It got lost in all the hubbub of the uprising in Baltimore, as well as the addition of a few more candidates to the 2016 presidential election, but according to reports from multiple sources last week, it's looking more probable than ever that the so-called Patriot Act will not be reauthorized until after it's undergone some privacy-protecting revisions. The distance between vague promises in a report and an actual change to the bill's infamously broad language is considerable, of course. But absent the waves of outrage inspired by leaks from former CIA contractor Edward Snowden — whose collaboration with Salon alum and Intercept founding editor Glenn Greenwald recently led to an Academy Award — it's hard to imagine reformers ever getting even this close.
Recently, Salon spoke over the phone with Greenwald, whose book on his experience with Snowden, "No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State," was recently released in paperback. We touched on the reception to the book, the events in Baltimore, Hillary Clinton's sincerity and the importance of the controversy involving this year's PEN Awards and Charlie Hebdo. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.
Before we talk about the latest news, I wanted to ask you about how this book was initially received — and, specifically, about the controversial negative reviews it received from Michael Kinsley in the New York Times and George Packer in Prospect Magazine.
Interestingly, the vast majority of reviews about the book, including from journalists, were definitely overwhelmingly positive. I think it was very well received by television journalists as well. But I knew there was going to be some backlash because it is a polarizing issue and I’m a polarizing figure and I wrote things quite critical of establishment journalists; so, of course, lots of establishment journalists were going to be angry about it. People like George Packer and Michael Kinsley are exactly the kinds of people that I wrote critically about; it’s unsurprising that they had their little outburst of hostility.
But two things did surprise me. One was that the New York Times chose somebody to write about my book, Michael Kinsley, who has this long history of inveighing angrily against journalism and transparency — even regarding it as a criminal offense. I actually got contacted by lots of journalists when that book review came out, pointing to places where he had suggested that they committed crimes or in some other way had done something immoral by reporting on things the Bush administration wanted to be kept secret. So it’s just a very strange and purposeful choice to pick somebody who believes that journalism is a crime to review the book of someone who’d just [written about] a major leak.
What was the second surprise?
The second thing that surprised me about that review was just how adolescent and petulant and ad hominem it was. I read it and I couldn’t believe the New York Times published it. I wasn’t angry at all; I didn’t feel like it landed a single blow; [it was just] kind of adolescent act of foot-stomping. I think generally when your critics are doing a really bad job of attacking you, it actually helps you.
Now that the waters have calmed somewhat do you think most journalists are on your side?
I do. I think part of it was because the journalism that I did won essentially every major award. ... In the West, in the minds of journalists, that’s what gives what you're doing credibility. I think that it undeniably leads to the sort of metrics that journalists looked to for what good journalism is — like legislative reform and worldwide debate and changes with how countries deal with one another, and changes in individual behavior.
It doesn’t mean that the journalists who were supportive were particularly fond of me; but I think they had to end up treating the work respectfully and, for the most part, they did.
Switching gears to current affairs: With Eric Holder now out as attorney general and Loretta Lynch now in, do you expect her to be as spotty on civil liberties as he was?
I found the reaction to Loretta Lynch nomination to be genuinely remarkable, because if you look at the people who are demanding her confirmation and cheering her confirmation and what they believe, there's a universe of distance between their beliefs and the things that she believes and what she has done in her career.
She is essentially a fairly conservative, pro-security state, pro-penal state federal prosecutor who has spent her career supporting and upholding this evil system of mass incarceration. To cheer her simply because of the historic nature of her appointment — which, of course, is significant, her being the first African-American woman to serve in that position — without regard to the things that she’s actually going to do in pursuit of these policies, I think is mind-numbingly irrational.
I do think Eric Holder was pretty horrible in lots of important areas; but in other areas, he was actually quite good — like civil rights enforcement and advocating for more equity and fairness in the criminal justice system. I don’t expect Loretta Lynch to be [that way].
Sticking with the mass incarceration issue, what did you think of Hillary Clinton's recent speech on criminal justice reform? A good thing or B.S. or both?
Oh, both. I think that Hillary Clinton is the kind of politician who never takes a position that’s remotely unpopular or in any way likely to get her into any kind of trouble. She’s an incredibly calculating, politically cautious politician — which is, of course, why she voted for the Iraq War, because that was the politically safe thing for her to do at the time.
So what I think that that speech demonstrates is something quite positive, which is that the evils of mass incarceration — which, even as recently as three or four years ago, was a very fringe kind of obscure position — has really now entered the mainstream. In part, that's because of things like Ferguson and the light being shone on police abuses; but it's also just the growing recognition that there’s something radically wrong with a society that imprisons more of its citizens than any other country in the world, by far. And I think Hillary making this one of her first issues for her campaign signifies that that issue has become completely mainstream, which is remarkable.
But of course, I think with any politician — and this is the lesson of Barack Obama — the fact that a politician takes a position doesn’t mean ... they’re sincere about it or committed to it. And particularly when you have someone like Clinton, whose record on this very issue is so atrocious, any rational person would be extremely skeptical of whether she’s doing this as a self-serving political trick ... or whether she genuinely changed her mind and now sees the evil of the system that she once helped to uphold.
You're in Brazil; what has the unrest in Baltimore looked like from outside the U.S.?
I think that sometimes it’s hard for people who are Americans and living in the United States to appreciate the vast gap between how they're taught to think about America and how the rest of the world perceives America. This has probably been one of the most eye-opening things for me from living outside the United States now for as long as I have, which is an appreciation of just how viscerally the rest of the world sees that discrepancy. Obviously there’s polling that shows that if you ask people around the world who the greatest threat to world peace is, overwhelmingly they’ll say the United States, which most Americans find bizarre, to the extent that they’re aware of it at all.
The perception that America has a radical problem with race and that it has become an extremely abusive penal state are very widespread in the rest of the world — or at least lots of parts of the rest of the world — and it’s also quite accurate. Just from my own experience, when I talk to people in Brazil about things like Ferguson or Baltimore, there’s not a surprise or bewilderment; it’s sort of a confirmation of the fact that America has a serious problem with racism and that police abuse and this abusive penal state seems to be getting worse.
Is there a connection between the era of mass incarceration and the era of the burgeoning national security state?
Oh they’re completely connected and inextricably linked. There’s so many different similarities that bind them together, but the most important one is just the mentality. Part of the War on Terror is how we’re taught to think that once you have a group of people who are identified as some kind of menace or threat to security, essentially anything can be done to them. They can be killed or brutalized or imprisoned without any real due process, and that’s all justified because they’ve demonstrated themselves to be a threat.
It reminds me a bit of how you hear some people say they don't care about the NSA because they aren't doing anything wrong. That logic seems to inform the "just do what a cop says and you won't get hurt" argument you'll see on Facebook or Fox News.
Yeah, it’s pure authoritarianism, in both cases. The idea that the people you should fear are not the ones who wield ... political or corporate power — that those are the people you actually trust and want to even be more empowered because they will protect you from the people you’ve been told to fear (the terrorists or African-Americans or people deemed to be criminal or immigrants); that’s what power centers need to do to breed acquiescence and submission. I think you’re exactly right that it’s the same dynamic in both cases.
Speaking of people who are designated as bad and therefore subject to almost any kind of treatment, were you surprised that the American media was as upset as it was over the accidental killing of an American citizen via drone strike? I found it odd, personally; it's not like a sloppy and lethal deployment of drones is unusual nowadays.
Yes and no. On the one hand, it’s surprising just because the fact that [the government] has no idea who it is killing most of the time is something that has been unbelievably obvious forever. It’s just clear that they don’t know and in fact they have a whole type of drone strikes called "signature strikes," the whole purpose of which is that they don’t know the identity of anyone they’re killing. They just think, because of their assessment of a kind of behavioral trend, that these are probably bad people. So it is sort of surprising to watch Washington kind of wake up and say, Oh, my God, it turns out that these drones can actually kill innocent people and we don’t really know who we’re killing! It’s not as precise as has been claimed!
On the other hand, the reason it wasn’t surprising was because the U.S. media — and official Washington — genuinely do not regard human life as being valuable unless it's Western. That’s been proven over and over again. It’s really easy to dehumanize non-Western victims of drone strikes, to literally just ignore them and not even acknowledge they exist. It was only because this was a U.S. ... hostage who was killed ... that the media took note of the fact that an innocent life was lost here. So they begin asking themselves questions that, had they viewed non-Western life as being worthwhile, they would have asked themselves over the course of many years.
What do you think is more likely, though, now that those questions are being asked? Will the circle of humanity expand a bit to include non-Westerners, too? Or will it contract to exclude some Americans?
We have been trained to view the killing of innocent people as not just an acceptable but an inevitable part of war.
The phrase "collateral damage" comes out of Americans mouths so easily now ... but if you look at Lexus searches and language trends, it really got brought into mainstream parlance when Timothy McVeigh was interviewed about the Oklahoma City Bombing and asked how he could justify the killing of babies in this nursery. He said, I regard that as collateral damage to the just cause of protesting federal government tyranny. When he said that, most Americans hadn’t heard that before, and now it is just extremely common.
So I think we’ve all been trained to think about the killing of innocent people as just sort of something that we accept as a country that just engages in endless war. I don’t really think it’s going to change much.
You've written a lot about the controversy over the PEN "Freedom of Expression Courage Award" being given to Charlie Hebdo, which has inspired a lot of writers to speak out in opposition. Why do you think this story is so important?
It’s actually kind of a complex issue. I think any decent person is torn by the fact that what happened to the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists is obviously vile and repugnant. They are obviously people who were exercising what should be their right of free speech ... and they were killed because of it. And that’s a bad and dangerous thing.
On the other hand, the way in which that incident was seized on was designed, I think, to bolster a very tribalistic and dangerous narrative, which is that we in the West are the advanced, progressive, enlightened people and there are these kind of marauding hordes, who are primitive and violent and threatening to all things decent, called "Muslims" or "radical Islam." And this incident was seized on to bolster that narrative as kind of propagandistically and powerfully as anything that I can recall probably since the 9/11 attack.
So you have a magazine that became known in the Western world, regardless of what the reality is, for publishing images that are very offensive and upsetting to the Muslim minorities in the West, and whose cartoonists were turned into heroes and martyrs ... who were victims of Muslim violence. I think the reason why people are so eager to turn them into martyrs and heap all sorts of praise and awards on them is because it does make us Westerners feel good about ourselves; it tells us that we’re the victims and the people who we’ve been bombing and invading and torturing and pillaging for the last 15 years are actually the evil ones.
It fuels this whole war narrative that has been sustaining a lot of really bad policies in ways that are quite propagandistic and manipulative, because of the heavy emotions involved.