Saturday, November 22, 2014

Glenn Greenwald's "No Place to Hide" is a shocking read; "Edward Snowden v. the NSA" is only part of the story of a challenge to journalists

Author: Glenn Greenwald

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

Publication:  2014, Metropolitan Books (Henry Holt), ISBN 978-1-62779-073-4, 259 pages, hardcover (available in paper, Kindle, author download, MP3, 259 pages, five chapters, Introduction and Epilogue

The notes and index seem to be available online only at Greenwald’s site, here  I have never seen this done with a conventionally published book before.  I have to say something for buying a hardcopy and reading it on the DC Metro or NYC subway.  Doing so will attract attention and conversation from other passengers, who wouldn’t notice what’s on a Kindle or iPad.

The riveting film “CitizenFour” (Radius TWC, directed by Laura Poitras) presents the Hong Kong meeting with Snowden and  is discussed on my Movies blog Oct. 27, 2014.  But I suspect this book will become a film in its own right. The Weinstein Brothers must be pondering the idea.  
So, let me get to my own review!

In fact, this book is a shocker.  I could almost call it “Do Ask, Do Tell IV” because it talks about many of the same kind of existential problems I covered in DADT III. Glennwald probes and reflects and argues with himself about things as if he were sitting on the Supreme Court.  His writing style, sentence structure, logic flow and world view seem a lot like mine.  I've noticed the same similarity with the work of two or three other men (artists) two generations younger than me. Lawyers notice these similarities among various people!  Cognitive identity seems to be genetic.
It’s not that I necessarily agree with everything Greenwald says.  In fact, he attracted the ire of gay conservative writer Andrew Sullivan, with whom I share a lot of common views.
As part of the background, it’s important note that Greenwald lives in Brazil because US law (not yet recognizing same-sex marriage at the federal level) prevents his marital partner David Miranda from getting a visa to live in the US (Wikipedia, link  ). Change in marriage law may be an easier legal battle for him than the consequences of his participation in Edward Snowden’s disclosures, although the exact status of the latter is likely to vary with time.
The most captivating parts of the work are the “bookends”.  In December 2012, Greenwald gets a mysterious email from “Cincinnatus” and is told that there are folks who will share a lot more with him if he will learn to use encryption, particularly for email.  That is difficult for those not proficient in shell script programming, and in fact Electronic Frontier Foundation has announced an initiative, called “Let’s Encrypt”, to make encryption (related to PGP) more usable by everyone by the end of 2015. 

Greenwald let this slide for a while, until he came into contact with documentary film-maker Laura Poitras.  That led to the encounter in Edward Snowden in the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong at the end of May 2013. In the film, noted above, Snowden takes over, and seems charismatic.  No one seems to have more integrity.

The details of the encounter, reported in the book, track to the film closely.  (“Ten Days in Hong Kong”, as a title, reminds me of the movie “Seven Days in May”.)  But what gets really interesting is the idea that Greenwald would have published Snowden’s contents himself if the Guardian didn’t meet his deadline.  (How he could enforce that, I’ll come back to.)  He was going to use a new domain name “”.  That domain name does exist now, and re-directs, here. The disclosures are in many pieces, including a program called PRISM, involving major US Internet and telecommunications companies, especially Verizon.  Part of the shocker is the way the government had compelled the cooperation of Silicon Valley.

It’ important to remember the illegality of some of the NSA’s activity: that is, spying on purely domestic activity without warrants, or with (under FISA) only very weak supervision. Richard Nixon had done the same with telephones a few decades before. 

The third chapter of the book (“Collect It All”) is well illustrated with black-and-white Visio-like diagrams of how NSA surveillance works.  I suspect that a future film will animate this material (and cost some $$$ to do).  “XKeyscore” gets particular attention. Also, the NSA seems to have a particular fixation with Facebook (as opposed to all other social media companies and formats), as if Mark Zuckerberg really rules the world and has sole contact with extraterrestrials (or were one himself).  The NSA will also, as a military DOD-authorized operation, hamper communication with a target, by hacking or DDOS.  The government will probably say that this would happen only to prevent a terrorist attack.  For example, the NSA, in this theory, might interfere with someone who had returned from Syria and ISIS radicalizing others at home.
The fourth chapter is “The Harm of Surveillance” and Greenwald argues convincingly that the expectation of surveillance tends to suppress dissent and compel social conformity.  That reminds me of the paranoia of my parents in the 1960s and 1970s, both about radicalism (whether related to Civil Rights or to anti-Vietnam protests) and then my homosexuality.  My parents would talk about “subversiveness”, as something that could lead enemies to counter-attack and expropriate from those of us who led more sheltered, suburban (and in the past, segregated) lives.  That matches concerns I developed in my young adulthood, that “anti-establishment” rhetoric on the far left was about more than opposition to government; it regarded upper middle class white people as “privileged” and as potential individual targets of revolution.  It’s happened in history (look at Bolshevism) and it could happen again.  In fact, the tendency of radical Islam to target civilians is a secondary perversion of this kind of thinking.  So, in my own experience, over decades of adult life, is that surveillance is a relative thing.  It can come from government, but it might come from real enemies, too.

Greenwald explains well why "metadata" gathering compromises individual lives.  In past generations (before attitudes toward sexual orientation improved), it could have outed people as homosexual. David Mixner, in his 1996 book "Stranger Among Friends", related a 1969 sting by the government against him with male partners apparently set up by Hoover-era wiretapping.  Greenwald also argues here that metadata and other sweeping surveillance, which can install a chilling effect on personal life choices, wasn't instrumental in stopping several terror attacks that might have happened, or in preventing what happened in Boston in 2013.  Plain old ground police work is what was needed.
I’ve written often, however, that the expectation of social conformity is enforced another way: by the common practice now of employers monitoring personal social media of associates.  This is far more significant in practice for most people than NSA surveillance.
The fifth chapter (misnumbered by one) is “The Fourth Estate”, and is perhaps the most challenging of all.  Greenwald examines the apparent contradictions within the journalism world about journalistic “objectivity”.  Greenwald seems to have left his former career as a litigation attorney to become an independent journalist.  After the Snowden leaks, some members of the “formal  press” did maintain that he was indeed not “one of them”, because, well, he didn’t report to a particular editor.  But he has real contacts, with entities like Salon and The Guardian, and his own businesses.  It seems that his “blogging” and “self-publishing” has always paid its own way (a major contrast with mine).  He has always been able to “sell” his work without conventional hucksterism. He doesn’t say who paid for all these last-minute intercontinental plane fares, hotels, and special hardware. Maybe The Guardian did so, but it looks like he makes enough from his journalism himself to pay for all this.  That puts him in the category of an independent film company or media producer, rather like Oprah Winfrey (that’s probably good company).  Whether he is an “activist” or “reporter” may indeed matter to whether he can face US charges, whether he can live here again or even could be extradited. 
It’s not clear exactly what the law does demand of “reporters” if someone dumps classified material into their laps.  It also is not totally clear if the law would treat me (an independent blogger who “subsidizes” his activity from other personal assets) the same as a formal member of the “press” (which I would love to become, maybe).  In fact, particularly in the years immediately following 9/11, people did share “tips” with me.  Several times, I passed these on to authorities (and at least one of these resulted in a 20-minute phone conversation with an FBI agent from Philadelphia).  In 2002, one file on an HTML file that would become a chapter in my second DADT book was hacked, and overlaid with information that looked like it had to do with relations between Russia and Finland.  The government has not seized it, but as a legal matter, would I “own” this if the hacked information was classified?  (That sounds more serious now, given how Putin is behaving.) Later in 2002, someone sent me a map of the sites of nuclear waste all over Russia.
I have been aware of the desirability of encryption for several years, but, like Greenwald, have not had time to learn it.  That may change in 2015, as I noted.  But supposed I had learned to use encryption before the end of 2012.  With my own catchy domain name and book series title (“do ask do tell”) might I have attracted the contact from “Cincinnatus” instead of Greenwald?  Again, the biggest “disadvantage” is that I cannot show commercial success with my publishing, but Greenwald can. Maybe it helps that he is 25 years younger.  Had I been contacted, would I have dismissed it as spam?  (There were “spammy” emails warning of 9/11 Labor Day weekend of 2001; I got one of them.)  Would I have paid my own way to Hong Kong?  (I could afford it, but only because of estate money, not business operations).  Could the NSA leak have wound up on my own “” site?  Would my ISP have objected?  Does this violate “acceptable use policy”?  Again, it seems murky where journalists and bloggers have some responsibility to protect information they didn’t get legally. 

Greenwald is right that “journalistic objectivity” is a bit of a myth.  Anderson Cooper is always chiding guests on their “moral compass”.  Some of them do seem in cahoots with the “neo-liberal” establishment, and some (like Fox and The Washington Times) with conservatives.  They do tend to be partisan.

It’s worthy of note to remember that in the 1990s, a reporter for a Tacoma, WA newspaper was transferred to copy-editing for public activism for lesbian causes, and the courts agreed with the “reporter objectivity theory”.  That was then.

Even if Greenwald is right, I find myself resisting being asked to join and pimp “other people’s causes”, and people will say that I am too “stuck up” to carry a picket sign.  This can get dangerous. No, I won’t nominate someone for the “Ice Bucket Challenge”. Reason: Objectivity! I will report on things like homelessness, but keep some comfortable personal distance from it.  I might not get away with that forever, unless I become part of the “legitimate Fourth Estate”.

The final episode in the book considers the detention of Greenwald’s gay marriage partner David Miranda when he was transiting a London airport.  It’s important to note that, early in the story, the government seems to have delayed a shipment of encryption firmware to Greenwald’s home; then David’s laptop was stolen.  Greenwald talks about the idea that the government could try to destroy all of someone’s media (including thumb drives and cloud copies). 

Note that in the video embedded above, Greenwald talks with Noam Chomsky.  

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