"Surveillance breeds conformity": Salon's Glenn Greenwald interview

Glenn Greenwald tells us what he'd have done different in '13, why privacy matters and his hope for his new venture

Published January 3, 2014 7:45PM (EST)

Glenn Greenwald                (AP/Silvia Izquierdo)
Glenn Greenwald (AP/Silvia Izquierdo)

Longtime Salon readers will have known for some years that Glenn Greenwald is an unapologetically opinionated journalist with an unwavering skepticism about corporate-government power. In 2013, the rest of the world learned the same. It was an intense, banner year for Greenwald, who has played a principal role in releasing startling revelations about the National Security Agency through Edward Snowden's leaks.

Without Greenwald's work with Snowden (and fellow journalists like Laura Poitras), it's safe to say we would be considerably less informed about the sprawling, totalized surveillance state in which we live. For this service, Greenwald now fears returning to the U.S. from his home in Brazil (although he plans to do so in 2014); his partner, David Miranda, was detained for nine hours in a London airport for the crime of carrying journalistic materials; and his source, Snowden, faces Espionage Act charges. Truly, Greenwald stands on the front lines of the U.S. government's war on information.

Speaking to Salon via phone from his Brazil home (his pack of renowned stray dogs barking reliably in the background), Greenwald reflected on the bygone year, the principles underpinning his efforts and his hopes in the coming year for his new billionaire-backed news organization. The following has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

In the spirit of year-end features, in some sort of "Christmas Carol" hypothetical, what would the Glenn of late 2013 warn or advise Glenn of late 2012 about the year ahead?

I would begin by telling myself: If you’re going to be in the middle of a media storm, it would be good to be very cautious of what media outlets are going to do in terms of how they cover what you say, and what their motives are in terms of how they’re incentivized to sensationalize what you say and take it out of context to make it more interesting and more newsworthy. That has happened to me a lot, where I was insufficiently careful about things I said, without realizing that some media outlets were unscrupulous about how they would interpret it.

I would also say it's really important to have a little bit of humility about one’s ability alone to navigate really complicated and difficult stories, like this one. I think it's a good thing to be confident in your judgment and your ability (which I am), but when you’re working on a story where even small mistakes can get magnified, where the consequences can be significant, it's important to exercise more caution than you might otherwise exercise and to consult other people's opinions. And those are the two pieces of advice that I’d like to give myself retrospectively.

You mentioned in a recent Esquire interview that you'd feared the NSA leak stories would be met with apathy and lack of interest, but that your fears had been allayed by the public's response. I agree that much outrage and recourse to legal action have emerged. Maybe my bar is too high, but I've also witnessed a lot of resignation and acceptance of this state of surveillance, too. As I like to think about it: There's too much outrage, not enough rage. Can you expound a little more on why you're pleased with the response?

I think sometimes there is excessive impatience with how political change actually happens. And I empathize with that impatience because I share it and in some ways that impatience has great value because it drives us for change and to keep wanting more. But at the same time it's really important to realize that it was less than six months ago that we began doing this reporting. And radical change doesn't happen in six months. Major institutions of power aren’t subverted and undermined radically in less than six months. National security state -- power centers that have reigned for many years without challenge -- don’t collapse in less than six months.

So I think it's important not to look for unrealistic metrics in determining whether or not a story has had an impact or is successful. Always the prelude to any kind of meaningful change is people first becoming aware or what is taking place, and then persuading each other that they ought to take it seriously enough to respond. So the prism through which I’m evaluating this is the extent to which people's thinking has changed about the issues. Of course it's not as much as I’d like, I’d like people to be in upheaval over the surveillance state, but that's not realistic. I think perspectives have changed about a huge number of very critically important issues in a short period of time as a result of all of these disclosures. I think if you look, not just from the perspective of the United States but around the world, there are some very serious movements to fortify Internet freedom, to augment technologies that shield our communications from invasion. There are radically different ways of thinking about state secrecy and the role of the United States in the world and the role of journalism, so I think these changes tend to not be instantaneous but to take place in a ripple effect. And here we are six months later and the fact that it's one of the biggest stories in the world is a big testament, if not the biggest testament, to just how much of an impact it has made.

As your recent interchange with Jeffrey Toobin on CNN highlighted, there are some chilling media tendencies to condemn whistle-blowers like Snowden in fealty to the established order. How do you account for the U.S. media's defense of an administration that has consistently lied about the level of surveillance going on?

I think the path of least resistance and the greatest careerist benefits come from embracing orthodoxies and supporting those in power. That has been true forever. If you’re kind of an outsider, and you are looking for ways to up your status, you become a loyalist to the king, you go serve the royal court, this is, I think, common in all societies. There is a temptation among certain kinds of people to further themselves by turning themselves into servants of power, and a lot of people in journalism are very much like that.

I also think that because most of our well-known journalists work for large corporations there is an institutional ethos embedded into these institutions saying that those in authority are to be respected and admired and obeyed. That is the nature of what large institutions inculcate. People who thrive in those corporations tend to embrace that way of thinking. So unlike, say, 50 years ago when journalists were kind of these consummate paid outsiders, now the television stars, the Jefferey Toobins, tend to be authoritarian; they tend to be supportive of the status quo because it has rewarded them so much. And then, finally, there is the tendency in American journalism to be very closely identified with those in political power, and anyone who opposes political power in D.C. -- Julian Assange or Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden or any of those whistle-blowers -- are going to to be hated by journalism because they are going to be viewed through the prism of those who wield political power. I think all those factors combine to bring hostility toward people who can bring about transparency. The ultimate irony is that journalists, if you can believe anything that they say about themselves, should be cheering for those who bring transparency.

Much of the discussion about privacy generated by Snowden's leaks has been embedded in a legal and rights discourse. No doubt, it's crucial to point out that our national security apparatus has systematically violated the Fourth Amendment. But the surveillance state stretches beyond where constitutional protections apply. Let's talk about why privacy, in principle, is important and worth protecting in the first place. Can you talk a little about why you think privacy -- privacy of communications, in particular -- is so important? What are the deep dangers of a surveilled citizenry, in your view?

I think the primary value of privacy is personal as opposed to legalistic or constitutional or political, by which I mean it's essential to what it means to be human that we have a private life. We interact with other human beings as social animals, and live part of our lives in the public eye -- that's crucial -- that's why if you put someone in solitary confinement for 23 and a half hours a day like we do in U.S. prisons, it's a form of torture. And it makes people go insane, because we need, as part of our human functioning, to be seen by other human beings and to be perceived by them and understood through the eyes of other people. But equally important to who we are is a realm where we can be free of those judgments, of people watching us.

That's why people have always sought out realms where they can conduct themselves with anonymity and privacy. Where there aren't other human eyes forming judgments and posing decrees about what they should and shouldn't do. The reason it is so crucial is that it is only in that state that we are free to do the things that other human beings would condemn us for doing. We can be free of shame and guilt and embarrassment; it's where creativity resides, it is where dissent to an orthodoxy can thrive. A human being who lives in a world where he thinks he is always being watched is a human being who makes choices not as a free individual but as someone who is trying to conform to what is expected and demanded of them. And you lose a huge part of your individual freedom when you lose your private realm. Politically that is why tyranny loves surveillance, because it breeds conformity. It means people will only do that which they want other people to know they’re doing -- in other words, nothing that is deviant or dissenting or disruptive. It breeds orthodoxy.

Tech giants like Google and Facebook have made a big, face-saving effort since the leaks came to light about their desire to defend users from government mass surveillance. Given their structural role in building and upholding a state of totalized surveillance, this strikes me as hypocritical. Beyond this, these tech giants are still inherently structured around collecting and hoarding our communications, whether sharing this information with the NSA or not. What are you thoughts on these tech giants' reactions?

The stench of hypocrisy that is emanating from these Internet giants and their reaction to the NSA stories is nothing short of suffocating. When nobody knew about it they were completely content to cooperate with the NSA, far beyond what the law required. They were eager to do it. There were a couple of exceptions: Twitter certainly resisted a lot of government surveillance and deserves a lot of credit for it, Yahoo on occasion has as well. But by and large they were full-fledged partners to the NSA in constructing the surveillance state; they were instrumental to it. They barely raise a public peep in protest. It was only when their behavior became publicly known and became a threat to their self-interest, only then did they find their voice and say this was objectionable and needed to be reined in. On the one hand, part of what I think needs to happen is that the cost to these companies of acquiescing to and participating in this surveillance state needs to be raised -- that has happened, and that's a good thing. But for them to pitch themselves as the defenders of the privacy rights of their customers is a ridiculous joke and I think nobody has trouble seeing that.

Let's talk about your new venture. What, above all, do you hope this organization will do differently than already existing outlets? Do you think there's something a little disheartening about living in a world where it takes a billionaire investor, like eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar, in your case, to get these kind of projects going?

Well, a couple of things. First of all, I think the central principle of what we’re building is journalistic freedom and editorial independence so we don't want any of our journalists interfered with in terms of what they can write about or what they can cover or what they can say or how they can say it. That has been the central animating principle of what we’re building.

The only real rule is that what you’re saying has to be rigorously factually accurate. But beyond that, who you want to cover or the ideology you advocate will be completely shielded from interference from anyone, whether it's editors or journalistic or societal pressures, of anything. Editorial independence and journalistic freedom are central to what we’re doing in a way that is unique. I also think there are other independent journalists and bloggers who have the adversarial spirit that we’re hoping to institutionalize. But I think there is a big difference when you’re out there on your own in terms of the limits of what you’re able to do. If you really want to cover large resource-rich institutions like governments or big corporations, you need to have large amounts of resources yourself. You need multiple journalists working with you: editors, lawyers, the ability to travel, the ability to work on stories for a long period of time, not being compelled to publish every day to keep up with revenues. Most of all, you need to know that you can publish what you believe in, about the government or whatever corporation, without fear that you're going to be sued or prosecuted in a way that you can’t afford ...

I totally agree with you -- I don't think we need billionaires who are willing to defend editorial independence and journalistic freedom in order to have it. I think there are dangers to waiting on billionaires to do that. I think it's rare to be able to find someone who is willing to fund a major media organization and is willing to stay true to the principles of editorial freedom, that they’re not going to interfere with the journalistic. I don't think that's a model we can rely on exclusively to rejuvenate investigative journalism in the United States. There are other models too. I relied on reader-funded journalism for a long time and there are a lot of people doing the same. You can rely on grants and things to do journalism too. But one of the things that I've learned is that if you really want to take on big institutions in a meaningful way that shakes up their foundations you need to have the resources to stand up to them and compete with them on a resource level. And if somebody is aware of other types of models that can fund a media organization that is truly devoted to that and the way it needs to be funded, I think that's great. I hope there are other alternatives, but I am absolutely convinced, as is Laura Poitras, as is Jeremy Scahill, that Pierre is truly committed to this model of genuinely independent journalism and adversarial journalism.

If we’re wrong about that we would not be staying; so as long as the journalism that we're able to do is free of interference, then I think it's great that we’ve found a way to do the journalism that we’ve been doing for the past decade or so in an even more powerful way.

By Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

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