BY MARK GUARINO | THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE
File under irony: Earlier this month Politico reported that former National Security Agency chief Gen. Keith Alexander is launching a consulting firm to help corporations firm up their cybersecurity to protect them from surveillance or other outside threats. To those who have been following the story of whistleblower Edward Snowden and the millions of documents he leaked revealing the NSA’s mass surveillance programs on Americans and non-Americans alike, Alexander’s new post is a bit like former FEMA director Michael “Heckuva Job Brownie” Brown rebranding himself as a disaster relief expert post-Hurricane Katrina.
As journalist Glenn Greenwald reveals in “No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State,” Alexander was perceived even by his peers as a kind of Captain Ahab of digital surveillance, a head of the world’s largest intelligence agency whose motto was “collect it all.” Under his leadership, the agency’s mission expanded from military spying in Iraq to operating bulk retrieval, storage and search programs aimed at collecting every text message, online chat, web search, phone transmission and email we make. The numbers are profound: By 2012, the NSA netted about 20 trillion pieces of data from foreigners and Americans. Greenwald, using documents from the Snowden archive, revealed the complex programs the NSA has constructed to assemble, curate and search the data with the speed and efficiency of a university library archive.
This is work for which Greenwald and others earned a Pulitzer Prize for public service this year — and for good reason. Greenwald is one of three journalists who holed up with Snowden in a Hong Kong hotel in May 2013 when the ex-NSA contractor systematically doled out classified documents that launched an international debate on domestic surveillance and serious concerns that the American and British governments were overreaching.
But Greenwald also became the story once his work in the Guardian went live online. Lawmakers — and major media gatekeepers — assailed him for what they said was aiding America’s enemies and discredited him as an amateur, an advocate and anything but a journalist who should know better than to publish stories not vetted by government lawyers (who almost certainly would have slowed the process). The stink bombs blew smoke, but they ultimately failed to obscure the magnitude and importance of Snowden’s document archive, which described in detail how NSA programs tapped personal computers, Internet servers, underwater fiber-optic cables, and local and foreign telephone systems — enabled by partnerships with the world’s leading telecom providers.
This is the stuff of nightmares, but Greenwald goes further in arguing that the Fourth Estate’s cozy relationship with Washington is culpable in allowing this atrocious overreach to take root. President Barack Obama campaigned on the promise of a transparent presidency, but his administration’s actions have run counter to that promise: Greenwald notes that more whistleblowers have been prosecuted under his presidency than under all previous administrations combined.
The assertive, but conversational, tone to “No Place to Hide” rings with authority as he delivers his argument not just with reprints from the Snowden archive but through research. The book’s first third is dedicated to the cloak-and-dagger narrative of Greenwald’s initial contact with Snowden followed by an insider’s account of the Hong Kong interviews and the subsequent filing of his first stories. There’s not much pulse-pounding action other than the justified paranoia Greenwald and his cohorts exhibit in every step they make leading up to contact: They remove mobile phone batteries or toss the phones into the hotel minibar freezer.
Snowden emerges as a thoughtful, thorough and strangely calm then-29-year-old who walked away from a lucrative salary, girlfriend and Hawaii in favor of revealing, with high moral principle, information that inarguably has altered our perception of the surveillance state since 9/11. In those first days of contact, Greenwald notes how at peace his subject is with his actions: The documents are assembled impeccably for easy reference, and, despite the escalating tension, Snowden made a point of retiring at 10:30 p.m. to get enough sleep.
From there, Greenwald parses the many programs the NSA operates, each one scarier than the last. This is vital educational material for anyone interested in civil liberties; we witness a systematic effort designed to collect, store and search private information with exactitude. The programs have ominous names like PRISM (data culled from Internet providers), EGOTISTICAL GIRAFFE (meant to invade online browsing habits), MUSCULAR (unmasks privacy stopgaps in Google and Yahoo!) and, most distressingly, X-KEYSCORE, a search program for government analysts that gives them access to your digital fingerprint by simply typing in your email address or mobile number.
And yet, according to Greenwald, nothing yielded from this monumental effort has been linked to stopping terrorism. In fact, much of the Snowden archive shows the United States engaging in economic espionage and surveillance of its citizens simply because it can. One NSA PowerPoint slide is remarkable evidence of that claim: “Put Money, National Interest, and Ego together, and now you’re talking about shaping the world writ large. What country doesn’t want to make the world a better place … for itself?
In other words, power is the impetus behind these overreaches; that remains the same no matter which party takes office. If anything, this book is an antidote to the common public perception that government spooks are only interested in “bad” people. But then, consider that Martin Luther King Jr., Pete Seeger and organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have been the targets of government investigation. Dissent may be in the eye of the beholder, but here, the eye never blinks.