Book Review: “No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State” by Glenn Greenwald

by | Jun 13, 2014

Despite its shortcomings, Glenn Greenwald has written an important book about today's emergent totalitarianism in America.

When American whistleblower Edward Snowden decided to disclose classified documents detailing indiscriminate mass government surveillance of the American people, he turned to journalist Glenn Greenwald to provide the narrative and tell his story. After following meticulous, cryptic instructions and cooperating with another Snowden-designated intellectual, filmmaker Laura Poitras, and his newspaper The Guardian, Greenwald traveled to Hong Kong last May to meet the anonymous source who claimed to have evidence of the National Security Agency’s widespread, systematic spying on Americans (and global leaders). Greenwald’s No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State is his tale of those days in Hong Kong when he met with the hero who would be accused of being a traitor to what is best described as the U.S. surveillance state and the weeks that followed.

Greenwald is a leftist who has no problem using terms such as jingoistic, which set off alarm bells for the rest of us. He is pugnacious and, at times, sanctimonious. He oversimplifies issues and makes assertions that would have more credibility had he provided notes and an index [6/5/2014 update: he has since added an index to the iBooks version]. He doesn’t address legitimate concerns about U.S. national security with enough seriousness given the context of the worst act of war in U.S. history by Islamic terrorists operating through state sponsors, such as Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, which are cowardly and do not admit sponsorship as explicitly as they endorse and advance Islamic fundamentalism. Greenwald shows an inability to contrast his position with others, which results in a dry retelling of facts that undercuts a compelling narrative. No Place to Hide is uneven in this sense and would be more interesting if it contrasted various perspectives and addressed opposite viewpoints more thoroughly. There are too many infographics and screenshots of Snowden-leaked documents. For what amounts to a historic act of heroism against the rise of a U.S. dictatorship, the book lacks a proper exposition. Reading about metadata dumps is more urgent – and the issue is urgent – when the author examines and explains what the disclosures mean to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

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

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

Despite its shortcomings, Glenn Greenwald has written an important book about today’s emergent totalitarianism in America.

Beginning with a strong, involving narrative about coming to Hong Kong to stake his claim on earning the 29-year-old national security clearance-approved Snowden’s trust, Greenwald discloses his own background, perspective and position which illuminates why he was chosen by the young libertarian government worker who began to distrust the government. Greenwald is a fine writer and reporter in general, demonstrating both his knowledge of facts, history and relevant counterpoints and his ability to integrate what he knows with what matters. As he asks early in the 260-plus page book: “Will the digital age usher in the individual liberation and political freedoms that the Internet is uniquely capable of unleashing? Or will it bring about a system of omnipresent monitoring and control, beyond the dreams of even the greatest tyrants of the past? Right now, either path is possible. Our actions will determine where we end up.”

In this essential statement of the basic choice Americans face, Greenwald is 100 percent correct. Whatever one thinks of Snowden’s actions – traitorous, heroic or a mixture of the two – treating technology as a religion, as too many do, is a grave error and the world’s only nation based on individual rights, a status that no one can deny, is in danger of a total betrayal of its founding principles. To read and think about the author’s assertions and account of Edward Snowden, a high school dropout who has gained support from credible intellectuals such as Objectivist thinker Leonard Peikoff and columnist George Will, is to take facts and values – as well as one’s future – seriously.

Greenwald, who is also a lawyer, writes that, having unknowingly been the recipient of an anonymous e-mail from Snowden as “Cincinnatus” in Greenwald’s overwhelmed inbox, he eventually and favorably responded to the whistleblower’s propositions. He met with filmmaker Poitras, who confided at a Marriott hotel in Yonkers that she, too, had received anonymous e-mails from this unusual person. Greenwald says that he felt kinship with the source because he soon realized, after extensive back and forth exchange, that his new, prospective source “had been driven by the same conviction, writing almost on a daily basis about the dangerous trends in US state secrecy, radical executive power theories, detention and surveillance abuses, militarism, and the assault on civil liberties.”

Nevertheless, Greenwald admits that he wondered about the anonymous source’s motives. Greenwald writes that Snowden, not yet known to Greenwald as Snowden, responded via encrypted e-mail that “I want to spark a worldwide debate about privacy, Internet freedom, and the dangers of state surveillance.” Snowden added: “I’m not afraid of what will happen to me. I’ve accepted that my life will likely be over from my doing this. I’m at peace with that. I know it’s the right thing to do.” Greenwald reports that while he was inclined to take Snowden at his word, he reserved judgment until they met.

When they finally did, amid gripping, page-turning secrecy recounted in No Place to Hide, Greenwald was impressed. Meeting Snowden with Poitras in Hong Kong, accompanied by a reporter for the Guardian, getting two hours of sleep per night, was stimulating and nerve-wracking. Greenwald would learn between 2013 and the present that the North Carolina native was influenced by Greek mythology, Latin, the ideas of Thomas Jefferson – and playing games (“… Snowden had learned from immersion in video games … that just one person, even the most powerless, can confront great injustice.”)

All of this was in service of government document disclosures that Greenwald maintains he knew had the capacity to change the course of history.

“[T]he NSA was secretly and indiscriminately collecting the telephone records of tens of millions of Americans, at least. Virtually nobody had any idea that the Obama administration was doing any such thing. Now, with this ruling, I not only knew about it but had the secret court order as proof…Even more significant, the files—along with the Verizon document—proved that the Obama administration’s senior national security official, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, lied to Congress when, on March 12, 2013, he was asked by Senator Ron Wyden: ‘Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?’ Clapper’s reply was as succinct as it was dishonest: ‘No, sir.’

As Greenwald writes:

The president, who had campaigned on a vow to have the ‘most transparent administration in history,’ specifically pledging to protect whistleblowers, whom he hailed as ‘noble’ and ‘courageous,’ had done exactly the opposite…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. The Espionage Act was adopted during World War I to enable Woodrow Wilson to criminalize dissent against the war, and its sanctions are severe: they include life in prison and even the death penalty.”

Tracing media coverage since the first disclosures were reported in his Guardian articles and others in the Washington Post, which won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage, Greenwald chronicles the past 12 months, from early support for Snowden to the current mixtures of support and opposition amid nonstop smears and calls for arrest and trial from the government, the quasi-state-controlled media and academics. “Now, a giddy gallows humor crept into our dealings,” Greenwald writes. “I call the bottom bunk at Gitmo,” Snowden joked as he contemplated our prospects. As we talked about future articles, he would say things like, “That’s going into the indictment. The only question is whether it’s going into yours or mine.” Mostly he remained inconceivably calm.”

Though he asks the reader to take too much on faith, undermining his arguments, Greenwald makes a strong case for the truth of Snowden’s disclosures as proof that the United States is becoming an illegal, immoral police state. “The US government had worked very hard over the past decade to demonstrate unlimited power,” he rightly observes. “Taken in its entirety, the Snowden archive led to an ultimately simple conclusion: the US government had built a system that has as its goal the complete elimination of electronic privacy worldwide. Far from hyperbole, that is the literal, explicitly stated aim of the surveillance state: to collect, store, monitor, and analyze all electronic communication by all people around the globe. The agency is devoted to one overarching mission: to prevent the slightest piece of electronic communication from evading its systemic grasp.”

Laying out the document points, graphs and highlights in page after page, No Place to Hide demonstrates that the secret FISA courts designed to protect national security rarely reject NSA applications to target Americans with surveillance. From its inception, he argues, FISA has been a rubber stamp; in its first 24 years, FISA rejected a total of zero government applications while approving more than twenty thousand requests. Greenwald notes that Senator Dianne Feinstein and Congressman Mike Rogers amount to NSA lapdogs. The amount of data being collected and stored, according to Greenwald, is astonishing: “Once Internet-based communications were added to the mix, the total number of communication events stored was close to 1 trillion …”

With a huge, government center being constructed in Bluffdale, Utah, he cites a report that the state will add four 25,000-square-foot halls filled with servers, complete with raised floor space for cables and storage and more than 900,000 square feet for technical support and administration for collecting and examining actual content of emails, Web browsing, search histories, and chats. In fact, Greenwald writes, thanks to Edward Snowden, Americans know that the government is building a massive secret surveillance system backed by an agency that seeks global surveillance domination. He asks: what does limitless surveillance mean for us as individuals, in our own lives?

And he answers in shocking details that do not begin to examine what total government-monitored society means, advocating the apparently now-radical idea that “the desire for privacy is shared by us all as an essential, not ancillary, part of what it means to be human.”

He procceds: “We all instinctively understand that the private realm is where we can act, think, speak, write, experiment, and choose how to be, away from the judgmental eyes of others. Privacy is a core condition of being a free person.” Citing Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in the 1928 case Olmstead v. U.S., Greenwald frames man’s rights as the essence of laissez-faire: “The right to be left alone [is] the most comprehensive of rights, and the right most valued by a free people.”

200px-US_Department_of_Homeland_Security_Seal.svgGreenwald goes further than a peek at what Snowden’s leaks mean for America’s future, extending the surveillance state – predominantly the NSA, to say nothing of the TSA, the IRS, the VA and other alphabet government bureaucracies including of course the new monster ObamaCare – to daily life in a psychological reduction evoking George Orwell’s 1984 and other horrifying visions of dystopian future.

“What makes a surveillance system effective in controlling human behavior is the knowledge that one’s words and actions are susceptible to monitoring,” Greenwald writes. “This principle was at the heart of British philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s eighteenth-century conception of the Panopticon, a building design he believed would allow institutions to effectively control human behavior. The building’s structure was to be used, in his words, for “any sort of establishment, in which persons of any description are to be kept under inspection.”

The philosopher’s Panopticon solution, he says, is to create an apparent omnipresence of the inspector in the minds of the building’s inhabitants: “The persons to be inspected should always feel themselves as if under inspection, at least as standing a great chance of being so.” They would thus act as if they were always being watched, even if they weren’t being watched, Greenwald writes. The result is total compliance, obedience and conformity.

Greenwald argues that the surveillance state forces the entire population to silently submit to total government control.

As he notes, one U.S. senator told CBS’ Early Show in 2006: “I don’t have to listen to your phone calls to know what you’re doing. If I know every single phone call that you made, I am able to determine every single person you talked to. I can get a pattern about your life that is very, very intrusive.… And the real question here is: What do they do with this information that they collect that does not have anything to do with Al Qaeda?… And we’re going to trust the president and the vice president of the United States that they’re doing the right thing? Don’t count me in on that.”

The senator opposing metadata collection was Joe Biden, currently vice president in the most anti-American administration in history.

But conservatives should note that it was a left-wing Democrat, Idaho Sen. Frank Church in 1975, who warned against the dangers of mass surveillance, which was first imposed on the U.S. population in earnest by President George W. Bush after 9/11. Addressing the prospect of mass domestic spying in an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, Sen. Church predicted: “That capability at any time could be turned around on the American people and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything—telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide. If this government ever became a tyrant … the technological “capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance … is within the reach of the government to know.”

Speaking of the Islamic terrorist 9/11 attack, Greenwald dispels the notion that mass government spying works to stop acts of war, noting that, before September 11, the NSA already “had a warrant to establish surveillance of everyone connected to Al Qaeda in America. It could follow them, tap their phones, clone their computers, read their e-mails, and subpoena their medical, bank, and credit-card records. It had the right to demand records from telephone companies of any calls they had made. There was no need for a metadata-collection program. What was needed was cooperation with other federal agencies, but for reasons both petty and obscure those agencies chose to hide vital clues from the investigators most likely to avert the attacks.
The government was in possession of the necessary intelligence but had failed to understand or act on it.”

As I have previously observed, post-9/11 acts of war, whether mass murders at Fort Hood, Boston or Benghazi – Greenwald cites other attacks by Moslems – continue unabated in spite of mass data sweeps, including siege-specific warnings of plots against America.

The media, Greenwald writes, hastens the rise of fascism. And he cites an interesting exchange with his friend Andrew Sullivan who wrote privately to Greenwald that Sullivan’s interview with the New York Times (about Greenwald’s reporting on Snowden’s disclosures) was slanted by the Times with smear questions. Whether Greenwald is, in fact, a journalist, blogger or activist, a distinction with clear legal implications for Greenwald, is also addressed and explored. As a writer, journalist and activist – and, from H.L. Mencken to Glenn Greenwald, what chronicler of injustice is not at once all of those? – I found the section on the press fascinating and chilling.

snowden Greenwald argues that the media, especially Obama administration propagandists such as NBC’s David Gregory and Chuck Todd, provide in toadying shows such as Meet the Press “a place where political power goes to be amplified and flattered, where only the most staid conventional wisdom is heard, where only the narrowest range of views is permitted.” In a particularly repulsive quotation, he unmasks New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks for mocking Edward Snowden because Snowden is symbolic of “the rise of people who are so individualistic in their outlook that they have no real understanding of how to knit others together and look after the common good.”

Again, Greenwald goes deeper than merely compiling damaging evidence of weak opposition. Once he’s past the substance of Snowden’s disclosures, and with relative ease and powerful persuasion, he explains why the free press, i.e., freedom of speech, is crucial to daily life and he offers a thin, silver lining when he notes that, thanks to Snowden, the Committee to Protect Journalists, described as an international organization that monitors attacks on press freedoms by the state, issued its first-ever report denouncing the United States. The October 2013 report, written by Leonard Downie Jr., a past executive editor of the Washington Post, concluded that the Obama administration’s efforts to control information are “the most aggressive … since the Nixon administration.… The 30 experienced Washington journalists at a variety of news organizations … interviewed for this report could not remember any precedent.”

By examining divergent media coverage of his highly controversial source, smeared as a high school dropout, community college student and narcissist, Greenwald points out that Snowden is, to most intellectuals, part of a false dichotomy: obedience to the establishment or radical dissent from it. By this account, he argues, duty to the state is the only sane and valid choice and being a radical is crazy and illegitimate. Defenders of the status quo, such as David Brooks, Jeffrey Toobin and most of NBC News, reduce one’s radical opposition to the prevalent orthodoxy to mental deficiency. To the obedient, radical dissent is evidence, even proof, of deficiency.

“With that false premise in place,” Greenwald writes in his most astute argument, “society pays great attention to the motives of dissenters, but none to those who submit to our institutions…Obedience to authority is implicitly deemed the natural state. In fact, both observing and breaking the rules involve moral choices, and both courses of action reveal something important about the individual involved. Contrary to the accepted premise—that radical dissent demonstrates a personality disorder—the opposite could be true: in the face of severe injustice, a refusal to dissent is the sign of a character flaw or moral failure.”

Of course, this viewpoint applies to the smears against Greenwald, too, and he has suffered greatly – such as when his partner, David Miranda, was detained without cause by the British state – for refusing to obey the surveillance state. Every person who seeks to speak out against what he sees as tyranny – a blogger, podcaster, or citizen at a public hearing – should read and think about Edward Snowden and No Place to Hide. That Greenwald touches on, though he does not quite understand, the principle of objective journalism, is critical for anyone seeking to be his or her own advocate against government-controlled food, beverages, roads, schools, health care, cars, drugs, banks, industry and life. Maligned for coming at Snowden and his surveillance disclosures with certain principles, he argues, rightly, that “[t]he relevant distinction is not between journalists who have opinions and those who have none, a category that does not exist. It is between journalists who candidly reveal their opinions and those who conceal them, pretending they have none. The very idea that reporters should be free of opinions is far from some time-honored requirement of the profession; in fact, it is a relatively new concoction that has the effect, if not the intent, to neuter journalism.”

In today’s distorted Orwellian culture – which is sure to engulf everyone that speaks out against the Department of Water and Power or the Department of Motor Vehicles or the Department of Whatever the Government Dictates Tomorrow – objective “means nothing more than reflecting the biases and serving the interests of Washington orthodoxy.”

Tellingly, lest readers conclude that grievances against the NSA are Tea Party, black helicopter conspiracy nonsense, as defenders of the status quo and fascist enablers (usually one and the same) insinuate, Greenwald, who has since introducing Snowden bravely started his own journalistic enterprise, gives the reader a backgrounder on the New York Times‘ new executive editor, Dean Baquet, the one who pushed out Jill Abramson (and, according to Greenwald, she was only slightly better than the Times‘ new pro-statist czar):

Dean Baquet killed a story in 2006 by his reporters about a secret collaboration between AT&T and the NSA, based on information given by whistle-blower Mark Klein. He had come forward with reams of documents to reveal AT&T’s construction of a secret room in its San Francisco office, where the NSA was able to install splitters to divert telephone and Internet traffic from the telecom’s customers into agency repositories. As Klein put it, the documents showed that the NSA was ‘trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans.’ But Baquet blocked publication of the story, Klein recounted to ABC News in 2007, ‘at the request of then-Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte and then-director of the NSA Gen. Michael Hayden.’ Shortly thereafter, Baquet became Washington chief for the New York Times and was then promoted to the position of that paper’s managing editor. That the Times would advance so willing a servant of government interests should come as no surprise.”

So this is the new order of post-9/11 media: submission of the press to the state. It is, Greenwald writes, the opposite of what so-called liberals or progressives once claimed to have held as the goal of their highest ideals. As the author observes, shortly before he died in 2005, Vietnam War correspondent David Halberstam gave a speech to students at Columbia Journalism School. “The proudest moment of his career, he told them, was when U.S. generals in Vietnam threatened to demand that his editors at the New York Times remove him from covering the war. He had, Halberstam said, “enraged Washington and Saigon by filing pessimistic dispatches on the war.” The generals considered him “the enemy” since he had also interrupted their press conferences to accuse them of lying. For Halberstam, infuriating the government was a source of pride, the true purpose and calling of journalism.”

This shrinkage is what the New York Times, journalism, the press and the public has come – and been reduced – to: sycophants for fascism and all in a mere 40 years.

This is precisely what makes Edward Snowden a hero. As Greenwald, himself a hero in some sense despite his negatives, writes of the young American in his aptly titled No Place to Hide: “An ordinary person in all outward respects—raised by parents without particular wealth or power, lacking even a high school diploma, working as an obscure employee of a giant corporation—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 whistle-blowing, of activism, of political journalism. And that’s what is happening now, thanks to the revelations brought about by Edward Snowden.”

And thanks to the writer – and journalist and activist – who reported those disclosures.

Scott Holleran's writing has been published in the Los Angeles Times, Classic Chicago, and The Advocate. The cultural fellow with Arts for LA interviewed the man who saved Salman Rushdie about his act of heroism and wrote the award-winning “Roberto Clemente in Retrospect” for Pittsburgh Quarterly. Scott Holleran lives in Southern California. Read his fiction at and read his non-fiction at

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

Have a comment?

Post your response in our Capitalism Community on X.

Related articles

Missouri v. Biden: Free Speech in the Crossfire

Missouri v. Biden: Free Speech in the Crossfire

The case against the government here is that it cannot do through third parties such as social media platforms what it is forbidden from doing directly by virtue of the First Amendment. The case in question is popularly known as Missouri v. Biden, and there is much at stake with its results.

No spam. Unsubscribe anytime.

Pin It on Pinterest