No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State

By Munger, Michael | Independent Review, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State


Munger, Michael, Independent Review


No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State

By Glenn Greenwald

New York: Metropolitan Books, 2014.

Pp. v, 260. $27 hardcover.

Edward Snowden might claim to be a patriot because he tried to restore integrity to U.S. intelligence. What he actually did was reveal how tar state-sponsored surveillance has metastasized beyond its sole legitimate mission: to protect U.S. citizens from external threats.

Of course, the problem with acts of terrorism is that prosecuting perpetrators after the fact concedes the initiative. Thinking that someone might commit a crime is not probable cause. Actual intent and specific steps leading toward acting on that intent are necessary for an arrest to be justified.

But how can surveillance officials know about intent and acts unless they are looking? Worse, if terrorists are willing to commit suicide in the act of killing American citizens, then the threat of ex post sanctions is no deterrent in the first place. The only way to fight terrorism is to prevent acts of murder and destruction before they happen.

That would require an elaborate system of gathering information and projection of likely threats. Government officials, like the police in the Tom Cruise movie Minority Report (Steven Spielberg, 2002), are put in the position of predicting crimes and then arresting the nonperpetrators before the fact. In one exchange, the police force's "predictor in chief" and the Tom Cruise character, Danny Witwer, debate the system:

JOHN ANDERTON: Why don't you cut the cute act, Danny boy, and tell me exactly what it is you're looking for?

DANNY WITWER: Flaws.

JOHN ANDERTON: There were no successful acts of terrorism on American soil for nearly twelve years after 9/11. There's nothing wrong with the system; it is perfect.

DANNY WITWER [simultaneously]: ... perfect. I agree. But if there's a flaw, it's human. It always is.

Now, yes, I edited that. I changed "murder in 6 years" to "successful acts of terrorism on American soil for nearly twelve years after 9/11." But the analogy is apt: aggressive ex ante surveillance and enforcement is being justified in the United States based precisely on the absence of crimes. It's like the old joke about elephants: "Elephants hide in trees." "No way! I've never seen one." "See how well they hide?"

When asked in an online forum about his justification for blowing the whistle, Snowden said, "There can be no faith in government if our highest offices are excused from scrutiny--they should be setting the example of transparency" ("Edward Snowden: NSA Whistleblower Answers Reader Questions," Guardian, June 17, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/17/edward-snowdennsa-files-whistleblower).

On May 20, 2013 (Was it really less than two years ago?), Snowden flew to Hong Kong. Over the next three weeks, he met with several journalists and arranged to transfer a variety of materials (written notes, databases, and videos) to several news outlets. Most of what appeared in traditional "news" format was published by the British newspaper the Guardian, but a blizzard of information, much of it in dispersed and hard-to-understand form, was strewn across various sites on the Internet.

One of the journalists who met first with Snowden in Hong Kong was Glenn Greenwald. His book No Place to Hide shows its virtues as its central flaws. Or perhaps its flaws are its virtues. The book is in part a narrative, first-person history of the events leading up to the disclosure of a massive amount of intelligence material and in part an attempt at objective assessment of the impact and ethics of that disclosure.

The story of the "contact," where Snowden first reached out to a few journalists, is terrific, an exciting minispy story all in and of itself. Who, after all, would believe this absurd yarn? The first attempts at connection were cloaked in secrecy and paranoia and alleged an overreach so broad and so extensive that it simply had to be a hoax. …

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