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Originally published Wednesday, June 11, 2014 at 7:59 PM

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Glenn Greenwald wants to reawaken our watchdogs

Author says government’s watchers need closer watching if we are to preserve citizens’ right to privacy.


Seattle Times staff columnist

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No one has absolute privacy, but how much we have seems to shrink by the day as technological advances create new ways to monitor what you and I say and do. Fighting against the tide is getting harder, but it still is possible to slow the erosion.

In a new book, “No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State,” Glenn Greenwald argues for reawakening the watchdogs that should be sniffing out government abuse of privacy.

As a citizen and as a journalist, I was interested in his story about making excessive government spying public. Like him, I think both citizens and journalists can sometimes get lax about our responsibility to keep an eye on our government. When that happens, things get out of hand.

Greenwald is the journalist who first published the documents leaked by Snowden. Those documents gave the public a window into expansive government spying that sought to vacuum up all the data it could on people in this country and around the world regardless of whether they were suspected of wrongdoing.

The U.S. government, along with allies in a few other governments and in private industry, did all this secretly, gathering phone calls and Internet data in the name of national security.

Snowden and Greenwald have been both praised — The Guardian newspaper, which published Greenwald’s reports, shared a Pulitzer Prize in public-service journalism with The Washington Post — and vilified.

In the book, which Greenwald will discuss next week at Town Hall Seattle, (the talk is sold out) Greenwald lays into the establishment Washington, D.C., media, recounting the attacks on him from journalists defending the government’s actions or dismissing him as more activist than journalist.

He writes that the stars of U.S. media have gotten too cozy with the powerful to play an effective role as watchdogs of the public interest. He’s defensive in those pages, but he does see correctly a tendency to defer to authority and to value access to high places too highly.

Greenwald is an American lawyer who has been working as a journalist for the past six years, blogging, publishing columns and writing books. Snowden contacted him in December 2012 because Snowden thought more mainstream reporters might be afraid to publish the documents he’d downloaded from government computers.

Snowden had worked for the Central Intelligence Agency and trained people in counterintelligence at the Defense Intelligence Agency before taking a job as a contractor for the National Security Agency. The secret gathering of information on ordinary Americans deeply concerned him, and he decided people had a right to know what their government was doing.

He gathered information on a long list of spying programs, then left the country for Hong Kong, where he figured he would be safe from arrest long enough to get the documents published.

The first part of the book reads a little like a Hollywood spy thriller as they try to avoid detection and get stories about the documents published. Sony Pictures Entertainment has already optioned the book for a movie.

Greenwald’s story came out in The Guardian on June 5, 2013. It began: “The National Security Agency is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon ...” (A number of tech companies are taking steps now to protect information from the NSA.)

More stories followed, including one on June 9 last year that made Snowden’s name public.

The middle section of the book is all about the many programs that collect data on people who are not suspect. Government spying on Americans is not new, but the scope has increased dramatically since 9/11.

Months after the NSA scandal broke, a presidential advisory panel issued a report that said the telephone information gathered under the Patriot Act had not proved essential to preventing terrorism.

Greenwald hopes Snowden’s actions will inspire individuals inside those systems to act on their moral values — and people in the media to act on ours, too.

As a result of the revelations of the two men and others like them, the balance between freedom and security is being openly debated, and reform is possible.

Greenwald has co-founded a new Web publication dedicated to “fearless, adversarial journalism,” called “The Intercept.” He’s far from alone in his dedication to holding power to account, but another set of eyes is always welcome.

The watchers need to know that not every watchdog is asleep.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com



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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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