Reviews — From the June 2014 issue

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First, collect all the details you can on all the people you encounter — this will turn them into “characters.” Second, search this trove for the most interesting connections among the characters — links of behavior, temperament, vocabulary, and body — because it’s connections that make a plot. Third, settle on the character with the most links to narrate the plot, or to be narrated through by an omniscient third person. This is how you write a novel. This is also how you operate an intelligence agency.

The NSA is a thoroughly “modern” organization. Its techniques are those of Kafka, who anonymized his suspects under the alias “K,” and of Nabokov, who loathed psychology, venerated artifice, and insisted that the role of the novelist was that of a “wizard” or “puppet-master.” A more direct association might be made with Joyce’s Ulysses, which so deeply surveils Leopold Bloom that he seems less a person than a welter of metadata about Dublin, June 16, 1904. In the twentieth century, form, structure — fate — became something to be imposed, not something arising out of an individual’s essential “nature.” Today, we are nothing if not characters acting out our lives for the rewriting of our intelligence minders, but what makes our predicament “postmodern” is that we’re aware of it. Confirmation has come courtesy of the journalist Glenn Greenwald and his source, the NSA contractor of conscience Edward Snowden, a character so decent that John le Carré or Frederick Forsyth would’ve blushed before conceiving him.

Untitled, by Peter Buechler. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Naimah Schütter, Berlin

Untitled, by Peter Buechler. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Naimah Schütter, Berlin

Greenwald’s no place to hide (Metropolitan, $27) is a hybrid, beginning as an airport thriller recounting the author’s contact with Snowden, and ending as a course text on the global amassment of digital communication. Like many thrillers, and like many course texts, it seems to be the work of a committee. Though Greenwald’s is the only name on the cover, the NSA deserves its credit, too. Almost the entire latter half of the book consists of charts and graphs made by that agency and obtained by Snowden: when it comes to PowerPoint presentations, America remains second to none.

Throughout both halves, Greenwald, a civil rights lawyer by training, invokes the First Amendment as a guarantee of his right to interpret the Fourth — the Constitution’s protection against warrantless search and seizure, adopted in response to the writs of assistance, which licensed the British to occupy and confiscate the property of colonists. A cloud born of server clusters, traffic through underwater cables and satellites in orbit — such is the contemporary condition of what that amendment so quaintly calls our “houses, papers, and effects.”

In December 2012, Greenwald — who has lived in Brazil with his partner, David Miranda, since 2004, in protest of U.S. antipathy toward same-sex marriage — receives an email from “Cincinnatus,” a cybernym, that promises vague disclosures; all Greenwald has to do is install the encryption software PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) on his laptop. But Greenwald, perpetually on deadline, blows him off. Flash forward six months: the documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (currently finishing her trilogy about post-9/11 America) conscripts Greenwald to meet an NSA leaker in Hong Kong. Together, they follow the slapstick tradecraft instructions: Go to the Mira Hotel, locate a conference room festooned with a green plastic alligator, and ask a staff member the pass-question “Is there a restaurant open?” Et voilà — a gawky postadolescent materializes, fussing with a Rubik’s Cube, the identifying prop.

On a Pitch Black Lake (detail), by Jacob Hashimoto. Courtesy the artist and Martha Otero Gallery, Los Angeles

On a Pitch Black Lake (detail), by Jacob Hashimoto. Courtesy the artist and Martha Otero Gallery, Los Angeles

Up in Snowden’s room — where noodle containers have mounted and pillows are pressed against the under-door draft — Greenwald vets Snowden and goes through the exfiltrated files. He returns to his own room at the nearby W Hotel only to summarize the files in dispatches sent to the Guardian (the U.S. Guardian, as the British Guardian is constrained from publishing material deemed vital to U.K. security — later, in an attempt at intimidation, Government Communications Headquarters forced the British paper’s editors to destroy their own hard drives). While still in Hong Kong, Greenwald exposes a series of orders by the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court compelling telecoms to turn over call logs; PRISM, a program for the bulk collection of all email, voice, text, and video-chat communications routed through the servers of Google, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, et al.; and BOUNDLESS INFORMANT, a tool that generates “heatmaps” of the metadata captured by PRISM.

Finally — Greenwald breathes:

After the “BOUNDLESS INFORMANT” article was published, Laura and I planned to meet at Snowden’s hotel. But before leaving my room, out of nowhere, as I sat on my hotel bed, I remembered Cincinnatus, my anonymous email correspondent from six months earlier, who had bombarded me with requests to install PGP so that he could provide me with important information. Amid the excitement of everything that was happening, I thought that perhaps he, too, had an important story to give me. Unable to remember his email name, I finally located one of his old messages by searching for keywords.

“Hey: good news,” I wrote to him. “I know it took me a while, but I’m finally using PGP email. So I’m ready to talk any time if you’re still interested.” I hit “send.”

Soon after I arrived at his room, Snowden said, with more than a small trace of mockery, “By the way, that Cincinnatus you just emailed, that’s me.”

This is a humorous and humanizing update of a James Bond bromance. And, like the best of those, it imparts a sense of the relationship’s cultural disparity — between the intelligence analyst and the civilian citizen, between the Fifth Estate of tech and the Fourth Estate of journalism. In every instance, the side with more intel can’t help but treat the other with “more than a small trace of mockery.”

After describing Greenwald’s return to Brazil, and the online debut of the Poitras-filmed clip in which Snowden outed himself to the world — incriminating himself in a bid to explain and to obtain public support — the book turns to slides of the spying programs and protocols. Someone in Fort Meade has caps lock stuck. PROJECT BULLRUN, EGOTISTICALGIRAFFE, MUSCULAR, OAKSTAR, STEELKNIGHT, SILVERZEPHYR — they’re like the names of losing racehorses, or midlife-crisis yachts. The point is this: Everything we say on phones and write in emails is being monitored, stored, and parsed. Though that power has been abused in approximately 3,000 cases in a one-year period — often by NSA employees gathering LOVEINT on their exes — it’s not the capacity for abuse as much as it is the NSA’s exemption from reporting it and immunity from being prosecuted for it that constitutes the greatest argument against bulk collection. The greatest argument, that is, after the Constitution.

Snowden could easily have set up his own WikiLeaks-style website. Instead, he has chosen to hold our free-speech institutions to account. The Guardian, the New York Times, and the Washington Post — all have reported on Snowden’s cache and in consultation with the NSA redacted specifics that could endanger active agents. The highest task of the critic is not to condemn but to correct, and this is what Snowden has done. He has excoriated the surveillance state, but by doing so he has elevated journalism.

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