Edward Snowden photographed in Moscow, Russia December, 2013. Photo: Barton Gellman/Getty Images
In June 2013, Edward Snowden was sitting in his room at the Mira hotel in Hong Kong, watching the world react to the first of his explosive leaks about the NSA’s out-of-control surveillance, when he was tipped off that the NSA might be closing in on him.
Snowden’s identity as the source of the documents was still unknown to the public. But through a “net-connected device” he installed at his now-abandoned home in Hawaii to watch out for the watchers — presumably an IP surveillance camera with microphone — he knew when two people from the NSA showed up at the house looking for him, an NSA “police officer” and someone from human resources.
This is one of the new details revealed in No Place to Hide, the much-anticipated book by journalist Glenn Greenwald, who worked with Snowden and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras to publish a number of blockbuster stories about the NSA.
Snowden had known it would only be a matter of time before the NSA was on his trail — he had intentionally left electronic footprints behind that would help the agency identify him as the leaker.
Though he could have covered his tracks — the NSA’s internal security was so poor the agency failed to catch him downloading thousands of documents over many weeks — he hadn’t wanted his colleagues to be subjected to needless suspicion or false accusations during the inevitable investigation that would follow the leaks. Snowden in fact intended to reveal his identity with the first story that was published, but Greenwald convinced him to wait so that the public’s initial reactions would be focused on the NSA leaks and not the leaker.
The book, which is being released today, provides an extensive look at Greenwald’s earliest encounters — online and in person — with the mysterious whistleblower who for months would only identify himself as Cincinnatus. It also expands on existing reporting about the agency’s spy operations through the publication of more than 50 previously unpublished documents.
Although there may be little in the documents that’s startling to anyone who has carefully followed the leak revelations over the last year, the book does a good job of providing an overview of what the documents and stories have revealed until now, while adding fresh detail. [One complaint with the book, however, is the lack of an index. Greenwald has said he plans to publish it online today, but this won't likely satisfy readers with print copies who don't want to jump on their computer or phone each time they want to find something in the book.]
Among the fresh details he reports — the NSA routinely intercepts networking devices such as routers, servers, and switches as they’re in transit from U.S. sellers to international customers and plants digital bugging devices in them, before repackaging them with a factory seal and sending them on their way. Although it’s been previously reported that the NSA, CIA and FBI intercept laptops to install spyware, the tampering with network hardware would potentially affect more users and data.
He also reports that U.S. telecoms partnering with foreign telecoms to upgrade their networks help subvert foreign networks for the spy agency.
“The NSA exploits the access that certain telecom companies have to international systems, having entered into contracts with foreign telecoms to build, maintain, and upgrade their networks,” he writes. “The US companies then redirect the target country’s communications data to NSA repositories.”
Glenn Greenwald’s new book.
In addition to this information, Greenwald devotes a fair amount of space in the book to bashing the Washington Post, the New York Times and other media for failing to hold the government accountable. Within these outbursts, though, readers can see the impetus for First Look Media — the new media venture he launched this spring with Poitras, Pierre Omidyar and others — making it clear why he jumped ship from the Guardian when he did.
Though he ultimately was grateful to the Guardian for help publishing the stories and documents, Greenwald got so impatient with the paper over several delays with the first story that he considered publishing the stories and documents on his own at nsadisclosures.com.
“Risky. But bold. I like it,” Snowden told him about the plan. But friends and colleagues wisely advised against it, reminding him of the legal minefield he was entering if he went out on his own.
Greenwald also addresses how the Guardian and the Post got into a battle over the PRISM scoop, causing the latter to rush a story to print that was incorrect. It turns out a government official tipped off the Post that the Guardian was about to publish its own PRISM story, after the Guardian contacted officials for comment.
Contacting the government for comment is standard procedure to give officials a chance to make a case for withholding truly sensitive information. But in this case, Greenwald writes, the official exploited the process that was designed to protect national security simply to “ensure that his favored newspaper would run the story first.”
All of these are interesting asides, but it’s clear that the focus of the book is on Snowden and the tale of how the leaks came to be. Nearly half of the book is devoted to this backstory and to the man responsible for one of the most significant intelligence leaks of the century.
Though the broadstrokes of the story are by now well-known, Greenwald augments it with new details that paint a remarkable picture of the many obstacles and missteps that occurred along the way that could easily have short-circuited the whole operation.
It all began when Snowden made his first contact with Greenwald on Dec. 1, 2012 in an anonymous email sent under the name Cincinnatus — a reference to Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, a virtuous Roman statesman and farmer who in the 5th century BC was called to Rome during a time of crisis to serve as dictator. Cincinnatus resigned his post just two weeks later, after resolving the crisis, and returned to his fields, thus establishing his legacy as someone who wielded power only when it was called upon for the public good.
Like Cincinnatus, Snowden intended that once his own task was completed he, too, would fade into the background. Though unlike Cincinnatus, he would never be able to fade into his former life.
Snowden as Cincinnatus urged Greenwald in the email to install PGP, so the two could communicate securely. But Greenwald famously ignored the request. Cincinnatus tried again, helpfully providing step-by-step instructions, and Greenwald ignored this request, too. Two months later in January 2013, he provided a 10-minute video to walk Greenwald through the process, and Greenwald, busy with other projects, again did nothing.
It wasn’t until April, that things started to come together. During a visit to New York, Greenwald heard from Poitras who asked to meet him. She told him about an important anonymous source she had, apparently without knowledge that the source had contacted Greenwald months before. In fact, the connection between Snowden and Cincinnatus wouldn’t occur until after the first stories were published, when Greenwald suddenly remembered the long-abandoned Cincinnatus and sent him an email to say he’d finally installed PGP. It was then that Snowden spelled it out for him that he was Cincinnatus.
Following the initial meeting with Poitras and other discussions, Greenwald was certain the source was legitimate and contacted his editor at the Guardian, a paper he had only recently joined.
But while he was still getting up to speed on the encryption and security programs the source wanted them to use, Poitras introduced a wrinkle — she’d been communicating with the Washington Post about one story the source wanted the paper to publish — the PRISM story — but the relationship had quickly soured. She had taken the story to Bart Gellman, a freelance reporter for the Post, who was eager to proceed. But the Post’s lawyers were not. The anonymous source had insisted on a meeting in Hong Kong, but the lawyers argued against it, and the paper refused to pay Poitras’s expenses if she went.
Furious with the Post, Poitras asked Greenwald to go with her to Hong Kong instead. He’d already seen a sample of the documents — a file containing 25 documents that the source had called “the tip of the tip of the iceberg.”
On their way to the airport, Poitras reached into her backpack and pulled out a USB flash drive. “Guess what this is?” she asked Greenwald. “The documents. All of them.”
For the next sixteen hours, Greenwald sat on the plane to Hong Kong poring over the files, completely unmolested, while the stewardesses passed out cocktails and snacks around him.
Remarkably, the man who had become one of the government’s biggest agitators over its warrantless wiretapping program and other constitutional breaches held within his hands a weapon with the power to bring down the surveillance state, and there was no one around to stop him.
Greenwald was amazed at how organized the documents were. Snowden had arranged them all carefully in folders, sub-folders and sub-sub-folders according to issue and importance, clearly indicating that he had read and understood each one. He had even provided glossaries of acronyms and program names as well as supporting documents that weren’t meant to be published but were included simply to provide context.
One of the last files Greenwald examined, right before he landed, was the file he should have read first. The file, named “README_FIRST,” contained Snowden’s full name, his Social Security number, CIA alias, and agency ID number.
Snowden, he soon learned, was more than a systems administrator for the intelligence community. During his stint with the CIA in Switzerland, he was considered the top technical and cybersecurity expert in the region and had been chosen to provide President Obama with support at the 2008 NATO summit in Romania. He had trained to become a high-level cyber operator and had seen things that few see.
“I could watch drones in real time as they surveilled the people they might kill,” he told Greenwald during their meeting in Hong Kong. “You could watch entire villages and see what everyone was doing. I watched NSA tracking people’s Internet activities as they typed. I became aware of just how invasive US surveillance capabilities had become. I realized the true breadth of this system. And almost nobody knew it was happening.”
From the moment Greenwald and Poitras landed in Hong Kong, things moved quickly. Greenwald began writing his NSA stories the first day he and Poitras interviewed Snowden and had four of them completed that night. He was determined to beat the Post to publication in order to set the tone for how the issues would be discussed.
The moment the first story published — the FISA Court order that revealed the government’s bulk phone records collection program — the clock began ticking loudly on Snowden’s freedom. But despite the grim outlook he faced, Snowden slept soundly each night.
He told Greenwald that he felt “profoundly at peace” with what he’d done.
“I decided a while ago that I can live with whatever they do to me. The only thing I can’t live with is knowing I did nothing.”