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Ed Snowden Needs a Better Biographer Than Glenn Greenwald

Ed Snowden Needs a Better Biographer Than Glenn Greenwald

Why did Edward Snowden betray the National Security Agency and leak a huge trove of secret documents to the media?

It’s a question that has been endlessly debated since stories based on those documents began to appear in the media during the summer of 2013. Snowden himself has described his motivations in principled terms: as a moral requirement after discovering the existence of a sprawling surveillance state he views as unjust and unconstitutional. For that reason, he has entered exile, left a lucrative job, and abandoned his girlfriend. It’s a decision that is difficult to comprehend and a question that shows no signs of going away anytime soon.

Uniquely situated to resolve the issue once and for all, Glenn Greenwald takes up this debate in his new book, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State. It’s a shame it’s such a bad book, one that sheds little light on the most important enduring mystery of the Snowden saga.

Greenwald’s book provides the first inside story of how he met Snowden and gained access to a set of documents that that have roiled the American intelligence community and scrambled the politics governing American national security policies. In a Hong Kong hotel room, Greenwald writes that he repeatedly pressed Snowden about his motivations but found his answers wanting, "either too superficial, too abstract, or too devoid of passion and conviction."

When Snowden finally arrived at an answer that Greenwald found "vibrant and real," the whistleblower, in Greenwald’s retelling, describes himself in almost saintly terms: "The true measurement of a person’s worth isn’t what they say they believe in, but what they do in defense of those beliefs. If you’re not acting on your beliefs, then they probably aren’t real," Greenwald quotes him as saying. Snowden goes on to describe growing up playing video games in which a lonely protagonist is confronted by profound injustice. His realization that the NSA was "building a system whose goal was the elimination of all privacy, globally," according to Greenwald, completed his conversion into a whistleblower.

But like the characters that populated the video games of Snowden’s youth, the portrait of the whistleblower that emerges in Greenwald’s book is flat. He exists in the background as a mere martyr. Having made this profound sacrifice, Greenwald and his colleagues must live up to Snowden’s memory — for once he disappears from Hong Kong to Russia, he is little more than a memory in the book.

It’s a shame that Snowden, arguably one of recent history’s most compelling characters, chose as his chronicler a journalist lacking much of a human touch. Greenwald and Snowden would probably contend that sketching a rounded portrait of Snowden the man, as opposed to the arguably illegal surveillance programs he exposed, falls low on their list of priorities. Still, the reader is inevitably left wondering at how Snowden arrived at his decision — especially when Greenwald himself tries and fails to solve the riddle of Snowden’s motivations.

If I were living in Hawaii with a well-paid government job and a beautiful girlfriend, would I leave everything behind to expose my employer in the pages of the Guardian? Probably not. Perhaps that makes me coward, though I prefer to think it makes me a fairly normal human being. How Snowden reached that decision is a human mystery, one that is arguably as fascinating as the programs he has exposed. So far, we lack a compelling answer beyond Snowden’s claim that he was acting because of a fundamental commitment to principles he saw as sacrosanct.

The mystery of Snowden’s motivations only helps to fuel the conspiracy theories that swirl around him. Many of his critics continue to believe that Snowden is a spy for one foreign government or another. That case remains entirely circumstantial and is built in part about the lack of information about Snowden’s path to becoming a whistleblower. Answering that question would probably help in putting some of those theories to rest. In failing to do so, Greenwald has undermined his defense of Snowden.

In Snowden’s absence, Greenwald’s book becomes largely about himself — and the many axes he has to grind. His two principal targets, in order of importance, are the surveillance state and the establishment media. In a preview on page 18 of the book’s thesis, Greenwald quotes Snowden praising him: "I know you’ll be aggressive and fearless in how you do this."

If you’ve been following the Snowden revelations from start to finish, his book contains few revelations. In the nomenclature of the establishment media he so derides, the book lacks "news." The reader learns of PRISM and the NSA’s bulk collection of telephone metadata, but the slides and documents that constitute his evidence have mostly already been published elsewhere. If you’re the kind of person who might buy Greenwald’s book, you already know that the NSA targeted the communications of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and German Chancellor Angela Merkel and that the agency aggressively targeted Chinese telecommunications firms.

The book assembles the by now well-known evidence that the NSA has built an intelligence gathering apparatus of unprecedented scale, yet the material remains turgid. The reader must slog through the fine print of documents and slides written in technical-ese and the dense prose of the American security state. Greenwald himself admits that he found the material difficult to penetrate when he first received it. He does the reader few favors by once more reproducing the slides that have illustrated his stories in the Guardian and elsewhere.

But when he isn’t republishing his old Snowden reporting, Greenwald leans heavily on reporting carried out by establishment media outlets — and that’s one of the weird ironies of the book. "From the start," Greenwald writes, "I believed that the documents presented an opportunity to shine a light not only on secret NSA spying but on the corrupting dynamics of establishment journalism." But from there, the book is riddled with citations to the New York Times, the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and others, whose work he relies on to make his case that the U.S. surveillance state has become an abusive behemoth.

His scorn for the media is perhaps not surprising: During the early aftermath of the Snowden revelations, the establishment media subjected Greenwald to an ugly smear campaign. Many of his colleagues suggested he should be prosecuted, others questioned whether he was really a journalist or had grown too close to Snowden. Moreover, Greenwald is probably right to criticize Sunday talk shows on American networks as uncritical outlets of establishment opinion, but from there he proceeds to dismiss an entire industry, parts of which have done reporting just as important to uncovering the surveillance state as his own work (and often without the help of a whistleblower like Snowden).
Greenwald’s citations make that obviously clear.

But when convenient, Greenwald is happy to partner with the corporate media. Last week, after inking a movie deal with Sony, he lavished praise on a group of producers he had once viciously criticized for their movie Zero Dark Thirty, the chronicle of Osama bin Laden’s death that Greenwald once described as "the ultimate hagiography of the most secretive arm of America’s National Security State." "I’m very happy to be working with Amy Pascal, Doug Belgrad and the team at Sony Pictures Entertainment, who have a successful track record of making thoughtful and nuanced true-life stories that audiences want to see," he said in a statement.

Greenwald deserves a world of credit for doggedly pursuing journalism that has shed light on the darkest corners of the U.S. intelligence community, but his latest book finds him slipping into platitudes and pop sociology to describe his subject. The NSA and its allies, he argues, are part of a power structure arrayed toward maintaining America’s "control" of the world. Thus Greenwald invokes Foucault and his panopticon to describe the effects of American surveillance.

It’s all rather rote and unimaginative. At one point in the book, he speculates that authorities in the United States and other Western nations have built their massive surveillance system in order to combat instability and discontent with the prevailing capitalist order. That story of power and control is a familiar one for any student of French and German social theory, but it’s an argument for which there is scant evidence in the documents provided to Greenwald by his prized whistleblower.

The definitive book on Snowden remains to be written.