The journalist who broke the NSA story says surveillance technology is out of control

The Takeaway

Glenn Greenwald, the American journalist who first published the documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, testifies in front of the Brazilian Federal Senate's Parliamentary Inquiry Committee in Brasilia on October 9, 2013.

Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters

Edward Snowden may be the man responsible for the massive leak of classified documents on NSA electronic surveillance, but Glenn Greenwald is the journalist who worked with Snowden to make sense of the documents for the public and get them published in newspapers around the world.

Greenwald is an American journalist, political commentator, lawyer, columnist, blogger, and author, who has written for publications ranging from Britain's The Guardian to the New York Times. He lives in Brazil. In the first of a two-part interview, Host John Hockenberry of The Takeaway asked Greenwald if the NSA surveillance he helped uncover and US military actions since 9/11 have made the US and the world safer from terrorism.

Glen Greenwald: [After 9/11,] I absolutely think that doing nothing would’ve been better than what we did, because what we did ended up creating so much more problems in terms of a terrorist threat than ever existed prior to 9/11. I mean obviously if you go around the world and spend a decade, beating your chest and declaring yourself a nation at war, dropping bombs in multiple countries on the planet, killing all sorts of innocent men, women, and children, putting people in cages without trial, creating a worldwide torture regime, propping up dictators — what you’re essentially telling the world is, “You ought to hate us. And you ought to be filled with rage and want to bring the kinds of violence to our country that we saw in 9/11.”

There were all sorts of things that could’ve been done that were reasonable security measures in terms of tightening up the borders, focusing more on the people who we had reason to believe were genuinely the kind of threat that we were worried about. We could’ve provided better aid to the countries that were combating extremism, helped instead of building huge surveillance systems, alleviated a lot of the poverty and misery and primitive conditions in countries that fueled terrorism. There were all kinds of things that we could’ve done to reduce that threat further. But I think what we did made the threat much, much worse, and at the same time, destroyed many of the freedoms that we’ve all been taught define what the United States is all about.

John Hockenberry: Alright, in terms of whether the government is permitted to carry out surveillance against American citizens, or whether there is a value to the data that a company like Google or Apple or AT&T might have about American citizens — the Constitution has a lot to say about what the government can do with that data. It has almost nothing to say about what corporations can do with that data. In the commercial world, is the era of privacy and constitutional government really over? And, it’s sort of immaterial whether the government is watching you or Google is watching you at this stage in 2013?

Greenwald: I’d say two things about that: Number one is that there’s a reason why the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, restricts what states can do to you, but not corporations or private actors, and that is because the government has a whole set of very extreme powers that make it a different and more threatening kind of actor. It can put you in prison; it can actually take your life; it can take your property; it can tax you; it can monitor you for all sorts of purposes. And so, I think it’s always been understood that having a government do something, like gather ubiquitous information about what citizens are doing, poses a greater threat than corporations doing it, because even though it is a threat when corporations do it, they tend to do it for profit motive rather than to, say, weed out political dissidents or blackmail Martin Luther King, as J. Edgar Hoover did, and the like. So, I think there is a significant difference.

But even on the corporate level, I think one of the things that you’re seeing in terms of the last 6 months of the reporting we’ve done, is a lot of different kinds of pressure being put on private corporations like Google and Facebook to start taking the privacy of their customers a lot more seriously. And you’ve seen people like Mark Zuckerberg express very serious worries that the U.S. government, through the message that it’s sending to the world, is jeopardizing the ability of the US tech industry to compete internationally. You see in multiple other countries different kinds of social network and email providers advertising the fact that unlike Facebook and Google, they don’t go through the US infrastructure, and therefore they can guarantee you privacy in a way that US firms can’t. That competition is working, and there’s encryption tools that are being developed to prevent even Google and Facebook from reading your emails or collecting your online activity. So I think there’s a lot of responses not just to government spying, but to corporate spying as well, that’s going to make it a lot harder for these companies to continue doing what they’re doing.

Hockenberry: Is there a difference, though, between a sense of, you know, reverence for the Constitution and the government staying out of your business, and maybe being more concerned about your brand? I’m wondering if Facebook really cares about the Constitution or just cares about not having Eric Holder being on its front page.

Greenwald: Right. I think the thing that Facebook cares about most is the recognition that in order to continue to grow as a company, it needs to have the trust of hundreds of millions of people around the world who they want to use their service. And if the message continues to be communicated to the rest of the world by the US government, which is, "We do protect the privacy of Americans, but we don’t actually protect the privacy of non-Americans, [and that] all these programs that are being revealed, these are aimed at foreign nationals" — which isn’t really true but it’s what the government is saying — I think that’s the kind of thing that really is jeopardizing the ability of US tech firms to compete. And ultimately, corporations are going to be guided by their own self-interest. You can’t expect them to act morally. And so, if you’re somebody who wants to defend privacy and to reinstitutionalize the idea that you can do things on the internet without people being monitored, I think the important thing is to raise the cost to companies like Facebook and Google from participating in this kind of privacy assault. And I do think that’s what’s happening.

Hockenberry: Over the last year have you noticed that there’s kind of this sub-genre of media, of journalism or broadcast journalism, that’s kind of like “match-wits-with-Glenn-Greenwald”? Debates of you going viral all over the place: you vs. Andrew Sullivan, you vs. Dina Temple-Raston. I can find all kinds of little boxing matches with you and either other journalists or pundits. What do you think of all that?

Greenwald: I mean, in general, I think that adversarial journalism and a clash of ideas can be a really constructive way to test people’s views and find truth. I think the problem comes when that kind of aggression and that kind of adversarial posture is directed at people who don’t wield a lot of power in official Washington, who tend to be outsiders. And then, suddenly, when those very same people who get very aggressive when dealing with people like that, are before generals with lots of medals on their chest or big established journalists who are revered in Washington, the tone changes completely, and it becomes one of great deference and an aversion to confrontation. And I think that’s when things get quite telling. But in general, I think if you’re out there and you’re having an impact on the public discourse and you’re making claims that people ought to listen to what you have to say — as I do — then I think you’re absolutely fair game to have your viewpoints challenged aggressively. You just need to be prepared to have your own views challenged aggressively back.

Hockenberry: So you’re having the time of your life?

Greenwald: (laughs) Yeah, I mean I enjoy mixing up the ideas that I believe in and defending them in a passionate way.

Hockenberry: Getting back to the Snowden leaks, and it’s really a story of technology and journalism, and the Constitution. And this is really an old story. Take the nuclear example. Some scientists go to the government and say, “Hey, we can do this with these atoms, and we should develop this to stop Hitler.” And the government says, “Great, let’s get started on that. We’ll definitely do that. Oh, you know what? We’re not going to bother with Hitler, but we are going to kill 100,000 civilians in Japan.” It’s an old story. Technology becomes available, government uses it for what it wants, and people who stand around going, “Oh gosh. They lied to us.” It’s kind of an old story. It’s kind of naïve. What would you expect they would do with this technology?

Greenwald: Yeah, I don’t disagree with what you say, except that I would say the following: I’ve been doing a lot of reporting on NSA documents on several different countries. And so we’ll report on mass NSA spying in Norway or in Brazil. And I always get asked by the journalists in these countries, “Well, we’re just Norway. Why is the NSA spying on us? Why are they interested in us?” Or same question in Brazil. And the answer is that the United States doesn’t actually need, or the NSA doesn’t need a specific reason in order to spy on people and collect their communications. They do it because they’ve developed this technology that lets them do it, and their institutional mandate is just to constantly seek out more and more. They don’t need a reason. Their only reason for existing is, we’ve developed this technology originally to target people in Iraq in a war zone, but now that we have it, we’re going to use it across the board.

And you’re right, that is a common dynamic. That technology gets out of control. But that’s the reason why there needs to be transparency, so people know what’s being done, why there needs to be accountability so there are limits on it. 

Hockenberry: But you can’t develop, you know, a nuclear bomb with transparency and telling everybody what you’re doing. There are technological developments that happen in secret, and that’s the way things are done. And when the Constitution gets involved later on, that’s something else. But, I guess, I don’t quite see how we’re going to avoid this kind of thing by simply arguing that people be constrained. They’re definitely not. They don’t do it this way.

Greenwald: Well, take your nuclear example — which is a really good one. Countries began developing nuclear weapons in total secrecy. There was no framework for them. There were no limitations of any kind about how they could be used or stored. And the world realized that that was a really bad and dangerous thing to do — to let nuclear development take place outside of a framework of international accountability. And so countries got together, and they created treaties, and conventions, and a nuclear regulatory framework to ensure that there are inspections, and that there are rules that countries agree to and abide by for how to safely manage this technology that could have spun out of control if it didn’t have that kind of framework. And that’s how I see surveillance technology. You’re right. Human beings are always going to try to develop more technologies to give themselves greater power. And the challenges for them is for other human beings to organize on their own to come up with ways to control and limit that technology so it doesn’t do massive amounts of harm. And this kind of tension is critical.

Hockenberry: Alright, so have you thought about what the equivalent of the International Atomic Energy Agency is in terms of surveillance using technological tools?

Greenwald: Yeah, I think it’s two-fold. Number one is, I think you are now seeing countries around the world banding together to try to figure out ways to reconstruct the internet so that it doesn’t all go through essentially one country, the United States, and subject the physical infrastructure of the internet to international oversight instead of just controlled by the US government, so that one government can’t invade the communications of everybody else. And then I also think there are individual solutions being developed, such as technological innovations and cryptography and encryption in creation of all kinds of independent networks that’ll make it very difficult, if not impossible, for the US government and other governments around the world to invade those networks. So I think technology will provide an answer as well, as it so often does, to the problems that it’s created.

Read the second part of the interview with Glenn Greenwald tomorrow.

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