Sniff, Collect, and Exploit it All

The easy shot against Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the U.S. Surveillance State would be to dismiss its warnings as immoderate and overwrought. “Converting the Internet into a system of surveillance,” he declares nearly off the bat (6), turns it “into a tool of repression, threatening to produce the most extreme and oppressive weapon of state intrusion human history has ever seen.” Similarly, “[t]he US government had built a system that has as its goal the complete elimination of electronic privacy worldwide.” (94) These are bold claims on which to deliver. And yet, piling evidence atop evidence, Greenwald does.

Even for those who have kept reasonably abreast of the NSA revelations, their compilation into a single volume, complete with original reproductions of the PowerPoint slides in which the NSA boasts of them, is both coolly persuasive and acutely unsettling. Yes, Greenwald is a sometime polemicist (but also an impressive journalist). Fair enough, his worldview verges on the Manichean, brooking little disagreement: There was, for instance, “no plausible national security argument” (66) against his initial disclosure of the collection of Verizon metadata. (None?) But the reader willing to enter Greenwald’s world and consider his evidence with an innocent eye will find it deeply disturbing.

Greenwald’s first two chapters, which detail his initial contact with Edward Snowden, are page-turners that read like a spy novel. Snowden, who remains something of an enigma—one reason, we learn, is that he has eschewed publicity lest the NSA story become personality- rather than issue-driven—comes off as earnest and composed if occasionally grandiose, as in wanting to expose those abusing “the world I love.” (32) A whole world is a hard thing to love, but Snowden makes a fair point about the “irresistible executive powers” that govern it. The “traitor” stigmata will be hard for objective readers of Greenwald’s account to identify.

The rest of Greenwald’s pages turn too, but for different reasons. They simply provide one gut-shot after another, revelations that somehow prove stunning even though many had already been revealed in Greenwald’s and others’ previous reporting. NSA chief Keith Alexander aspires to what Greenwald calls “omniscience,” which raises suspicions of overstatement until, on page 97, an NSA PowerPoint slide appears announcing the following objectives under the headline “New Collection Posture”: “Sniff it All,” “Know it All,” “Collect it All,” “Process it All,” “Exploit it All,” “Partner it All.”

In addition to the NSA’s exhaustive metadata program—which, as Greenwald notes, supplies sufficient information to stitch a comprehensive tapestry of a person’s life, a point evident in NSA apologist and Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein’s refusal of challenges to disclose equivalent logs of her own calls and emails (172-173)—we discover that the agency physically intercepts Cisco routers, servers and other devices being exported from the United States (with no evidence of the company’s connivance). “The agency then implants backdoor surveillance tools, repackages the devices with a factory seal, and sends them on. The NSA thus gains access to entire networks and all their users.” This is at the same time Mike Rogers, the House Intelligence Committee Chair and another NSA defender, warns menacingly against the Chinese government doing precisely the same thing. (147-150)

Greenwald also details the use of NSA surveillance tools for purposes far beyond terrorism, including economic espionage. The PATRIOT Act’s “sneak and peek” powers, he observes, have been used in far more drug and fraud than terrorism cases. (200) One NSA program, called X-KEYSCORE, captures “‘nearly everything a typical user does on the internet,’ including the text of emails, Google searches, and the names of websites visited.” (153)

All this is backed up by extensive citation to public sources, quotations from the Snowden archives and reproductions of original slides. (Incidentally, one of the impressions one forms from this book is that while the NSA may be very good at spying, it is profoundly bad at PowerPoint, producing slides that are so visually jumbled one all but needs SIGINT to decipher them.)

Greenwald shreds the fallacious reasoning according to which the innocent have nothing to fear from surveillance. None of those indulging such vapidities “would willingly give me the passwords to their email accounts, or allow video cameras in their homes.” (171) He leaves in equal tatters the comfort we are asked to take from the “oversight” exercised by the FISA court, which in 2012 “approved every single one of the 1,788 applications for electronic surveillance that it considered, while ‘modifying’—that is, narrowing the purview of the order—in just 40 cases, or less than 3 percent.” (128) Senate oversight hearings on the NSA, for example—make that “oversight” as well—consisted largely of members offering soliloquies about 9/11 rather than asking tough questions. (130)

The wider political metaphysics Greenwald elucidates in roughly the final quarter of the book are harder to stomach. He seems hostile to the very concept of authority, recounting, for example, the bat mitzvah of a friend’s daughter at which the rabbi warns the young woman that God is always watching. “All oppressive authorities—political, religious, societal, parental—rely on this vital truth,” Greenwald reflects, “using it as a principal tool to enforce orthodoxies, compel adherence, and quash dissent.” Parental? Yes, parental.

Shame itself, without which it is difficult to imagine society cohering, comes off as nearly inherently oppressive. (Does Greenwald not think Director of National Intelligence James Clapper should feel ashamed for lying to Congress about NSA surveillance?) “A prime justification for surveillance—that it’s for the benefit of the population—relies on projecting a view of the world that divides citizens into categories of good people and bad people.” (182) But there are, of course, bad people; the point is that targeting everyone is not a morally or constitutionally acceptable way of finding them.

Similarly: “Progress both in the United States and other nations was only ever achieved through the ability to challenge power and orthodoxies and to pioneer new ways of thinking and living.” (201) That society might benefit from these challenges occurring in a wider ordered context—that such order might in fact be all that renders the concept of rebellion itself meaningful—seems absent from the Foucaultian ethos (176 brings the obligatory citation to Discipline and Punish) underlying this analysis.

Greenwald can also be faulted for failing to grapple in these pages with the full complexities involved in leaking on the Snowdenian scale. Greenwald’s is an open-source world in which disclosure is all but an unvarnished good. But nations do have to keep secrets, and it is possible to regard Snowden’s whistleblowing as necessary and praiseworthy on prudential grounds without generalizing from there to a blanket authority for anyone with a security clearance to decide what ought and ought not to remain classified. Burke’s dictum that general rules are not to be drawn from extreme cases would seem here to apply. To be sure, Greenwald appears to have withheld some documents and slightly redacted others. There is no evidence he would be cavalier in cases in which security genuinely necessitated secrecy, but neither is there much evidence he thinks such cases often actually occur.

Still, there is no reason one cannot disagree with Greenwald on any of these points while still appreciating his convincing case that surveillance is intrusive, aspires to be all knowing and that, crucially—and to his credit, he says in this context what no one in authority dare will—entirely out of proportion to the actual threat of terrorism. (205-206)

“[P]ursuing absolute physical safety,” he further observes, “has never been our single overarching societal priority.” (207) This is a decisively important point. In ACLU v. Clapper, FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce is approvingly quoted essentially arguing the opposite, defending surveillance as follows: “You ask, ‘How can you put the value on an American life?’ And I can tell you, it’s priceless.” But unless a life lost to terrorism is more priceless than a life lost to other dangers, the response remains disproportionate. If all lives are priceless, it would make far more sense to surveil bars for potential DUIs—perhaps the NSA should trawl emails and texts for indications of who intends to go out drinking tonight without a designated driver—than it does to mine metadata for clues about terrorism, which takes vastly fewer lives.

The authorities have repeatedly argued that those who do no wrong have nothing to fear because their data, while it must be vacuumed up to assure a comprehensive whole in which the terrorists’ communications are also consumed, is not being perused—which returns us to that opening warning that the NSA “threaten[s] to produce the most extreme and oppressive weapon of state intrusion human history has ever seen.” Threatens—not aspires, although Greenwald occasionally seems to tilt toward assuming the latter. Yet constitutionalism is concerned with precisely this: what could be done with power.

The threat, the could, is this: The data the NSA is compiling is like a massive telephone book. One can trust those in power to possess it, keep it on the shelf, and not go thumbing through it. Or one can assume that all power is liable to abuse and that it would be best for that book never to be compiled. Greenwald challenges us to ask which option is in better keeping with commonsensical notions of human nature—and which more closely comports with the American constitutional tradition.