Shining Light on Big Brother
“Will the digital age usher in the individual liberation and political freedoms that the Internet is uniquely capable of unleashing? Or will it bring about a system of omniscient monitoring and control, beyond the dreams of even the greatest tyrants of the past? Right now, either path is possible. Our actions will determine where we end up.” —Glenn Greenwald
Greenwald is a rare man of inflexible principle in an online conversation dominated by flexible partisans. He’s a civil libertarian for whom LGBT equality, a Nazi’s right to free speech, and freedom from government surveillance are bound by a common thread; and he’s a brutal and tireless combatant with everyone from President Obama’s Twitter legions to George W. Bush.
Whenever I read Greenwald, I am reminded of the courage and strongly held convictions exhibited by early twentieth century journalist H. L. Mencken. I’ve been following Greenwald’s writings for a number of years, and I especially admire his principled commentaries on civil liberties (covering free speech to due process), government transparency, whistleblowers, political hypocrisy, and the media’s disturbing subservient relationship to power. Perhaps then, it is no surprise that Greenwald was one of two journalists contacted by Edward Snowden to publicize his NSA revelations.
As with his other writings, Greenwald’s new book No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State was a pleasure to read and carries many important lessons for our time. With the racing suspense of a spy thriller, Greenwald gives his personal account on how he first met NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and how that fateful encounter set the stage for arguably the greatest journalist scoop of the decade. Greenwald recounts the numerous technical and institutional hurdles that created many initial frustrations but was convinced of the gravity of what Snowden had to offer. After meeting him in-person after his trip to Hong Kong, he understood the moral and ethical considerations that drove Snowden’s actions and sought to honor the sacrifice Snowden rationally and willingly chose to make. Together with independent documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras and the backing of The Guardian, they produced the groundbreaking disclosures that garnered international headlines, triggered a new debate over the modern surveillance state, and spawned various socio-political movements dedicated to reform. It’s been over a year (see this excellent summary by the Electronic Frontier Foundation of what we learned so far) since the initial stories first ran, and the resulting international controversy over the NSA’s global system of surveillance remains ongoing.
Despite the fact he has written on government abuses for years, Greenwald was shocked by the massive archive provided by Snowden because it revealed the “sheer vastness” of a surveillance apparatus that has been “implemented with virtually no accountability, no transparency, and no limits.” After thorough review of the formerly top secret NSA documents, Greenwald firmly concludes:
[T]he US government had built a system that has as its goal the complete elimination of electronic privacy worldwide. Far from hyperbole, that is the literal, explicitly stated aim of the surveillance state: to collect, store, monitor, and analyze all communication by all people around the globe. The agency is devoted to one overarching mission: to prevent the slightest piece of electronic communication from evading its systemic grasp.
As summed up by NSA chief General Keith Alexander, the goal is to “collect it all.” In pursuit of this agenda, the resources and capacities of the NSA are aimed at not only suspected terrorists but on all Americans and people worldwide (in violation of statutory law, the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, and international law).
One particular unsettling revelation from Greenwald’s book is how he described the origins of this global Panopticon. In 2005, Alexander oversaw the collection of signals intelligence for the occupation of Iraq and became dissatisfied with its limited scope (originally targeting suspected insurgents and other threats to U.S forces). Instead, he desired a broad approach that would sweep up every Iraqi text message, phone call, email, and all other forms of electronic communication. He got what he wanted, and every technological capability was employed to collect all communications data from the entire Iraqi population. This system of indiscriminate, ubiquitous surveillance was later applied to the United States domestically. In short, a military program originally intended to apply to a conquered enemy population in a foreign theater of war was then used on American soil. This detail alone raises very disturbing questions on how the political elites have come to view and treat the American people.
As James Madison noted at the Constitutional Convention: “A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty. The means of defence against foreign danger have been always the instruments of tyranny at home.” The nature of man and the tendencies of government were well-understood by the Framers, and they sought to constrain the excesses of both under a written Constitution. Despite this arrangement, history shows that government manages to transcend its constitutional limits under the impetus provided by crisis and undergoes a brief rollback when it is over, but never fully goes back to pre-crisis levels. Over time, these newly acquired powers become routine and government expansion accumulates over the decades.* The resurgence of the warfare state from the events of 9/11 has culminated in the establishment of a “Top Secret America” that turns Mr. Madison on his head. These facts have not escaped Greenwald, and he explicitly condemns the exploitation of fear to expand government power:
...the fear of terrorism—stoked by consistent exaggerations of the actual threat—has been exploited by US leaders to justify a wide array of extremist policies. It has lead to wars of aggression, a worldwide torture regime, and the detention (and even assassination) of both foreign nationals and American citizens without any charges. But the ubiquitous, secretive system of suspicionless surveillance that it has spawned may very well turn out to be its enduring legacy.
The title of Greenwald’s book comes from a prescient warning by the late Senator Frank Church who headed a special committee in the 1970s to investigate intelligence abuses and misconduct. In 1975, he appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press and issued his famous warning should the government’s surveillance powers escape the rule of law and get unleashed against the American people:
In the need to develop a capacity to know what potential enemies are doing, the United States government has perfected a technological capability that enables us to monitor the messages that go through the air.... Now, that is necessary and important to the United States as we look abroad at enemies or potential enemies. We must know, at the same time, that capability at any time could be turned around 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 tyranny, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, 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 to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know. Such is the capability of this technology....
I don’t want to see this country ever go across the bridge. I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return.
Fast forward to the present day, and we now face a surveillance state augmented with even greater powers. Today’s millennials grew up with the Internet. With the central role of digital technology in their daily lives, the prying eyes of Big Brother affect them at the deepest levels online. As Greenwald points out:
[I]t is the epicenter of our world, the place where virtually everything is done. It is where friends are made, where books and films are chose, where political activism is organized, where the most private data is created and stored. It is where we develop and express our very personality and sense of self.... To permit surveillance to take root on the Internet would mean subjecting virtually all forms of human interaction, planning, and even thought itself to comprehensive state examination.
The Internet, with its enormous potential for liberalization in all areas of human activities, faces an existential threat from mass surveillance that could turn it into its very antithesis. Greenwald devotes a third of the book to a technical but understandable analysis of various NSA programs (complete with scans, slides, and other original documents) including the notorious Boundless Informant, XKeyscore, and PRISM, which could have come out of Orwell’s 1984. Greenwald also discusses the historical abuses involving government surveillance as well as psychological experiments reproducing its effects. He cites many examples on how the “chilling effect” from mass surveillance directly and subtly produced coercion that forced people into submission and obedience. Meanwhile, in a twist of dark irony, as the U.S. government today tries to learn every detail about what its citizens are doing, it is becoming increasingly secretive regarding its own operations. Although this is a very important segment of the book, the last chapter of Greenwald’s book deserves special attention. Here he reserves harsh criticism for the mainstream media for its too-often deferential attitudes towards power and authority.
Greenwald reminds us that the “Fourth Estate” traditionally acted as an additional check on abuses of power but has largely abandoned that role in recent years. He gives a searing indictment on how it became government’s defenders and worst apologists by highlighting specific media outlets and individual commentators he believes have become “subservient to the government’s interests, even amplifying, rather scrutinizing, its messages and carrying out its dirty work.” Perhaps the most egregious example is when Greenwald recounts the infamous interview with David Gregory on Meet the Press where Gregory asked him why he shouldn’t “be charged with a crime” for having “aided and abetted Snowden.”
Although Greenwald ably defended himself in this encounter, the presence of a sycophantic media and its cozy relationship with the power elite is a disturbing phenomenon for those who attempt to challenge “official” narratives and pre-approved talking points. In Greenwald’s view, “Promoting the human capacity to reason and make decisions: that is the purpose of whistleblowing, of activism, of political journalism.” In a positive development, thanks to the revelations by Edward Snowden and those spurred to action as a result, we are seeing this once more.
Thomas Paine rightly recognized that “a body of men, holding themselves accountable to nobody, ought not to be trusted by any body.” Transparency and proper oversight are absolutely necessary for a free society. They can only be carried out by independent journalists who fulfill their adversarial roles and an informed, active citizenry that is willing to engage. No Place to Hide is an essential book for those who wish to understand the challenges to liberty and privacy in the Digital Age.