“Only when we believe that nobody else is watching us do we feel free—safe—to truly experiment, to test boundaries, to explore new ways of thinking and being, to explore what it means to be ourselves…it is in the realm of privacy where creativity, dissent, and challenges to orthodoxy germinate.”This statement contains both the reasons for and reasons against the massive state surveillance program executed under the aegis of the National Security Agency.
“We shouldn’t have to be faithful loyalists of the powerful to feel safe from state surveillance. Nor should the price of immunity be refraining from controversial or provocative dissent. We wouldn’t want a society where the message is conveyed that you will be left alone only if you mimic the accommodating behavior and conventional wisdom of an establishment columnist.”
The last two chapters of this book are extraordinarily thought-provoking: Greenwald shares his thinking on privacy and the purpose of journalism, or "the fourth estate." He is clearly angry, but his anger serves a purpose. Greenwald won several awards for his reporting on Snowden, including being named one of 2013's Top 100 Global Thinkers by Foreign Policy magazine (along with Snowden). The last two chapters of this book tell us why.
Elsewhere in the book Greenwald discusses meeting Snowden and introducing him to the world and he shares some actual screenshots of the material provided to him by Snowden. Undoubtedly some of this material and the accompanying discussion of it will help bad actors realize the extent of U.S. oversight of their activities, and allow them to think of ways to evade detection. In that sense, this has undone some of what our security agencies have put in place.
But neither Greenwald nor Snowden are traitors in the absolute sense. Mass surveillance itself makes detecting and stopping terror more difficult. There is too much information. These two shined a light on that important caveat. Greenwald and Snowden also reveal how the machinery of protection can and is being used alternatively…to obtain economic, financial, and political advantages, e.g., trade data, negotiation talking points, private correspondences between a foreign leader and her advisors…and how it can be used to monitor us, should the need arise.
We may not feel the danger now, said the frog in the warming pot. But the danger is clear, all completely beside the fact that individuals within the surveilling organizations have access to the data, anytime, anywhere. “People are willing to dismiss fear of government overreach when they believe that those who happen to be in control are benevolent and trustworthy.” How many of us can say this for successive political administrations that change party affiliation?
But what is monstrously clear to me is large numbers of people involved in instituting and executing the series of programs revealed by Greenwald and Snowden believe they are “protecting the state,” when in fact they may be doing the opposite. In the past I recall wondering how mass delusion was possible. Isn’t this another case of the phenomenon? The convincing arguments about fixing security failures have given way to clever folks believing “collect it all” is in the public interest. How they can believe it day after day, year in year out must be that their education and their economic livelihood are tied up in it: all high tech entities are involved. The system becomes inescapable. And they can’t talk to anyone about it.
I think Greenwald makes an eminently reasonable argument when he says that we have made the threat of terrorism an argument for dismantling the very protections that make our system of government so unique and so exceptional and so universally admired. We go to the dark side on that path. We have other examples of countries that have made such choices, some still operating today. I do not think that should be our goal.
Greenwald defines the concept of the “fourth estate” thusly: “those who exercise the greatest power need to be challenged by adversarial pushback and an insistence on transparency; the job of the press is to disprove the falsehoods that power invariably disseminates to protect itself. Without that type of journalism, abuse is inevitable.”
Regarding journalistic objectivity, Greenwald is blunt: “The relevant distinction is not between journalists who have opinions and those who have none, a category that does not exist. It is between journalists who candidly reveal their opinions and those who conceal them, pretending they have none.” I admit that has been an issue that has bothered me for years, having discovered a remarkable lack of objectivity in newspapers even in choosing which stories to run and which to withhold.
The final chapter in this book is a mighty indictment of the powerfully connected U.S. media establishment and celebrity reporters and finally tells me why Snowden went to Greenwald with his information, as opposed to any other news organization. It also relaxes to a certain extent the tension I experienced at the beginning of the book upon learning of Greenwald’s adversarial and aggressive stance, though I can’t help but worry that I am now being managed by Greenwald.
I think everyone can agree that Snowden, Poitras, and Greenwald are brave folks. Whatever else folks have been calling them, that, at least, is the truth.
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