Book Review: No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State (2014) by Glenn Greenwald
Thoughts on Snowden
No Place to Hide is a strange concoction: part exposé, part autobiography, and part screed “against the man.” It is not what I would call an example of rigorous journalistic reporting. It is more like storytelling with commentary. The story part includes the details of when and where Edward Snowden stole a treasure trove of classified U.S. government documents regarding warrantless mass surveillance of U.S. citizens and released them to a select few journalists. It also includes the details of how the author, Glen Greenwald, corralled the story and how that has affected his life.
The commentary part includes what Greenwald feels about the impact of Snowden’s released documents. He discusses how the documents show just how deep the rabbit hole goes in terms of mass surveillance against U.S. citizens, U.S. allies, and potential enemies. He argues that Snowden is really a hero and not a traitor and highlights how the government’s response to the debate is to attack the messenger and not the issues.
Governments have a lot of opportunities to present their side to this debate. Greenwald is one voice on the other side that has grabbed center stage because of his relationship with Edward Snowden. Because of that, we should pay attention to what he has to say. Despite the less-than-stellar journalistic rigor, No Place to Hide is a cyber security canon candidate, and you should have read it by now.
Glenn Greenwald and other journalists began releasing a seemingly endless supply of classified U.S. government documents to the public in summer 2013. Those documents describe just how deep the rabbit hole goes in terms of U.S. government surveillance of its own citizens and allies and in terms of potential threats to the U.S. government. Ever since, politicians, military leaders, and talk show pundits alike have attempted to characterize Edward Snowden—the man who stole the documents from the NSA and released them to the journalists—in an unfavorable light. They say he is a traitor. They say he is a coward. They say he is a spy. They say he is a hacker. They say he was just a low-level analyst with no understanding of the impact of what he did. They say he was an insider threat. But all of these characterizations, whether they turn out to be true or not, divert the conversation away from the main issue. None of these accusations address the most pressing question that we all, as American citizens, should be asking ourselves: Should the U.S. intelligence community be allowed to spy on U.S. citizens without the benefit of a warrant and without the benefit of a checks-and-balances system managed by a trusted third party? Glenn Greenwald does not think so and wrote No Place to Hide to make the case.
The book is a strange concoction: part expose, part autobiography, and part screed “against the man.” Greenwald tries to accomplish many tasks here, and I think because of that, the important messages within it are not as clear as they should be. He tries to set the record straight on the mechanics of how Snowden was able to position himself with two U.S. government contractors—Dell and Booze Allen Hamilton—and as an employee of the NSA and the CIA in order to steal secrets that exposed the U.S. government’s surveillance programs on U.S. citizens. But Greenwald does not provide enough detail to make sense of the story. Readers must seek other sources to fill in the gaps.
He attempts to make the case that government-sponsored, unwarranted, and secret searches of American citizens is a trespass on the U.S. Constitution and America’s notions on privacy rights, but his argument is fuzzy. Everything Greenwald says is absolutely true, but the way he says it is not convincing. If you want a concise and elegant explanation why this is an issue that everyone should be concerned about, not just U.S. citizens but all citizens from around the world, watch Stephen Fry’s short video on the subject.
He also launches an attack on the Fourth Estate, claiming that journalism has completely failed in its presumed adversarial role against the government and has not monitored and checked abuse of state power. He loses his credibility because instead of writing about the story, he is writing about himself in the story. It comes across as whiny.
And I am disappointed. I was hoping for the same gladiatorial panache that Greenwald displayed in the “Munk Debate on State Surveillance” in May  in which he peppered former NSA Director Michael Hayden with questions, but this panache was absent in No Place to Hide.
That said, this is an important book. Without Greenwald putting constant pressure on the American political establishment in order to challenge the need for such invasive programs, we would not be talking about it now a full year after the initial revelation in the Guardian newspaper in June 2013. And I believe we all must continue to talk about it. Just because No Place to Hide is not as clear as it could or should be does not mean that it does not have value.
This debate about how intrusive the U.S. intelligence community can be on American citizens, on American allies, and on potential American threats and about what the American political leadership decides to do about it will impact the character of the country forever. We have to get this right.
In order to understand the significance of the situation, we have to start with the Founding Fathers. According to Greenwald, they passed the Fourth Amendment because of their experience with the British before and during the American Revolution. The Founders agreed that it was acceptable for a government to search individual citizens if it had probable cause of wrongdoing and produced a warrant approved by a judge attesting to the fact, but they viewed the practice of a government using a general warrant to make the entire citizenry subject to indiscriminate searches as inherently unacceptable. The language in the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is simple, elegant and clear. It is part of our Bill of Rights, and we fought a revolution to get it:
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
According to Greenwald,
“It was intended, above all, to abolish forever in America the power of the government to subject its citizens to generalized, suspicionless surveillance.”
Greenwald quotes U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, in the seminal 1890 Harvard Law Review article “The Right to Privacy,” to make his point:
“[R]obbing someone of their privacy was a crime of a deeply different nature than the theft of a material belonging.”
After 9/11, Americans were afraid and rightfully so. More than 3,200 citizens died in a scant two hours due to the results of a well-executed, surprise, terrorist attack the likes of which had never been seen before on American soil.
The US’s reaction was immediate. Not even a month later, President Bush signed a Presidential Directive called the Presidential Surveillance Program that granted an unprecedented amount of surveillance powers to the NSA, in pursuit of terrorist activities, that allowed bulk collection of metadata from U.S. citizens. Shortly after, the U.S. Congress passed the Patriot Act that essentially made President Bush’s Directive the law of the land. Section 215 of this act was the first legislation that authorized metadata collection. The Patriot Act also authorized the FBI to compel Internet service providers, credit card companies, and phone companies via a national security letter (NSL) to provide information relevant to a counterterrorism or counterintelligence investigation. They could also impose gag orders to prohibit NSL recipients from disclosing that they received the NSL. This change eliminated the former law enforcement restriction of collecting intelligence on only a foreign power without a warrant.
According to Greenwald,
“What made the Patriot Act so controversial when it was enacted in the wake of the 9/11 attack was that Section 215 lowered the standard the government needed to meet in order to obtain “business records,” from “probable cause” to “relevance.” This meant that the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in order to obtain highly sensitive and invasive documents—such as medical histories, banking transactions, or phone records—needed to demonstrate only that those documents were “relevant” to a pending investigation.”
In the mid-1970s, America clamped down on the intelligence community after scandals regarding CIA assassination plots and other abuses emerged in the public. As these things normally do over time though, the Patriot Act caused the pendulum to swing in the opposite direction in regard to how much leeway America wanted to give its intelligence community. We had taken almost all of the safeguards off of the intelligence community and told them to never let another 9/11 happen again.
What We Learned from the Leaks
According to Greenwald,
“Snowden’s files indisputably laid bare a complex web of surveillance aimed at Americans (who are explicitly beyond the NSA’s mission) and non-Americans alike. …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.”
I think the biggest revelation about the Snowden leaks was not that the NSA was spying on U.S. Citizens, although that was a big one, but that our assumed liberal minded Internet start-ups were in on the deception.  According to classified documents that Snowden stole, the NSA had deals with most of our favorite Internet companies to collect information directly from their servers pertaining to U.S. citizens, companies like the following:
- Apple Inc.
- AOL Inc.
- Google Inc.
- Microsoft Corp.
- Yahoo! Inc.
According to the documents, Microsoft vigorously cooperated with the NSA to allow access to several of its most-used online services: SkyDrive, Skype, and Outlook.com. Facebook and Google claim that they gave data only when the NSA presented a warrant. On the other hand, it is public record that Yahoo! fought the NSA in court against participating, but the company lost the case. Twitter declined to make it easier for the government to access Twitter data.
The next biggest revelation was that the NSA indiscriminately collects millions of phone records every day from Verizon without a warrant and from both within the United States and from other countries.  This is the so-called metadata collection process that has been in the news from the start.
One revelation that the Fourth Estate has not talked about much is that President Obama signed a Presidential Directive in November 2012 authorizing the Pentagon to start planning for aggressive cyber attacks. He directed the military to draw-up potential overseas cyber targets.
The biggest hypocritical revelation came from the documents that showed that the NSA is involved in economic espionage. The NSA targeted the Brazilian oil giant Petrobras, as well as other companies from Venezuela, Mexico, Canada, Norway, and Sweden for economic purposes, not terrorism. In light of the recent U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) indictments against five military Chinese hackers for conducting cyber economic espionage against the US, this seems to be a little two-faced.
The Pro-surveillance Response: Discredit the Messenger
One thing that comes out loud and clear in this book is that Greenwald is acutely aware of the way the pro-surveillance side attempts to redirect the attention from the issue at hand. Instead of debating the merits of the American intelligence community spying on its own citizens, it first wants to flog Edward Snowden for breaking the law. It wants to criticize Greenwald for not being a great journalist. It accuses Snowden of running off to Taiwan and then to Russia to avoid incarceration as if that motive somehow weakens the revelation that the NSA collects all electronic communication, or at least as much as possible, from within the United States without a warrant. The pro-surveillance side says that if Snowden’s whistleblower attentions were so honorable, he would come back to the states to face the authorities. None of that matters, or if it did, it is at least secondary and causes confusion within the citizenry when we debate the topic: Should we sacrifice the tenants of the Fourth Amendment for the sake of a little more security?
The Pro-surveillance Response: If You Have Nothing to Hide, Then You Have Nothing to Worry about
Personally, I hate this argument. It is another misdirection by the pro-surveillance side and does not address the issue. What the pro-surveillance side wants you to think is that if you are a law-abiding citizen, then the only people who will be negatively impacted by mass surveillance are the criminals and the terrorists and all the rest of the bad people. According to Greenwald,
“Governments have long convinced populations to turn a blind eye to oppressive conduct by leading citizens to believe, rightly or wrongly, that only certain marginalized people are targeted, and everyone else can acquiesce to or even support that oppression without fear that it will be applied to them.”
In other words, this argument really implies that if a U.S. citizen completely conforms to the way the U.S. government wants you to think, then you are not at risk. The danger though is when an individual citizen starts to think that the U.S. government may not be doing the right thing and decides that he or she may want to speak out against it. There are plenty of examples of the U.S. government collecting intelligence on its citizens when leadership felt threatened by a dissenting voice: The FBI’s surveillance on Martin Luther King Jr. and President Nixon’s Watergate operation are just two famous examples. There are so many divisive issues in our culture today—gun control, abortion, universal healthcare, etc.—that there is no way that an individual citizen won’t be on the wrong end of an argument depending on who wins the next election. If your side loses, then you are no longer in conformance. In today’s technology terms, it is so easy to collect intelligence and discover dissenting voices that entire swatches of the population could be affected. This “if you have nothing to hide” argument is really not an argument about protecting us from the criminals; it is about suppressing dissenting voices, and that is scary.
The Pro-surveillance Response: Terrorism Is Scary
Greenwald makes the point that the U.S. government’s answer as to why it needs a mass surveillance program is that terrorism is scary. I have worked for security vendors for the past decade, and I recognize this tactic. In the security space, we all recognize this as the fear, uncertainty, and doubt pitch. The idea is that we try to scare the hell out of you so that you buy our product. This is exactly what the U.S. government is doing here. When Greenwald asserts that the mass surveillance program has not stopped a single terrorist plot, the U.S. government has no answer other than that terrorism is scary.
On 19 May 2014, the U.S. DOJ indicted five Chinese nationals for the crimes of “computer hacking, economic espionage and other offenses directed at six American victims in the U.S. nuclear power, metals and solar products industries.” I attended a dinner of government officials in Washington, DC, just after the DOJ made this announcement, and of course the subject came up for discussion. I was struck by the hypocrisy of the announcement in light of the Snowden revelations and said so, but the government officials present drew the distinction between national security espionage and economic espionage claiming that the United States engages in only national security espionage while China engages in both. According to Fred Kaplan at Slate magazine, President Obama pushed this negotiating point with Chinese President Xi Jinping at a Summit in Palm Springs in 2013. According to Greenwald, NSA spokespeople claim that the agency
“does engage in computer network exploitation but does ***not*** engage in economic espionage in any domain, including ‘cyber.’”[emphatic asterisks in the original]
I was stunned that American officials would draw that very thin line there, but Greenwald points out that there really is no line at all and uses more Snowden documents to prove it. In No Place to Hide, Greenwald says that the NSA intercepted communications on the Brazilian oil giant Petrobras and routinely collected information from various economic summits.
James Lewis, famous analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says there is a distinction between collecting intelligence regarding international economic questions and sharing that intelligence with U.S. companies to improve their bottom line. He says there are many reasons why the state may want to know about the economic situation regarding a certain country, but that does not mean that the government collects it with any eye toward giving American companies an advantage. He says that the U.S. law called the Economic Espionage Act specifically gives the United States permission to collect on bribery and non-proliferation issues but nothing else.
However, as Glyn Moody from TechDirt opines regarding the Petrobras revelations,
“Or, you know, it could provide US companies with insights about which were the best lots in the forthcoming auction of seabed areas for oil exploration, or about highly-specialized deep-sea oil extraction technology, in which Petrobas is a world leader. After all, why wouldn't the NSA drop some useful hints about such things to US companies as a way of justifying its huge budget?”
I am not a foreign policy expert by any means, but I don’t see how pushing an obvious double standard in negotiations with the Chinese can bear any fruit. It is one thing to agree on what is out of bounds and what is in bounds in terms of acceptable cyber espionage on the world stage, but to formally indict five Chinese citizens for a crime that you are also perpetrating seems disingenuous at best and absolute hubris at worst.
The Argument against Mass Surveillance for Anti-terrorism
Greenwald cites five reasons why mass surveillance is a bad idea:
- The practice of mass surveillance is likely unconstitutional.
- President Obama’s own review panel said that the metadata program was not essential to preventing terrorist attacks.
- Mass surveillance collection, as opposed to targeted collection, makes finding terrorists more difficult.
- Mass surveillance is a draconian reaction when you consider the statistically small chances that you will die from a terrorist attack.
- Even if mass surveillance were necessary, allowing the government to do it without transparency is counter to the Founding Fathers’ design of the country.
On 16 December 2013, U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon ruled that the government did not make its case concerning the need for mass surveillance in order to protect against terrorism in a timely manner. According to Leon,
“The Government does not cite a single instance in which analysis of the NSA’s bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent attack, or otherwise aided the Government in achieving any objective that was time sensitive in nature… Thus, plaintiffs have a substantial likelihood of showing their privacy interests outweigh the Government’s interest in collecting and analyzing bulk telephony metadata and therefore the NSA’s bulk collection program is indeed unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment.”
Review Panel Conclusions
In the wake of the Snowden revelations, President Obama directed a review of the entire program on 27 August 2013. On 18 December 2013, the panel published its findings.  Panel members acknowledged that
“In addressing these issues, the United States must pursue multiple and often competing goals at home and abroad.”
The following are those goals:
- Protecting the nation against threats to its national security. 
- Promoting other national security and foreign policy interests. 
- Protecting the right to privacy. 
- Protecting democracy, civil liberties, and the rule of law. 
- Promoting prosperity, security, and openness in a networked world. 
- Protecting strategic alliances. 
With that said, the panel could not find any pressing need for the metadata collection program:
“Our review suggests that the information contributed to terrorist investigations by the use of section 215 telephony meta-data was not essential to preventing attacks and could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional section 215 orders.”
Mass Surveillance Collection Makes Finding Terrorists More Difficult
Greenwald points to the NSA’s less-than-stellar record at preventing any number of terrorist plots in recent history:
- The 2012 Boston Marathon bombing. 
- The attempted Christmas Day bombing of a jetliner over Detroit. 
- The plan to blow up Times Square. 
- The plot to attack the New York City subway system. 
- The string of mass shootings from Aurora to Newtown. 
- Major international attacks from London to Mumbai to Madrid. 
He believes that the reason the record is so poor is that the actual collection of all of that data makes it harder to find and prevent terrorism activities compared to other more traditional law enforcement activities driven by warrants.
Is Mass Surveillance Necessary to Solve a Statistically Small Risk
This is the classic risk equation that all security people are used to evaluating. Anybody can come up with a terrorism scenario that would be devastating to the country. As security professionals, our job is to evaluate these scenarios across a two-dimensional risk matrix. On the x-axis, we plot how likely is it that this scenario will actually happen from “not very likely” on the left to “will absolutely happen” on the right. On the y-axis, we plot how impactful the scenario is if it were to happen from “no impact” on the bottom to “will materially impact the country” on the top. None of us has unlimited resources. Because of that, we focus on the risks that end up in the up-and-to-the-right section on our risk matrix. These are the scenarios that are likely to happen and that will have a meaningful impact if they do. The fact is that for most terrorism scenarios, they tend to sit in the up-and-to-the-left section on the risk matrix. The chances of them happening are not too likely, but if they do, they will have a medium to large impact.
These terrorism scenarios are outliers because they are not that likely to happen. According to Greenwald,
“The number of people worldwide who are killed by Muslim-type terrorists, Al Qaeda wannabes, is maybe a few hundred outside of war zones. It’s basically the same number of people who die drowning in the bathtub each year.”
Greenwald’s point is that we should seriously consider if we want to deconstruct the Fourth Amendment to protect ourselves from such an event, an event that is scary for sure, but an event that is not likely to happen.
Mass Surveillance without Transparency Is Counter to the Founding Fathers’ Design of the Country
There has always been a tension between national security and government transparency. James Madison -- one of the Founding Fathers and a primary contributor to the American Constitution -- believed that
“Transparency was an essential cornerstone of democratic governance.” 
And Patrick Henry’s said that
“The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.”
Greenwald points out,
“Democracy requires accountability and consent of the governed, which is only possible if citizens know what is being done in their name. The presumption is that, with rare exception, they will know everything their political officials are doing, which is why they are called public servants, working in the public sector, in public service, for public agencies.”
The point is that whatever we as a nation decide is the legitimate use of the U.S. intelligence apparatus, we must also insist that the mechanical process of that apparatus be completely transparent to the American citizen.
Why the Leaks Were Good
Putting aside the issue of whether Edward Snowden is a hero or a criminal, Greenwald contends that his release of the Snowden documents to the public has far more positive impact to the United States and to the world at large than any negative consequences that may have occurred to the U.S. intelligence apparatus because of it. Greenwald lists the following positive outcomes from the Snowden leaks:
- The entire world is debating the merits of the ubiquitous state surveillance, pervasive government secrecy, and the value of individual privacy.
- The world is challenging America’s hegemonic control over the Internet.
- Journalists are reconsidering the proper role of journalism in relation to government power.
Thoughts on Snowden
Throughout No Place to Hide, Greenwald presents a personality picture of Edward Snowden. Compared to Chelsey Manning, the other notorious whistleblower in recent U.S. history, Snowden thought long and hard about what he was doing. He may have been naïve and uninformed, but Greenwald’s picture of him is of a person who has seen an egregious wrong, thought about what to do about it, considered the consequences for him and the nation, and executed a plan to try to create change. Greenwald quotes Snowden,
“My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them. The U.S. government, in conspiracy with client states, chiefest among them the Five Eyes—the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—have inflicted upon the world a system of secret, pervasive surveillance from which there is no refuge. They protect their domestic systems from the oversight of citizenry through classification and lies, and shield themselves from outrage in the event of leaks by overemphasizing limited protections they choose to grant the governed.”
“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.”
For all of the things he may be—traitor, coward, spy, hacker,  low-level analyst, insider threat—Snowden is definitely a man of his own conviction. You may not agree with what he did, and you can point to his naiveté about the impact of what he did to the intelligence establishment, but he stood up for what he thought was right and decided to do something about it regardless of how that affected his own personal life.
In No Place to Hide, Greenwald would prefer not letting the U.S. government spy at all, but he recognizes that is probably a bridge too far. In the meantime, he offers these four intermediate solutions that are not that unreasonable:
- Enact legislation that will provide oversight, accountability and transparency for the entire intelligence community. 
- Convert the FISA court into a transparent judicial system so that there is an adversarial relationship to both sides of the argument. 
- Encourage international efforts to build new infrastructure so that all traffic does not go through the US. 
- Encourage individuals to adopt COMSEC tools and demand that vendors make them easy to use. 
No Place to Hide is not what I would call rigorous reporting. Greenwald conveys what happened to him as he followed this story and thus became part of the story himself. As I sought to corroborate the details presented within, I found I had to go to other sources to fill in the gaps.
That said, his telling of the story is important enough to the security community, the United States and to the world at large that I think it is required reading. He discusses everything from the Fourth Amendment and why it should be anathema to all American citizens to allow the government to spy on its communications without a warrant, to NSA programs and their scope, to the government’s justification of mass surveillance by attempting to discredit Snowden. He then lays out the arguments against mass surveillance without a warrant, describes why the world is better off today because of the Snowden leaks, and describes the detailed timeline from when Snowden initially contacted Greenwald to their meetings in Taiwan to Snowden’s eventual escape to Moscow. Finally, Greenwald describes his reasonable solution for the problem: better legislation to provide oversight, accountability and transparency for the entire intelligence community, convert the FISA court into a, adversarial judicial system, encourage international efforts to build new infrastructure so that all traffic does not go through the United States and finally, encourage individuals to adopt COMSEC tools so that all intelligence agencies have trouble intercepting communications.
Greenwald tries to present a lot of complicated material in No Place to Hide. He was not completely successful at doing so, but he is writing about the fundamental principles of how we want the United States to behave in the digital world. Governments have a lot of capability to present their side to this debate. Greenwald is one voice on the other side that has grabbed center stage because of his relationship with Edward Snowden. Because of that, we should pay attention to what he has to say. Despite the less–than-stellar prose, No Place to Hide is a cyber security canon candidate, and you should have read it by now.
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