Citizenfour is now in theaters across the country, which means the return of that question that plagues so many of us literary folks when adaptations arrive on screen: did you read the book? To be fair, Laura Poitras’ new documentary on Edward Snowden isn’t precisely based on Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide, which came out earlier this year, though they both cover the same material. The question persists though, with real-life urgency: Why haven’t you read Glenn Greenwald’s latest book?
Maybe you fully intend to, but just haven’t gotten around to it yet. Greenwald understands. When the pseudonymous “Cincinnatus” contacted the popular political columnist in late 2012, he intimated a momentous, highly sensitive story about the United States’ National Security Agency. Still, Greenwald couldn’t find the time or attention to install the necessary encryption software for a whole six months. Life’s busy. It’s true. Maybe you haven’t read the book yet because you already know how you’ll take it. You already know that Snowden is a traitor and a coward. Or you already know that he’s a patriot and a hero. Or you already believe in Greenwald’s major contention that privacy is “a core condition of being a free person.” Especially now that a two-hour motion picture has condensed some of its major points, why spend the hours to slog through 250 pages? Well, it’s hardly a slog, even if you do agree with these things. And the way that this book manages to not be a slog is a surprise: Mostly, you should read No Place To Hide because it makes you care, like really care about a computer.
The book testifies the value of prose in the twenty-first century. Oh, the future of prose! Has it ever before appeared so threatened? Long gone are the days of the ad-men, those glamorous, well-draped men who won women and the consumer imagination with their articulate charm! Gone, too, are the days of the serialized novels, when a good, or even mediocre writer could get paid by the word and audiences across the Atlantic would eagerly await the newest installments of his sentimental stories. Brawls, it is said, would erupt over a spoiled ending! Gone, long gone are those times of yore when a pamphlet could incite a political revolution—and all it really claimed to share was “common sense”! And today? What does the twenty-first century have to show for itself? Listicles! Who will save the future from itself? Like the White Wizard holding back the Balrog in the Mines of Moria, Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald insist that prose matters, and they’re going to prove to you that it does.
For Ed Snowden, prose is patriotism, and patriotism depends on prose. You probably already know most of the story: how he dropped out of community college, taught himself what he needed to know about cyber security, kept learning, got hired by the government, kept learning, then learned some things he didn’t like about the government that hired him, kept rising, and then realized: Something needs to be done. So he kept learning, kept rising into higher ranks of security: People needed to know. As he rose, it became more and more apparent that although something needed to be done so that the people would know, it couldn’t be just anything. He watched Julian Assange found Wikileaks in 2006. He watched Chelsea Manning collaborate in 2010. He agreed with the spirit of their actions, but with reserved skepticism. He observed that just exposing information might not be the best way to explain the facts as he understood them. That the framing of the facts was imperative to preserve the safety of citizens. These facts would need solid prose explanations. The old-fashioned sort. The sort from the good gone days of courageous journalism.
In his story, Greenwald has quite a bit to say about the state of contemporary journalism, but to his credit in this polemic, he doesn’t do a whole lot of rose-colored retrospection. The world is too much with us. There’s too much of it. Files and files and files of it. Several flash drives. A few laptops, backed up on external hard drives. It fills a few backpacks. The journalist’s first job is to sift through it all, sift through the hundreds and thousands of classified documents, made less overwhelming by Greenwald’s narration. Next comes the question: what does it all mean? And will readers even care? So before he gets to the long—long—chapter of explanation, a chapter that includes over seventy-five PowerPoint slides full of technical jargon, bad fonts from the early nineties, and acronym after acronym, Greenwald narrates his own learning process. He rarely shows more than two PowerPoint slides without including a prose explanation of what they mean, and how they figure into the larger picture. He even admits that some of the slides confuse him, and finds a little irony in the fact that when the NSA attempts to “Collect It All,” the enormity of their success makes it difficult for the agency itself to process the information. And so Greenwald’s attempt at least does a double-take among the difference among such terms as “content,” “meta-data,” and “telephony meta-data.”
It’s a temptation to empathize with the personable narrator; but you oughtn’t to empathize too much. Greenwald might not be a nice guy. Actually, Greenwald doesn’t care so much if you don’t think he’s a nice guy; it’s sort of refreshing. He champions prose explanations, but he’s consistently skeptical of personality-centric narratives that so easily sneak into prose accounts, especially in the popular press. So he’s up front. Personality matters, sure. But not that much. A lot of people, for example, think Ed Snowden’s crazy. An attention-starved egotist, a weirdo. Didn’t he go to community college? No, worse: he dropped out. And that Greenwald guy…doesn’t he have outstanding debts to an adult video store? Something like that, yeah. Greenwald’s response, in this world of paranoia and ever-suspicious hermeneutics is the broadest possible defense. It is impenetrable, if vague: intuition. When the Guardian crew meets Snowden, Greenwald has a gut feeling of trust towards Snowden and so his journalist colleagues. But he won’t elaborate too far on and intuition because personality can cut both ways, and in either case, it’s a distraction: there are a lot of people who call Snowden cowardly, there are also a lot of people who call him a hero. The narrative of a lone figure speaking truth to power feels so good, but individual action does little to change power, relative to the satisfactions to the ego it provides. Snowden appears for a week to the Guardian crew, then he declares that he won’t give any more interviews because the story isn’t about him.
The story of Snowden isn’t the worst story. At very least, it’s catchy and it’s compelling. The trailer for Citizenfour, though tantalizingly brief, promises to reanimate the heady days and daily headlines of early June 2013, the days when the globe-trotting hero first appeared, on the lam in Hong Kong, then Moscow—and maybe, maybe one of those Latin American countries would grant Snowden his requested asylum. It seemed like the stuff of one of those little paperback novels at the airport: “I laughed out loud,” Greenwald writes of waiting in an enormous, mostly empty hotel lobby, waiting for his informant. “The situation seemed so bizarre, so extreme and improbable. This is a surreal international thriller set in Hong Kong, I thought.” In the first chapters of his expose, Greenwald writes that thriller, and tries, at least, to wear that role lightly. He tells the story that people want to hear; he gets it out of the way quickly, in the first seventy pages or so of the book.
What persist from those first ten days in Hong Kong are the relationships among the actors. There’s Ed Snowden, of course. Then there’s Glenn Greenwald, the former litigator who stopped practicing law to write about politics for Salon and later for The Guardian. There’s also Laura Poitras, the documentary filmmaker who Snowden asked to fly to Hong Kong with Greenwald to tape their interviews, which will now be publicized on the big screen. This counter-triumvirate is at the heart of the story. They spend a lot of time in cramped hotel rooms, looking at screens and worrying that they’re being spied on. In one of the most memorable scenes, near the end of their ten days, Snowden’s hyper-vigilance is so great that he begins to sit under the cover of blankets when typing important information, like passwords, on his screen. So that, you know, the ceiling cameras don’t see the motion of his hands. It’s too embarrassingly vivid, the sight of small Snowden and his thinning hair, cowering in paranoia under a blanket. If he must be the hero of a story, he’ll be humorous about it: soon afterward he jokes about his deposition and his bunk at Guantanamo. Will this be in the movie? Let’s hope!
There are a few others supporting characters in the cast: Ewen MacAskill, another Guardian reporter who joined then on their first trip to Hong Kong, on the insistence of the Guardian’s editorial staff. There’s Barton Gellman, reporter at the Washington Post, and David Miranda, Greenwald’s partner and long-time collaborator. If there’s going to be mythologizing, let this be them myth: that these colleagues really do brave a lot, and what makes that task possible is a shared sense of purpose and determination. Together, these people are ready, as Greenwald puts it, to put themselves at risk of “a higher degree of danger, because pursuing absolute physical safety has never been our single overarching societal priority.”
But one of the strange things about this book is its relative lack of interest in describing any very detailed harm to the human body. Instead, the book provided a more bodied existence to things often perceived to be intangible, things like files and data, or the thresholds of international territory. The Snowden Saga of 2013 reminded United States citizens of their privileged mobility, of the ease of international travel with US paperwork. The story reminded readers of the realness of security checkpoints, how the body on one side of a boarding gate might have no protection on the other side of it. Too real, too real.
But instead of allowing the always-present threat of bodily harm to reanimate the myth of the lone hero, Greenwald also focuses his attention on objects—hard drives, cell phones, laptops, database facilities. Look at the little flash drives that contain such vast quantities of information! Think about the new collection facility being built in Bluffdale, Utah, with tens of thousands of square feet for still more hard drives; hundreds of thousands of square feet of office space for support staff! Think about the several laptops that were feared to have been “drained” by the Chinese during the week and a half Snowden spent in Hong Kong! These things, big and small, become substitute protagonists, and this is how, over the course of two hundred and fifty mostly-prose pages, Glenn Greenwald gets you to care about a computer: Before flying out to Moscow, Snowden gives Ewen MacAskill a few hard drives with important documents for the Guardian explain and publish. Representatives from England’s counterpart to the NSA, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) arrive at the newspaper’s home a few days later. “You’ve had you’re fun…now we want our stuff back.” The folks at The Guardian resist. They won’t give back the drives. The parties discuss. They compromise. No one will have access to this information. And then they smash the drives to bits, with bats, down in the basement.
Talk about a visit from the goon squad! It’s painful to read. Few moments in the book achieve such intensity. Sometimes, when Ed and Glenn joke about the risks of what’s ahead, and their imminent separation, something like emotion is visible. Sometimes Glenn and Laura express mutual professional respect that somehow also goes beyond their already unconventional line of work. One character that quietly emerges from this group with the strongest personality is David Miranda. Greenwald won’t describe his backstory, saying only that his early life was “unimaginably difficult.” Miranda is the only one who finds himself affected in an intimate way by the whole affair when he’s taken into custody en route from Berlin to London. “I feel like they’ve invaded my whole life,” he says after being let go, “Like I’m naked.” If the destruction of the hard drive was painful for Greenwald, he places it right before Miranda’s to hint at the more frightening stakes of standing up to the government—what if they hurt the people you love? Mythic heroes are ready to put their own physical safety at risk, but the subtle question posed at the conclusion of this book is a less glamorous one, a much trickier one.
It’s not so clearly posed: Would you jeopardize the lives of others for your ideals? It’s there, though, persistent through the book. The intensity of feeling that the prose can generate towards the computer is important for several reasons. It measures the ability of the reader to separate her interest in the plot of any one protagonist from her interest in the revealed information and the information about the collection of information. This is the explicit hope held by Snowden and Greenwald. But in a related manner, these last pages test whether the reader will be able to imagine choosing one over the other—the reason that Miranda is detained at the airport is because he is carrying an important file that could not have been mailed or sent securely over the internet. It’s the sort of thing that might appear more predictably in a philosophical thought experiment or in a dystopian science-fiction narrative. You should read Glenn Greenwald’s new book because it is both of these things.
—Ana Schwartz: likes rhymes. Likes ‘em short.