Originally appeared in The Barnes and Noble Review.
Review of No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald
Long before Edward Snowden selected Glenn Greenwald as the bucket into which he would direct his NSA leaks, Greenwald enjoyed a reputation among his fellow American political bloggers as a man to avoid provoking. He lives in a compound in Rio de Janeiro, surrounded by his beloved dogs, and his style in argument resembles the behavior of a mastiff protecting a beloved chewtoy. Counterargument meets growls and indignation, and long after the arguer has decided to move on to another subject, Greenwald continues to snarl and fight, publishing post upon post, update upon update, and never conceding anything at all, even when he is clearly wrong.
His book about the Snowden Affair, No Place to Hide, is proof that fame and a Pulitzer Prize have not changed him, and his self-confidence remains at awesome highs. It is a book written in self-righteous anger, with a robust sense of the author’s own heroics and relentless rage at his enemies. I hasten to add that I offer this description almost entirely by way of praise, since — however sociopathic these traits might be in an individual in normal life — in a journalist or litigator (Greenwald’s former profession) they are often virtues.
The book breaks into two parts, the first considerably more fulfilling than the second. It first recounts the history of Greenwald’s contact with Edward Snowden, from the first cryptic email, sent from Snowden to Greenwald under the pseudonym Cincinnatus, for the Roman patriot whose selfless service saved the Roman Republic. (Lack of irony and self-criticism is a theme here.) Greenwald at first blew off Snowden’s email and later was baffled by Snowden’s encryption protocols. Only with the intervention of Laura Poitras, a more cryptographically literate filmmaker, did he realize his correspondent was offering authentic and important information, from an insider’s perspective.
The story of Greenwald’s trip to Hong Kong with Poitras and a colleague at the Guardian newspaper is told simply and effectively, and it reveals a few flashes of the personality of the main characters of this drama. Snowden, for all the demonstrable hubris in unilaterally spilling the secrets of the country’s biggest spy agency, discouraged Greenwald and others from making him rather than the secrets themselves the focus of the world’s attention. Aspects of his personality have leaked out, as it were, in subsequent interviews. But from Greenwald’s narrative we now know that just about everything he did was calculated, and his disclosures meticulously arranged and catalogued, rather than dumped in Greenwald’s lap indiscriminately.
The second part of the book summarizes the disclosures themselves and the reactions, often embarrassing, of officials and journalists. Rep. Peter T. King (R N.Y.) falsely suggested that Greenwald was threatening to release a list of U.S. intelligence agents abroad. David Gregory questioned Greenwald onMeet the Press, suggesting that he might have aided and abetted a crime by publishing Snowden’s leaks. With few exceptions, Greenwald says, the media and government preferred to persecute the messengers, rather than fix the unconstitutional, blatantly criminal conspiracies they uncovered.
At this point I may as well admit that my sympathies are more with Greenwald and Snowden than with their antagonists — particularly those in government who have lied about domestic spying, abdicated responsibility for fixing it, or abused their power in efforts to excuse or continue it. But in this second section, Greenwald seriously tests his supporters’ tolerance. Even an extreme advocate of freedom of speech, and all the acts of journalism that entails, can wonder whether a system that relies on the sound judgment of Snowden and Greenwald to keep its holiest secrets might be a system that needs to reevaluate how it keeps its secrets. Greenwald seems unperturbed by the power he and Snowden have. And even someone who considers the world of Washington journalism a virtual herpetarium of toadies and sycophants can acknowledge, as Greenwald does not, that just about every national security journalist in town wishes Snowden chose him or her instead of Greenwald and Poitras. He portrays himself as a truth teller in an industry of lickspittles, when in fact his government allows him his freedom, and his colleagues have awarded him their highest honor.
That honor is deserved. But No Place to Hide reminds us what Greenwald is and what he is not. He is not an especially talented investigative journalist — by Greenwald’s own account, Snowden practically had to hire a skywriter to convince him to learn the technology necessary to accept the leaks — but he was certainly the journalist best equipped to defend and rapidly publish the most explosive material. The journalists who wish they had published the leaks (and I’m sure this includes a number whose sour grapes lead them to criticize Snowden) would have subjected the leaks to greater scrutiny than Greenwald before they published. Greenwald spends many pages detailing his badgering of his own editor, Janine Gibson of Guardian US, to publish the leaks without delay, and without fully exploring their legal and national security implications. But I know of few journalists who would have lunged forward with Greenwald’s relentless zeal and complete lack of self-doubt. Snowden must have suspected that Greenwald would sink his fangs into the leaks in exactly this manner, using the material predictably yet energetically. If there were an industry prize for Canniest Leak, this book shows that Snowden would certainly have won it.