Book review: ‘No place to hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance state’

What the 1% will do to defend their class interests

This powerful, gripping and incisive book was first published on 13 May 2014. Glenn Greenwald and, of course, his star whistle-blower, Edward Snowden, have done a tremendous service in revealing the unimaginable scale of surveillance and repression being perpetrated in the USA, Britain and other countries. My regret is not reading this work when it was first published.

Greenwald sets out two stalls in his five chapter book. The first three chapters, Contact; Ten Days in Hong Kong and Collect it all; largely detail the drama that unfolded between himself and the release of Snowden’s revelations. In the final two chapters, The harm of surveillance and The Fourth Estate, he challenges and debunks the myth that surveillance should only be of concern to those acting in the wrong and he fully exposes the role of the corporate media in protecting the interests of the surveillance state and its rich and powerful backers.

The sheer scale of the amount of information being collected on the world’s population by the NSA and its collaborating security services in other countries revealed by the Snowden leaks is staggering. NSA collects data from billions of emails and phone conversations each day. A branch of the NSA, Global Access Operations, in a one month period collected data on three billion calls and emails. In thirty days, 500 million phone calls and emails were collected day in Germany, 2.3 billion in Brazil and 13.5 billion in India.

In fact, so much information is collected it is impossible for the security services to use it all. GCHQ complains they have not enough storage space to house what they have intercepted. Even the NSA complained that it “collects far more content than is routinely useful to analysts”.

Drama and excitement

Life is richer than fiction: the real life events that unfolded between Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald and publication of these revelations have all the drama and excitement of the best international master spy novel.

Greenwald is honest throughout, expressing his own initial doubt or hesitation about Snowden’s authenticity when he first made contact with him. Indeed it appears the whole exposure was almost missed by Greenwald’s failure or delay in responding to who he later found out was Edward Snowden. The documentary film maker, Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwalds Brazilian partner, David Miranda, played a central part in assisting Greenwald to follow up the epic story.

However, travelling from Brazil to New York to secure the Guardian’s collaboration in the story, and then onto Hong Kong the following day, was a measure of how determined Greenwald was eventually to become to reveal Snowden’s exposures, although, at that stage, he still had not met him.

Greenwald was first contacted by Snowden on 1 December 2012, using the pseudonym ’Cincinnatus’, who was a 5th century Roman farmer who became dictator of Rome to defend it against assault and returned to the life of a simple farmer once the threat was ended. Snowden made clear to Greenwald he wanted no gain or publicity from his actions and “did not want the story to be about him”. His intention was to release the information he has access to, admit who he was early on, and then withdraw into the back ground. He wanted to “spark a worldwide debate on privacy, internet freedom and the dangers of state surveillance”.

Snowden’s fear, he stressed time and again, was not what the consequences of his actions would be for himself. It was that “people would see the documents and shrug” saying they “don’t care”.

Snowden’s political evolution

Aside from the details of state surveillance, one of the most illuminating pieces of the book reveals the motives of Snowden and his political evolution. It speaks volumes about the effects that modern day capitalism is having in shaping the outlook of even those sections of the middle class who are in the employ of the system – in Snowden’s case the state machine – the CIA and NSA.

Snowden concluded: “We suffer a government that only grudgingly allows limited oversight, and refuses accountability when crimes are committed. When marginalised youth commit minor infractions, we as a society turn a blind eye as they suffer insufferable consequences in the world’s largest prison system, yet when the richest and most powerful telecommunications providers in the country knowingly commit tens of million felonies, Congress passes our nation’s first law providing their elite friends with full retroactive immunity – civil and criminal – for crimes that would have merited the longest sentences in history…”

The 29-year old Snowden emerges in the interviews as a highly intelligent and honest individual who is motivated by a very strong sense of what is just. He was driven to act – in a heroic manner, at great risk to himself – by what he believed to be just and right.

As a result of his experiences and observations, Snowden reached important conclusions. Like many Americans, 9/11 drove him initially in a more “patriotic” direction. In 2004 he joined the US army and saw the Iraq war as a “noble” objective to remove a dictator. However, during training he heard more talk of killing Arabs than removing a dictator. It disillusioned him and he was discharged after breaking both legs in training.

However, he believed in the “Goodness of US government”. By 2005 he became a technical expert with the CIA and was fully employed by them in 2006. Through this he gained more and more access to secret files. He watched drone surveillance of people they might then kill. He watched the NSA tracking the internet as people typed. What he saw repelled him. “I began to understand that what my government really does in the world is very different from what I’d always been taught…. as a result you re-evaluate how you look at things”.

Initially he had high expectations that the election of Obama would see things change especially on the issue of state surveillance. However, these hopes were dashed and he drew more radical conclusions. “Then it became clear Obama was not just continuing, but in many cases expanding these abuses. I realised I couldn’t wait for a leader to fix these things. Leadership is about acting first and being seen as an example for others, not waiting for others to act.

Greenwald quotes Snowden’s powerful statement; “the true measurement of a person isn’t what they say they believe in, but what they do in defence of those beliefs…..I don’t want to be a person who remains afraid to act in defence of my principles”.


Snowden then revealed himself as a whistle-blower, risked his long term personal relationship, (with a partner who was unaware of his action in order to protect her), gave up a US$200,000 pa salary and secure living in Hawaii and faced the threat of imprisonment or worse in “defence of his principles”.

Snowden did this fully aware of the personal consequences. “I am not afraid of what will happen to me. I’ve accepted that my life will likely be over from my doing this. I am at peace with that. I know it’s the right thing to do”.

Greenwald later drives home the reality of the Obama administration which led to massive disillusionment, and, in turn, to a large part of US society looking to the left and to socialist ideas, which was reflected in the election of socialist Kshama Sawant to Seattle city council in 2014. Glenn Greenwald recently called for Kshama Sawant to be- re-elected.

Obama, as Greenwald explains, used the Espionage Act 1917 (which was introduced to round up opponents of World War One) to prosecute more government whistle-blowers than any other US administration! Obama used a Presidential directive to prepare offensive cyberspace operations.

One of the repressive pieces of legislation used by successive US administrations has been the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) introduced in 1978. This establishes a secret court which makes secret rulings on government actions and interventions. It was this Orwellian regime which finally allowed Verizon Business to hand over to the NSA the phone records of tens of millions of US citizens with records of their domestic and international calls.

Greenwald outlines how he had to confront state harassment and repression during his work with Snowden. Laptops which mysteriously disappeared from his home in Rio; encryption equipment sent to him by from abroad by Fed Ex held for “reasons unknown” at border controls are all part this real life intelligence drama.

The vast international web of the surveillance state and inter-state collaboration with other states security services, like the GCHQ listening station in Gloucestershire England, is revealed. In particular, the role of “Five Eyes” collaboration between the governments of Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the USA is exposed.

“Anti-terrorist” legislation

The use of “anti-terrorist” legislation against legitimate protesters and others is also clearly revealed. The arrest of Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, at London’s Heathrow airport is an illustration of how such legislation can be used. Miranda was arrested using anti-terrorist legislation which it classifies as an action “designed to influence a government and is made for the purposes of promoting a political or ideological cause. This falls within the definition of terrorism” Thus it can cover any political or ideological opponents of a government.

The book also debunks many of the arguments used to defend state surveillance. Greenwald quotes Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google: “If you have something you don’t want people to know about, may be you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” Greenwald humorously makes the point that those who have defended such ideas are also amongst those taking the most extreme steps to defend their own privacy. He cites Mark Zuckerberg, who boasted of an end to the era of privacy in Facebook. Yet Zuckerberg spent US$30 million purchasing not one but four houses in Palo Alto, to safeguard his ‘privacy’. The book holds many arguments and examples of how the fear of surveillance can also be used as a weapon to intimidate people from expressing their opinions or joining protests.

It is all part of the “elites fortifying their power”, as Greenwald puts it, in the face of growing opposition and protest following the economic crisis and greater turmoil which exists internationally.

Greenwald is scathing about the role of the pro-establishment media outlets and house trained journalists. He denounces what he refers to as “middle-of-the-road-ese” which always gives great weight and emphasis to “official claims”. Middle-of-road-ese includes The New York Times and Washington Post never speaking about US methods of torture in Iraq but only referring to “interrogation” techniques. Greenwald even expresses some reservation about his confidence in the British Guardian newspaper, which carried his exposure. Although appreciative of the final decision by the Guardian to publish, their delays and hesitations at one point led Greenwald to prepare to publish independently if the Guardian did not do so by a given dead line.

Greenwald also spells out the conscious attempts to discredit whistle blowers or journalist like himself. It is a conscious policy to sow doubt and demonise those involved and to detract from their exposures. This was done to both Snowden and Greenwald. Greenwald was branded a “loner” who “can’t keep friends for long”. He was referred to as a “blogger” or “activist” to attempt to downgrade the significance of what he has revealed. Some even demanded his imprisonment should he return to the USA, something which he eventually did undertake. Snowden was dismissed as “unstable”.

The fourth estate

The significance of this book in what it reveals about the nature of the surveillance state, the fourth estate (mass media) and the ruling elite should not be under-estimated. The significance of what Edward Snowden has done, and the risks he has taken to do it, is extremely revealing. Maybe all of the conclusions have not been drawn about how a mass movement can be built to combat heightened surveillance and repression and the elite it is aimed at protecting. However, the publication of this book and Snowden’s revelations are a tremendous assistance to those working to build such a movement. Do not miss the opportunity to read it, to help understand what the defenders of the 1% are doing to try to defend their interests. It is also a testimony to the determination and courage of people like Edward Snowden to expose what they rightly think is wrong.

’No place to hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the U.S Surveillance state’, By Glenn Greenwald, published by Metropolitan Books

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April 2015