For some time now, people around the world have suspected their emails are being read and phone conversations tapped into by government agencies. But there never was any proof. Everybody’s worst fears came true in June when Edward Snowden, a system administrator with the U.S. National Security Agency, disclosed information about mass electronic surveillance programmes being run by the agency since 2007. Glenn Greenwald broke that story for The Guardian.
Since then the American journalist, who lives in Rio de Janeiro, has done a series of hard-hitting stories that have exposed the reach of the NSA’s secret surveillance operations. His expose about the NSA snooping on Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s phones and email has already led to the cancellation of her state dinner at the White House.
Now collaborating with The Hindu on a series of stories about the NSA’s spying activities in India, Mr. Greenwald spoke to Shobhan Saxena in the course of their meetings in hotel lobbies and at his house, which he shares with his partner David Miranda, 10 dogs and one cat, in the middle of Tijuca forest in Rio. Excerpts from the interview:
What do you think has been the most important impact of your stories?
It’s that not only Americans, but people around the world, now understand the true aim of the U.S. surveillance system: collect, store, and analyse all forms of electronic communication between human beings. In other words, their goal is, by definition, to eliminate privacy globally. And this realisation has produced profound and intense debates on every continent about the value of individual privacy and internet freedom, the dangers posed by secret U.S. surveillance, and more broadly, the role the U.S. plays in the world.
Your reports have revealed the United States to be a massive surveillance state. This image is very different from the US own projection of itself as beacon of individual liberty, freedom and protector of individual privacy. How have these revelations affected the image of U.S. in the world?
In the beginning, people assumed that the primary focus (of our reports) was going to be on what the National Security Agency is doing and what the U.S. surveillance policy is, and what was going to change was how Americans thought about spying and how people in the world thought about privacy. But what actually changed the most from these stories was how people think about America generally — exactly the way you just asked.
These stories revealed a surveillance programme that functioned without the knowledge of not just people around the world but also of Americans who supposedly hold their government democratically accountable; the U.S., it is clear, does not observe any legal limits or ethical constraints in its pursuit of power. It’s completely contrary to the image it presents to the world.
Is this process irreversible because both the Republicans and Democrats in the US now talk the same language on matters of national security? The way the Obama administration has reacted to the reports, it seems there is no soul searching happening in Washington.
I don’t think anything is irreversible when it comes to political trends. We saw in the last three to four years how the most entrenched tyrannies in the Arab world were weakened, subverted and even uprooted. There are all kinds of examples in history of radical changes that people never anticipated. So, I don’t think it’s irreversible. I do think it’s difficult to change it because of this bipartisan embrace by both the parties of not just the national security state in general but also America’s role in the world as an empire. But one of the things you are already seeing in the five-six weeks since we have been reporting the story is a scrambling of partisan divisions. So, half of the most vocal support for the reports has come from Republicans, conservatives and libertarians; the other half has come from liberals and people on the left.
It really has scrambled the normal ideological categories in ways that’s unprecedented; you also see in public opinion polls a huge increase in the number of people who are genuinely concerned about the excesses of the surveillance state, civil liberty abuses and privacy infringements. All this suggests that change is probably inevitable when it comes to these sorts of questions as a result of these disclosures.
Your partner David Miranda was detained in London under an anti-terror law. Do you think they were really after the documents he was carrying or were they trying to intimidate you?
There is no question their primary goal was intimidation. If their goal was to take what he was carrying, they could have done that by detaining him for 9 minutes. Instead, they detained him for 9 hours, the maximum allowed by law. And they not only detained him, but did so under an “anti-terrorism” law. Especially for non-U.S.-and-U.K. citizens, it’s an incredibly terrorising thing to hear that you’re being detained by the U.K. pursuant to a “terrorism” investigation given that country’s awful human rights record over the last decade.
A U.S. official told Reuters that the purpose of David’s detention was to “send a message” to those of us reporting on these stories that we should stop. It was a thuggish attack on press freedoms.
There have been attempts in the U.S. to criminalise journalism, as happened in the case of Fox News and AP? Doesn’t this bother you?
They are already succeeding in creating a climate of fear against whistleblowers and sources. That’s why some federal lawyers have told me that, at least for now, I shouldn’t go back to the U.S. and I should not try to enter the country. It’s pretty extraordinary for American lawyers to tell an American journalist that you should not try to re-enter your own country for fear that they may try and arrest you.
So you have not been to the U.S. since you published the stories?
No, I have not. I have been to Hong Kong and back to Brazil through Dubai. I am not saying that I will get arrested, but just the fact that it’s even on the table for discussion and that a lot of people feel publicly free to advocate this without losing their position or their credibility, makes it a real possibility. When you talk about being charged by the US government under espionage statutes, it’s not a risk that you can casually dismiss.
Why do you think the NSA has targeted the diplomatic missions and other interests of India, which has friendly ties with the U.S.?
India is an increasingly important country in virtually every realm: economic, political, diplomatic and military. The U.S. goal is to subject virtually everyone to mass surveillance, but it is not surprising that India has become an important surveillance target. Ultimately, it’s a question of power: the more the US knows about what other countries are doing — not just their governments but their companies and populations — the more power the U.S. has vis-à-vis that country.
One of the most shocking revelations in your reports was the involvement of several western democracies like the U.K. and Germany in these secret surveillance programmes. It seems few countries are willing to stand up to the U.S.
I think the world can be very broadly divided, when it comes to the relationship of states with the United States, in three categories. One is states that are incredibly subservient to the U.S. and always capitulate to its dictates. The other part is the states that are generally hostile to the U.S., and then there is a majority of countries in the middle that are independent. They ally with the U.S. if their interests suggest they should and they oppose the U.S. if they have to.
Most European states are very squarely in the first camp, namely the governments that always capitulate meekly and subserviently to the dictates of the United States. So you saw lots of feigned anger and artificial indignation when these revelations first emerged because the citizens of European states were targeted and they actually care about privacy. So the governments had to pretend to be angry but what you saw was their true colours when U.S. basically told them to deny airspace rights to the plane of (Bolivian President) Evo Morales. They complied in really extreme ways by denying the airspace to the president of a sovereign country. The reason they did that is they are complicit in it: virtually all these western European governments; whereas in Latin America and to some an extent in Asia, certainly in the Middle East in some countries, there is a lot more independence. So the anger that is being expressed is to some degree artificial but it’s also more genuine.
There seems to be hardly any anger against technology firms like Facebook, Skype, Google, which almost collaborated with the U.S. government in collecting information about people around the world. Now these firms claim they didn’t have any choice. Did they have the option of saying ‘no’ to the NSA?
There are legal frameworks that require them to collaborate with the US government in its surveillance programme but they have gone beyond what’s legally required, just like the telecom companies did during the Bush years. The reason is that they benefit massively in all sorts of ways from positive relationships with the government. Just the benefits they get from collaborating with the U.S. government in terms of this massive spying programme vastly outweigh what they think are the costs to their customer relation or to their goodwill in the world from doing that. One of the reasons they made that calculation was because they have been able to do all this in secret; nobody knew they were cooperating to this extent and one of the benefits of disclosing what they have been doing is that it alters the calculus for them because if people start perceiving that these companies are so complicit with the US government and their communications are not safe, they will start looking for alternatives.
The problem right now is that Facebook, Google and Skype are such mammoth entities that it’s almost impossible to avoid using them. If you are a 22-year-old, you may be bothered by the fact that Facebook is invading your privacy, but when all your friends, all your peers, all your employers are on Facebook and demand you to be, it’s very difficult to take a principled stand and say ‘I am not going to continue to use Facebook or Skype’.
Your reports have in a way also exposed the so-called mainstream media like the New York Times and CNN, which ran more stories about Edward Snowden’s personal life than the U.S. surveillance programme. Even you came under attack in some newspaper columns. Do you think the space for good journalism and investigative reporting is shrinking in global media?
Yes and no. I think it was completely predictable what they were going to do. Even before we disclosed the identity of Snowden I ran a column with the intent of predicting that they would try to distract attention from the revelations because serving the government’s interest is what their function is. They are going to demonise him along with anybody, including journalists, who work with him for transparency. That’s what they do in every single case. They did that to Daniel Ellsberg 30 years ago, 40 years ago. They did that to Wikileaks, Bradley Manning. We knew they are going to do that to Snowdon and eventually to me.
But it hasn’t really mattered. The space for investigative reporting in some sense has diminished because of how corporatized mass media has become, but the way the internet has given rise to all sorts of alternative models the space for investigative journalism is larger than it ever was. I am a creature of the internet. I started my own blog seven years ago and even now when I work for the Guardian, I did so by demanding total editorial independence. I have my own voice that I am not worried about. My career doesn’t depend upon currying favour with people in power. I was able to develop this alternative model because of the power of the internet and finding my own audience and not having to rely on these big institutions. There are lots of other people who are doing that in all different realms, in all different cultures, in all different places on the planet and it has definitely transformed journalism. There is a lot of soul-searching going on inside the New York Times and other media outlets on why they were completely frozen out of one of the biggest — if not the biggest — media scoops in many years. And the reason is that Snowden didn’t trust them to report the story aggressively. He didn’t trust them to resist the demands of the US government, just like Bradley Manning didn’t trust the New York Times or Washington Post and went to Wikileaks. So you are going to see more of that as more stories like this end with places or people like me or with Wikileaks, rather than in the New York Times and Washington Post. Their model of journalism is increasingly going to become discredited. It’s happening already.
You are working on a book on this whole affair. Is the book also about Edward Snowden?
Only a part of the book is going to be about my time, my story about how I ended up involved in this story and how I ended up with developing a relationship with Snowden as my source, how I got the documents, how I reported them, my experiences in Hong Kong and afterwards. But the bulk of the book is going to be about what the US has done in constructing this surveillance state and what the implications and dangers of it are. There are going to be new revelations as well based on the documents.
Some people have suggested that Mr. Snowden could be a false flag. Naomi Wolf even wrote an article arguing that this all could be a set-up. Did you have any doubt whatsoever about Snowden or authenticity of the documents before you sat down to write your stories?
No, to buy this theory would be so stupid that I didn’t spend a second of my time and energy on it. Part of what we all do as human beings is based on intuition. You have to make judgments about who is lying to you and who is telling the truth, who is not credible, who is tricking you and who is being authentic. When I went to Hong Kong, my only goal for the first four or five days was to understand everything I possibly could about Edward Snowden and to ensure that there was nothing he was hiding and he was genuine about what he was claiming. As I had never met him before, I spent dozens and dozens of hours with him in the first week alone. Speaking face to face with him — four feet away from where he was sitting and looking into my eyes — and I had no doubt about what he said and who he was. I would rather have people who are excessively sceptical rather than excessively gullible but that particular theory deserves nothing but contempt.
You have been living in Rio de Janeiro for eight years now. How do you feel living in Brazil?
I love Brazil. That’s why I have been living here for so long. Of course, I was here because of the discriminatory law in the United States that prevents my partner from emigrating there even though I could emigrate here.
But there is really a robust CIA presence in Rio de Janeiro; the station chief of Brazil and Rio is notoriously aggressive in his methods. So I assume that I have been spied on and monitored. We had an incident, when my partner’s laptop disappeared from the house. But I feel as safe here as I would anywhere else. I don’t feel particularly unsafe here. You are only so safe when you are carrying in your bag 10,000 top-secret documents of the most secretive agency of the most powerful government in the world. You don’t have complete safety, but I don’t feel unsafe either.