In May of 2013, Edward Snowden, a young systems administrator contracting for the National Security Agency, fled the United States for Hong Kong, carrying with him thousands of classified documents outlining the staggering capabilities of the NSA’s surveillance programs--including those designed to collect information within the U.S. There Snowden arranged a meeting with Guardian contributors Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Ewen MacAskill, and so began the most explosive leak of classified material since the Pentagon Papers over 40 years ago. Two new books recount the Snowden affair from the reporters' perspectives, and both are revelatory and vital.
No Place to Hide
by Glenn Greenwald
The Snowden Files
by Luke Harding
No Place to Hide --Amazon's Spotlight pick for the Best Books of May--opens with the tense account of Greenwald's initial encounters with Snowden in Hong Kong. He almost missed the story: Snowden contacted him anonymously via instant messenger, requesting that Greenwald install cryptographic software before he dropped a bombshell of a story in the reporter's lap. As the regular recipient of many similar messages (and not versed in privacy software), Greenwald procrastinated. It wasn't until award-winning filmmaker Laura Poitras confided in Greenwald that she was holding her own cache of sensitive material--also from Snowden--that he lit out for China with Poitras and the scoop of their lives. It's some serious cloak-and-dagger stuff: clandestine rendezvous, secret passphrases, and back-passage escapes from hotels as the media (and presumably the U.S government) closes around Snowden.
The book's core describes the NSA’s vast information-collection apparatus, including reproductions of some of the “Snowden files” themselves. Anyone who's read James Bamford's excellent books on the NSA will probably be unsurprised by their ambition (they've tapped telecoms and undersea cables for ages, well before the modern Internet), but seeing the scale of the operations--enabled through the compulsory participation of tech behemoths like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Yahoo!--one begins to understand that NSA director Keith Alexander's stated goal to "collect it all" might actually be achievable, if it isn't already. The alphabet soup of agencies and project code names can be confusing and alternately funny and ominous (BLACKPEARL, BLARNEY, and STORMBREW, to name three), but Greenwald succinctly explains the purpose and reach of each.(Observation: It's amusing to see that bad PowerPoint presentations--unfortunate font choices, banal jargon, scattershot logos and seals--are not limited to the corporate sphere.) Minds will, or should, be blown here.
In the third act, Greenwald tells you why it matters. Wherever you come down on the spectrum of national security vs. Constitutional freedoms, Snowden's breach has forced a reckoning, and Greenwald carries strong opinions. To those who argue that they have nothing to hide, he points out that everyone has something to hide: though you might not be cooking meth in your garden shed, you will act differently when you know you are watched than when you have a notion of privacy. This possibility of being observed--a modern application of Bentham's panopticon--creates a system of control, of behavior modification. To those who say "it's only metadata" (e.g. the information about a phone call, rather than the content of the conversation itself), Greenwald points out that it's simple to draw a picture of behavior based on who you're calling and when, and--if you had a choice--you might not be amenable to sharing that information. This might be effective in combating terrorism (there's debate about that), but "collect it all" means just what it says: everything on everybody, not just terrorists. And there is so much more: blanket government warrants rubber-stamped by secret courts, establishment media complicity. It goes on.
No Place to Hide will anger readers on both sides of the conversation--some for Snowden's transgression, some for its revelations about the government reach. A more straightforward narrative, The Snowden Files: This Inside Story of the World's Most Wanted Man--published in February--provides the play-by-play of the Snowden affair with a bit less opinion (Greenwald is a columnist, after all). Luke Harding, another Guardian correspondent, has amassed an incredible amount of detail and transformed it into 333 pages of gripping thriller. Harding has more perspective from the newspaper side: where Greenwald occasionally thought the Guardian resisted publishing his stories, Harding witnessed first-hand the intimidation at the hands of the Government Communications Headquarters, the NSA's British counterpart and collaborator. In one memorable scene, a pair of GCHQ agents oversee the destruction of Guardian computers as a compromise for not handing over the Snowden documents. "You've had your fun. Now we want the stuff back." It's as if Dickens had written The Trial. Both books are excellent, possibly essential, but The Snowden Files gives more of itself to the history of NSA and GCHQ surveillance, Snowden's backstory and possible future, and the intricacies of intelligence-sharing among the "Five Eyes" allies, who together cast a world-wide surveillance net.
This is far from over. Greenwald recently told GQ that he's been saving the biggest stories for last. Whether you consider Snowden a whistleblower crying foul on government overreach, or a self-aggrandizing traitor who put national security at risk, both books are taut and enlightening, marking a bellwether moment in a crucial debate.