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.