Q&A with Glenn Greenwald: Americans' reaction "surprising and gratifying"

Glenn Greenwald discusses how Americans see Snowden, and details the non-U.S. world's anger at NSA privacy invasion

Published July 13, 2013 2:30PM (EDT)

Glenn Greenwald            (AP/Kin Cheung)
Glenn Greenwald (AP/Kin Cheung)

In the wake of his explosive reporting about the U.S. government's surveillance regime over the last six weeks, I spent some time talking with Guardian reporter (and Salon alumnus) Glenn Greenwald Friday about the impact and scope of these revelations -- as well as some other aspects of the fallout in the U.S. and internationally. The following is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

There was a Quinnipiac poll that came out two days ago reporting that over half of Americans regarded Edward Snowden as a whistleblower rather than a traitor, despite the fact that we’ve heard tons of calls for him to be arrested and tried for leaking state secrets. What do you think? How do you reconcile these? Do you think something substantial has changed in terms of Americans’ opinions about the state’s tracking?

I do. What was most amazing to me about that poll was the idea that he’s more of a traitor rather than a whistleblower has become pretty much the consensus of the United States government, both political parties, the leadership of these parties and the D.C. press corps. So the message that has just been continuously churned out from those large institutions is that what he did was bad and wrong, that he shouldn’t be treated as a whistleblower and that he’s really a criminal. So to watch a large majority of Americans reject that consensus and reach their own conclusion, which is that what he has revealed is a good amount of wrongdoing, which is the definition of a whistleblower, is both surprising and gratifying. I think it’s really a testament to how powerful these revelations are that they have disturbed Americans so much that they have just disregarded the message they’ve been bombarded with for six straight weeks now.

It feels like the message coming from Congress is pretty much the same: This is a legal program; there was nothing unethical about it; we need to do this to fight the terrorists. What do you think? Is there a space to challenge Congress on this?

Well, Washington has proven, over and over, that they’re not bothered by the fact that what they’re doing and thinking is completely at odds with mass sentiments of the public that they pretend to represent. So the mere gap between public opinion and what they’re doing isn’t, in and of itself, enough to change their behavior. But what they do start to respond to is serious pressure on the part of the American public over some of the things that they’re doing, and you do see some movement in Congress already to start to institute reforms, to put checks on these surveillance abuses. But I think that ultimately the real issue is the top levels of the Obama administration repeatedly went to Congress and lied to the faces of Congress, which is a felony, over what these NSA programs were and weren’t. And ultimately, I think the first step is going to have to be, are we willing to tolerate having top-level Obama officials blatantly lie to our representatives in Congress and prevent them from exercising oversight about these spying programs? And that, I think, has to be the first scandal to show that there are actually consequences for this behavior.

That would require them to call someone like [Director of National Intelligence] James Clapper to task in the same way – “You blatantly lied, we’ve got you on record, what do you have to say about it?” And that hasn’t seemed to have happened yet.

I think there’s clearly some influential members of Congress, not just the handful of dissidents, but people who genuinely wield some influence, both within the Congress and the Democratic Party, who are quite angry over what happened with Clapper. His credibility is clearly damaged. He hasn’t made very many public opinions throughout this period. He’s definitely on the defensive. I think the same is true for [NSA Director] Keith Alexander. Washington scandals tend to erode people’s credibility slowly rather than instantly, but I do think that Clapper’s credibility is irrevocably damaged, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some serious repercussions in terms of him leaving at some point in the near future.

Let’s turn to the other part of this. Yesterday, you reported some more details from these documents that Snowden has been sharing, including the fact that “Microsoft has helped NSA to circumvent its encryption to address concerns that the agency would be able to intercept web chats.” I’m quoting directly from the story. So it’s not just that NSA is intercepting emails and data, but there’s actually more and more proof that these companies have been working hand-in-hand with the NSA.

Right. The relationship between the private telecoms and Internet companies and the NSA is one of the crucial components of this entire story. The NSA really can’t do that much spying domestically or internationally without the ongoing cooperation of these private corporations. So with the revelations that we’ve published in the past week and a half – with Laura Poitras reporting in Der Spiegel about mass spying in Germany, in Europe, and the reporting that I did with O Globo in Brazil about a similar collection of communications in Brazil and Latin America, more broadly – the linchpin of all of this is that there’s some large telecommunication company, an American company, exploiting their partnership with foreign telecommunications companies to use their access to those countries’ systems to direct traffic back to NSA repositories. Domestically, the same thing is happening. All these companies like to say they only cooperate with the bare minimum way under the law with the NSA, but what the documents we published yesterday and reported on demonstrate is that Microsoft has continuous and ongoing meetings with the NSA about how to build and construct new methods for enabling unfettered access to the calls and emails and Internet communications that the NSA specifies that they want, and the technicians at Microsoft work hand-in-hand with the technicians at NSA to enable that, and that is really at odds with the public statements Microsoft and Skype and Outlook have made to their users about what they’re doing to protect their privacy.

Are these actions technically legal? What’s the implication that we should be walking away with? That there was “just” hand-in-hand cooperation, or that there was something illegal that’s being done?

Well, first of all, hovering over everything is always the Fourth Amendment, regardless of what Congress says is legal. The Fourth Amendment constrains what Congress and the government are permitted to do. One of the arguments from privacy activists and the ACLU and other groups has always been that the new FISA law, which was passed in 2008 with the support of all parties in Congress including President Obama, which was designed essentially to legalize the illegal Bush-Cheney warrantless eavesdropping program, is unconstitutional. And there have been all sorts of lawsuits brought to argue that this law that Congress passed is unconstitutional, and yet no court has been able to rule on the merits of it, because the Obama administration has gone into court repeatedly and said two things: Number 1: All this is too secret to allow courts to rule on, and Number 2: Because we keep everything so secret, nobody can prove that they’ve been subjected to this spying, and therefore nobody has standing to contest the constitutionality of it. So there’s this huge argument out there, which is that all of this is illegal because it’s a violation of the Constitution, that the Obama DOJ has succeeded in preventing a judicial answer to.

Secondly, under the law, the U.S. government is free to intercept the communications of anybody they believe with 51 percent probability is not a U.S. citizen and is not on U.S. soil. So they’re free to go to any of these Internet companies or just simply take off the cables and fiber-optic wires that they have access to, whatever communications they want of anybody outside the United States who’s not a U.S. person, and oftentimes those people are speaking to American citizens. The NSA is free to invade those communications without having to go into a FISA court and get a specific warrant, which is why when President Obama said nobody’s listening to your calls without a warrant, he was simply not telling the truth. That was completely false and deceitful, what he said, because even under the law, the NSA is allowed to intercept communications with American citizens without getting a warrant. The only time they need a warrant is when they’re specifically targeting a U.S. person, an American citizen or somebody on U.S. soil. So it’s a scandal in that – not just that they’re violating the Constitution, but also what the law allows, because of the level of abuse that it entails.

As you’ve pointed out in the last few weeks as well, this is about American citizens, but it’s also about non-American citizens, right? It’s about world citizens. A number of people have written stories about how it really tends to affect those who are much more vulnerable under American foreign policy and domestic policy – Muslims of various backgrounds. But it also affects Brazilians, the French, the Germans, and so it’s an international scandal. What has been happening in Brazil with regards to these revelations?

Right, so let me just say one quick thing about domestic versus international. Even domestically, there are indications that the law has been violated. I mean, the bulk collection of telephone records of all Americans, for example, has been done under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which even the Republican author of that [Jim Sensenbrenner] has said they never imagined it would enable bulk collection of records. It was only supposed to lower the threshold to be able to get specific records of people who were targeted with investigations.

But internationally, the response is so much different than it is in the U.S., you know in the U.S. there’s this obsession with what are Edward Snowden’s personality flaws: Why is he choosing the countries that he seems to be wanting to seek asylum from? Should the journalists involved in reporting these stories be arrested?

Everywhere else in the world, the focus is on the actual substance of the revelations, which is why should we allow the U.S. and its allied governments to construct a ubiquitous spying system that basically destroys privacy globally for everyone on the planet who uses electronic means to communicate. And in Brazil, ever since we published these stories last weekend about mass spying on Brazilians by the millions, in terms of emails and phone calls, it has completely dominated the news cycle of the political class. Not just in Brazil, but in Latin America generally there are formal criminal investigations underway to determine the culpability of Brazilian telecoms, to find out the identity of the U.S. telecom who enabled all this mass access into the telecommunication systems of Latin America. There’s real indignation and a genuine debate over privacy that is taking place throughout the world, much, much more serious and more substantive and profound than the one that has been led by American journalists inside the U.S.

I noticed the president and other high-level political officials in Brazil said that there were chills running down their spines when they were reading that Brazilians were being spied on [note: Actually, it was stated by Argentine President Cristina Kirchner]. Presumably the French government and the German government were also startled about it, but they don’t seem to have had as strong a reaction. Do you think that there’s a definite difference in degree or quality of response from the Brazilian government versus some of the Europeans, or that it’s pretty much on the same level?

I think that a lot of the indignation expressed by European governments is completely artificial and manipulative, designed to show their populations that they’re angry about this, when in reality they’re not. In part because they participate in many of these U.S. spying programs, and in part because European governments are incredibly and completely subservient to the dictates of the U.S. So, we saw that very vividly, when the French and the other EU states spent a week, you know, parading around, showing how angry they were at what the U.S. had done, but then immediately obeyed American orders to deny airspace rights to a plane that they thought was carrying the person who had allowed them to learn about this—Edward Snowden. And they did it by taking the very extreme step of denying airspace rights to a plane carrying the president of a sovereign state, Bolivia, and sparking anger in the continent, over what felt to them -- Latin Americans -- like the standard type of racism, colonialism and imperialism that they have been subjected to by the U.S. and its Western allies for… for centuries. And so, I think that the true colors of the E.U. states with regard to all of these issues was revealed very clearly in that incident, although the populations of the E.U. are genuinely angry. The contrast of Latin American governments is very stark. They are genuinely angry, because they weren’t aware of any of this; they weren’t participating in it, and often they were the targets of it. And so I think the repercussions of these stories is going to be very long term, and still has yet to be really appreciated, just in terms of the wedge that it has placed between the U.S. and these governments, and the change in how populations around the world think of the U.S. government.

This has been an occasion to call a number of Latin American states together to decide what to do, how to respond to the U.S. It seems to be a catalyst for further declaring their independence from American imperial dictates. Even Bill Richardson has said something to that effect, that this is really kind of going to be this pivotal moment there. That raises the issue of asylum for Snowden, which we know a number of European countries have rejected. Venezuela’s indicated that they’re quite open to it, I guess Bolivia as well. How is this going to play out? Snowden’s stuck in the airport. He is a stateless person, as he’s pointed out. I think by most legal contexts, he’s right. I don’t think he’s exaggerating in any sense. So, what happens here in terms of his seeking of asylum? And to these Latin American states’ responses to the NSA issue?

Well, there’s a really great article by the ACLU today by Jamil Dakwar, who’s the director of the ACLU Human Rights program, and another senior staff attorney [Chandra Bhatnagar] with the Human Rights Program, describing that the behavior in the Snowden case is basically threatening the right for people around the world to seek and obtain asylum, a right that is centuries old and is guaranteed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other conventions to which the U.S. is a signatory, because essentially what they’ve done is not just bully other states that have offered asylum to him or are considering doing so, but have demonstrated that they’re willing physically to block him from going to countries to seek asylum or obtain asylum, or even to use lawless or rogue behavior, like we just discussed with the effective downing of Evo Morales’ plane. And so the precedent that’s being set is that if you are a sufficiently powerful country, you can prevent weaker countries through bullying tactics from granting people asylum who are the subject of persecution.

I encourage everybody to go and look for that ACLU piece on it, and I hope you’ll link to it because it really, you know, demonstrates just how extreme the U.S. behavior in this case is. As far as whether or not he’s being persecuted, there are all kinds of liberal journals who generally support the Democratic Party and the Obama administration — from Mother Jones and The Nation, and lots of others — that have detailed that the Obama administration’s treatment of whistleblowers, people who leak classified information, is unprecedentedly vindictive and hostile and aggressive. Of course, the Obama administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers under espionage statutes than all prior presidents combined, including George W. Bush and Richard Nixon, and so the fact that Snowden is being persecuted is hardly in dispute. And Daniel Ellsberg made this point himself in an op-ed he wrote in the Washington Post a week ago or so, in which he said, “the fact that Snowden fled the U.S. makes all the sense in the world. He should have because the U.S. has changed radically in the four decades since I was on trial. I was allowed to be on bail and participate in public debates about my case. Snowden would be put into a cage, unquestionably, and never released and be silenced. And the justice system would treat him unfairly, which was never the case for Daniel Ellsberg, even in the Nixon years,” said Daniel Ellsberg. I think clearly there’s a case for persecution. He has a right to seek it, but the U.S. is blocking him from seeking that right.

Yesterday, there was an interview on “Democracy, Now,” with Peter Ludlow, who’s been reporting on the Barrett Brown case...Barrett Brown has now faced over 300 days in jail. He's been pursued pretty vigorously by the U.S. government, especially in the face of an interview [with NBC’s Michael Isikoff] where he thought he was fairly protected because he had a bunch of high-level lawyers. They've also gone after his mother and you know it looks like — this is in a way, along with Assange, an important precedent for the fears that Edward Snowden has. It turns out that one of the things that he discovered, or at least that Anonymous discovered, was that this company, HBGary, was trying to plant information that would undermine yours and Wikileaks' credibility at the same time, so it looks like the U.S. government is definitely aware of the kind of damage that whistleblowers can cause. Do you have any thoughts about the Barrett Brown case in connection to Snowden as well?

Sure, I've written about the Barrett Brown case. I think the broader point is that if you in some way are any kind of dissident to the United States government and the private corporations that essentially have merged with it in the intelligence and national security worlds, then you're going to suffer serious repercussions in terms of legal prosecutions or other kinds of recriminations that are formal in nature, and it's happened to every single person who has done that. I remember when those emails were first divulged about how they were going to try and put me in a position where I had to choose between cause and career, meaning if I continued to support Wikileaks they would try and destroy my career. At first I sort of swept it off as people who had been watching spy films until I realized that the corporations and companies involved in that planning were some of the most well-connected ones in the tech and D.C. worlds, you know, Palantir and others, and I took it more seriously, and what it really indicated to me was that this is how people in that world think — that if you oppose them in any meaningful way, even through constitutionally protected activities like whistleblowing or journalism — that you should be and will be punished, and the point of this is to create a climate of fear where people are intimidated out of opposing the U.S. government or working against its interests or opposing its policies, not through the ballot box, which they don't care about, but through more aggressive action, and that I think is the lesson of Edward Snowden and Barrett Brown and Bradley Manning and Aaron Schwartz and a whole variety of other cases that we've seen similar to it, and the persecution of whistleblowers as well, that are all designed to bolster this point.

As you know, we've just entered the month of Ramadan, which is a very important month of fasting for Muslims. On top of just the general kind of human rights concerns about detaining political prisoners in Guantanamo, there are also, as we know, at least 45 Guantanamo prisoners who are being force-fed. Any thoughts about this?

You know the thing that has struck me the most about this whole last six weeks of political discourse, obviously I've been most focused — to the exclusion of almost everything else — on the NSA stories, is the idea that somehow Snowden is illegitimate for seeking asylum in countries like Venezuela or Nicaragua or Ecuador or traveling through Russia and China in order to get there, at the very same time the United States continues to maintain this incredibly oppressive lawless prison system at Guantanamo where people are dying from having been in prison for over a decade, with no charges of any kind, to the point where they're actually committing suicide virtually through a hunger strike in protest of the helplessless of their situation.

During the same six weeks we've killed dozens of people again with drone strikes, have propped up the most oppressive dictators in the world. And the refusal to focus on how oppressive we are to Muslims around the world, specifically, and human beings generally, is just incredibly striking as we sit there and rail against and mock other countries for their supposed human rights abuses. At the same time we are supportive of — or at best apathetic to — the much more severe ones of our own government, and I think Ramadan is a perfect time to reflect on that, given how the vast bulk of that oppression and violence and aggression over the last decade has been born by Muslims around the world.

There’s been speculation that you're really covering the story for personal glory, that you've never cared about Muslims before, that you've barely written about Muslims before and that this is really kind of about catapulting yourself and Snowden into the spotlight. Thoughts about this?

Anybody who says that is either extremely stupid or extremely dishonest — probably both. I have spent the last eight years writing about one topic more than any other, and that has been the persecution of Muslims domestically in terms of civil rights violations, civil liberty violations and the targeting of them internationally with all kinds of oppression and torture and state violence, and so anybody who claims that I've just suddenly discovered these issues or I only cared when Obama got into office, has to be one of the stupidest people in the world to say something like that. I wrote three books on George Bush's civil liberties abuses, I have given all kinds of speeches to Muslim organizations around the world about the profiling and persecution that American Muslims and Muslims around the world face from exactly these same kinds of policies, including surveillance. So it's almost just too stupid to even dignify by addressing.

By Falguni A. Sheth

Falguni A. Sheth is a professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Emory University. She writes about politics, race, and feminism at Follow her on Twitter at @FalguniSheth.

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