Book Synopsis: No Place Left to Hide

Glenn Greenwald | No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State (Metropolitan Books: 2014)

by Haydn Forrest, a 2014 graduate of Tufts University and Just Security intern (Summer 2014) 


No Place Left to Hide

Equal parts memoir, journalistic thriller, and political tract, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State is author and journalist Glenn Greenwald’s personal account of the Snowden disclosures and his own role in reporting on previously unknown National Security Agency (NSA) programs. Published slightly less than a year after the initial series of stories reporting on the NSA surveillance capabilities and on the heels of the Washington Post and the Guardian winning the Pulitzer Prize for Journalism and Service for their coverage of the Snowden documents, the book offers the distilled perspective of one of the most prominent voices on surveillance today. It is divided into two principal sections, though Greenwald makes no delineation between the two. The first describes the how, from his first clandestine contacts with Snowden to eventual publication by the Guardian and the Post. The second half articulates Greenwald’s philosophy of government surveillance through a mix of personal anecdotes, descriptions of NSA programs, and political commentary.

The Scoop

Today Edward Snowden is a known commodity. He’s been interviewed by Brian Williams on primetime television, there have been countless armchair evaluations of who he is and why he leaked, and there is legislation before the Senate based on programs whose existence Snowden revealed. It’s a credit to Greenwald’s ability as a writer that the first half of the book is so engaging even with his ending spoiled. The book opens with emails from a potential source using the pseudonym ‘Cincinnatus’ asking Greenwald to install encryption for his email so that Cincinnatus (who we later learn is Edward Snowden) and Greenwald can communicate through secure channels, a request that Greenwald promptly ignores. He begins work with an unknown leaker only after a meeting with Laura Poitras in New York, who urges him to work with her and a mysterious contact known as ‘Verax’, who promises to reveal incriminating documents about domestic spying by the American government on a massive scale. Following more encrypted online chats and vetting the story their respective editors Greenwald, Poitras, and Ewan MacAskill (per behest of the Guardian) are on a plane to Hong Kong to meet their source. One Rubik’s-cube-enabled meeting later, we meet Edward Snowden, begin diving into Snowden’s cache of NSA documents to report on the NSA’s surveillance programs.

Greenwald claims he rarely slept more than two hours a night while in Hong Kong. His retelling captures that manic energy as he works through the initial batch of NSA disclosures, covering the FISC orders to Verizon, the existence and purpose of the PRISM program, details on U.S. cyber-offense programs, and the NSA metadata collection program under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act. The initial series of stories culminates with the revelation of the identity of Snowden himself. He particularly criticizes existing oversight mechanisms as “more of… empty pantomime[s] than a meaningful check[s].” For example, the FISC, Greenwald argues, is a “cosmetic measure…the ultimate rubber stamp” that rejects only 11 out of over twenty thousand requests to conduct electronic surveillance. While, elected officials serving on House and Senate Intelligence committees are lambasted for “defend[ing] and justify[ing] anything the agency does.” No Place to Hide carries the harried climate of the disclosures into a clear narrative describing not only the NSA’s activity but the entire intelligence apparatus surrounding it.

The Theory of Surveillance

Shortly after the first round of stories, Greenwald describes how Snowden is trundled away by Hong Kong human rights lawyers, leaving Hong Kong for Russia where he remains today. At this point unable to continue focusing on Snowden, the book’s focus shifts from the story of how the documents were leaked and becomes much less narrative driven. Though there are still personal anecdotes, mostly about Greenwald’s interactions with other members of the media in the United States, the majority of the work either examines the particulars of NSA programs or expounds on the Greenwald’s views on the relationship between surveillance and power.

The NSA programs explored in the second half of the book are framed by former director Keith Alexander’s comment “collect it all.” Using documents leaked by Snowden, Greenwald details the NSA’s relationship with corporate entities, its tapping of fiber optic cable choke-points in the United States, the Agency’s collaboration with allied intelligence agencies, and the NSA’s political and economic espionage abroad. For example, Greenwald describes how Microsoft helped the NSA circumvent encryption used by their Skype and the Outlook services, while they publicly touted the security of Microsoft services. Particular attention is paid to PRISM, especially the massive expansion of the program, and X-KEYSCORE, a separate NSA program that can provide nearly real time tracking of a target’s online activity. Many if not all of the programs and capacities discussed in this section have already been made public, but their presentation has never been as comprehensive treated as Greenwald does in his book.

The purpose of the surveillance apparatus is clear to Greenwald – “the complete elimination of electronic privacy worldwide.” Further troubling to him is the belief that the aim is not simply that the government have all the information but to use it to restrict individual’s freedom of thought and action. “If you can never evade the watchful eyes of a supreme authority, there is no choice but to follow the dictates that authority imposes.” Much of the final third of the book is variations on this theme, using psychology, legal writing, history to explain the constricting effect that being watched has on an individual’s mind. Greenwald argues that the increased digitization of identity makes mass online surveillance much more pernicious than previous state capabilities and provides a litany of evidence to show how the perception of being watched, even in the absence of surveillance, alters behavior.

There is further criticism of the NSA’s inability to marshal its vast resources into actionable intelligence. Greenwald cites various reports, from a presidential advisory panel to outside experts like the New America Foundation, all of which deplore NSA programs as ineffective in preventing attacks on U.S. interest. If anything, according to Greenwald, the quantity of data collected actively harms American intelligence capacity by obfuscating useful intelligence with superfluous information. The book takes the criticism a step further, arguing that the expansion of government monitoring capacity is not designed to catch external threats but instead to create “a denial of privacy [that] severely restricts…freedom of choice.” The closest parallels for how the NSA operates, Greenwald argues, are Orwell’s 1984 and Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon – both oppressive concentrations of state authority directed against the citizenry.

More broadly the book relies on stark distinctions of the roles available in public society; there can only be “obedience to institutional authority or radical dissent from it.” To Greenwald, members of the media either expose the shortcomings of the state or are petrified of losing their position close to the seat of power. Politicians either fawn over intelligence officials like matinee idols or are principled opponents of unconstitutional behavior. These delineations are the most polarizing section of the book, and have been the source of much of the ire directed at Greenwald (many of which are collected in the reviews compiled below).

Glenn Greenwald has more perspective than most on surveillance issues, and at its best No Place to Hide provides an exceptionally clear and cogent account of the dramatic escalation of American surveillance programs. The book dives into important questions of the intersection of power, media, and business. Whatever one may think of the merits of Greenwald’s answers, he is clearly asking the right questions.


David Cole (excerpt from The Washington Post) on Greenwald’s No Place to Hide:

This is an important and illuminating book. It would have been more important and illuminating were Greenwald able to acknowledge that the choices we face about regulating surveillance in the modern age are difficult and that there are no simple answers. (He notably suggests virtually nothing in the way of positive reforms, sticking instead to criticism.)

Snowden handed Greenwald the story of a lifetime. NSA coverage based on the leaked material resulted in The Washington Post and the Guardian winning Pulitzer Prizes for public service this year. Greenwald has done the world a service by helping to explain the significance of the disclosures for everyone’s privacy. He has helped spark a much-needed national and worldwide debate about how to preserve privacy when we do so much online, and when the NSA and others have the technological means to track virtually all we do there. But his book would have been more persuasive had he confronted what is difficult about the issue and not simply been satisfied with lobbing grenades at all who are less radical than he is. [read more of David Cole’s review of No Place to Hide in The Washington Post]


Further Reading

  1. Michael Kinsey, “Eyes Everywhere,” The New York Times (May 22nd, 2014). Negative
  2. Phillipe Sands, “No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State,” The Guardian (May 23rd, 2014). Positive
  3. David Cole, “‘No Place to Hide’ by Glenn Greenwald, on the NSA’s sweeping efforts to ‘Know it All’,” The Washington Post (May 12, 2014). Mixed
  4. Benjamin Wittes, “Book Review: No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the US Surveillance State by Glenn Greenwald,” Lawfare (May 26th, 2014). Negative
  5. Emily Bazelon “Why Are You So Fearful, O Ye of Little Faith?” Slate (May 13th 2014). Positive
  6. David L. Ulin, “‘No Place to Hide’ a vital discussion on Snowden’s revelations,” The LA Times (May 13th 2014). Mixed Positive
  7. Conor Freidersdorf, “No Place to Hide: A Conservative Critique of a Radical NSA” The Atlantic (May 14 2014). Positive
  8. Michael B. Mukasey. “Book Review: ‘No Place to Hide’ by Glenn Greenwald, “ The Wall Street Journal (May 14 2014). Negative
  9. Amy Davidson, “Glenn Greenwald’s Memoir of Mistaken Identity” The New Yorker (May 13 2014). Mixed Positive