In On Violence, Hannah Arendt warned of the “rule by Nobody,” the most autocratic of all political tyrannies, a latticework of bureaucracy “in which no men, neither one nor the best, neither the few nor the many, can be held responsible.” Power is decentralized and diffused to manufacture the illusion that there is no power. Elsewhere, Arendt described this state of affairs as “the banality of evil.” It’s not that the crimes are unremarkable or run-of-the-mill. It’s that the practice of evil becomes pedestrian. Tyranny becomes standard operating procedure – business as usual.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more suitable illustration of this humdrum banality of evil than the clip-art leprechaun hat embedded into a U.S. National Security Agency PowerPoint presentation, reprinted – along with much, much else – in No Place to Hide, journalist Glenn Greenwald’s book-length untangling of the NSA’s bureaucracy. On a slide titled “Special Source Operations: Corporate Partner Access,” a picture of a crudely drawn leprechaun’s hat (you know, broad brim, with a buckle on the band) accompanies the name of a program called BLARNEY, designed to stockpile metadata from international communications networks.
Bracket, for a second, the invasiveness and blanket disregard for the sovereignty of foreign nations. Now imagine some guy, slumped in a cubicle at the NSA, copy/pasting a creative-commons doodle of a leprechaun’s hat into a presentation coolly laying out the extent of this wild disregard, like an entry-level graphic designer revamping the menu at an Irish pub. Evil, as Arendt knew, is not just banal. It’s straight-up stupid, roused in the humdrum routine of coercion and ambivalence.
No Place to Hide, a monumentally important book, lays out the extent of the National Security Agency’s intrusiveness, both foreign and abroad, providing the content (in the form of presentation slides, charts and internal e-mails) of, and context for, what former NSA director Keith B. Alexander described as the agency’s “collect it all” mentality.
The most damning indictments against the NSA – and the government and news media (“guardians of the status quo,” Greenwald calls them; one of his more charitable estimations) – came in the summer of 2013, when Greenwald was contacted by 29-year-old whistle-blower Edward Snowden, who provided Greenwald with a trove of documentation of the NSA’s collection of the American public’s telephone and e-mail data. No Place to Hide wades deeper into Snowden’s archive, with Greenwald carefully building a case for the NSA as “the definitive rogue agency: empowered to do whatever it wants with very little control, transparency or accountability.”
A constitutional lawyer by trade, Greenwald argues first against the broad illegality of the NSA’s warrantless domestic spying program. Using the bogeyman of “terrorism,” the U.S. government routinely violates the Fourth Amendment, which constitutionally enshrines “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” With nothing more than an e-mail address, a junior subcontractor like Snowden – “just another guy,” as he has described himself – could amass data about any American citizen: e-mails, browser searchers, websites visited, and so on. In one exchange from 2011, an NSA operator confesses to having “screwed up” by accidentally targeting a U.S. citizen instead of a foreigner. The NSA’s oversight office responded with a line that typifies the lax, workaday attitude toward such slip-ups: “It’s nothing to worry about.”
Greenwald gets ahead of the warmed-over defences of such domestic spying programs, launched by the government and other “surveillance cheerleaders” who hold that merely collecting a person’s metadata is no big deal, as such information only indexes who you’re talking to (and when, and where, and for long) and not what you’re saying. “Metadata surveillance can be at least as intrusive as content interception,” he writes. “It can create a remarkably comprehensive picture of your life, your associations, and your activities, including some of your most intimate and private information.”
Beyond its abundance of shocking eye-openers (e.g., the NSA spies extensively on foreign leaders, and even the United Nations, in order to stack foreign policy in its favour), No Place to Hide makes a robust, convincing argument for why we should care about the surveillance state. It’s easy to be apathetic about these programs, shrugging it off, all, “Oh well, if the government wants to listen in on my boring conversations, they can be my guest!” But as Greenwald points out, invoking Orwell’s Big Brother (while dutifully noting that citing Nineteen Eighty-Four is “something of a cliché”), “those who believe they are watched will instinctively choose to do that which is wanted of them without even realizing that they are being controlled.”
Governments, and even the woollier notions of Power and Authority, count on apathy. They’re emboldened by a slumped NSA contractor copy/pasting a Clipart leprechaun hat into a PowerPoint presentation, and by the shrugging citizenry bored with their own liberty. No Place to Hide is a persuasive, thrilling and necessary argument for shaking off this entitled boredom; for holding governments accountable, disentangling the knotty rat king of bureaucracy and pushing back against the rule by Nobody.
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