critical eye

Glenn Greenwald against the world

Snowden is deified, the media are demonized, but in between is an important story of journalism in the 21st century
May 15, 2014

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.”

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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.

Greenwald spends days holed up in the Hong Kong hotel, turning Snowden’s raw material into articles. The plan is to publish the documents in one powerful story after another, what Greenwald characterizes as “a journalistic version of shock and awe.” After the nerve-wracking negotiations between editors and lawyers are finalized, permission is given to publish. First up is the Verizon story: “NSA Collecting Phone Records of Millions of Verizon Customers Daily.” The ensuing furor is colossal. The story is fast-tracked to the lead item on every news broadcast and touches off political debates; the major media outlets scramble to interview Greenwald.

The second article is cued up. It reveals that the world’s biggest internet companies secretly agreed to give the NSA access to their customers’ communications. The NSA comprehensively raided Facebook chats, Google searches, and Yahoo emails. In another plot twist, The Washington Post publishes its own version of this story first; The Guardian gets Greenwald’s piece up 10 minutes later. Unlike the Verizon story, this one has international ramifications, affecting billions of people.

A third and fourth article appear, and then on June 9 The Guardian posts a 12-minute video interview of Snowden that Greenwald and Poitras made during their stay in Hong Kong, and Snowden is unveiled to the world. The clock now ticks on Snowden’s freedom. His escape to a safe house has us again wondering whether this is fact or fiction. Greenwald closes this segment of the book with the advice given to him by a lawyer to forget any idea of flying out to do the New York talk-show circuit: “You’ve just enabled the biggest national security leak in US history.”

Greenwald is at his best when he gets out of the way and lets this fascinating story speak for itself. But of course, that’s not his style. Problems arise when he veers into a critique of journalism. Here and there we get sideswipe gripes that come across as sweeping generalizations: The New York Times will dance to the government’s tune by holding up or toning down inconvenient or downright damaging stories; The Washington Post is “the belly of the Beltway media beast, embodying all the worst attributes of US political media,” its editorial page is “one of the most vociferous and mindless cheerleaders for US militarism, secrecy, and surveillance.” In Greenwald’s last chapter, “The Fourth Estate,” his digs at corporate journalism are upped into full-scale broadsides:

From the United States’ founding, the best and most consequential journalism frequently involved crusading reporters, advocacy, and devotion to battling injustice. The opinion-less, color-less, soul-less template of corporate journalism has drained the practice of its most worthy attributes, rendering establishment media inconsequential: a threat to nobody powerful, exactly as intended.

Clearly, then, corporate journalists lack opinions and therefore bite. Greenwald reiterates his point over several pages in a variety of combinations. Objectivity in corporate journalism “means nothing more than reflecting the biases and serving the interests of entrenched Washington.” A page later: “The iconic reporter of the past was the definitive outsider. Many who entered the profession were inclined to oppose rather than serve power.” This has now changed, he insists. Those who succeed in corporate journalism “identify with institutional authority and are skilled at serving, not combating it.” And a page or two on: “Rich, famous, insider journalists do not want to subvert the status quo that so lavishly rewards them.”

Mystery man We learn more about Edward Snowden in Greenwald’s book, but he remains a one-dimensional character, hero or villain. (Barton Gellman / Getty)

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. (One wonders what he thinks of the Pulitzer Board awarding both The Guardian US and that “mindless cheerleader” The Washington Post the biggest prize in US journalism for their Snowden coverage.) In addition, a note of self-aggrandizement creeps into his argument: By Greenwald’s own logic, he is the equivalent of that “iconic reporter” of the past. His outsider status and steadfast refusal to toe the party line renders him an irritant to Washington’s centers of power. While there may be some truth in that, his other explanation for why he has attracted such hostility is far less convincing: “Part competitiveness and part payback for the years of professional criticism I had directed at US media stars, there was, I believe, also anger and even shame over the truth that adversarial journalism had exposed: reporting that angers the government reveals the real role of so many mainstream journalists, which is to amplify power.” Our iconic, crusading reporter’s reasoning is again marred by generalization (that “real” role) and for the first time suspicion (that tit-for-tat “payback”).

Greenwald goes on to note how the Obama administration has waged unprecedented attacks on journalism–“the most repressive leader in this regard since Richard Nixon”–and is frustrated that The Guardian needs to contact the NSA before publishing: “The government should not be a collaborative editorial partner with newspapers in deciding what gets published.” For Greenwald, the Snowden stories should “be released by a different set of rules, one that would define an independent rather than subservient press corps.” It is here that we glimpse Greenwald at his most intransigent. Rather than concede that some leaked classified information could actually compromise national security, he suggests that all is fair game for publication:

[National security officials] act abusively and thuggishly only when they believe they are safe, in the dark. Secrecy is the linchpin of abuse of power, we discovered, its enabling force. Transparency is the only real antidote.

Total transparency, everywhere and at all times? Do not security officials, by definition, sometimes have to work in the dark? Secrecy may well facilitate abuse of power but can it not also be employed legitimately? Perhaps as a hangover from his legal days, Greenwald is very good at mounting a spirited defense or carrying out a fierce attack while failing to recognize any alternative. Short shrift is given to exceptions, deviations, and differences of opinion. His way, it would seem, is the only way.

Greenwald gets back on track, to some extent, with his analysis and condemnation of the NSA’s justification for its actions. He slips into lawyer mode to probe, cross-examine, and ultimately debunk the “tired and predictable accusations” that journalists who reveal such secrets are necessarily endangering national security. He reserves particular ire for officials who regularly–almost reflexively–invoke 9/11 to justify ubiquitous surveillance. Not only is so much of the NSA’s bulk collection of metadata unrelated to terrorism, Greenwald writes, the collect-it-all yield that is relevant to it has never been effective enough to prevent attacks, 9/11 included. Indeed, Greenwald argues that the very nature of bulk surveillance makes terror prevention more difficult: Intelligence agencies are so overwhelmed by the glut of general information they receive that sifting for specifics becomes the equivalent of seeking the proverbial needle in a haystack.

And yet, as with various comments on journalistic practice, Greenwald is still reluctant to entertain any devil’s-advocate counterarguments. Granted, blanket surveillance is excessive, unethical, and should be curtailed, but Greenwald’s idea that true democracy can only be achieved if citizens are always apprised of what is being done in their name is specious. Just because they are “public servants, working in the public sector, in public service” does not mean the conclusions of in-camera meetings and genuine nation-protecting intelligence should, by default, become public knowledge. When “need-to-know” intelligence is corrupted into “right-to-know” information, then security organizations no longer function effectively. Furthermore, when journalists are allotted total freedom, there is a risk they will follow the lead of Britain’s News of the World and adopt the dubious data-collecting and privacy-destroying methods both Greenwald and Snowden are so eager to stop. Greenwald’s appeal for transparency is noble and right but only with limits. All-out transparency has every chance of being as dangerous as all-out surveillance.

Denying Greenwald the title of ‘journalist’ is churlish and misguided. As a lawyer he sounds formidable; as a journalist he is remorseless, unflinching, and hungry for truth.

In the wake of the published articles, another side to Greenwald is visible, a combination of wounded pride compensated by angry defiance. Attempts are made to discredit him by certain media figures. For some, he was not engaged in “journalism” but embroiled in “activism.” The situation worsens when New York Republican congressman Peter King calls for Greenwald to be prosecuted. Others follow suit, asking for his head and branding him Snowden’s “co-conspirator.” When David Gregory, host of Meet the Press, accuses Greenwald of having “aided and abetted” Snowden, before asking, “Why shouldn’t you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?” Greenwald is astonished. “This was nothing but a striking example of the ‘When did you stop beating your wife?’ formulation,” he writes. Then adds:

But beyond the rhetorical fallacy, a TV journalist had just given credence to the notion that other journalists could and should be prosecuted for doing journalism, an extraordinary assertion. Gregory’s question implied that every investigative reporter in the United States who works with sources and receives classified information is a criminal. It was precisely this theory and climate that had made investigative reporting so precarious.

Perhaps what stings Greenwald most is Gregory’s insistence on calling him “a polemicist” and a “columnist.” “The question of who’s a journalist,” Gregory says, “may be up to a debate with regard to what you’re doing.” Greenwald is clearly rankled by Gregory’s labels, but is most offended by his detractors’ refusal to refer to him as what he really is: journalist.

Denying Greenwald this title is churlish and misguided. As a lawyer he sounds formidable; as a journalist he is remorseless, unflinching, and hungry for truth. Since he sees himself as a continuation of those old-school reporters unaffiliated and unanswerable to governments (a characterization of our predecessors, it should be noted, that is as broadly inaccurate as Greenwald’s catch-all denunciation of today’s journalists), we could go one further and call him an updated muckraker sniffing out social wrongs, corporate malpractice, and political corruption. The muckrakers raised public awareness and so does Greenwald. In his book The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man, The Guardian‘s Luke Harding suggests that “Fans view him as a radical hero in the revolutionary tradition of Thomas Paine.” Unfortunately for Greenwald, his enemies regard him as a traitor. Which raises the question, should he be prosecuted?

The short answer is no, providing he hasn’t published anything that actually jeopardizes national security. Snowden is more problematic, but the same logic applies. Snowden’s revelations and Greenwald’s reporting have spurred significant changes both in public opinion and government policy. In July 2013, the Pew Research Center released a poll that showed that Americans consider the danger of surveillance more worrying than the danger of terrorism. After admitting government overreach, President Obama ordered a White House review of intelligence collection and has promised that the United States is not spying on ordinary people or foreign leaders who pose no threat to national security. The actions of the NSA’s British counterpart, GCHQ, prompted an inquiry in which Members of Parliament concluded the Snowden files were “an embarrassing indictment” of the nature of the oversight of British intelligence agencies. And when The Guardian US and The Washington Post won the Pulitzer for public service, Snowden gave a statement saying the award was “a vindication for everyone who believes that the public has a role in government.”

And yet Snowden (and to a lesser extent Greenwald) remains a divisive figure. As Alan Rusbridger, who edits The Guardian, told The New York Times Magazine, “It’s a story that polarizes people.” One man’s traitor is another man’s whistleblower. When Craig Murray, Britain’s ambassador to Uzbekistan, was removed from his post in 2004 for exposing the Karimov government’s use of torture, he declared himself a victim of conscience. Detractors said he should have resigned or kept quiet–diplomats, after all, are expected to be diplomatic. The same criticism extends to Snowden, a man also in government employ: either put up or shut up. Snowden’s aim–neither financial nor ideological–was to highlight the NSA’s abuse of power and erosion of civil liberties so as to spark debate and spur reform. In the end, he got what he wanted. He has a huge following, not only among fellow activists and radicals but mainstream media, tech companies, and universities. Now all he needs to do is persuade his critics that he doesn’t deserve life in prison.

Greenwald dedicates No Place to Hide “to all those who have sought to shine a light on the US government’s secret mass surveillance systems, particularly the courageous whistle-blowers who have risked their liberty to do so.” At the time of writing, and no doubt for the foreseeable future, Snowden is no free man. Greenwald denies that Snowden has passed secrets to the Chinese while in Hong Kong or blabbed to the Russians while in Moscow, his current safe haven, but who knows how much of that is true? Equally uncertain is how accurate a portrait of Snowden Greenwald has given us in a book that in places borders on hagiography. Julian Assange’s ghostwriter, Andrew O’Hagan, described his subject in a London Review of Books article as “an actor who believes all the lines in the play are there to feed his lines,” a man determined to “make himself the hero of every anecdote.” In contrast, Greenwald’s Snowden is a study in humility, integrity, equanimity, and selflessness. A rival book, The Snowden Operation, by Edward Lucas, a senior editor at The Economist, offers the flipside, tarnishing Greenwald’s saint as an irresponsible saboteur. Perhaps we’ll have to wait a bit longer for the full picture to take shape.

For Rusbridger, Greenwald was the reporter with “the biggest story of the year, if not the decade.” No Place to Hide will, deservedly, add to his success. Reading it may or may not help us all agree about what Greenwald and Snowden did, and the former’s plea for transparency in Washington and the latter’s desire for full internet freedom are not likely to be fulfilled any time soon. But for the moment there is reason to cheer the vigorous open debate both have unleashed, and the first green shoots of reform.

An earlier version of this story ran online before it was published in the July/August issue of the magazine. That version has been replaced with this one.

Malcolm Forbes has written reviews and essays for the Times Literary Supplement, the San Francisco Chronicle, The National, The Australian, The Daily Beast, the Quarterly Conversation, and many other journals. Born in Edinburgh, he currently lives in Berlin.