Conversation — July 17, 2013, 8:00 am

Snoop Snoop Song: A Conversation with Glenn Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald on the importance of privacy, the hypocrisy of Democrats, and how he almost lost the NSA leak

Glenn Greenwald.

Glenn Greenwald.

In 2005, Glenn Greenwald began blogging about politics and national security to complement his day job as a constitutional and civil-rights lawyer in New York. Two years later, his blog Unclaimed Territory was picked up by Salon. In early June of this year, Greenwald began breaking for the Guardian newspaper a landmark series of stories culled from top-secret National Security Agency documents obtained through his relationship with whistleblower Edward Snowden. Greenwald’s facilitation of the NSA leaks has placed him close enough to the epicenter of a divisive political debate about privacy and security that he has himself become integral to the discourse. I spoke to him about his experience over the phone from his home in Rio de Janeiro.

Editor’s note: the transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Did Edward Snowden reach out to you directly, out of the blue?

He emailed me back in December of last year, anonymously, and said something along the lines of “I and a few other people have some things that you’d be interested in. The problem is we can only communicate with you by encrypted email, so do you have PGP encryption?” I answered him and said “I’ll do it in the next couple of days and then you can email me back.” And he emailed in a few days and said “Did you do it yet?” and I said, “No, I haven’t done it yet,” and then he sent me step-by-step instructions — encryption for idiots, basically.

At this point I still didn’t know who he was or what he had. I frequently get people saying, “I have a huge thing for you,” and the vast majority of the time it turns out to be bullshit. So I didn’t prioritize it, but after a couple of days he wrote me back, and I still hadn’t done it. Then he made me a step-by-step video that he posted on YouTube about how to install and use PGP encryption. But I still didn’t do it, and so then he got frustrated and went to Laura Poitras, who he knew I had worked with and was friends with, because she does have encryption, and he said, “I’m going to give this stuff to you and then get Glenn involved.”

So I almost lost one of the biggest leaks in national-security history because I didn’t bother to install encryption.

Did you and Snowden talk about the response you wanted to see from the public, or from the Obama Administration?

We didn’t really talk about what we were hoping the Obama Administration’s response would be; we were talking more about the public’s response. I remember the very first conversation I had with him (online), he said, “I’m really convinced that I’m doing the right thing. My only fear is that once these documents get released people are going to look at them and say, ‘Mmm, I don’t really care about that, that doesn’t really bother me, I already know this.’ ” So from the start, the question was, “How can the public’s attention be captured in a way that will engage a real debate?” What the Obama Administration was going to do was pretty predictable. We knew they were going to accuse him of being a traitor, to depict him as fleeing to China, as having endangered the people to terrorists. They do the same thing in every single case.  

It’s astounding, the predictability with which any given administration responds to these sorts of leaks.

It’s just a natural instinct for people in power to want to hide what they do, because secrecy is the lynchpin for abuse of power, and transparency is the antidote to it. This is not only a tenet of America’s founding, but of political theory in general, that that’s the only way power can be checked. And people in power don’t want to be checked.

Have you felt as though the criticisms lobbed at Snowden have been extended to you? Obviously from people like Peter King, but elsewhere, too?

Sure, there are people on the right who have done that, like Marc Thiessen, who wrote a column in the Washington Post saying that I had committed multiple felonies, kind of echoing Peter King. But interestingly the most vicious and vehement attacks on my reporting have come from Democrats. Democrats and progressives are the ones who were my loudest cheerleaders when I was writing this stuff about the Bush Administration, and they’ve become the primary source of hostility and contempt now that I’m writing the same exact stuff about Obama.

Is it disheartening to see such a 180-degree turn from former supporters?

I remember I would go around in 2007 and 2008 giving speeches about the Bush Administration, and people would sometimes say to me, “Don’t you realize that once Democrats get into office they’re going to do these same things, and all your allies who are now cheering for you are going to support those policies?” And I would say, “I don’t believe that’s true” — like their dignity would not allow them to spend eight years shrieking about the horrors of these policies, only to turn around and support them because a Democrat was doing it. I turned out to be totally wrong.

As you were reporting these stories, was there a point at which you felt any hesitation? 

I definitely knew it was going to take a lot of resolve, right? Because the government relies on this climate of fear. They want you to be scared. But this is what I’ve been working for ever since I started writing about politics and doing journalism. So I was pretty resolved that I wasn’t going to let fear impede what I did. I had to commit to doing it in a really aggressive and adversarial way.

But the thing that really focused me was seeing how courageous Snowden was. I mean, here’s this twenty-nine-year-old kid who has made a conscious choice to subject himself to a substantial risk of being in prison for the rest of his life, and yet he never evinced even a molecule of remorse or regret or fear. He was completely convinced and tranquil about the rightness of his choice. That kind of courage is contagious. It made me want to do justice to his sacrifice. And that meant being as adversarial as possible when it came to the U.S. government, and not letting my own fears restrain what I did.

Have you been surprised by the content of the material he released?

I have. I still haven’t gone through all of it, but even though I had been writing for the past four years about how the NSA was building this completely unaccountable and sprawling surveillance system, seeing the truth of it — the hardcore reality of it in their documents — was kind of shocking, I have to say. And I really believe that the most significant revelations are yet to come. I don’t want to keep previewing that — we’re going to take our time vetting it and reporting it and figuring it all out — but the stuff that has shocked me the most is the stuff we haven’t even written about.

In June, Obama’s ratings dropped as low as they had in a year and a half, and the giant tech companies implicated in the NSA scandal are all floundering to regain clients’ trust. Given these signs, do you think it’s realistic to hope for significant change? What does the future look like after these revelations?  

It’s hard to say, but a very serious debate has been triggered for the first time in as long as I can remember. When the New York Times revealed that the Bush Administration was eavesdropping on the conversations of Americans without warrants, there was some scandal to it, there was some debate, but we were still so close to 9/11 at that point — it was only four years out — that there was still a climate that said, “Whatever the government is doing, if they utter the word terrorism to justify it, we’re going to meekly submit to it.” What makes this different is the scale, combined with the complete secrecy. So if you’re all of a sudden learning that the government is collecting everyone’s phone records — local, national, and international — and having all these murky agreements with the world’s main mechanisms of communication — Facebook and Google and Skype — you get the feeling that you don’t have any kind of democratic accountability. Everything they’re doing of great significance has been completely hidden from you.

This really erodes trust in political institutions. It makes people question the true nature of the society in which they’re living and the kind of government that they have. I think that the more viscerally shocking these revelations are, the more pressure there will be on members of Congress and the media to take it seriously and to act. I can’t say for sure that there’s going to be legislative reform to produce more restraints and oversight on the surveillance state (I think there probably will be); I think that the change is broader and deeper than that. It’s related to how people perceive government institutions, and the level of trust that they deserve.

Maybe it’s a generational thing, but spying on the Internet feels somehow more offensive than just collecting phone records.

Right. There’s a big difference between tethering phone records and tapping into the Internet, because telephones are almost an obsolete technology at this point. Tapping phones seems familiar to people, whereas the Internet, from the start, promised that you could be anonymous. This is where people explore their internal lives and push the boundaries of what’s acceptable. The things they do that they like to hide, they tend to do on the Internet.  

The other aspect of it is that telephones are very nation-based. So if you have a scandal involving the government working with Verizon and AT&T and Sprint, like you did in the Bush years, only Americans are going to care about that because only Americans use those carriers. Facebook, Skype, Google — these are global brands. That’s why these stories about the Internet resonated globally.

Hendrik Hertzberg said in The New Yorker that the threat to civil liberties these programs pose is “abstract, conjectural, unspecified.” What, if any, are the tangible threats?

There’s an important distinction between people who are extremely privileged and who believe in and obey pieties and orthodoxies — people like Hertzberg, who aren’t dissenting from anything and who are basically defenders and supporters of political power, the royal court. The real measure of how free a society is isn’t how its good, obedient servants are treated; it’s how dissidents are treated. And if you go and do any kind of investigative journalism and talk to whistleblowers, or talk to people who are dissenting or are otherwise engaged in activism against the government, or journalists who do that, you find this incredibly disturbing, intense climate of fear. Nobody will talk unless they’re using very sophisticated encryption technologies. So yeah, good little New Yorker writers who love Obama . . . you know, he’s right. For him it is abstract and conjectural. But for people who are engaged in actual critical thinking and opposition to those in power, surveillance is menacing. It intimidates people out of engaging in real dissent. That’s its principal danger. 

And let me just say one other thing: sometimes it is hard to convey why privacy is so important, because it’s kind of ethereal. But I think people instinctively understand the reason it’s so important, because they do things like put passwords on their email accounts and locks on their bedroom and bathroom doors, which reflect a desire to keep others out of certain spaces where they can go to be alone. That’s a way of making clear that they value privacy. And the reason privacy is so critical is because it’s only when we know we’re not being watched that we can engage in creativity, or dissent, or pushing the boundaries of what’s deemed acceptable. A society in which people feel like they’re always being watched is one that breeds conformity, because people will avoid doing anything that can prompt judgment or condemnation. This is a crucial part of why a surveillance state is so damaging — it’s why all tyrannies know that watching people is the key to keeping them in line. Because only when you’re not being watched can you really be a free individual.

I read a piece on Salon about why Orwell’s 1984 is a misguided comparison for the modern surveillance state. The author points out that in the book, the surveillance is overt. Here, that’s not the case. Is what we have worse in some ways?

If you talk to Snowden, what he’ll say is, “Look, I’m not trying to destroy the surveillance state.” If he were, he could’ve done so many things: he could have sold the documents for millions of dollars to China or Iran; he could have passed them on covertly; he could have dumped them all on the Internet. What he’s trying to do is enable a democratic debate, so that people know what the government and the private sector — their partners — are doing in erecting this massive surveillance state. So that they can decide whether or not this is the kind of society in which they want to live. And if they decide that yes, they do want their government monitoring everything they do and collecting dossiers on them in the name of security, then so be it. But you have to have an informed citizenry before you can have a real debate.

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  • Elias

    I didn’t know “the Internet” could promise anything, including anonymity.

    • JarekAF

      Would you have written your comment above if it had to be in your own name?

      • Elias

        It’s Mr. Greenwald that stated that “the Internet promised anonymity,” not me. Where does it promise that?

        • Ygret

          By allowing us to use pseudonyms in almost every context. By giving us passwords for every site we use. By being able to communicate with the world without being face to face. To deny that these elements don’t promise anonymity is to play semantic games with the word “promise”.

    • Jeff Tweedy

      Psst: I’m not really Jeff Tweedy

      • Richard Raznikov

        Don’t worry, Jeff, I won’t tell anyone.

  • di is in los angeles

    Snowden quote per Greenwald: “I and a few other people have some things that you’d be interested in.”

    That’s news

    • Haudenosaun

      News, but not a surprise.

    • cwaltz

      Happy news, I hope the others are safe. It’s good to know that Snowden wasn’t the only one who had concerns with the level of secrecy that our government was operating at. There may be two or three critical thinkers left in our government after all.

      • di is in los angeles

        Very happy news

    • JCDavis

      NSA is probably going crazy trying to figure out who these others are. And now these fascists who can’t trust us, can’t even trust themselves.

      • di is in los angeles

        Spare a thought for the “others”. They may have already been found. The Security State’s contempt for the mass of us must be nothing compared to the loathing they feel for those who betray them

        • JCDavis

          The NSA probably wishes it could use the Nazi technique of hanging traitors with piano wire from meat hooks.

          • ka9q

            Who says they don’t?

  • jenn

    After this is all said and done I hope there is a lengthy discussion on how to keep your internet s–t private. Not only do people need to have a better understanding of it, but we also need some default privacy standards by internet companies. Of course congress has no incentive to do that, but things need to change. You can expect the average person to understand how to go through dozens of different links per site to find the must secure setting. I’m pretty adept and i have to go through facebook setting with a fine tooth comb to find the most secure settings, and even then you find things all the sudden are changed.

    • Richard Raznikov

      According to Snowden (and others who should know) there is no way to secure your communication regardless of encryption employed. That’s because all of the data is captured and stored anyway, and anything that is encrypted is the focus of special efforts to break it; everything can be broken eventually and the material is stored, so…
      We really need to get more fundamental. Are we going to live in a world in which some select people have the power to spy on everybody else. If not, we need to change this country in a basic way. If so, we’re in a police state.

      • di is in los angeles

        I am appalled that some want to build themselves an encrypted Green Zone, leaving everyone who cannot afford/understand/access encryption out in the cold.

        You correctly point out that encryption actually offers no safety anyway. All efforts should be directed at ending the Security State, not trying to deal with it (which just leads to being a “good German”).

        • ka9q

          Why do you think encryption is unaffordable? Even the strongest algorithms are now trivial to run on modern computers. The Advanced Encryption Standard that nearly everyone now uses is even approved by the NSA itself for top secret information (when implemented properly.) So if you can afford a computer, even an old one, then you can certainly afford excellent encryption because a lot of good encryption software is available for free. In fact, I won’t use anything BUT free, open source encryption software that’s open to public inspection to ensure that no back doors have been hidden.

      • ka9q

        That’s not what he said. Here’s what he said:

        “Encryption works. Properly implemented strong crypto systems are one of
        the few things that you can rely on. Unfortunately, endpoint security
        is so terrifically weak that NSA can frequently find ways around it.”

        I’m a computer networking research engineer, and I’ve done plenty of work on security and encryption over the past 20+ years. Snowden has it exactly right; in fact I would have said almost those same words. I am frustrated by the fatalistic attitude of “well, the NSA can break anything, why even try”. That’s simply not true. They’re very powerful, and if they focus their sights specifically on you, there probably ISN’T much you can do about it. But they’re not omnipotent and omniscient. They still have to obey the laws of math and physics like the rest of us, and among them are the mathematics of modern encryption systems.

        But you do have to know what you’re doing.

  • Not Reassured

    The final section gives me chills a bit. After just discussing how the best measure of a government is how it treats its dissidents, the conclusion is that if a majority think it is OK, we should still keep up the overreaching surveillance?

    What about the dissidents then?

    • http://visceralresponse.com/ visceral response

      Greenwald’s the messenger getting the message out. That’s his role to play: enable the conversation, to make people aware of what’s being done. The rest is up to us to effect that change.

      At least that’s my take away.

    • langhansen

      Indeed! And why we have a constitution with a Bill of Rights!

      “A government of laws not of men” also means that essential rights are not of (mere) majorities! The framers of the Constitution sought to put checks and balances on the role of the one, the few, and the many in the governance of a free republic.

      Some of the distain by most of those old-fashioned gentlemen for “too much democracy,” as they put it then, seems to make some – even more sense NOW – in connection with Greenwald’s startling comment. Of course, not all are awake to the threats to Liberty that we’re facing now as never before. Perhaps because many or most do not possess much consciousness about how our government is supposed to operate? In any event, why the individual or the minority who are awake, or awakening at last, can be the difference that can make ALL the difference.

  • freakyfred

    I regret that we have forgotten how relentless, fearless and truly eloquent Lewis Lapham, former editor of Harper’s, was as, month by month, he exposed corruption in high places. I believe that Glenn Greenwald is his successor and Harper’s is to be congratulated for – at last – giving him this forum. What a scathing put-down of Hendrik Hertzberg!!!! Alex Mierjeski was a superb interviewer and gave Greenwald the opportunity time and again to express himself eloquently. I only wish that Harper’s would feature this interview in its monthly magazine.

  • freddyf

    “And if they decide that yes, they do want their government monitoring everything they do and collecting dossiers on them in the name of security, then so be it.”

    No.

    If 51% of the people are persuaded by the government’s propaganda, then we all have to live under totalitarianism for ever?

    No.

    • Albie Farinas

      If anything, now, we, and by we, I mean those who are following this story closely, are informed. And I, like you, say NO!

    • http://www.endswithsaurus.com/ Ben Alabaster

      Actually it doesn’t even work like that… as long as you can get a majority vote in the right 11 states, the whole country would have to live with the consequence. You wouldn’t need 51% or even close to it.

    • go2goal

      They, Bush’s circle and now Obama, were counting on our ignorance….and now that ignorance is being overcome with knowledge.

      Knowledge is power….and among other things, this is also why we need to stop Republicans from gutting public education and especially in urban areas and working class communities across America! Obama has given lip service to education….just like he’s given lip service to government transparency.

      Obama is more Bush than anyone ever imagined! DC rules still rule the day! Our Democracy is in trouble as a result.

      • JCDavis

        Bush was Cheney’s puppet, and it’s beginning to look like Obama is Cheney’s puppet too, thus the similarity.

    • Pecus

      If 51% of the people wanted to re-establish slavery, would that be ok?

  • John Eadie

    Snowden is indeed trying to provoke democratic debate, and it probably is forlorn. One can only hope. Thank god for both Greenwald and Snowden. Some nation must declare the internet inviolable, and have it become a meme. Germany?

  • GoGG

    “Hendrik Hertzberg said [...]. What, if any, are the tangible threats?”
    The answer to this question is Epic! GoGG

  • http://litbrit.blogspot.com/ Deborah Newell Tornello

    I don’t care how many of my fellow liberals are offended: THANK you, Glenn Greenwald, and thank you, Edward Snowden. I was at the point where I wondered if it was just me, all alone on the left, clinging to my civil liberties stance, getting hoarse and feeling more despondent with every report of abuse, be it at the hands of the NSA, DHS, or TSA. What Mr. Snowden did took serious courage. What he did was hard. How he thinks is rare. And I appreciate it more than I can say.

  • http://twitter.com/teiladnam Mandaliet

    I’ve seen too much of the dark side of anonymity to be convinced that it benefits us overall. Sadly, it seems that a great deal of us, when given the electronic equivalent of a ski mask and a baseball bat and the promise of not getting caught, will gladly take the opportunity to go around smashing people over the head, just for the fun of it. Internet culture is basically defined by outcasts who are angry at how they’ve been treated by people in general Instead of deciding that this treatment is wrong, once they have power they use it to get their revenge against… well, anyone who’s not them, or perhaps their friends sometimes, if they need them for something. Then when the rest of us join this culture, we only want to fit in so we continue the cycle of hatred.

    For example, there’s the group Anonymous itself, which started out as an exercise in mass bullying. (I’m certain that the climate of bullying fostered by Anonymous and 4chan has led to the suicides of multiple young people.) Now it’s being championed by activist groups as well as Mr. Greenwald; maybe they don’t realize the group exists mainly to hurt people, or maybe they just don’t care that the group they support is a toxic swamp of evil, just as long as it helps them with their goals.

    I think this culture of sadism is far worse than the potential stifling of creativity. To support the good brought by anonymity while ignoring the harm that’s inextricable from it is to be an accomplice in that harm.

    • Ygret

      I think the idea that because a technology can be used for evil means we have to abandon its far more frequent and beneficial uses for good is pernicious and dangerous. The idea that we should eliminate internet privacy so that nothing bad ever happens is similar to saying every person must wear a tracking device with camera and sound recorder 24/7 so that crime is eliminated. The US constitution was written for the purpose of limiting the powers of government to monitor and control us. Freedom and liberty are too important. And guess what, bad things will happen anyway, and unchecked government power, throughout history, has resulted in more murder, torture and misery than “4Chan” or “anonymous” ever could. Hell, even non-anonymous facebook bullying has caused quite a number of deaths. Human beings do bad things. Eliminating whatever little anonymity the internet provides will not change that.

      • http://twitter.com/teiladnam Mandaliet

        No, I’m saying that anonymity causes more harm than good. If I thought its harmfulness were only a minor drawback I wouldn’t have anything against it.

        • ka9q

          Anonymity has a very long and distinguished history in the United States. The Federalist Papers, still read today as the most complete explanation of our (former?) form of government by the people who actually invented it, were originally published anonymously. The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the right to speak and write anonymously (often citing the Federalist Papers as an example) as inherent to the rights of free speech, press and assembly.

        • Ygret

          But you don’t really know, because anonymous speech has been with us for a very long time, at least since the decades after the printing press was invented. Authors have used pseudonyms since that time. So you really have no frame of reference to determine that anonymity should be sacrificed because it is more harmful than total transparency. In fact, I’d argue that the things you think are due to anonymous speech that have been harmful are not anonymous at all: online bullying is mostly not anonymous. Facebook is hardly anonymous. An IP address can identify pretty much anyone. Only if we use secure VPN services or onion routers like Tor can we really achieve anonymity. And even then, if law enforcement really wants to, they can figure out who you are.

          Regardless, and to reiterate, you really do not know what harm will be caused by removing anonymity from all speech because its never been done. Especially in the current era, when governments have become enablers and supporters of massive criminal enterprises while putting the screws to those with little money or power, we need to be able to speak out without fear of reprisal. Edward Snowden could never have provided us with the information we have without anonymity, because he would’ve been discovered the moment he contacted Glenn Greenwald. So no more whistleblowing, no more democracy. As the famous saying goes, without an informed populace, democracy is not possible. And we will not be informed of all the nasty and criminal things our governments are doing without anonymity.

    • Ygret

      And another thing, you wrote:

      “I think this culture of sadism is far worse than the potential stifling of creativity.”

      I’m not sure what “culture of sadism” you are referring to honestly. People have been engaging in sadistic acts as long as people have been around. And if you are so into transparency for everyone, why do you use a screen-name to make comments?

      • http://twitter.com/teiladnam Mandaliet

        Well, I do use a ridiculous picture of my face as my user icon.

        • Ygret

          Is that really you? It looks like an image of a medieval saint or something. :)

  • anonfreepress

    It is time! Do you know about civil liberties abuses, outright fraud, or other anti-liberty criminal behavior by corporations or governments- or the benefactors of them? WE NEED YOU now more than ever. One at a time is risky to be sure- but we need you by the 10s, 20s, 50s, 100s and 1000s to come out and BRING TO LIGHT what the powers that be do not want us to know.

    Not just to know it- but to PROVE once and for all the complete illegitimacy of taxation, regulation, and corporate fraud, war, etc. -to stop it. To stop complying en-masse.

    Please BLOW THE WHISTLE LOUD!

  • cwaltz

    Ignore the partisans Glenn and keep on keeping on.

  • CelticStar

    OBAMAS’ REGIME IS A CRIMINAL OPERATION NOW. THERE NEEDS TO BE A CLASS ACTION LAWSUIT FOR PEOPLE TARGETED BY THE CRIMES THAT HOMELAND SECURITY HAS BEEN ENGAGED IN.

    Edward Snowden has just scratched the surface of what the US
    government has been doing and lying about for a long time. It has not
    just been about the collection of data on individuals, as Snowden knows
    about, but it has also involved using data and operatives in targeting
    political activists and others for criminal acts. Those
    who are not under the governments’ control and who have voiced opinions
    against the governments’ desired spin on events and issues are at risk
    for being targeted. It is also not just the use of IRS
    targeted audits that are being directed against his political enemies,
    but using the Homeland Security FBI Task Force Agencies and Operatives
    for Watch List Targeted and Sanctioned Burglaries as well, as I can
    attest to. I was a 9-11 Visibility Project Activist, which has evolved
    into the 911 Truth Movement, which I believe put me on the FBI “Watch
    List” or perhaps more accurately the Governments’ Hit list.
    Today Obamas’ Kill List outside of
    this country is not the only Hit List that Americans need to think about
    – it is also the Political Hit List inside this country. Surveillance data, technology and personnel are being used against the politically outspoken and targeted activists.
    As the ACLU won’t help and I can’t find a lawyer……..
    Please sign these petitions:

    http://www.change.org/petitions/house-of-representatives-impeach-obama-stop-using-the-fbi-watch-list-for-targeted-burglaries

    http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/petition-to-vladimir

    Thanks,
    Crystal
    206-371-9430

  • censorednewsnow.com

    For a contrary opinon on Glen Greenwald, feel free to check out our challenge:

    Thursday, 18 July 2013

    #NSA A MESSAGE TO THOSE WHO THINK GLEN #GREENWALD A GOOD JOURNALIST

    http://www.occupythebanks.com/2013/07/nsa-message-to-those-who-think-glen.html

    • JCDavis

      Kooky.

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