Defending the NSA Leaks |

Glenn Greenwald to Haaretz: Why Whistleblower Snowden Came to Me

How a meeting with a young computer expert in Hong Kong changed the life of a Guardian journalist.

Noam Sheizaf
Noam Sheizaf
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Glenn Greenwald.
Glenn Greenwald.Credit: Reuters
Noam Sheizaf
Noam Sheizaf

One muggy day in May, the journalist Glenn Greenwald and the documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras stood outside a restaurant in a Hong Kong mall, waiting for a man who would be carrying a Rubik’s Cube. According to the instructions they had received, they were supposed to ask him what time the restaurant would open. He would reply and add a warning: The food is lousy.

Greenwald and Poitras arrived early. The man with the Rubik’s Cube, who was tense and a bit suspicious, told them to follow him to a room in a hotel. There he showed them his employer’s card at Booz Allen Hamilton, a contractor for the U.S. National Security Agency. His name was Edward Snowden, and within a few days he would become the most wanted person on the planet.

On June 6, Greenwald published, in The Guardian, the first article based on the documents Snowden had given him. He revealed a secret court order directing the communications giant Verizon to transmit to the NSA “on an ongoing, daily basis” the telephone records of all its customers, among them millions of American citizens. The story, which rocked the world media, turned out to be only the tip of the iceberg. Subsequently revealed was the existence of a program called Prism, through which the NSA monitors and mines traffic on the Internet on a massive scale, as well as a system that allows the penetration, storage and analysis of private information gleaned from most of the world’s email services. The details Snowden gave Greenwald and Poitras revealed the vast scope of surveillance of American citizens and diplomats conducted by the United States, including on American soil; the development of a program capable of penetrating every cellular phone; “back doors” in the big Internet services and leading Internet companies, which enable the administration to intercept the communications of their clients; and more.

“I, sitting at my desk, could wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email,” Snowden told The Guardian. According to press reports, Snowden, who took four computers with him when he left the United States, provided Greenwald and Poitras with some 20,000 carefully chosen documents. The amount and full content of the material in Snowden’s possession is unclear, though he is known to have backed it up on the web. According to a report in The Daily Beast, Snowden has hidden “encrypted insurance files” that will become public automatically if he disappears or is murdered. Snowden’s leak is one of the biggest in history, and perhaps the most significant of them all.

He spent years planning it, starting to download classified material while working for Dell, the computer technology corporation, which he joined in 2009. He said he had decided to go public to enhance the credibility of the revelations, as well as remove suspicion from his work colleagues.

To avoid extradition to the United States, Snowden flew from Hong Kong to Russia at the end of June, and spent several weeks in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. Last month, he was granted temporary asylum in Russia. Greenwald and Poitras themselves became targets of the intelligence services. On August 18, Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, a Brazilian national, was detained at Heathrow airport in London while in transit between Berlin ‏(where he met with Poitras‏) and Rio de Janeiro, where he and Greenwald live.

Airports have become dangerous places for journalists and their sources: increasing numbers of Western governments view them as extraterritorial sites in which the citizen’s usual protections are not in effect. Laura Poitras has been subjected to searches and interrogations for years every time she entered the United States. She and Greenwald avoid carrying sensitive documents or electronic files during flights. The British deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, said that the material confiscated from Miranda posed a “significant threat” to national security, but the revelations did not stop. Miranda was interrogated for nine hours under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000, which allows the authorities to question anyone in an airport to determine if he is a terrorist. All the electronic equipment he was carrying was confiscated. Two days later, editor of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, revealed that even earlier, the British intelligence agency Government Communications Headquarters ‏(GCHQ‏) had forced the paper to destroy hard drives containing documents leaked by Snowden. Poitras and Greenwald do not intend to set foot on American soil anytime soon.

Greenwald is currently at home in Brazil, where he continues to work on stories deriving from the Snowden material. My interview with him was conducted via Skype. Greenwald confirmed to me that he is in constant contact with Snowden, via encrypted chat services.

“Edward doesn’t want me to take the documents and publish them all indiscriminately,” Greenwald says. “He has made it clear all along that he wants me to make choices about the things that should be published and about those that ought to remain secret, according to the accepted journalistic balance between the public’s right to know and avoidance of causing harm. That’s what I do every day: go over the documents, connect them to one another, try to understand them.”

What do you mean by “avoidance of causing harm”?

“He doesn’t want to put anyone’s life at risk by exposing the identity of NSA employees or secret agents. He also said very clearly that he does not want to eradicate with his own hands the NSA’s surveillance methods by publishing the exact way in which they work. He doesn’t see that as his role. He wants to inform the public about what the agency is doing and let the public make up its own mind about those actions.”

What was your impression of Snowden?

“The first time I met him I was very confused, mostly because I had expected someone a lot older. He was 29, but looked at least five years younger. I was so surprised that it took me a little time to recover. After spending the first six or seven hours with him, it was clear to me that he is very intelligent and that he had thought long and hard about what he wants to do. My feeling was that he had a very sophisticated grasp of the subject we were talking about − the American surveillance program and its political implications − and I sensed that he is a very passionate person, but also very serious and rational.”

Did that first impression change subsequently?

“The most amazing thing is how consistent he is in his personality and
character. He hasn’t really changed, despite the tremendous pressure he is under and despite the intensity of the criticism against him. He’s one of those guys who is capable of controlling their feelings very effectively, and he didn’t actually reveal what he thinks and feels. Everything is super-rational. He’s very calm. The main quality he projects is the strength that comes from making a choice that you are absolutely convinced is the right one. There’s an inner peace there.”

Global surveillance

The affair turned Greenwald himself into an international celebrity and a highly controversial figure, almost like Snowden. American journalists and members of Congress called for him to be arrested and tried the moment he sets foot in the United States, though officially he is not under investigation and has not been charged with anything. Even before the latest events, Greenwald was a caustic and consistent critic of the U.S. administration and the excessive powers it claimed following the attacks on September 11, 2001. However, the developments of the past few weeks seem to have honed his viewpoint even more and have extracted a few unusually sharp comments from him. After Miranda’s detention, Greenwald said that the security services will come to regret their action, as it will only spur him to be more determined and more thorough in publishing the Snowden documents.

Glenn Greenwald, 46, was born to a Jewish family in New York and grew up in southern Florida. He is an attorney specializing in constitutional law and civil rights. In the course of the past decade he gradually abandoned law practice in favor of writing. The assertive tone, the ardor, the attention to detail, the pungent criticism of the political establishment and the subjects he deals with − surveillance, wiretapping, personal security and human and civil rights − made the blog he launched in 2005 ‏(“Unclaimed Territory”‏) an instant success. In 2007, he started to write for the Internet magazine Salon. According to someone who worked with him there, Greenwald alone was responsible for a large part of the site’s traffic, one that exceeds any other writer. He moved to The Guardian in 2012, just after the paper opened a separate editorial office in New York. With its liberal, ultra-critical line and strong web presence, The Guardian was just right for Greenwald, who had fallen into increasing disfavor with the American press establishment.

After the publication of the Snowden documents, The New York Times ran an unflattering profile of Greenwald, dubbing him a “blogger” and “activist” rather than a journalist. ‏(Despite the mutual sniping between the two newspapers, the assault on The Guardian by the British authorities led to a recent announcement that they would cooperate and that the Times will take part in making Snowden’s documents public.‏) The possibility cannot be overlooked that the disrespect Greenwald encountered from part of the industry in the first stages of the affair stemmed from professional envy; after all, it was Greenwald’s firmly held views that prompted Snowden to approach him.

“He said he had been reading my columns for some time and knew that I was informed about the subject, and that I shared his opinion that mass espionage is very dangerous,” Greenwald says. “He also wanted to be sure that if he were exposed and his whole life changed as a result, he would not do it with a paper that would be vulnerable to threats by the government or that might choose not to publish the information in its possession. He believed I would be prepared to report on these issues very aggressively.”

Snowden contacted Greenwald by email in December 2012, requesting that they communicate using encryption. “Because I didn’t really know who he was, or whether he had anything of interest, his request wasn’t high on my order of priorities, and I didn’t follow it up. He then encouraged Laura Poitras to get me involved. That’s how we started to work together.”

Until their first meeting, Greenwald didn’t know that Snowden was behind the anonymous December email. “He kept asking me to come to Hong Kong, and in the end I told him I would come only if he sent me a few documents so I would know he was the real thing and was in possession of valuable information. During May, he sent me about 20 documents that were staggering in terms of the secrets they contained and their journalistic value. But it wasn’t until I met him in Hong Kong and saw his ID papers, and even more until I received thousands more documents from him, that I was convinced he was for real. The number of documents alone proved that.”

What is the most significant information you received from Snowden?

“The cardinal point is that part of the goal of the NSA is to completely eliminate privacy everywhere in the world. Its goal is to make every piece of human communication that is done by electronic means vulnerable to monitoring and surveillance − to collect, store and analyze every message transmitted by people via the telephone or the Internet.

“All the specific revelations are only examples of this: the fact that they collected the telephone records of all American citizens, that they detail every phone call made by every American citizen; the Prism and XKeyscore programs, which show how they can collect billions of pieces of communication every day and store and analyze the things you say, who you say them to, which websites you visit and so on. Those are the means. The essence is the vast, sealed system of surveillance which is conducted in absolute secrecy.”

What’s the problem with that?

“If those with power are capable of monitoring everything we do or say, that means we are very limited in what we can do or say against them. That’s the reason that every tyranny has always used surveillance as a tool to preserve its power. The second problem is that it’s a tool of intimidation. If the population knows that it is always being watched, people will have far less motivation to act, because they will feel vulnerable and threatened. The result is a kind of political paralysis among the public.

“The third and perhaps most important thing is that human behavior changes very fundamentally when there is no private space. People who know they are being observed behave in a manner that is far more restrained, narrow and fossilized. They become a lot less free, a lot less willing to test boundaries. Supervision and surveillance encourage conformity in people and eliminate something very essential in the human experience, in human nature: the freedom to do things when we know that no one is looking.”

We live in an era in which people share on the social networks, of their own free will, much information that was once considered private. Maybe privacy is no longer so fundamental?

“There is a big difference between what you share voluntarily and information that is collected from you. But even people who share all kinds of things voluntarily do not share everything. They have Internet passwords, and they put locks on their bathrooms and bedrooms. Even people who live in the most public manner take measures to ensure the existence of a space in which no one can observe them or oversee them. We are social beings and political animals, so we want others to see what we are doing, but we also have this need for privacy, which is no less essential.”

The threat you are talking about is very abstract. The mainstream feeling is that the average citizen has no reason to be afraid and that his name will never come up in the system.

“The history of almost every country that exercises surveillance of its citizens is one of extreme abuse of that power. There is no consolation in the thought that the government promises to use that power exclusively against terrorists. Its use is almost always against political dissidents or against people who constitute a threat or challenge to the power apparatus. But the very people who claim they have nothing to hide are rarely speaking the truth. I suggest that you ask each of them for their email password or their bank records or access to their social media accounts, so that you can read their emails and publish whatever you please. Hardly anyone will let you do that, because they all know they have things to hide.”

According to most surveys, the American public supports the NSA surveillance programs, though not sweepingly.

“Most of the surveys I’ve seen were quite close, divided almost equally, and what I found even more encouraging was that for the first time since September 11, when people are asked what they fear more, an infringement of their liberties by the government or an act of terrorism, the majority replied for the first time that they are more fearful of a possible infringement of their freedom by the government. That is an extraordinarily important change. You also see a great deal more public criticism and skepticism. Two years ago, when surveys asked about NSA programs, support was unequivocal. So the general direction is positive.”

World hero

On August 21, the former U.S. Army soldier Chelsea Manning ‏(born Bradley Manning‏) was sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking 700,000 documents during her service in Iraq, including more than a quarter of a million diplomatic exchanges, to WikiLeaks. Like Snowden, Manning was an intelligent young person who was motivated by moral and ideological considerations. The first video Manning gave WikiLeaks showed the assassination ‏(stemming from mistaken identity‏) of Reuters staff by the U.S. Air Force. Corporal Manning was shocked to discover that the pilots treated the killing of civilians like a computer game. But unlike Snowden, who until the leak lived a comfortable life in Hawaii with his partner, Manning was young, alone and susceptible to brutal hazing by other soldiers over her gender identity.

The American military did not trace the leaks back to Manning; she was turned in by a hacker with whom she was corresponding. Her prison conditions included solitary confinement in a tiny cell and sleep deprivation. At one stage, her clothes were taken from her. On March 10, 2011, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for public affairs, Philip Crowley, stated publicly that Manning was being “mistreated” by the Pentagon. He resigned three days later. As a result of the ensuing public furor, Manning was afterward transferred to a more comfortable prison.

The United States continues to demand Snowden’s immediate extradition. The Russian decision to grant him temporary asylum is cited as a main reason for the rising tension between President Barack Obama and President Vladimir Putin. Snowden has been charged by the U.S. Justice Department with espionage and theft of government property. ‏(One of the ironies of the case is that this is exactly what Snowden and Greenwald say the United States is doing to its citizens.‏)

“Snowden admired Manning,” Greenwald says. “He was influenced by him and by Daniel Ellsberg [who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971]. I think that a lot of what Snowden did derived from the Manning episode − his choices of how to leak the information, who to work with, the precautions he took. But they are really very different people. Manning was 22 when she leaked the information, while Snowden was 29, and that is a very big difference. The impression is that Manning acted a little more hurriedly, that it was almost an act of passion; whereas Snowden was very calculating, planning everything for two or three years. Manning seems to be more passionate, Snowden is far more rational.”

In one of your first columns about the affair, you described people like Snowden and Manning as heroes of the present era.

“One of the things the United States government did in the past 12 years is to try to make people afraid to truly challenge it. The Obama administration has placed more whistle-blowers on trial, under counts of espionage, than all previous presidents combined − in fact, more than double the number of all the previous presidents. The whole post-September 11 climate is of a militaristic state that is supposed to act against its enemies without restrictions, and that includes internal enemies.

“The key to the abuse of power is the ability to exercise it in secrecy. One of the only ways we have of knowing what the government is doing is through whistle-blowers. That is precisely the reason they are under such systematic attack. For someone to truly expose the abuse of power, he has to take the risk of life imprisonment or of being denounced as a traitor by the strongest country in the world. That’s exactly what Edward Snowden did, without the expectation of any gain for himself, only for the public good. That is the definition of a hero: someone who is prepared to take on himself a fate that would terrify most people, in the name of a noble goal.”

Then why is the public so hostile to him and to Manning?

“Because people have been trained to think that the government is keeping secrets from them for their own good. There was always an authoritarian current in American politics, which holds that it is wrong to challenge the government or to challenge political leaders. But I think that what we have been able to see in recent years is actually far greater support for people like Manning and, more especially, for Snowden. A survey done a few weeks ago found that 60 percent of the public views Snowden as having exposed corruption, and that only 35 percent consider him a traitor. I imagine that the longer he stays in Russia, the more likely the Americans are to view him more negatively, but I truly think that a change is discernible in people’s attitudes to whistle-blowers.”

Why did Snowden choose to find shelter in Russia? It’s not exactly a country that stands for freedom and civil rights.

“The question is not why Snowden chose Russia. The question is why an American citizen who chooses to contribute to the transparency of the government is forced to flee the country. Why is Laura Poitras editing her film about the NSA in Germany? Why is she apprehensive that the government will confiscate her equipment and her notes, as it has already done in the past, in which case she will not be able to keep her promise of confidentiality to her sources? Even Daniel Ellsberg, whom everyone acclaims as the noble whistle-blower who did not flee and who faced trial, wrote in the Washington Post that Snowden was right to run, because the United States is no longer a safe place for whistle-blowers.”

Do you seriously think that people like Snowden and Manning should not face punishment? They violated their own commitment toward the armed forces or toward their employer.

“Personally, I don’t think they should be punished, because I don’t think what they did is a crime; they actually aided the public. But if people think that those who violated the law should definitely be punished, then the punishment has to be proportional to the deed, not decades in prison.”

If everyone chose which secrets to reveal, no establishment would be able to function.

“One can easily assess the motivation that causes people to make secrets public, and which secrets they make public. In Snowden’s case, he displayed exceptional responsibility. The number of secrets he made public is a fraction of what he has in his possession, because he was careful about ensuring that others were not hurt and that the establishments he exposed would not be destroyed. That is very different from someone who might, for example, make public the names of CIA agents or otherwise put people in danger.”

Some media outlets came down hard on you and The Guardian, in a way that recalls the attitude toward WikiLeaks after the Manning episode. Does that reflect normal competition in the media, or is there something more behind it?

“I think part of it really is competition, but a bigger part stems from the fact that the American media have become the servant of the government and of the powerful. They identify themselves so closely with the government that they look at those who challenge it in the same way as the government: with hostility and anger. But I also think that groups such as WikiLeaks and people like Manning and Snowden, and our reporting about them are exposing something about the American media and about how their true interest is to serve the powerful, and not to criticize or contain them. That makes them feel embarrassed or ashamed. The way in which that shame is vented is these attacks.”

Electronic self-protection

Much of the attention in the United States in the wake of the Snowden affair has been focused on the fact that the government is accumulating meta-data ‏(like records of phone calls‏) and snippets of communication of its citizens in a manner many consider a violation of their legal rights. But the NSA is first and foremost an espionage organization, which collects unimaginably huge quantities of snippets of communication throughout the world. According to a report in Der Spiegel, also based on Snowden documents, Australia, New Zealand, Britain and Canada are the only countries that are not targets for penetration by the agency’s programs. The fact that the big Internet companies are located in the United States and that they are cooperating with the administration heightens even further the NSA’s access to significant portions of the traffic of private information via the Internet.

“One of the major issues today is the centralization of the Internet under American control,” Greenwald observes. “When it comes to an Israeli citizen such as yourself, the administration has almost no restrictions regarding the types of communication it can invade. Your privacy is permanently breached by American espionage. Each person has to decide whether this bothers him or not, but it gives the United States a great deal of power − to know what other populations are doing.

“The second problem is that the United States and its espionage services have all kinds of information-exchange relations with governments around the world. One of the reasons that foreign governments, such as the government of Israel, do not object to American espionage that is aimed at their citizens, is that the NSA sometimes shares its findings with the government of Israel. So that even if you are someone who believes that it’s only disturbing when your government spies on you − which I find a peculiar attitude toward one’s privacy − you should not be unperturbed by the fact that this is an American program.”

Greenwald and Poitras think that people have not yet internalized the true scope of the surveillance and oversight on the Internet. They believe, for example, that terms such as the confidentiality of journalistic sources, or the secrecy of any other conversation are meaningless as long as communication is conducted in the standard ways. “You have to assume that everything you say or write is under surveillance, and above all you have to take action that will prevent surveillance. Emails can be encrypted, there are ways to surf anonymously, such as through the Tor browser, which allows people to surf without governments or secret services being able to monitor them. In other words, there are measures you can take to preserve your privacy.”

I was surprised by the ease with which the giant companies cooperated with the administration. I thought they had a business interest in protecting their clients.

“All these surveillance programs were secret, so the companies in question did not pay any cost in the form of public outrage for choosing to cooperate with the government, but they did receive many benefits and government contracts. One of the good results of the current transparency is that now these companies have an incentive to protect their clients’ privacy. I believe that a market will develop for companies that do not cooperate with the agency in the way the big companies are doing, and that, too, is a very positive thing.”

Of all the information revealed to you by Edward Snowden, what surprised you most?

“The scale of what the agency collects. The documents which show how they penetrate the communications networks of countries around the world and redirect them to their systems − billions of emails and phone calls every day! The amount of information being collected is so vast that they are building a huge structure in Utah to store it all.”

Are you disappointed by the lack of respect shown by the Obama administration for privacy, or by Obama himself?

“Even though I supported him in 2008, Obama always seemed to me a very calculating politician and very immersed in his personal interest. Still, the scale on which he continued, and even extended, some of the worst human rights and civil rights violations of the Bush administration was a surprise. But all that is already so well-documented that what was a disappointment three or four years ago, is simply a fact of life now.”

The administration accused The Guardian of creating the impression that every move by the citizen is under surveillance and of ignoring the true achievements of the surveillance programs, such as preventing dozens of terrorist attacks.

“In the past 10 years, every time the government has been caught doing something it is not supposed to be doing, it has resorted to just one tactic: to shout ‘terrorism.’ Even senators on the intelligence committee disputed the claim that the agency’s mass surveillance systems are preventing terrorism. [Greenwald is referring to two Democratic senators on the committee, one of whom, Mark Udall, of Colorado, stated in June, “I have seen no evidence that the bulk phone-records collection alone played a meaningful role, or any role, in disrupting terrorist plots.”] That is what the government said about torture, about the invasion of Iraq and about throwing people into cages without any charge. That is what they say to justify everything.”

But there really have been no terrorist attacks.

“True, and then the question is whether the terror threat is actually far lower than what we are being told, which is what every expert will tell you, or that there have been no attacks because the United States tortured people to death or jailed them without an indictment.”

In the name of freedom, do we have to take the risk that some terrorist attacks will succeed?

“There is no such thing as absolute security. You cannot maintain a society in which there is zero chance of terror attacks, even if you turn it into the most repressive and totalitarian society in history. The risk will still be there. So, the concept of absolute security is insane. The basic principle of the United States is that there are things in life that are at least as important as physical security, if not more, including freedom. We decided that we would prevent the police from entering our homes if there are no sufficient grounds to think that a crime was committee there − despite the fact that if we were to allow them to enter our homes it would help apprehend criminals. If the government were to install television cameras in all our rooms, there is no doubt that there would be fewer rapists and pedophiles, but I still think that the majority of Americans would not agree to that, because we understand instinctively that we are prepared to take certain risks to our personal security in order to protect our freedom.”

Bottom line: Are we living in a freer society than in the past, or not?

“The promise of the Internet was that it would liberate people and bolster democracy, but it has become a tool for suppression and control. In fact, it is one of the most powerful instruments of control ever invented. The most essential challenge we face today is related to the real effect of the Internet. Will it impart power to people and liberate them, or will it impart more strength to the centers of power and help them oversee, control and suppress the population? That is the struggle of our generation, and it has yet to be decided.”

Greenwald ‏(left‏) with his partner, David Miranda, who was interrogated for nine hours under Britain’s Terrorism Act.Credit: Reuters
A demonstration in support of Snowden in Berlin. “The definition of a hero.”Credit: Reuters

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