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Glenn Greenwald, How I Met Edward Snowden

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Make no mistake: it's been the year of Edward Snowden. Not since Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War has a trove of documents revealing the inner workings and thinking of the U.S. government so changed the conversation. In Ellsberg's case, that conversation was transformed only in the United States. Snowden has changed it worldwide. From six-year-olds to Angela Merkel, who hasn't been thinking about the staggering ambitions of the National Security Agency, about its urge to create the first global security state in history and so step beyond even the most fervid dreams of the totalitarian regimes of the last century? And who hasn't been struck by how close the agency has actually come to sweeping up the communications of the whole planet? Technologically speaking, what Snowden revealed to the world -- thanks to journalist Glenn Greenwald and filmmaker Laura Poitras -- was a remarkable accomplishment, as well as a nightmare directly out of some dystopian novel.

From exploiting backdoors into the Internet's critical infrastructure and close relationships with the planet's largest tech companies to performing economic espionage and sending spy avatars into video games, the NSA has been relentless in its search for complete global omniscience, even if that is by no means the same thing as omnipotence. It now has the ability to be a hidden part of just about any conversation just about anywhere. Of course, we don't yet know the half of it, since no Edward Snowden has yet stepped forward from the inner precincts of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the CIA, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, or other such outfits in the "U.S. intelligence community." Still, what we do know should take our collective breath away. And we know it all thanks to one young man, hounded across the planet by the U.S. government in an "international manhunt."

As an NSA contractor, Snowden found himself inside the blanket of secrecy that has fallen across our national security state since 9/11 and there he absorbed an emerging principle on which this country was never founded: that "they" know what's best for us, and that, in true Orwellian fashion, our ignorance is our strength. Increasingly, this has become Washington's twenty-first-century mantra, which is not to be challenged. Hence, the extremity of the outrage, as well as the threats and fantasies of harm, expressed by those in power (or their recently retired channelers) toward Snowden.

One brave young man with his head firmly fastened on his shoulders found himself trapped in Moscow and yet never lost his balance, his good sense, or his focus. As Jonathan Schell wrote in September 2013, "What happened to Snowden in Moscow diagramed the new global reality. He wanted to leave Russia, but the State Department, in an act of highly dubious legality, stripped him of his passport, leaving him -- for purposes of travel, at least -- stateless. Suddenly, he was welcome nowhere in the great wide world, which shrank down to a single point: the transit lounge at Sheremetyevo [Airport]. Then, having by its own action trapped him in Russia, the administration mocked and reviled him for remaining in an authoritarian country. Only in unfree countries was Edward Snowden welcome. What we are pleased to call the 'free world' had become a giant prison for a hero of freedom."

And of course, there was also a determined journalist, who proved capable of keeping his focus on what mattered while under fierce attack, who never took his eyes off the prize. I'm talking, of course, about Glenn Greenwald. Without him (and the Guardian, Laura Poitras, and Barton Gellman of the Washington Post), "they" would be observing us, 24/7, but we would not be observing them. This small group has shaken the world.

This is publication day for Greenwald's new book, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Security State, about his last near-year swept away by the Snowden affair. It's been under wraps until now for obvious reasons. Today, TomDispatch is proud, thanks to the kindness of Greenwald's publisher, Metropolitan Books, to be releasing an adapted, much shortened version of its first chapter on how this odyssey of our American moment began. Tom

The Snowden Saga Begins
"I Have Been to the Darkest Corners of Government, and What They Fear Is Light"
By Glenn Greenwald

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[This essay is a shortened and adapted version of Chapter 1 of Glenn Greenwald's new book, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Security State, and appears at TomDispatch.com with the kind permission of Metropolitan Books.]

On December 1, 2012, I received my first communication from Edward Snowden, although I had no idea at the time that it was from him.

The contact came in the form of an email from someone calling himself Cincinnatus, a reference to Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, the Roman farmer who, in the fifth century BC, was appointed dictator of Rome to defend the city against attack. He is most remembered for what he did after vanquishing Rome's enemies: he immediately and voluntarily gave up political power and returned to farming life. Hailed as a "model of civic virtue," Cincinnatus has become a symbol of the use of political power in the public interest and the worth of limiting or even relinquishing individual power for the greater good.

The email began: "The security of people's communications is very important to me," and its stated purpose was to urge me to begin using PGP encryption so that "Cincinnatus" could communicate things in which, he said, he was certain I would be interested. Invented in 1991, PGP stands for "pretty good privacy." It has been developed into a sophisticated tool to shield email and other forms of online communications from surveillance and hacking.

In this email, "Cincinnatus" said he had searched everywhere for my PGP "public key," a unique code set that allows people to receive encrypted email, but could not find it. From this, he concluded that I was not using the program and told me, "That puts anyone who communicates with you at risk. I'm not arguing that every communication you are involved in be encrypted, but you should at least provide communicants with that option."

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"Cincinnatus" then referenced the sex scandal of General David Petraeus, whose career-ending extramarital affair with journalist Paula Broadwell was discovered when investigators found Google emails between the two. Had Petraeus encrypted his messages before handing them over to Gmail or storing them in his drafts folder, he wrote, investigators would not have been able to read them. "Encryption matters, and it is not just for spies and philanderers."

"There are people out there you would like to hear from," he added, "but they will never be able to contact you without knowing their messages cannot be read in transit." Then he offered to help me install the program. He signed off: "Thank you. C."

Using encryption software was something I had long intended to do. I had been writing for years about WikiLeaks, whistleblowers, the hacktivist collective known as Anonymous, and had also communicated with people inside the U.S. national security establishment. Most of them are concerned about the security of their communications and preventing unwanted monitoring. But the program is complicated, especially for someone who had very little skill in programming and computers, like me. So it was one of those things I had never gotten around to doing.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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