My way Should journalists like Greenwald get to decide what classified information is a genuine threat to national security? (Ludovic Carème / Télérama)
In December 2012, Edward Snowden, a former hacker for the National Security Agency and the CIA, emailed journalist Glenn Greenwald using heavily encrypted software and hiding behind the alias “Cincinnatus.” Snowden, who claimed to have information that Greenwald would be interested in, apparently saw in the pugnacious journalist a kindred spirit. Greenwald’s résumé marked him as someone dedicated to fighting the abuse of power, both in his first career, as a constitutional lawyer, and in his second incarnation as an adversarial journalist. However, it was Greenwald’s 2006 debut book, How Would a Patriot Act?, together with his no-holds-barred political blog that signified for Snowden that this was a writer on the same wavelength and, more crucially, one he could trust.
Greenwald’s curiosity was piqued, but it was only when he met with Laura Poitras, a documentary filmmaker who also had been contacted by Snowden, in New York 10 weeks later that he began to grasp the significance of what was happening. Poitras said she had received anonymous emails from someone who claimed to have access to secret documents about the US government spying on its own citizens and the rest of the world. The pair joined forces, Greenwald got The Guardian on board, and he and Poitras flew to Hong Kong to meet their mystery source.
As events unfold in No Place To Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, Greenwald’s much-anticipated real-life account assumes the form and pace of a globe-trotting literary thriller, with drama in Rio, New York, London, Hong Kong, Berlin, and Moscow. He purchases an “air-gapped” laptop, a computer that never connects to the internet, rendering outside invasion difficult. To impede eavesdropping, Snowden urges Poitras to remove the batteries from her cellphone before talking about sensitive matters, or to put the phone in a freezer. Rendezvousing with Snowden in his Hong Kong hotel can only be achieved by adhering to a protocol of code-words, times and fallback times, and recognition tools (Snowden, amusingly, will appear carrying a Rubik’s cube). Greenwald takes us through sleepless nights, deadlines, and ultimatums; there is anxious to-ing and fro-ing between journalists, editors, and lawyers over different time zones, some eager for the green light to publish, others more cautious at the potentially devastating repercussions.
There are also the documents themselves, which Greenwald describes as “powerful and shocking.” One of the first he reads is a secret FISA court order instructing Verizon Business to hand over all telephone records of its tens of millions of customers to the NSA. “We had evidence that would indisputably prove all that the government had done to destroy the privacy of Americans and people around the world,” Greenwald writes. What’s more, Snowden’s archive contains proof that NSA officials lied to Congress about the agency’s illicit activities.
Not only does Greenwald write off entire newsrooms and tar all establishment journalists with the same brush, he ends up sounding like a stuck record while doing so.
Good thrillers need plot twists, and Greenwald explains how he expected his source to be older, more senior, “a veteran of the political scene,” to tally with both the sheer volume of documents in his possession and his apparent readiness to spend the rest of his life in prison. Instead, when Snowden finally emerges, Rubik’s cube in hand, he is thin, pale, and guarded, and “could have been any mildly geeky guy in his early to mid-twenties working in a computer lab on a college campus.”
Snowden is grilled, his answers scrutinized, his state of mind analyzed. We hear of his time as a high-level cyber operative (a euphemism here for “hacker”) with the CIA in Geneva and the NSA in Japan. As he rose through the ranks he grew disenchanted with his government’s actions, troubled by indiscriminate surveillance and alarmed, Snowden said, by “how the higher the levels of power, the less oversight and accountability there was.” Greenwald comes to the same conclusion he had reached earlier, while trawling Snowden’s meticulously collated documents for 16 hours: that this man—source, leak, whistleblower—is highly rational, not the crackpot loner or loser that governments invariably demonize in an effort to discredit the source of the revelations. Snowden is portrayed by Greenwald as acting out of conscience, not alienation, prepared to sacrifice a long-term girlfriend, a life in Hawaii, and a healthy salary for peace of mind and the greater good.