No Place to Hide: A Conservative Critique of a Radical NSA

Glenn Greenwald's new book is far more grounded in traditional American norms, laws, and values than the surveillance programs it is critiquing.

Glenn Greenwald's new book, No Place to Hide, reproduces a secret National Security Agency document that sums up that agency's radical approach to surveillance:

Collect it all. Know it all. Exploit it all.

That totalitarian approach came straight from the top. Outgoing NSA chief Keith Alexander began using "collect it all" in Iraq at the height of the counterinsurgency. Eventually, he aimed similar tools at hundreds of millions of innocent people living in liberal democracies at peace, not war zones under occupation.

The strongest passages in No Place to Hide convey the awesome spying powers amassed by the U.S. government and its surveillance partners; the clear and present danger they pose to privacy; and the ideology of the national-security state. The NSA really is intent on subverting every method a human could use to communicate without the state being able to monitor the conversation.

U.S. officials regard the unprecedented concentration of power that would entail to be less dangerous than the alternative. They can't conceive of serious abuses perpetrated by the federal government, though recent U.S. history offers many examples.

In his Washington Post review, David Cole offers lots of praise, some reasonable criticisms, and the judgment that No Place to Hide would have been more persuasive had Greenwald "confronted what is difficult" about surveillance policy rather than lob "grenades at all who are less radical than he is." It's true that the book focuses too often on the weakest rather than the strongest defenses of the NSA. What I've missed most, as Greenwald has understandably focused on his book and reporting on remaining NSA documents, are the articles he once wrote engaging and rebutting his strongest critics.

But it is a mistake (albeit a common one) to survey the NSA-surveillance controversy and to conclude that Greenwald represents the radical position. His writing can be acerbic, mordant, biting, trenchant, scathing, scornful, and caustic. He is stubbornly uncompromising in his principles, as dramatized by how close he came to quitting The Guardian when it wasn't moving as fast as he wanted to publish the first story sourced to Edward Snowden. Unlike many famous journalists, he is not deferential to U.S. leaders.

Yet tone and zeal should never be mistaken for radicalism on the core question before us: What should America's approach to state surveillance be? "Defenders of suspicionless mass surveillance often insist ... that some spying is always necessary. But this is a straw man ... nobody disagrees with that," Greenwald explains. "The alternative to mass surveillance is not the complete elimination of surveillance. It is, instead, targeted surveillance, aimed only at those for whom there is substantial evidence to believe they are engaged in real wrongdoing."

That's as traditionally American as the Fourth Amendment.

Targeted surveillance "is consistent with American constitutional values and basic precepts of Western justice," Greenwald continues. Notice that the authority he most often cites to justify his position is the Constitution. That's not the mark of a radical. In fact, so many aspects of Greenwald's book and the positions that he takes on surveillance are deeply, unmistakably conservative.

He wants to preserve a degree of privacy that Americans have long enjoyed. His antagonists are wielding cutting-edge technology to spy on a scale that has never before been possible. This worries Greenwald in part because he is convinced that humans are too fallible to be trusted with so much power, especially in secret. For years, he has been standing athwart history yelling, "Stop!", even as the people who call themselves movement conservatives worked to destroy Madisonian checks and balances. First Republican and then Democratic partisans have felt that they could trust their own to wield extreme power in secret.

Greenwald has always known better.

So why is he widely considered a radical? In part because the press in America largely refuses to entertain the possibility that the U.S. government itself as taken a radical turn. Under this logic, someone criticizing the Bush and Obama administrations with harsh, extreme language must be the radical. Never mind that since September 11, 2001, the U.S. has tortured prisoners, indefinitely detained innocents without charges or trial, invaded and occupied a country on false pretenses, used the Espionage Act to prosecute more Americans than all former administrations combined, engaged in illegal warrantless wiretapping, and created a clandestine kill list that includes Americans.

Strident, outraged dissents from those policies are not radical—the policies themselves are radical. Opposing them is traditionally conservative and classically liberal. As Cole eloquently explains, "the NSA is an agency out of control. In some sense, it has always been ... mostly operating abroad, under limited constraints. But in the old days, if law didn’t much constrain it, technical limitations did. These documents show that the digital age has exponentially increased the NSA’s technical ability to track the details of our most private lives. What is now needed are laws that ensure that the NSA can do the work it needs to do while respecting the privacy rights of Americans and non-Americans alike. Greenwald offers no solutions, but effectively raises the alarm. But if we don’t come up with solutions, the data revolution will render privacy a rusty relic of a bygone era."