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.

Elsewhere:

Quick Review: A Snicker of Magic and Escape from Camp 14

When I do a quick review post, there’s usually two books and I’m able to connect them somehow, as indicated in the post title. But with these two I can’t manage a connection!

  • A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd
    • Rating: ★★★½ [ratings guide]
    • A very sweet and comforting story, about family and friendship and belonging and magic. I like that adult struggles were included alongside Felicity’s (the narrator) own.
    • I don’t think I’ve ever read a story where the only conflict was overcoming personal challenges. There’s no antagonist to be found here. This is part of the reason why I think this story is very sweet. No one is the bad guy, no one is against anyone else. 
    • I liked Felicity’s word collecting and her little sister Frannie Jo (can Frannie Jo have a spin-off book, please?)
    • Jonah, one of the main characters, has a physical disability. I think how Lloyd incorporates that disability into the story should serve as an example to anyone looking to do the same. His disability is not the story, but nor is it an invisibility. The references to Jonah’s wheelchair take up no more space than if he didn’t have a wheelchair. For example, where one might read “He ran ahead”, you’ll find “He rolled ahead”. This is how easy it is to include a diverse character. They really can be just like any other character.
  • Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden
    • Rating: ★★★ [ratings guide]  
    • An extremely illuminating and significant read 
    • Brutal and real in order to give readers an understanding of how life in the camp impacted Shin (could be difficult for some to read)
      • A saddening exploration of how a bad environment (nurture) affects a person. Shin’s only frame of references is life in the camp, under what he learns from the guards and his teachers, and so he buys into that completely, because he doesn’t know any different. The book does go on to explore the difficulties he has adjusting to life outside of the camp and how he comes to realize that he did not ‘learn’ to feel the right emotions (ex. didn’t care at all about his mother, now feels guilty about it).
    • Although Shin’s experiences are contextualized by what was happening in North Korea at the same time, the book doesn’t give a full picture of the situation in North Korea (and it doesn’t purport to; it’s primarily Shin’s story). Further reading is necessary if you wish to learn about North Korean history or the overall quality of life for general citizens (not those born and raised in a political prisoners like Shin)

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: Non-fiction

Today’s quick review is of two non-fiction books I recently picked up from the library.

  • Floating City: A Rogue Sociologist Lost and Found in New York’s Underground Economy by Sudhir Venkatesh
    • Rating: ★★★½ [ratings guide
    • Venkatesh focuses his exploration on the sex trade in NYC and the connections formed in an underground economy, crossing dividing lines such as class and race. I liked the informal tone and the variety of people Venkatesh meets. I’m not usually too interested in books about the sex trade but I enjoyed this one because it’s a lot more about community, relationships, and a different system of economics than the actual in-and-outs of the sex industry. 
    • I was surprised at the negative reviews of this book. It seems most reviewers didn’t realize what form this book was going to take The author’s note appearing at the very end of the book would have better served the reader if it had been at the beginning. In the note, Venkatesh describes the circumstances and time period that gave rise to this book, that it is a memoir and not appropriate for academic publications, and that identities and time frames have been altered to preserve the privacy of individuals. These were all things I wondered about while reading the book. Placing the author’s note at the beginning would give the reader better context for the story ahead.
    • I’m not sure the self-exploration parts of this book are very convincing. They seemed unnecessary to me, like Venkatesh felt this was the sort of story where he should learn something about himself and not just about the people he studied, so he added some reflective passages. Thankfully, there weren’t too many of them. He does state that this is a memoir not suitable for academic publication,  yet at times it feels like a superficial memoir – like, since this isn’t an academic book he crafted it instead into a memoir rather than just leaving it as a ‘popular non-fiction’ book. 
      • This GoodReads review does a great job of outlining what’s great about this book (lives explored) and what’s not so great (author inserted as character).
    • Buddhism Plain and Simple by Steve Hagen
      • Rating: ★★★½ [ratings guide
      • Good introduction for beginners who think they may have an interest in practising Buddhism (AKA not a scholarly book)
      • For me, the first part of the book was a good recap while the second and third parts had some great writing on the practice and morality of Buddhism.
      • The book is further divided into 12 chapters, with many small, manageable passages.
      • I noted a few sentences as good reminders. I particularly liked the passage about a leaf falling from a tree.

    Have you read any good non-fiction recently?

    Review: Light of the Andes by J.E. Williams


    Author: J.E. Williams
    Title: Light of the Andes
    Format/Source: eBook/ARC
    Published: June 2012 (new edition released June 2014, I think)
    Publisher: Irie Books
    Length: 200 pages
    Genre: Spiritual non-fiction
    Why I Read: Browsing ‘religion and spirituality’ on NetGalley; mountain caught my eye
    Read If You’re: A mountain lover or interested in Indigenous spirituality, esp. of Peru’s Q’ero people
    Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
    I received a complimentary copy from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.
    Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters 

    In university I took a few courses about Indigenous spirituality, particularly that of the Cree and Inuit. I know very little about Indigenous cultures outside of Canada, so I thought this book would be a good choice to learn more about a people who live far away. The Andean setting also attracted me because I love mountains, though I live on the prairies so unfortunately mountains do not play a large role in my life. The highlight of my younger years was heading out West to camp in the Rockies. I’ve never seen any mountains as huge as those to be found in South America. That’s what I liked most about this book – how Williams captures the majesty of these grand mountains and conveys how deeply moving they can be, even for someone who has never seen them before (the photos and glossary are welcome inclusions). I loved reading about his journey up Apu Ausangate, “the spiritual ruler of [the Andes]” (preface). Williams balances a spiritual perspective and a scholarly perspective, blending his roles as immersed participant and outside scholar. These two perspectives are naturally merged in the book. While the book is about his spiritual journey up Ausangate, he also draws parallels to other religious traditions and ponders about the place of the Q’ero in the world-at-large.

    The book begins with long sentences with too many words. For example:

    A small, solid man with reddish brown sun-darkened, chestnut-colored skin, Sebastian stands on the corner of the busy city street wearing traditional Q’ero short charcoal apalaca pants and black tunic, the unku, hand wove by his wife, Filipa, from the wool sheered from his own alapacas, over which he wears a natural-colored beige poncho and on his head a multicolored knitted cap called a chu/ulhu, intricately beaded with designs representing Inti, the sun.

    I didn’t really mind this, though, because I was interested in all the information  given. I found the style manageable because I felt there was a good story caught inside all the words. If this is not your style, no worries – the prose settles into a more natural, rhythmic style about 1/4 of the way in. Here is a short excerpt from a larger passage I particularly enjoyed, as Sebastian, Williams’ friend and spiritual mentor, and Williams have reached their destination near the top of Ausangate: 

    In the shadow of the mountain, memory is intangible. Most of my experiences escape; the process of forgetting is already begun. Whatever I am is being erased by the wind, lost in clouds and snow. Where lies the prefect empty mirror? Where falls the condor feather? How silent is the snow and ice? How thin is the blue canopy of sky? Sebastian is already at work. He has chosen a place for the ceremony near the shoreline.
    A more cynical reader could easily approach this work with a heavy does of skepticism, dismissing Williams’ involvement in the Q’ero community as self-righteous or exploitative, as he is a white man publishing a book about his experiences. I can be such a reader at times, but I honestly did not feel that sort of vibe from this book. It truly seems like Willliams is doing good work with the Q’ero and is personally invested beyond getting a good story to publish. Sebastian’s role is not diminished in the book, and Williams has included a note from Sebastian at the end. Williams founded the non-profit Ayniglobal “to further his mission and honour the commitment he made with Sebastian”. The mission of Ayniglobal is to “protect and preserve traditional indigenous cultures and ancestral lands including people, animals, plants and water systems”. Williams and Sebastian are currently on a tour to share the teachings of the Q’ero. Williams does offer “sacred journey” tours, but these appear to be in  cooperation with the Q’ero and in line with Sebastian’s desire to spread the Q’ero teachings.
    The Light of the Andes is something of a sequel to The Andean Codex, which I have not yet read. I don’t think it’s necessary to read The Andean Codex first, but I think doing so would give one better background knowledge of the issues discussed in The Light of the Andes. I’ve added The Andean Codex to my TBR pile.

    The Bottom Line:  Another reader might have a more cynical attitude towards William’s involvement with the Q’ero, but he comes across as sincere in this book. A good story if you want to learn more about the Indigenous Q’ero spirituality that has grown over centuries around the Andes in Peru, or if you have a deep love of mountains.

    Further Reading: