The NSA disclosures are disturbing but they don’t portend a totalitarian stateby George Packer / May 22, 2014 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2014 issue of Prospect Magazine
Edward Snowden is a child of the internet and at the same time an old American type—the solitary individual whose religion is conscience, and who follows his own regardless of where it takes him. The type goes back to the English Protestant dissenters who settled the New World in the 17th century. Its most eloquent exemplar was Henry David Thoreau, who wrote in “Civil Disobedience” (1849): “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.” Thoreau withdrew to a cabin on Walden Pond, and he refused to pay taxes in protest against the Mexican War and slavery. Snowden lives in the hyperconnected isolation of the internet, and in June 2013 he committed what might have been the largest breach of state secrecy in American history, exposing the extent of internet and phone surveillance by the US National Security Agency (NSA).
In the famous hotel-room interview in Hong Kong that revealed his identity on video, Snowden said: “If living unfreely but comfortably is something you’re willing to accept—and I think many of us are, it’s the human nature—you can get up every day, you can go to work, you can collect your large pay cheque for relatively little work, against the public interest, and go to sleep at night after watching your shows.” It sounds like the quiet desperation Thoreau attributed to most of his fellow men. But if, like Snowden, you can’t rest until you’ve tested the courage of your conviction by taking radical action, then “you realise that you might be willing to accept any risk and it doesn’t matter what the outcome is.” As things turned out this proved not to be quite true—instead of returning to the US to face trial and the possibility of a long jail term, Snowden fled to Russia and sought asylum. But what matters more is that this is the kind of person he wanted and imagined himself to be.
Not caring about the outcome is what Max Weber, in “Politics as a Vocation,” called “the ethic of ultimate ends,” in contrast with “the ethic of responsibility.” There are many reasons to criticise this ethic and the uncompromising Thoreauvians who wear it as a badge of honour, but one has to admit that the issue of mass surveillance in America would not have come to public attention without a type like Snowden. A troubled but basically loyal official who passed his concerns along internal channels would have been turned aside, as others before Snowden were. The dire consequences for disclosing top secrets would have deterred anyone who hadn’t arrived at the Manichean either/or that drove Snowden to plan his massive document leak methodically over many months. The scale of it—nearly two million documents, by some accounts—is a measure of the purity of his conviction. No particle of nuance could be allowed to adulterate it. He has been accused of grandiosity, but nothing short of that would have done the job.
Politically, Snowden’s views fall into a related American tradition, going back to Thomas Jefferson and the even more radical founders, though in a distinctly contemporary form. Snowden is a libertarian whose distrust of institutions and hostility to any intrusion on personal autonomy place him beyond the sphere in American politics where left and right are relevant categories. A temperament as much as a philosophy, libertarianism is often on the verge of rejecting politics itself, with its dissatisfying but necessary trade-offs; it tends toward absolutist positions, which grow best in the mental equivalent of a hermetic laboratory environment. Libertarianism has become practically the default position of young people who work in technology, especially the most precocious among them. It also reflects, though not completely, the political outlook of Glenn Greenwald, the former Guardian columnist whom Snowden chose to receive the files, and who has just published his account of the story, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the US Surveillance State. In Greenwald, Snowden found the most sympathetic conduit for his secrets.
Snowden’s early writings on the online forum Ars Technica, published under the pseudonym TheTrueHOOHA, reveal a grab bag of familiar libertarian opinions. He supports gun and marijuana rights, opposes social security, belittles high unemployment, votes for Ron Paul for President in 2008 (though Paul belongs to a more traditionally conservative, far-right strain), contributes money to Paul’s campaign in 2012, and is outraged when President Barack Obama appoints a former politician, Leon Panetta, as director of the CIA. In 2009, TheTrueHOOHA was incensed at the New York Times for revealing details about American and Israeli plans to sabotage Iran’s nuclear programme. But four years later, preparing his epic leak, Snowden refused to deal with New York Times reporters because, he thought, the paper is too timid and beholden to the government. Luke Harding, a Guardian correspondent and the author of The Snowden Files (which covers some of the same ground as Greenwald), tries to explain this contradiction as a matter of consistent principle. Harding accepts Snowden’s claim that he opposes leaks that could betray operational security, like the story in the New York Times. But the trove of now-public documents disclosed by Snowden includes accounts of American hacking of Chinese computers, a presidential directive for cyberwar against specifically named countries, and details of surveillance used for drone strikes in Pakistan. What’s constant isn’t Snowden’s scruples about leaking, but his contempt for the New York Times. The shifting reasons matter less than the abiding distrust of the leading newspaper in America.
Defending the American people is the one power that most libertarians readily accord to government. Snowden supported the Iraq war and enlisted in the Army in 2004 at age 20, only lasting a few months before a training injury ended his military career. He went on to become an information technology specialist in various agencies of US intelligence. But in his eight years among American spies, Snowden came to see their world as just as corrupt and dangerous as that of politicians and journalists, if not more.
Above all, Snowden is a soldier of the internet, “the most important invention in all human history.” He has said that he grew up not just using it but in it, and that he learned the heroic power of moral action from playing video games. “Basically, the internet allowed me to experience freedom and explore my full capacity as a human being,” Snowden told Greenwald when they met in Hong Kong. “I do not want to live in a world where we have no privacy and no freedom, where the unique value of the internet is snuffed out.” Throughout the past year, Snowden has continually returned to this theme, more often and more passionately than to the idea of constitutional liberties. His utopia is not an actual democratic society, let alone the good life in a three-bedroom bungalow outside Honolulu, but cyberspace. When he saw that his employer, the US government, was invading the free and private place where he had become himself, the effect was of a paradise lost.
Snowden’s leaks can be seen, in part, as a determined effort to restore the web to its original purity—a project of technology rather than law. “Let us speak no more of faith in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of cryptography,” wrote Snowden, in an early message to his collaborators. In March of this year, appearing remotely from Russia on a robotised screen onstage at a TED talk in Vancouver, Snowden said that the single best solution to the NSA’s abuses is stronger encryption: “The internet that we’ve enjoyed in the past has been exactly what we, as not just a nation but as a people around the world, need.” In taking nearly two million highly classified documents from the US, he was grabbing back the key to heaven.
The story of the disclosures has become so familiar that it’s close to a legend: the anonymous emails sent to Greenwald and his friend, the filmmaker Laura Poitras, in late 2012 by “a senior member of the intelligence community”; their encrypted exchanges; Snowden’s flight from Hawaii to Hong Kong the following May, with four supersensitive laptops; the pole-dancing girlfriend whom he left behind and in the dark; the Rubik’s cube he held in one hand at the prearranged meeting point, next to a plastic alligator in the Mira Hotel, so that the reporters would know him; the long hours in Snowden’s hotel room; Greenwald’s sensational and serial revelations in the Guardian; Poitras’s 12-minute video of the calm, articulate, extremely pale young man in the grey shirt introducing himself to the world; Snowden’s sudden reappearance at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport.
There’s an inherently thrilling quality to this story—a tiny group of people, strangers to one another, meet in an out-of-the-way place in possession of an enormously important secret that the rest of the world is about to know. Harding’s The Snowden Files moves high-spiritedly through this, with extensive focus on data sharing between the NSA, Britain’s GCHQ, and the telecom and internet giants whose fibre-optic cables are secretly tapped by the two agencies. There’s a detailed account of the Guardian’s role in the story, from Greenwald’s first conversation about the files with Janine Gibson, the Guardian US’s editor in New York, to the forced destruction—under legal pressure from the government— of computers and hard drives in the basement of their London headquarters. For much of the story, Harding’s only sources are his colleagues, and stretches of the book have the feel of a hasty in-house version of the Snowden affair, like the regimental history of a great battle. Government officials are “hobbits,” “a plummy-voiced Labour MP,” and “a flunkey in a gold chain.” Guardian personnel are “imperturbable,” “honest,” “innovative,” musically gifted, and frequently witty. “She didn’t budge. She was ramrod,” a Guardian reporter tells the Guardian author about a Guardian editor’s conduct under White House pressure.
The fact that the year’s biggest scoop in American news was broken by an anti-establishment columnist in a left-wing British paper led some prominent US journalists to downplay or attack the story (others quickly saw its importance). Harding has a dim view of American journalism. “With little competition,” he writes, “they are free to pursue leads at a leisurely, even gentlemanly, pace.” It’s quite true that the Washington press corps is far too cosy with the powerful people it covers, but the pursuit of scoops in print and digital outlets around the country is fierce. Even if the picture of US journalism as a country club lulled to sleep by the First Amendment were accurate, it’s hard to think of an American reporter who would piece together a book about national security with so few of his own government sources, relying extensively on testimonials and in-jokes from his colleagues.
Greenwald’s No Place to Hide was embargoed until 13th May, and every page of my copy is stamped “CONFIDENTIAL,” with a legal agreement enjoining me to treat the manuscript as “highly secret” and take no notes on it. I can’t write without taking notes, so, like Snowden, I had to violate that part of my oath in order to serve a higher purpose.
As it turns out, the book contains no major scoops. (The most significant disclosure might be that the NSA intercepts and bugs network equipment before repackaging and shipping it overseas.) Although Greenwald and Snowden have suggested that the most explosive revelations are yet to come, no recent story has had anything like the force of the original disclosures about the NSA’s bulk data collection from phone and internet companies. What the documents in Greenwald’s book reveal is the larger picture of an agency ravenous for every piece of data it can collect.
The value of No Place to Hide lies elsewhere. It’s the only account we have by one of the main characters, an ex-litigator for whom prose narrative is another form of political combat. (Greenwald has called The Snowden Files “a bullshit book” because Harding has never interviewed the protagonist, and because he thought that, in quoting TheTrueHOOHA to reconstruct Snowden’s early adulthood, Harding was tarnishing the source’s reputation.)
From Snowden’s first overtures, which Greenwald essentially ignored, to their encounters in Hong Kong, the story is grippingly told. Greenwald also makes a powerful case—all the more so for being uncompromising and absolute—for the central role of privacy in a free society, and against the utilitarian argument that, since the phone companies’ metadata on Americans hasn’t been seriously abused by government officials (not yet, anyway), none of us should be too worried. In a chapter called “The Harm of Surveillance,” he cites Justice Louis Brandeis’s famous opinion on the basic “right to be let alone,” and writes: “The desire for privacy is shared by us all as an essential, not ancillary, part of what it means to be human. We all instinctively understand that the private realm is where we can act, think, speak, write, experiment, and choose how to be, away from the judgemental eyes of others. Privacy is a core condition of being a free person.”
But the book’s greatest interest lies in what it reveals about dissent and the dissenter in an age when democratic institutions are in disarray. Greenwald and Poitras have a clear political agenda, which is why Snowden, with his deep distrust of the institutional press, chose them. Sean Wilentz, in a New Republic essay on the politics of what he calls “paranoid libertarianism,” points out that, when it comes to domestic programmes such as Medicare and social security, Greenwald’s views are those of a more conventional liberal. Where he and Snowden converge is in their zeal to expose the illegitimacy of the American “surveillance state.”
Greenwald believes that the US government uses monitoring to suppress internal dissent in an era of economic pain and political anger. “Mass surveillance” keeps the public docile by instilling fear of a ubiquitous government that doesn’t just watch people’s every move but “kills dissent in a deeper and more important place as well: in the mind, where the individual trains him or herself to think only in line with what is expected and demanded.” The economic crisis began in 2008, while the NSA programmes date back to the years following 9/11—but chronology is only the most obvious flaw in this vastly overblown argument. By Greenwald’s reasoning, he himself is responsible for making the public afraid by exposing the breadth of the NSA’s monitoring, which had previously remained unknown and therefore incapabale of creating widespread fear. He also wants to use the story to show “the corrupting dynamics of establishment journalism.” The Snowden files immediately appeared useful to both ends.
When, on their long flight to Hong Kong, Greenwald and Poitras read the contents of the thumb drive she had given him in New York, with the sensational NSA files, the two couldn’t contain their delight. “I would pop up out of my seat and we’d stand in the open space of the bulkhead, speechless, overwhelmed, stunned by what we had,” writes Greenwald. He gave Harding a more candid account (before cutting short their interview): “We would just cackle and giggle like we were schoolchildren. We were screaming, and hugging and dancing with each other up and down,” until the pair woke up the passengers around them. Far from being disturbed or saddened by the revelations, Greenwald and Poitras were ecstatic: they’d got the goods on the surveillance state, nothing was lost and everything gained.
On the same flight was a veteran Guardian reporter named Ewen MacAskill, assigned by the paper to help the columnist and filmmaker with this complex and sensitive story. MacAskill’s addition to the trip enraged Poitras. “Who has vetted him?” she demanded upon learning that a third person would join them—as if reporters have to be checked for their views before they can be allowed to work. Greenwald saw MacAskill as harmless, “a longtime company man.” These are characteristic attitudes. Greenwald’s contempt for journalists of the “establishment media” is limitless: “like all courtiers, they are eager to defend the system that vests them with their privileges,” he writes. Meanwhile Poitras—an immensely talented filmmaker, whose My Country, My Country is the best documentary about the Iraq war—retreats deeper into self-isolation.
Greenwald and Poitras argued so fiercely about MacAskill that she threatened to cancel the trip, until Greenwald came up with a solution: “I proposed that we ignore Ewen and freeze him out… Laura and I were cordial but cold, ensuring… that he had no role until we were ready to give him one.” This astounding lack of professionalism only subsided when MacAskill proved his bona fides in Hong Kong, demonstrating that he shared their view of Snowden.
Greenwald has no use for the norms of journalism. He rejects objectivity, as a reality and an ideal. “‘Objectivity’ means nothing more than reflecting the biases and serving the interests of entrenched Washington,” he writes. “All journalism serves one faction’s interest or another’s.” This is hardly a new notion, but it’s also a destructive one. Of course everyone has biases, which is exactly why the effort to think and report in spite of them is important. Without objectivity as an aspiration, the correctness of a political line comes before a fair consideration of facts: the facts follow the line, not the other way around.
In Greenwald’s case, the result is a pervasive absence of intellectual integrity. The examples in No Place to Hide are too numerous to catalogue, but here are a few characteristic ones:
—Greenwald asserts that Snowden “had not taken all possible steps to cover his tracks because he did not want his colleagues to be subjected to investigations or false accusations.” But he doesn’t mention the Reuters article showing that Snowden borrowed logins and passwords from colleagues in order to gain access to more files. The article reported that “A handful of agency [NSA] employees who gave their login details to Snowden were identified, questioned and removed from their assignments.”
—He scoffs at the Washington Post for hesitating to send a reporter to meet Snowden in Hong Kong out of concern that their conversations might be monitored by Chinese state intelligence. But when Poitras won’t speak openly in a Hong Kong taxi for fear that their driver might be an undercover US agent, Greenwald thinks that she could be right.
—John Burns of the New York Times writes an unflattering profile of Julian Assange, the Wikileaks leader, whom Greenwald intensely admires. Burns is described as “pro-war reporter John Burns.” But Snowden is never “pro-war leaker Edward Snowden”; nor indeed is Greenwald ever “pro-war columnist Glenn Greenwald,” though the preface to his first book says that he did initially support the war in Iraq, before changing his mind after the invasion. (In a paragraph of agonised qualifications, he wrote that “to the extent that I was able to develop a definitive view, I accepted his [the President’s] judgement that American security really would be enhanced by the invasion.”)
—But unlike Burns, Steve Clemons of the Atlantic, who tweeted about overhearing four intelligence officials at Washington’s Dulles airport declaim that Snowden and Greenwald should be “disappeared,” is “well-regarded” and “quite credible.”
—The New York Times, the Washington Post, and other news organisations are spineless servants of power—unless Greenwald is using their work to undercut the NSA, which never changes or even complicates his fixed view. Similarly, the US government is determined to frighten and punish critics like Greenwald and Poitras—an idea that doesn’t budge, even after they arrive unmolested at John F Kennedy airport to pick up journalism prizes.
Some of the instances are more subtle than others, but spread over the several hundred pages of this book, they reveal a mind that has liberated itself from the basic claims of fairness. Once the norms of journalism are dismissed, a number of constraints and assumptions fall away. Critical distance from the source disappears. Greenwald and Poitras “vowed to each other repeatedly and to Snowden” that their actions would honour Snowden’s choice. So Poitras is outraged when the Guardian violates Snowden’s wishes by sharing his files with the New York Times, as if the Guardian were a vehicle for Snowden’s purposes. And Greenwald attacks the New York Times, which had received thousands of documents from Wikileaks, for highlighting Julian Assange’s troubling behaviour, as if the paper owed its source the benefit of clergy rather than its readers a full picture. Greenwald treats his source as inviolate.
For Greenwald, Poitras, and Snowden’s other supporters, the Obama Administration’s determination—fitful over time—to arrest and prosecute Snowden is a violation of his rights. Because the disclosures revealed government wrongdoing, Snowden should be immune from the laws he broke. Greenwald points out that the majority of Americans both oppose the NSA’s data collection programmes and also want Snowden prosecuted. He finds these opinions “inconstant,” which is only true if politics is higher than the rule of law. This view betrays the demanding but necessary principle of civil disobedience—from Thoreau to Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King—which requires that conscientious dissenters who act against an unjust law must be willing to pay the price.
In the same way, Greenwald believes efforts by the US and British governments to recover leaked documents are illegitimate, because of what those documents revealed. Last August, Greenwald’s Brazilian partner, David Miranda, was held and questioned for nine hours at Heathrow airport by the British authorities under an anti-terrorism law. Miranda was transporting some of the Snowden archive from Berlin, where Poitras lives in self-imposed exile, to Rio, where he and Greenwald live. Miranda’s electronic devices, including files from the Snowden archive, were confiscated. Greenwald initially told the press that his partner was being held to intimidate him from continuing his work on the NSA disclosures, but did not mention the purpose of Miranda’s trip. The application of the terrorism law was opportunistic, and the law itself prone to abuse, but Greenwald seems to think that a citizen of a foreign country passing through a British airport in possession of highly classified documents taken from the British government should be beyond the reach of any law.
If Greenwald and others were actually being persecuted for their political beliefs, they would instinctively understand that the rule of law has to protect people regardless of politics. The NSA disclosures are disturbing and even shocking; so is the Obama administration’s hyper-aggressive pursuit of leaks; so is the fact that, for several years, Poitras couldn’t leave or re-enter the US without being questioned at airports. These are abuses, but they don’t quite reach the level of the Stasi. They don’t portend a totalitarian state “beyond the dreams of even the greatest tyrants of the past,” as Greenwald believes is possible. A friend from Iran who was jailed and tortured for having the wrong political beliefs, and who is now an American citizen, observed drily, “I prefer to be spied on by NSA.” The sense of oppression among Greenwald, Poitras, and other American dissenters is only possible to those who have lived their entire lives under the rule of law and have come to take it for granted.
In the year since the first NSA disclosures, Snowden has drifted a long way from the Thoreauvian ideal of the majority of one. He has become an international celebrity, far more championed than reviled. He has praised Russia and Venezuela’s devotion to human rights. His more recent disclosures have nothing to do with the constitutional rights of US citizens. Many of them deal with surveillance of foreign governments, including Germany and Brazil, but also Iran, Russia, and China. These are activities that, wise or unwise, fall well within the NSA’s mandate and the normal ways of espionage. Snowden has attached himself to Wikileaks and to Assange, who has become a tool of Russian foreign policy and has no interest in reforming American democracy—his goal is to embarrass it. Assange and Snowden are not the first radical individualists to end up in thrall to strongmen.
Snowden looked to the internet for liberation, but it turns out that there is no such thing as an entirely free individual. Cryptography can never offer the absolute privacy and liberty that Snowden seeks online. The internet will always be a space controlled by corporations and governments, and the freedom it provides is of a limited, even stunting, kind. No one lives outside the fact of coercion—there is always a state to protect or pursue you, whether it’s Obama’s America or Putin’s Russia.
The NSA revelations have tapped into the disenchantment with established institutions that is widespread around the world, from Istanbul to Bangkok to Athens. Are they still worth reforming? Can democratic norms, including those of the press, restore themselves to health? Can a proper balance be found between liberty and security? Or should the whole effort be dismissed because the surveillance state has no interest in setting limits?
One valuable model for reform appeared last December, in “The NSA Report” of the President’s Review Group, a far-reaching set of recommendations for constraining data collection by the US government. Obama largely ignored it, perhaps counting on the waning attention of the American people. So did Greenwald, who doesn’t believe in reform. “There are, broadly speaking, two choices,” he says. “Obedience to institutional authority or radical dissent from it.” Putting it this way is, in itself, a choice. But fair-minded public opinion will always see a need for state secrecy and intrusion, so Greenwald’s choice, which excludes reform, can only make institutional authority stronger.
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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Luke Harding had “just one government source of his own” in writing “The Snowden Files.” Harding spoke to five government sources in his reporting for the book.