I can fulfil the first task of a reviewer very easily, namely that Glenn Greenwald has written a compellingly readable book, better than most thrillers, and I strongly recommend it. He tells nearly the whole story, but cannot complete the job because the end has not yet been reached.
I cannot meet a second task in the same terms, because I do not know enough to be able to vouch for the accuracy of what he has written. I can observe, however, that other writers on Edward Snowden and the leaks have set out broadly the same facts without, of course, necessarily being on the same side.
In this book, Snowden is the hero. On the heroic side we also find the Guardian, its editor, Alan Rusbridger, and various other journalists on either side of the Atlantic. The author and his colleague, the documentary film maker, Laura Poitras come into the same category.
The villains are presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama, together with a vast number of United States politicians and officials. Equally, several other countries including our own are on the villainous side. Apparently GCHQ cooperated fully with what the Americans were up to. The scale on the cooperation of the internet service providers joined in is a bit more obscure. At one stage we are told they joined in fully, but at another they deny this, and the author lets them off the hook to some extent.
The villainy is not merely that the US engaged in mass surveillance of both friend and foe, but this was illegal under law and they knew it. The legislation that our government has recently rushed through was also because our supreme court did not accept its legality.
Turning to Snowden himself, how was he able to download such a vast amount of material and store it on memory sticks, none of it being remotely connected with jobs he held? Indeed, how did he have time and energy to do those jobs properly? Presumably, the Americans have the same sort of positive vetting as we do, including the need for references. How did he get through that?
Snowden tells us that once he discovered this material he felt obliged to release it, but what motivated him to look for it in the first place, and how did he know where to look? I am a compulsive surfer of the web mostly in in academic institutions, but I have no idea how to look for a secret document. He does tell us that once he published the material, the powers that be would quickly discover he was the source, but he was willing to face the consequences. I took this to mean standing trial in a US court and demonstrate that his actions were right, and necessary to expose the illegality of Bush and Obama. Presumably, he changed his mind because he did not believe he would get a fair trial. He probably also thought that in that gun-carrying society some extremist would kill him. (It was announced that if tried and found guilty, there would be no death penalty). It is ironic that he fled, and ended up in Russia, not a country that comes to mind when we think of freedom and democracy.
My last question is why did he release so much, and say he would release more? The first documents he published were to my eyes most disturbing, and made the case with overwhelming force. He could say there was more, but leave it at that, at least until the reaction of the powers that be were fully assessed. After all, following Adam Smith the government has defence of the realm as a prime duty, and crime prevention and deterrence as another one. He took it for granted that this could be done within the bounds of legality, and mutatis mutandis I believe this was right then and right now. That is why I believe our government rushing through legislation was mistaken, although I note that when David Andersen QC publishes his report we shall have a chance after the election to make some rational progress. I hope when we do that, we should also remember John Stuart Mill’s dictum that around every person we can draw a metaphorical circle within which the government must not intrude.
To return to the book, Snowden appears as a bit of a fanatic, but he is nothing compared with those responsible for operating surveillance policy and data collection in the US. They seem to be little short of insane. They talk about getting all of the data, much more than could ever be examined and processed in real time, and of total surveillance everywhere and on a continuous basis. There is also large-scale investment in cryptography, so that the US could spy on everyone, but not be spied upon. If the rest of us act in the same way (and we and other Europeans were rather good at this), we will be playing a large scale negative sum game – everyone loses.
We must take terrorism seriously as a threat to our country. In this connection may I draw attention to a fascinating lecture on the intelligence and security committee, given by its chair, Malcolm Rifkind. I gather that because of his position he is given an intelligence briefing far in excess of what anyone else gets. He was quoted in the press as saying that the public at large does not fully comprehend the nature and scale of the terrorist threat. If that is what he did say, I agree with him. It is certainly true of many members of the Lords.
Also judging from some opinion surveys and from people I talk to outside there are many who think the main purpose of the recent legislation was to help catch paedophiles.
The trouble, of course, in talking of a war on terrorism, is that it is hard, if not impossible, to discern who the enemy is, or to know when the war is over and who won! What I can say is that if, in endeavouring to confront them, we seriously diminish our own freedoms, the terrorists will have won a major battle.
Maurice Peston is a Labour peer and sits on the joint committee on security
No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the US Surveillance State
Metropolitan Books | 259pp
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