Review: No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald

Author: Glenn Greenwald
Title: No Place To Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State
Format/Source: Hardcover and eBook/library 
Published: May 2014
Publisher: Metropolitan Books
Length: 254 pages
Genre: Journalism
Why I Read: Learn more about the subject from a key player
Read If You’re: Concerned about US surveillance and your privacy
Quote: “I only have one fear […] that people will see these documents and shrug, that they’ll say, ‘we assumed this was happening and don’t care’.” (29).
Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon 

I thought No Place to Hide was going to be about the process of Snowden’s decision to leak documents and how the immediate aftermath of that affected him. Actually, this book can be divided into three very distinct yet significant parts. The first two chapters (~35%) of this book are indeed about Snowden, documenting his initial attempts to contact Greenwald up through the release of the first documents. These chapters, by nature of the activities they document, are exciting, intense and fascinating, especially if you want to know more about Snowden personally. Greenwald is one of the more qualified people writing about the leaking to give an account of Snowden’s personality and motivations.
The third chapter (the second part), “Collect it All”, explores some of the leaked documents. This chapter is extremely important and shocking (if, like me, you hadn’t looked at any of the actual documents), but it’s not as thrilling as the previous segment (again, by the nature of what the chapter describes – these are static documents, not people taking daring action). Because I had thought the entire book was going to be about Snowden, I was a bit taken aback and thus disappointed (though that’s my fault fault for having misconstructed expectations), but I still found this chapter a good, enlightening read. I did get stuck here for awhile because it’s so abruptly different from the first two chapters. The information contained is important, but it might be better served by having its own book. Here’s one disclosure that really blew me away:
The NSA routinely receives – or intercepts – routers, servers, and other computer network devices being exported from the United States before they are delivered to the international customers. The agency then implants backdoor surveillance tools, repackages the devices with a factory seal and sends them on. The NSA thus gains access to entire networks and all their users. (176)
I’d also like to note that the super secret classified PowerPoints slides are outrageous in their poor design and use of Clip Art. The visual presentation makes you laugh until you read the actual information being presented. Chapter Three concludes with the goal of surveillance:

When the United States is able to know everything that everyone is doing, saying, thinking, and planning – its own citizens, foreign populations, international corporations, other government leaders – its power over those factions is maximized. (198)

The third and final part of this book explores why citizens should be concerned about surveillance. This is where Greenwald starts to pick up steam again. He provides a clear reasoning as to why, even if you’re an upstanding citizen who never does anything wrong, you should be concerned about government surveillance. Even though I consider myself pretty left wing, I did sometimes naively wonder, “But if you haven’t done anything wrong, what’s the problem with surveillance?” Although I knew surveillance was bad, I couldn’t reason to myself why. Greenwald does a good job of that, making me think “Ah, yes, of course! That’s why.” One notable point he brings up is how surveillance has been passed from Republicans to Democrats, how it isn’t a dualistic issue with one side for and one side against (231). He concludes Chapter 4 with an important reminder summary of his discussion about transparency vs. privacy:

That is why we are called private individuals, functioning in our private capacity. Transparency is for those who carry out public duties and exercise public power. Privacy is for everyone else. (244)

The Bottom Line: No Place to Hide feels like three mini-books of information, each of which could easily filled a full book on its own. There’s a lot packed into these 254 pages (perhaps too much), but all of it valuable and fascinating and terrifying.


Review: Torture Team by Philippe Sands

Author: Philippe Sands
Title: Torture Team: Deception, Cruelty and the Compromise of Law
Format/Source: Hardcover/library 
Published: May 2008
Publisher: Allen Lane
Length: 315 pages
Genre: Non-fiction
Why I Read: Library browsing, looked interesting
Read If You’re: Interested in the intersection of law + politics or the legality of torture
Quote: “…[all] aggressive interrogative techniques recommended by Jim Haynes and approved by Secretary Rumsfeld [were] used” (8).
Rating:  ★★★ [ratings guide]
GoodReads IndieBound | Chapters | Book Depository

In Torture Team, Sands explores “the role of lawyers who are required to give legal opinions on sensitive political matters, and asks what responsibility they bear”. He does this by focusing on the ‘enhanced interrogative techniques’ approved and used on Guantanamo detainee Mohammed al-Qahtani. I did not think I would review this book. It took me a long time to read, due to the high level of detail and wide cast of characters with titles and relationships that took some effort to keep track. My understanding of the American political system and the intersecting branches of the CIA, FBI, army, navy, etc. is limited so at times I found it tiring to try to keep track of how everyone related to each other. Thankfully Sands includes a list of “principal characters and the positions they held during 2002”.

The bulk of this book consists of in-depth interviews with most major players in the decision-making process (then President Bush and Vice President Cheney excluded). I had not expected to find conversations between Sands and the villains of the book.  I expected such people would not grant interviews to be published in a book condemning their actions. The inclusions of such interviews makes this a revealing read. I also like that Sands includes his own perspective to temper the wealth of interviews. He documents the ease or difficulty of securing an interview, and the interactions that arise from his interviews, thus giving a sense of each person as just that – a person, not just a player for the ‘torture team’.

“John Yoo had declined my invitation to discuss the Alstotter case but I had a slightly more willing response from Doug Feith, although our conversation was far from easy. It had the great merit, however, of teasing out the main issues ” (228)

The chapter goes on to document the banter between Feith and Sands, with Sands concluding “Dough Feith went some way in persuading me that the Alstotter case wasn’t exactly comparable and that further inquiry would cause offence in some quarters at least” (232). Sands writes with personal investment and doesn’t just fall back on relaying “he said, she did”. This makes the book easier to swallow as I think it would have been very dry without these touches.

Sands takes an odd turn towards the end of the book in his attempt to draw parallels between the White House lawyers and Nazi lawyers.  Sands concludes, “What happened in Washington in 2002 bore no comparison with what had occurred sixty years earlier in Nuremberg” (245), but he immediately follows this with a sentences beginning “Yet it wasn’t quite that simple…”. Although I agree with Sands’ argument that the White House lawyers acted far beyond their bounds, I don’t think its appropriate to compare to them to Nazi lawyers. This side-track does not add anything to the book. I would have preferred to read more about the connections (or lack-thereof) between torture at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, as Sands occasionally mentions a connection but does not flesh it out. He writes in the conclusion, “At the very least, however, it is clear that the pictures of abuse that emerged from Abu Ghraib would have been less likely without the Haynes memo and the culture of ill-considered aggression it embraced” but I’m not sure how this is ‘clear’.

Also alluded to throughout the book is the process of revelation, or declassification, or investigation, of al-Qahtani’s treatment – I wasn’t too sure because Sands never explains clearly. He writes like the public knowledge of what happened was something I should already know about (I think the book was published shortly after everything came to light). Perhaps Americans know all about the case but I did not, so I would have appreciate more context regarding what was publicly known and what was investigated.

While preparing this review, I came across a cover that said ‘includes new material’. I couldn’t find specific information on an updated edition, but maybe one does exist?

The Bottom Line: An extremely in-depth exploration of the role of lawyers in how the torture of Guantanamo detainee Mohammed al-Qahtani came to be permitted, but Sands tempers the information overload by portraying the persons involved as real people rather than mere information sources.

Further Reading: 

Quick Review: Fun Reads

These books I read for some casual reading – no critical analysis involved!

  • Cracks in the Kingdom by Jaclyn Moriarty
    • Series: The Colours of Madeleine #2
    • Rating:  ★★★ [ratings guide
    • When the first book in this trilogy came out last year, I was ecstatic to hear it described as Neil Gaiman meets John Green. Moriarty is the only other YA author I adore aside from Green, and Gaiman is one of my favourite authors, so I was excited to see what she would conjure in the fantasy realm. 
    • The first book felt to me like a prologue. The second book still feels the same way, although now I’ve finally realized that searching for the royal family is the whole plot, not just a little side story to be quickly resolved. To me, it feels like something is missing from these books. I can’t get invested in the story. The book feels too long, too drawn out. But if you like Moriarty, and you like fantasy, I think you will still enjoy this book. And if you’re like me, enticed by the idea of Gaiman+Green, do give it a shot!
    • I was a little disappointed at the typical teenager-y behaviour of the teenagers…this may sound like a silly complaint, but when compared to the teens of Moriarty’s other work, the characters in this book felt more stereotypical, less developed. I was disappointed by the bickering between Madeleine and Elliot, and the immaturity of Princess Ko (although her behavior is realistic, given that she’s lost her entire family). I don’t really think the characters are badly or unbelievably written. They’re just not what I’ve come to expect from Moriarty.
    • I love reading about the Kingdom of Cello and exploring its realms. I love how Moriarty handles magic. It feels fresh and exciting and I always wonder how it will factor into the story. The Lake of Spells was one of my favourite parts of the book.
  •  No Way to Treat a First Lady by Christopher Buckley
    • Rating: ★★★½ [ratings guide
    • Not the usual sort of book I pick up while browsing at the library, but I thought “Why not, sounds funny”.
    • Elizabeth MacMann, the titular First Lady, didn’t feel very developed. I felt distanced from her throughout the novel. I actually liked Boyce Baylor quite a bit, I found myself rooting for him!
    • The book was mostly funny and less dark than I expected it to be. I enjoyed reading the court room proceedings. 
    • I like that the reader doesn’t know who killed the President until the end.There was one point, around halfway through, where I thought “Wait, I bet this person did it!” but such thoughts didn’t distract from reading. It’s not like when I watch a crime show, always trying to deduce who did it. 
    • The book wasn’t spectacular but I did find it compelling, funny, and properly pace. This could be a good summer read if you’re interested in political, courtroom humour.

Does anyone have any recommendations of Buckley’s other works, or similar books? I could use a funny read like this now and then!