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After Snowden, do you feel less safe? David Aaronovitch on Glenn Greenwald and Luke Harding

The Snowden affair turned Greenwald from the humourless Occupy Wall Street version of Richard Littlejohn into that matinée idol of the modern era, the investigative journalist with a big story. 

Eyes in the sky: the NSA agency in Fort Meade, Maryland
Eyes in the sky: the NSA agency in Fort Meade, Maryland

No Place to Hide
Glenn Greenwald
Hamish Hamilton, 272pp, £20

The Snowden Files
Luke Harding
Guardian Faber, 352pp, £12.99

In “Easter 1916” W B Yeats relates how events can transform unconsidered and even contemptible people into something almost glorious. One man “I had dreamed/ A drunken, vainglorious lout”, but now

He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Until last June I had dreamed the erstwhile Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald a stilted writer of overlong, dishonest and repetitive polemics. Here, he tells us his deal at the Guardian was that he was never to be edited for length or content; to me, the results were apparent and lamentable. The Guardian reporter Luke Harding, in The Snowden Files (condemned by Greenwald, who hadn’t read it, as “a bullshit book”), describes the American former lawyer as “Swiftian”, but I imagine he is being ironic.

Then last summer the Snowden affair turned Greenwald from a humourless Occupy Wall Street version of Richard Littlejohn into that matinée idol of the modern era, the investigative journalist with a very, very big story. It was he who went to Hong Kong to meet the fugitive National Security Agency analyst and he who broke most of the early front-page sensations. His Ascension came ten months later when he was declared primus inter pares, receiving the Pulitzer Prize for public-service reporting.

Greenwald makes it clear in No Place to Hide that he felt he deserved to be in on the scoop, even though – as he relates – he rebuffed Edward Snowden’s increasingly frustrated anonymous attempts to reach out to him over several months. When Greenwald finally did come in on the act, he discovered that a Washington Post reporter had already been given one of the Snowden stories. Greenwald writes of this, snarkily but without irony: “The Post had been handed a major scoop that it had not worked to obtain.”

Without irony, because it is his activism, not his journalism, that he thinks qualifies him to be Snowden’s interlocutor. It is his political position, and the adamantine (or, to use his favourite compliment, “fearless”) manner in which he maintains it, that mark him out. A former lawyer, he is completely adversarial in nature. All the virtue is on one side, all the vice is on the other.

Lacking such commitment, journalists in the mainstream media are a treacherous shower. They operate to an “unwritten rule” designed to protect the government: “media outlets publish only a few such secret documents, and then stop. They would report on an archive like Snowden’s so as to limit its impact – publish a handful of stories, revel in the accolades of a ‘big scoop’, collect prizes, and then walk away, ensuring that nothing had really changed.”

That this is demonstrably balls is not my point here. Greenwald is fired by zeal for a cause and so is Snowden. But what is that cause?

I think their politics and beliefs intersect somewhere around the former Republican congressman and anti-state libertarian Ron Paul. From as early as 2008 Snowden, like many internet libertarians, was a fan of Paul’s, and could be found on chatlines arguing against social security for the elderly because it made them lazy. He was (and is) an opponent of any form of gun control.

Back then, however, Snowden had not caught up with Paul’s attitude towards foreign policy and the security services. In 2009 Snowden was hugely hostile to newspapers printing stories based on leaks from the US security services. He even hoped that the New York Times, which published such stories, would go bankrupt. (Incidentally, although Harding’s book contains this information, Greenwald’s does not.)

But Paul, in addition to his Tea Party attitudes towards the state, was the heir to an isolationist strand in far-right American thinking that went back to the aftermath of the First World War. This doctrine held that statists, usually of the left, sought to embroil the US in foreign adventures for essentially domestic reasons. Franklin D Roosevelt, for instance, was accused of wanting war with Germany so that he could extend the bureaucratic power of the government at home. After 9/11 (seen as a new version of Pearl Harbor), the likes of Paul viewed the wars and security acts of the Bush and then the Obama administrations as a continuation of this trend. Or, as Greenwald puts it in his book, “fearmongering is a favoured tactic by authorities precisely because fear so persuasively rationalises an expansion of power and a curtailment of rights”. Here Greenwald and Paul coincide: foreign wars and security worries are mostly a con designed to control the citizen.

In early 2012 Snowden became a small financial contributor to Paul’s presidential election campaign. By late 2012 he was trying to get hold of Greenwald. I think what had happened was that Snowden had at last become consistently Paulite, and Greenwald was his best bet. On Greenwald’s side, the evils of US foreign policy and their impact on domestic security policy had come to dominate all other issues.

So, unlike Alan Rusbridger and his team at the Guardian, say, Greenwald is not interested in abstract notions such as “the truth”. He is Snowden’s advocate, and that is a better thing to be. And of course there is some reality in the contention that governments, even in democracies, use foreign-policy issues to lever support, or exaggerate threats so as to mobilise public opinion. That is the mote in the securocrat’s eye.

When that contention is exaggerated, though, it inspires a countervailing extreme scepticism towards the idea of threats or enemies. And that is the beam in Greenwald’s (and possibly Snowden’s) eye.

Harding, who was thrown out of Putin’s Russia because of his critical reporting, writes that nobody “is disputing that Britain and the US had plenty of enemies – terrorists, hostile states, organised criminals, rogue nuclear powers and hackers intent on stealing secrets and making mischief”. But Greenwald, in effect, disputes all of that. There is no hostility out there that the US has not brought on itself, no misbehaviour that is worse than what the US does, no threat that has not been wildly exaggerated. So Greenwald, in his columns, will write of “villain-of-the-moment regimes in Iran, Syria or Libya [which] are said to be slaughtering their own citizens”, or, more recently, regarding Ukraine, will approvingly quote a professor of political science writing that the west has “the temerity to lecture and hector Russia about the evils of intervention in the affairs of its neighbour, Ukraine . . . The US is objecting to attempts by Russia to play a smaller and even far less aggressive version of its own world game.”

In this universe America is the problem. Consequently it doesn’t need – and can only suffer from – policies designed secretly to defend against the non-existent threats.

What the Snowden revelations show, Greenwald argues, is that the price is paid in a catastrophic loss of personal privacy. Cables are tapped, phone records sequestered, metadata on our online existence is stored and analysed. This amounts, Harding writes, to “the extirpation of privacy”. He goes on: “From this [metadata] you could construct a complete electronic narrative of an individual’s life – their friends, their lovers, their joys, their sorrows . . . metadata surveillance can be at least as intrusive as content interception and often more so.”

Speaking as someone whose Communist Party family was subject to “content interception” by the state over several years, I can say that this is nonsense. The operative word in Harding’s sentence is “could”. Your metadata divulges something only when it shows a pattern that then causes it to be interrogated further. Before that point, it is just another series of numbers out of several billion. And to investigate the pattern – theoretically, at any rate – the powers that be have to get permission: contrary to claims, then, that the NSA and GCHQ are drilling down into your very soul. This is why Harding’s book has to use the terms “scooped”, “harvested” and “sucked up” for what the NSA has been trying to do, rather than “read”, “listened to” or “watched”. It is also the reason why, to many people, the argument has seemed so abstract.

Both books are mostly straightforward accounts of Snowden’s flight from Hawaii to Hong Kong and then to Moscow and the subsequent worldwide furore. Harding’s is perfectly readable, though more hurried (it was published in February), and in it the Guardian is the hero. Greenwald’s is more considered, and Snowden, the documentary film-maker Laura Poitras and Greenwald himself are its stars.

No Place to Hide also has a quasi-philosophical curve and this allows Greenwald to develop a secondary argument concerning privacy. It isn’t so much that the NSA is looking at your Facebook, but that it wants you to think it is. “What makes a surveillance system effective in controlling human behaviour,” he writes, “is the knowledge that one’s words and actions are susceptible to monitoring.” This is more interesting, although if it were literally true the last thing Greenwald should do is to tell everyone about the monitoring, because it doesn’t work until you know about it. And you can certainly see that people with, say, a casual interest in illegal pornography might be put off by the idea that someone can see what they’re up to. Would it deter political activists in a democracy? I’d say probably not.

However, Greenwald convinces absolutely on one subject. This is that the oversight system for the security services in Britain and the US is out of date and has been operating too much as a rubber-stamp mechanism. He shows, beyond much doubt, that either the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (Fisa) courts give the security services whatever they ask for or else those services are hugely overcautious in their requests. It is a tendency of agencies to seek more rather than less capability and they must be held to account. The recent NSA report from the president’s review group shows how this can be done.

There is, however, an element missing from both books – an absence so huge that it astonishes me. Suppose for a moment that you thought that the security services of the US and Britain had an important role to play in keeping us safe. Imagine that you believed the existence of cyber-industrial espionage, hostile hacking, organised crime, terrorism and rogue states required competent and vigilant men and women to protect our democracies and their interests.

Think about all that and ask yourself: does not the Snowden affair make you feel very much less safe? The man has been very impressive. His account of his motivations has been restrained and convincing. There could not have been a better public face for the anti-NSA case.

But what the fuck? How was this allowed to happen? Just three years after a young US army intelligence analyst, Chelsea Manning, was able to download and leak a spectacular amount of classified information, here is a young man of 29, a private contractor – one of 60,000 such private employees – working directly from NSA offices where work was focused on China. A young man whose entry to the NSA was unaccompanied by his CIA employment file. A young man who says, after his defection, “I had access to full rosters of anybody working at the NSA. The entire intelligence community and undercover assets around the world. The locations of every station we have, all of their missions. If I just wanted to damage the US I could have shut down the surveillance system in an afternoon.”

This young man, animated by a moral code drawn from video games (as related by Snowden to Greenwald), manages to steal 50-60,000 secret British documents alone. He skips job, agency, office, home and city and then partners with a man – Greenwald – who has made it clear that he agrees with Julian Assange’s dumping in the public domain in 2011 of tens of thousands of unredacted diplomatic cables, an action that put human rights activists in danger.

Though Snowden, Greenwald and the Guardian team report their sometimes comic sense of paranoia that the infallible NSA will track them down (possibly using spy cabbies and co-opted Triad gangs), in fact it is Snowden’s parents who first notice his departure. Even three months after the Snowden stories strike, the NSA has no idea what it has lost, or how important it is.

At no point in this saga has the NSA looked remotely scary, or even slightly competent. What Snowden showed was that its vulnerability to young and ideologically mobile engineers armed with thumb-drives has turned the NSA into the NiSA – an agency defined by insecurity.

David Aaronovitch is a Times columnist and the author of “Voodoo Histories” (Vintage, £10.99)

Luke Harding will speak at the NS and Latitude Festival event Should We Know How Far Surveillance Goes, along with Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia) and David Omand, former director of GCHQ. At Kings College, London WC2 on 3 June. Tickets: newstatesman.com/events 

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