Make no mistake: it’s been the year of Edward Snowden. Not since Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War has a trove of documents revealing the inner workings and thinking of the U.S. government so changed the conversation. In Ellsberg’s case, that conversation was transformed only in the United States. Snowden has changed it worldwide. From six-year-olds to Angela Merkel, who hasn’t been thinking about the staggering ambitions of the National Security Agency, about its urge to create the first global security state in history and so step beyond even the most fervid dreams of the totalitarian regimes of the last century? And who hasn’t been struck by how close the agency has actually come to sweeping up the communications of the whole planet? Technologically speaking, what Snowden revealed to the world — thanks to journalist Glenn Greenwald and filmmaker Laura Poitras — was a remarkable accomplishment, as well as a nightmare directly out of some dystopian novel.
From exploiting backdoors into the Internet’s critical infrastructure and close relationships with the planet’s largest tech companies to performing economic espionage and sending spy avatars into video games, the NSA has been relentless in its search for complete global omniscience, even if that is by no means the same thing as omnipotence. It now has the ability to be a hidden part of just about any conversation just about anywhere. Of course, we don’t yet know the half of it, since no Edward Snowden has yet stepped forward from the inner precincts of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the CIA, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, or other such outfits in the “U.S. intelligence community.” Still, what we do know should take our collective breath away. And we know it all thanks to one young man, hounded across the planet by the U.S. government in an “international manhunt.”
As an NSA contractor, Snowden found himself inside the blanket of secrecy that has fallen across our national security state since 9/11 and there he absorbed an emerging principle on which this country was never founded: that “they” know what’s best for us, and that, in true Orwellian fashion, our ignorance is our strength. Increasingly, this has become Washington’s twenty-first-century mantra, which is not to be challenged. Hence, the extremity of the outrage, as well as the threats and fantasies of harm, expressed by those in power (or their recently retired channelers) toward Snowden.
One brave young man with his head firmly fastened on his shoulders found himself trapped in Moscow and yet never lost his balance, his good sense, or his focus. As Jonathan Schell wrote in September 2013, “What happened to Snowden in Moscow diagramed the new global reality. He wanted to leave Russia, but the State Department, in an act of highly dubious legality, stripped him of his passport, leaving him — for purposes of travel, at least — stateless. Suddenly, he was welcome nowhere in the great wide world, which shrank down to a single point: the transit lounge at Sheremetyevo [Airport]. Then, having by its own action trapped him in Russia, the administration mocked and reviled him for remaining in an authoritarian country. Only in unfree countries was Edward Snowden welcome. What we are pleased to call the ‘free world’ had become a giant prison for a hero of freedom.”
And of course, there was also a determined journalist, who proved capable of keeping his focus on what mattered while under fierce attack, who never took his eyes off the prize. I’m talking, of course, about Glenn Greenwald. Without him (and the Guardian, Laura Poitras, and Barton Gellman of the Washington Post), “they” would be observing us, 24/7, but we would not be observing them. This small group has shaken the world.
This is publication day for Greenwald’s new book, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Security State, about his last near-year swept away by the Snowden affair. It’s been under wraps until now for obvious reasons. Today, TomDispatch is proud, thanks to the kindness of Greenwald’s publisher, Metropolitan Books, to be releasing an adapted, much shortened version of its first chapter on how this odyssey of our American moment began.