safety and security.
It certainly can’t be said of Snowden that he did nothing. What about you?