No Such Agency

Glenn Greenwald’s new book, No Place To Hide, recounts how he and Edward Snowden dragged the secretive agency into the spotlight.

Daniel Massoglia

Glenn Greenwald at the Young Americans for Liberty's Civil Liberties tour at the University of Arizona in Tucson. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr / Creative Commons)

On June 5, 2013, when UK news­pa­per The Guardian informed U.S. offi­cials that it was about to pub­lish a report about the NSA’s mass sur­veil­lance of Amer­i­cans, the gov­ern­men­t’s response was indig­nant. Janine Gib­son, the paper’s U.S. edi­tor, was not a seri­ous jour­nal­ist,” The Guardian not a seri­ous news­pa­per,” and no nor­mal jour­nal­is­tic out­let would pub­lish this quick­ly with­out first meet­ing with us,” unnamed offi­cials told the paper.

When government officials label Snowden or Greenwald a terrorist or criminal, it's not idle bullshit—it's representatives of one of the planet’s most powerful forces identifying an enemy.

The report, pub­lished lat­er that day, was the first of a string of sto­ries about the NSA that earned The Guardian and the Wash­ing­ton Post 2014 Pulitzer Prize for pub­lic ser­vice. No Place to Hide, a new book by jour­nal­ist Glenn Green­wald — the force behind many of those Guardian sto­ries — is a chill­ing and pre­cise indict­ment of the cul­ture of con­trol and secre­cy that has become Washington’s nor­mal,” as well as a sto­ry of how it may be com­ing to an end.

Based on doc­u­ments care­ful­ly pur­loined by whistle­blow­er Edward Snow­den, The Guardian report­ing pro­vid­ed unprece­dent­ed glimpses into the hyper-secre­tive world of the NSA, show­ing an agency with lit­tle over­sight, vast capa­bil­i­ties and an insa­tiable hunger to spy on every­one and every­thing. The respons­es to the leaks from estab­lish­ment media, for their part, show a U.S. main­stream press eager and will­ing to defend and serve pow­er. Green­wald is typ­i­cal­ly bois­ter­ous and unspar­ing in attack­ing these two forces, the book’s main tar­gets. (Even the Wash­ing­ton Post, co-win­ner of the Pulitzer, doesn’t escape his ire; Green­wald calls its edi­to­r­i­al page writ­ers vocif­er­ous and mind­less cheer­lead­ers for U.S. mil­i­tarism, secre­cy and surveillance.”)

No Place To Hide is pep­pered with crit­i­cism of the dys­func­tion­al unwrit­ten rules of U.S. nation­al-secu­ri­ty report­ing. For exam­ple, the prac­tice of treat­ing [gov­ern­ment asser­tions] with respect no mat­ter how friv­o­lous they are,” vest­ing with equal cre­dence the gov­ern­men­t’s defens­es and the actu­al facts,” and dilut­ing rev­e­la­tions to a mud­dled, inco­her­ent, often incon­se­quen­tial mess.” Or the sup­pres­sion of unfa­vor­able sto­ries at the gov­ern­men­t’s request, as when the New York Times quashed an elec­tion-year 2004 sto­ry on war­rant­less wire­tap­ping under George W. Bush. (The paper pub­lished it a year lat­er; Green­wald sug­gests this is because they did­n’t want to get scooped by a forth­com­ing book from their own reporter.) And then there’s the jin­go­ist’s unholy trin­i­ty, nation­al secu­ri­ty,” ter­ror­ism,” and 9÷11,” used to jus­ti­fy any gov­ern­ment abuse or moral com­pro­mise, no mat­ter how great. Or even the myth of objec­tiv­i­ty itself, a chimeric neu­tral­i­ty that is in prac­tice a pow­er­ful defense of the sta­tus quo. All receive treat­ment, and it’s clear: Some­thing is very rot­ten in the metaphor­i­cal sur­veil­lance state of Den­mark. (In the less metaphor­i­cal state of the U.S., with the help of the media, the NSA reigns.)

Green­wald does not pull his punch­es: Argu­ments have obvi­ous moral short­com­ings;” they are not mere­ly deceit­ful, but deceit­ful in the extreme.” But his con­tempt for the swarm of pun­dits and politi­cians vom­it­ing, con­sum­ing and vom­it­ing again safe, neu­tral” opin­ions in defense of the sta­tus quo is cut, sea­soned and made palat­able by his clear­ly sourced looks at indi­vid­ual spy­ing pro­grams and espe­cial­ly, the grip­ping retellings of the events behind the news. Every deci­sion was high stakes, and most are unpacked for the read­er. This sto­ry will make an excel­lent movie.

In between polemics and sto­ry­telling, Green­wald makes heart­felt and con­vinc­ing appeals about the impor­tance of pri­va­cy—a right with many faces, as law pro­fes­sor Daniel Solove has not­ed—and the unique dan­ger of wide­spread online surveillance.

The Inter­net is not some stand-alone, sep­a­rate domain where a few of life’s func­tions are car­ried out,” Green­wald writes. It is not mere­ly our post office and our tele­phone. … It is the epi­cen­ter of our world, the place where vir­tu­al­ly every­thing is done. It is where friends are made, where books and films are cho­sen, where polit­i­cal activism is orga­nized, where the most pri­vate data is cre­at­ed and stored.”

When the Church Com­mit­tee, a 1970s reform body tasked with clean­ing up intel­li­gence abus­es of anoth­er age (and which is quot­ed in the book’s ded­i­ca­tion), addressed sur­veil­lance and sab­o­tage, there was still one realm that felt unas­sail­ably pri­vate: human thought. With the devel­op­ment of the Inter­net, how­ev­er, view­ing people’s search­es, emails, Tweets and diver­sions becomes tan­ta­mount to min­dread­ing. Or, as Green­wald writes, To per­mit sur­veil­lance to take root on the Inter­net would mean sub­ject­ing vir­tu­al­ly all forms of human inter­ac­tion, plan­ning and even thought itself to com­pre­hen­sive state examination.”

The man behind the leaks

The under­stand­ing of one­self as poten­tial­ly being watched is a crit­i­cal part of effec­tive sur­veil­lance – the point isn’t that the gov­ern­ment is watch­ing every­thing — it’s that at any point, it could be, that any action could be scru­ti­nized at any time. Know it All, Col­lect it All, Process it All, Exploit it All,” reads one NSA slide pub­lished for the first time in No Place To Hide. Under recent­ly depart­ed Direc­tor Kei­th Alexan­der, the NSA’s goal was the col­lec­tion of every­thing, every­where — the total erad­i­ca­tion of pri­va­cy in any form or con­cep­tion. It was the sheer excess of the NSA’s aims that turned Edward Snow­den from NSA hack­er to arguably the most sig­nif­i­cant whistle­blow­er in U.S. history.

For the first time, Green­wald quotes Snow­den describ­ing his time sta­tioned in Japan as an NSA con­trac­tor at Dell Cor­po­ra­tion, The stuff I saw real­ly began to dis­turb me. I could watch drones in real time as they sur­veilled the peo­ple they might kill. You could watch entire vil­lages and see what every­one was doing. I watched [the] NSA track­ing peo­ple’s Inter­net activ­i­ties as they typed. … I real­ized the true breadth of this sys­tem. And almost nobody knew it was happening.”

No Place To Hide vivid­ly recounts the unfold­ing rela­tion­ship between Snow­den, Green­wald and film­mak­er Lau­ra Poitras, from their ini­tial con­tact (Snow­den con­nect­ed with Poitras when Green­wald could­n’t fig­ure out encrypt­ed mes­sag­ing), to their meet­ings in Hong Kong and the tense days prepar­ing the ini­tial sto­ries for pub­li­ca­tion. Snowden’s influ­ence on the author is as pal­pa­ble as his actions have been on the world since the sto­ries first broke, and Greenwald’s admi­ra­tion for the whistle­blow­er’s courage serves as an endear­ing coun­ter­point to the book’s fiery anti-authoritarianism.

The dirty details

The doc­u­ments cho­sen for inclu­sion high­light major fea­tures of the NSA’s glob­al oper­a­tions. First, from infor­ma­tion about the NSA’s BOUND­LESS INFOR­MANT record-keep­ing sys­tem, which was at the top of the metic­u­lous­ly orga­nized archive that Snow­den gave Poitras and Green­wald, and from slides describ­ing the NSA’s mis­sion to col­lect it all,” the doc­u­ments are intend­ed to destroy the cred­i­bil­i­ty of nation­al secu­ri­ty offi­cials who assured Con­gress and reporters that the NSA kept no such records, had no such mis­sion, and under­took no such collection.

Sec­ond, No Place To Hides cen­tral sec­tion empha­sizes the NSA’s rela­tion­ships with cor­po­rate part­ners, an essen­tial part of the agency’s glob­al drag­net. The book includes a doc­u­ment, pre­vi­ous­ly report­ed in part by Der Spiegel but nev­er pub­lished in full, list­ing Qwest, AT&T, EDS, H‑P, Motoro­la, Cis­co, Qual­comm, Ora­cle, IBM, Ver­i­zon, Microsoft and Intel as part of a group of over 80 Major Glob­al Cor­po­ra­tions” with whom the NSA has part­nered. Via the agen­cy’s Spe­cial Source Oper­a­tions (SSO) unit, the NSA lever­ages these part­ner­ships to gain access to high-capac­i­ty inter­na­tion­al fiber-optic cables, switch­es and/​or routers through­out the world.”

That access lets the U.S. gov­ern­ment down­load mind­bog­gling amounts of data. One cor­po­rate part­ner­ship, code­named FAIRVIEW, yield­ed 200 mil­lion dig­i­tal and phone records per day in Decem­ber 2012. The scope of total col­lec­tion under SSO and oth­er units is far more vast — in mid-2012, more than 20 bil­lion com­mu­ni­ca­tions events” world­wide per day. At times, the only obsta­cle to glob­al col­lec­tion is an inabil­i­ty to store all the infor­ma­tion that the NSA’s ten­ta­cles bring in.

Third, the doc­u­ments direct par­tic­u­lar atten­tion to the NSA’s involve­ment in eco­nom­ic espi­onage, a point of diplo­mat­ic ten­sion since the Guardian sto­ry broke. A pre­vi­ous­ly report­ed but nev­er pub­lished slide about NSA attacks on pri­vate net­works shows spe­cif­ic tar­get­ing of Brazil­ian ener­gy com­pa­ny Petro­bras, the Bel­gium-based SWIFT bank­ing sys­tem used for trans­ac­tions world­wide, and, for the first time, the Russ­ian oil giant Gazprom and air­line Aeroflot. Oth­ers show atten­tion to indi­vid­u­als close to Mex­i­can then-pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Enrique Peña Nieto and Brazil­ian Pres­i­dent Dil­ma Rouss­eff. Stop­ping ter­ror,” Green­wald states, is clear­ly a pretext.”

Some doc­u­ments out­line rel­a­tive­ly well-known major pro­grams like PRISM and XKEYSCORE, but oth­ers offer expand­ed looks at more niche oper­a­tions — the NSA’s tech­niques for tar­get­ing for­eign diplo­mat­ic mis­sions in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and New York; the appro­pri­ate­ly named THIEV­ING MAG­PIE and HOM­ING PIGEON, designed to inter­cept cell phone activ­i­ty on air­planes; and sur­veil­lance tar­get­ing the Con­tent Deliv­ery Net­works that house and serve some con­tent — such as pho­tos — used on Face­book pages.

Final­ly, Green­wald stress­es how the Five Eyes intel­li­gence part­ner­ship, a mil­i­tary alliance in place since World War II, enables great coop­er­a­tion (and hands-off treat­ment) between intel­li­gence agen­cies in the UK, US, Cana­da, Aus­tralia, and New Zealand. Mate­ri­als appro­pri­at­ed by Snow­den include doc­u­ments from the British Gov­ern­ment Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Head­quar­ters that describe psy­cho­log­i­cal hacks designed to sew dis­trust and para­noia among tar­gets, while oth­ers advo­cate “‘dis­rup­tion’ tech­niques in lieu of … tra­di­tion­al law enforce­ment’” — in oth­er words, sim­ply attack­ing sus­pects dig­i­tal­ly rather than deal­ing with the pesky for­mal­i­ties of evi­dence-gath­er­ing, courts, and prosecutions.”

Pow­er­ful enemies

Amidst the year’s sur­re­al pro­ces­sion of rev­e­la­tions about gov­ern­ment spy­ing, it can be easy to lose sight of the sig­nif­i­cance of these leaks. But the NSA is an enti­ty so obsessed with secre­cy that in Wash­ing­ton, its ini­tials at one time were said to stand for No Such Agency,” and so for­mi­da­ble that pri­or to 2013, promi­nent elect­ed crit­ics spoke pub­licly of its excess only in cryp­tic warn­ings. The amount of trans­paren­cy and crit­i­cism in the wake of the Snow­den Files was pre­vi­ous­ly unthink­able; it pos­es an exis­ten­tial threat to the sta­tus quo.

So when gov­ern­ment offi­cials label Snow­den or Green­wald a ter­ror­ist or crim­i­nal, it’s not idle bull­shit — it’s rep­re­sen­ta­tives of one of the planet’s most pow­er­ful forces iden­ti­fy­ing an ene­my. After Green­wald’s part­ner, David Miran­da, was released after almost nine hours of deten­tion in Heathrow Air­port under a ter­ror­ism statute, he said, There’s real­ly noth­ing scari­er than being told by these two gov­ern­ments that you’re a ter­ror­ist. … You real­ize they can do any­thing to you. … They kid­nap peo­ple, imprison them with­out charges or a lawyer, dis­ap­pear them, put them in Guan­tanamo, they kill them.” Green­wald sur­mis­es offhand­ed­ly at one point that the secu­ri­ty state is more pow­er­ful than the pres­i­dent, and there is no real rea­son to believe he’s wrong.

No Place to Hide is a deeply sat­is­fy­ing punc­tu­a­tion mark on what has sure­ly been a sin­gu­lar­ly uncom­fort­able year for the defense estab­lish­ment. It is a damn­ing pic­ture of a gov­ern­ment that oper­ates out­side of account­abil­i­ty, and of the war waged in the press against the peo­ple asso­ci­at­ed with the Snow­den Files, against jour­nal­ism, and against dis­sent. But ulti­mate­ly, No Place to Hide will be shock­ing in pro­por­tion to the depth of your illu­sions as to the good­ness of the main­stream media and the pow­er­ful inter­ests it defends. It leaves lit­tle room for argu­ment: What’s nor­mal in Wash­ing­ton is very dan­ger­ous indeed.

Daniel Mas­soglia (@jujueyeball) is a writer and lawyer in Chicago.
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