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I realized that they were building a system whose goal was the elimination of all privacy, globally. To make it so that no one could communicate electronically without the NSA being able to collect, store, and analyze the communication.

-Edward Snowden explaining to Glenn Greenwald what moved him to action:


Wednesday night Ellen and I attended a book lecture by Glenn Greenwald.

Friday, I took the whole day and read Greenwald’s book on Edward Snowden, on the NSA, and on his assessment of what he believes is the meaning of these revelations.

When I finished the book yesterday, I was tempted to do something I’ve never done on this site, write a post that said this book was a Must Read. But thinking about it overnight, I reminded myself of my belief that there is no such thing as a ‘must read’ article or book.

Instead, I’m simply going to try to capture some of the impact Greenwald’s appearance and book has had on me.

In a way, I am a bit late to the issue of the importance and significance of what Snowden has done and what Greenwald has revealed.

Like many others, perhaps, I was partially resigned to the ‘reality’ that there really is no such thing anymore as real privacy in our electronic communications. I had read numerous Greenwald articles prior to the Snowden revelations and basically thought Greenwald was doing important journalistic work. But there were many other issues that occupied my time and interest.

When Greenwald’s first few articles, based on Snowden’s documents, appeared, I was not totally surprised nor shocked. Ellen had worked in the ’70s on Cong. Pike’s Committee investigation of the Hoover and FBI’s counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) and the CIA’s various domestic intrusions and surveillance into the lives of Americans (CHAOS), etc. (Sen. Frank Church had a similar investigation underway in the Senate.)

Additionally, Ellen’s 35 years working on issues of transparency and my own experiences and awareness of what occurs in Washington had lead me to understand the importance and need for constraints on those in power.

The hour we spent listening to Greenwald, however, made it clear to me that not only had the system of surveillance increased dramatically since the 60s and 70s, but that under the guise of combating terrorism, our government’s (the NSA in particular) overreach into virtually every American’s life had gone to an entirely new and dangerous level.

Further, Greenwald’s descriptions of Snowden and his interactions with him convinced me that Snowden was not a ‘loose cannon’ but was someone who very much had his country’s best interests at heart. After all, he knew that in releasing the documents he had stolen, he “was giving up his life” and might likely be imprisoned (at the age of 29) forever.

And then the book, No Place to Hide.

The first two chapters (“Contact and “Ten Days in Hong Kong) read like a thriller. They cover Greenwald’s first contacts with Snowden and then their ten days together where Greenwald takes measure of Snowden, decides to be the vehicle for the first release of what Snowden has amassed, and recounts a tense time until the first four articles are published.

I was further convinced that what Snowden was doing had nothing to do with personal gain or because he wanted to harm his country. He seemed thoughtful, rational, and committed to his belief that the American people needed to know what its government was doing in secret to each of us and to the world beyond our borders. And importantly, Snowden wanted to find a responsible way to do this.

The next part of the book (“Collect It All”) is Greenwald’s presentation of numerous documents so readers can see for themselves just how extensive NSA’s surveillance has become.

Here I was convinced that Snowden had given Greenwald proof beyond a shadow of a doubt that the NSA was violating the Constitution, was lying to Congress and the American people, and had successfully instituted a system that was increasingly threatening our freedoms.

Then, in a chapter entitled “The Harm of Surveillance,”  Greenwald sets out explain why he believes what the NSA has done is so harmful to each of us individually, to our country, and to the world beyond the US. He believes we have indeed entered a period that Sen. Church warned about in 1975 when he said:

“That capability at any time could be turned on the American people and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything – telephone, conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide. If this government ever became a tyrant…the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance…is within the reach of the government to know. Such is the capacity of this technology.”

Although sometimes bordering on overstatement, Greenwald helped me see the dangers of the NSA’s surveillance. Indeed, I do need to be concerned about the loss(es) of my personal privacy as well as what the NSA’s carefully constructed ability to collect, store and analyze everyone’s communications could mean for our country and the world.

In his final chapter, “The Fourth Estate,” Greenwald discusses the importance of the press in exposing these dangers and his belief that most of the political media cannot be counted upon to do what is traditionally the role of journalists: “monitoring and checking abuse of state power…ensuring government transparency and providing a check on overreach.”  He states, “That check is only effective if journalists act adversarially to those who wield political power.” Instead, Greenwald believes, “The US media has frequently abdicated this role, being subservient to the government’s interests, even amplifying, rather than scrutinizing its messages and carrying out its dirty work.”

Here, Greenwald probably goes too far with his condemnation of the entire “Fourth Estate”, but only in a matter of degree. His basic argument that those tasked with overseeing what our government is doing have in many ways abdicated their responsibility is largely accurate I believe.

Finally, in the “Epilogue,” Greenwald writes that Snowden’s one fear, that he might be giving up his life for nothing, that his revelations would have no impact, has not been realized. In fact, they both believe “the effects of this unfolding story have been far greater, more enduring, and more wide-ranging than we ever dreamed possible.” But Greenwald also writes, “The battle has not been won…the security state is incredibly powerful, probably even more so than our highest elected officials, and it boasts a wide array of influential loyalists ready to defend it at all costs.”

Bottom line(s) for me:

* Snowden has done our country an important service in finding a way to bring to our attention a surveillance system that is out of control.

* Greenwald has also done our country a service in his carefully released articles based upon the documents Snowden has given him.

* President Obama and presidents before him have acquiesced and participated in allowing the NSA (and other agencies no doubt) power far beyond anything ever imagined by those who found this country and by most Americans.

* Members of Congress (both parties) are not doing their job either; they are not adequately overseeing what the NSA is doing and has done.

* The press, too, has not done its job of monitoring and checking the government’s abuse of power.

* And individually, when as individuals we do not hold those in power accountable, we too are participating in the loss of our freedoms. Snowden said this in a slightly different way to Greenwald:

“The true measurement of a person’s worth isn’t what they say they believe in, but what they do in defense of those beliefs. If you’re not acting on your beliefs, then they probably aren’t real.”

For me, No Place to Hide is the most important book on what is happening in our country that I have read this year.