Unmasking Big Brother

June 17, 2014

One year ago, Glenn Greenwald began reporting on the leaked documents provided by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden. Together, Snowden and Greenwald have exposed vast government programs of domestic and international surveillance that threaten civil liberties here and around the world. As a result of these shocking revelations, Snowden has been stranded in Russia, facing espionage charges, and Greenwald has become the target of media hit jobs questioning whether he had the right to report on these spy programs and the erosion of our civil liberties.

With the release of his new book No Place to Hide, and on the eve of a speaking tour that will take him to six U.S. cities, culminating in Chicago at the Socialism 2014 conference, Greenwald spoke with SocialistWorker.org's Nicole Colson and Eric Ruder about the startling revelations of the past year, the mainstream media's reaction and what's still to come.

IT'S BEEN a year since you started reporting on the Snowden leaks. What do you consider to be the most shocking revelation of the past year?

YOU COULD certainly pick out specific individual revelations, but for me, by far the most important point is that the objective of the NSA is literally the complete elimination of privacy in the digital age--that their goal is to collect every single communication event that takes place between human beings, to store them, and then, when they want, to analyze and monitor them.

There's no discrimination of any kind, there's no targeting, there's no selectivity. It's pure, ubiquitous state surveillance by definition to, as they put it in their own motto, "collect it all."

I think that's the overarching point that defines every other revelation, which most people were not aware of. That's the key disclosure.

YOU'VE MADE a point of saying that privacy is essential for democracy. Can you explain why? What does the past year of revelations show in regard to how the U.S. government views that question?

Glenn Greenwald
Glenn Greenwald (Gage Skidmore)

THERE'S A whole field of social science research on this, but I also think our own personal experience even more compellingly demonstrates that there is a whole range of behavior and thought we can engage in when we think nobody is watching us, which we won't consider when we believe that there are judgmental eyes being cast on us. When we think that somebody's watching us, our behavior becomes much more conformist, compliant and subservient, because we want to engage in the behavior that people want us to engage in, and will judge us positively for, rather than condemn us or look at us in an exclusionary kind of way.

There's a human shame that comes from doing things that people are willing to do only when they think people can't watch them. And yet this is exactly the realm in which all forms of dissent, creativity and exploration of what it means to be a free individual reside in--when we have a private realm.

That's why human beings instinctively seek out a private realm, a place where they can go and think and be and do without other people watching. That's the reason why tyrannies always want to turn to surveillance--because they know that creating the perception one is always being watched is the most powerful instrument for keeping people in line and forcing people to comply with the wishes of authority.

It's a weird kind of subtle process, so the people who are affected by the elimination of privacy don't necessarily realize that they're being controlled. It's really kind of a self-censoring process.

I think one of the central preoccupations of the United States government is the concern that there is going to be serious instability in our near future, largely as the result of growing economic inequality and all of the social pathologies that creates. And one of the questions is how can that be prevented, how can that be controlled.

I think a "collect-it-all" surveillance state is really crucial to keeping the population under control and being able to anticipate and protect against any meaningful social movements.

WHAT IS your feeling about the mainstream media after a year of watching them react to the Snowden revelations? There was David Gregory on Meet the Press questioning whether you should go to prison for writing about Snowden's leaks, or Michael Kinsley saying that the government should really be the final arbiter of what information is released to the public. What's been your overall take about the media?

WHEN I was back in Hong Kong with Snowden and [documentary filmmaker] Laura Poitras, we spent at least as much time talking about media and journalism issues as we did talking about surveillance and privacy. Because we knew that the debate we were about to trigger would be at least as much about journalism as it would be about surveillance.

I think that's proven to be true. And that was a debate I really wanted, because I think that every single issue of political significance in the United States is significantly shaped by the role that the U.S. media plays and how it gets discussed--and also the role of the U.S. media toward the government and corporate factions of power. When we realized the extent of what we had been given, and what we were going to be able to do with it, we knew that there would be a really serious debate about whether what we were doing was "proper journalism" or journalism at all, whether we were crossing lines into activism.

These were debates I was eager to have, because I think that we needed to have a kind of re-evaluation of what the proper role is supposed to be between journalists and those who wield power. Are we supposed to serve their agenda and look at the world through their prism? Is that the patriotic thing to do--to support their policies and view the world first and foremost as an American with loyalty to your government? Or is that role supposed to be one that's adversarial, and filled with tension and working towards different objectives?

I was amazed during the whole WikiLeaks debate that the people who led the way in calling for WikiLeaks' prosecution were themselves journalists. Think about how extraordinary that is--that the state can get journalists to take the lead role in arguing that disclosures should be considered criminal, and that those who bring transparency to powerful factions are doing something morally and legally wrong. That's an amazing propaganda feat.

So I think that American journalism was divided in terms of how they viewed the reporting we did. We did win every major journalism award. There were a lot of journalists who defended our right to do what we were doing. But still, the leading voices trying to demonize what we were doing also came from journalists in some of the most prominent and influential positions.

I think it shows that American journalism has very much become a handmaiden to political and corporate power, and [these journalists] see the world through their eyes. That's why they hate people that bring transparency to them every bit as much as the people who control those factions do.

RECENTLY, YOU were on Chris Hayes' MSNBC show, and Hayes suggested that liberal Obama supporters are actually alienated by the fact that you speak out about the Obama administration's surveillance. He came close to implying that you're too hard on Obama--that by focusing on Obama, you polarize the debate too much. What do you say to that--and what does that say about the perceptions people have about government surveillance under Obama versus under Bush, for example?

I THOUGHT that whole discussion was interesting, because I think the nub of what he was trying to say was that the way in which the debate plays out is that people feel like they have to either choose between supporting President Obama or supporting me--which I found to be really bizarre.

I don't understand why anybody has trouble with the idea that you can say "I support President Obama's Medicaid expansion, I support him in general over the Republicans, but I also find it horribly wrong what he's doing in expanding the surveillance state." I don't know why there's supposed to be a difficulty in being able to do that. I certainly don't have a difficulty in saying I support President Obama changing his views on marriage equality even though I find his views on drones and secrecy to be heinous. That's how rational people function.

But I think all that discussion really showed is that we have this extremely superficial, tribalistic political discourse--at least when it comes to private or cable news programming--where the discussion is pretty much "you're on one side or you're on the other." It's just this George Bush "You're either with me or you're against me" phenomenon.

It is why so many Democrats and liberals and progressives who were really supportive of the surveillance work I was doing while George Bush was president have become the leading defenders of the NSA in the Obama era. They're the ones who are so focused on President Obama. I'm not really focused on President Obama at all. I see President Obama as more of a symbol--you know, sort of an ethereal figurehead--than I do anyone who's actually driving policy or in control.

But I do think that the people who support him have an obligation as citizens to be faithful and consistent in the beliefs they claimed to have when George Bush was president. So I do try to use that pressure point sometimes, and that makes some people feel uneasy and uncomfortable. And as I said to Chris, that's probably okay with me.

HOW WOULD you characterize the similarities or differences between the Bush administration and Obama administration in regards to their postures toward privacy, surveillance, the NSA and so forth?

THERE'S ALMOST no difference whatsoever between the two administrations on the questions of civil liberties and secrecy and surveillance and the "war on terror" generally. If anything, there has been a very significant, palpable escalation in a lot of these policies, including the very ones that candidate Obama harshly criticized in 2007 and 2008.

Now, you can say that's because he's a fraud, or you can say that's because the national security state just inexorably expands without regard to election outcomes, and it's just because Obama came after Bush. But whatever the reason is, you would be very hard-pressed to find any meaningful differences between the two administrations in these areas--except that the policies have gotten a lot worse and more radical in a lot of important respects under President Obama than they were under President Bush.

EDWARD SNOWDEN has been stuck in Russia for the past year, and his ability to travel to other countries has been blocked by the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently said that Snowden should "man up" and return to the U.S. to face consequences for his whistleblowing. What's your response to that?

FIRST OF all, that comment was just so disgustingly sexist--in a way that is almost shocking. And the political party that talks about the war on women had really very little concern about this.

The phrase "man up"--I'm so fascinated by that. Does that mean that if Edward Snowden were named "Edwina Snowden" and was female, that she wouldn't have the obligation to return? I just didn't quite get what that had to do with "manning up."

This is what people have been saying from the start: "If Snowden really thinks he did the right thing, he should come back and face the music and argue in a court that he was justified in doing what he did and let a jury of his peers decide."

The reason why that's just so grotesquely deceitful is because of the way that the Espionage Act was written and has been applied by the federal judiciary. It's even incredible that he is charged--that this is considered espionage at all. Generally, espionage has been viewed as selling secrets to other governments or passing secrets to adversaries. He did none of that. He informed the public through journalists about what it is that he learned. How that is espionage? I don't know, but that's the statute under which he's charged, the Espionage Act.

Under that law, you are barred as a defendant from raising a defense of justification. You cannot go into court and say, "Yes, I made these disclosures. Yes, I revealed this classified material. But the reason I did it was because it unveiled official wrongdoing that was kept secret and the public had a right to know."

The minute you start to utter those words, the judge will interrupt and bar you from that defense on the grounds that that is not a legally permissible defense to violation of the Espionage Act. That's why the playing field is so distorted. The rules are written so as to cheat for the government because you're not allowed to raise the very defense that they keep trying to taunt him into coming back and raising.

On top of that, there's the record of prosecutions in the war on terror. Any time the government hints that there are national security questions, there's almost a 100 percent conviction rate for the government. Federal judges cheat on behalf of the government continuously to ensure convictions.

So, basically, the only way he could come back to the United States is if he were willing to meekly submit to the next five or six decades of his life inside the West's most oppressive penal system. I don't think there's a single person who's saying he should do that, including John Kerry, who would do it if they were in his place. I certainly wouldn't do it if I were him.

YOU'VE HINTED that the biggest revelations might still be to come--and that how we understand the significance of Snowden and what he's done overall will be defined by some of these future revelations. Could you give us a flavor of what's to come?

I THINK that one of the questions that remains to be answered fully is exactly who is it inside the United States who is being targeted with the most invasive kinds of surveillance, why have they been chosen, and toward what ends is the surveillance taking place?

If you think about it, the reason why it isn't yet reported is because it's the most sensitive and difficult reporting there is to do, because you have to try and figure out who has been targeted.

And then, once you know that, there's the question of what factors you take into consideration when deciding whether or not you'll name them. What if they don't want to be named? What if you think the surveillance might be justified? What if naming them could ruin the surveillance? How do you really know if somebody's being targeted for improper purposes? How do you know there's not hidden evidence that you're not aware of that justifies the surveillance?

But still, these are real questions that need to be answered, and we do have some of the evidence that lets us answer that question. We're working on that story as we speak.

I think that the answers to those questions will help shape how people think about all this. I think everybody knows that the U.S. has compiled a shockingly limitless surveillance apparatus. I think people understand the reasons why there's such potential for danger and abuse. There has been some evidence of abuse and political ends for the surveillance, as I said.

But I think the real question still is: What kinds of people are being targeted for the most invasive forms of surveillance. That's the question we want to answer.

STEPPING BACK for a moment, could you put these revelations that we've gotten over the last year from Snowden in the larger context--the history of U.S. government surveillance, infiltration and attempts to neutralize dissent and so on. How does this compare to the 1960s or '70s, or the earlier 20th century?

THAT'S MOSTLY what I wrote the book to do--to put it in that context, because it's hard to do it in a shorter space and in a way that's at all comprehensive or insightful.

But in general, what I would say is that what history shows--not just American history, but the history of surveillance from the beginning of when surveillance capabilities became available as a result of technology--is that the ability to know what other people are saying and doing and thinking is so irresistible to human beings, especially those who wield power, that abuse is essentially inevitable. Not likely or probable, but inevitable, without very significant oversight mechanisms and restrictions.

That's just the nature of how human power is exercised and how surveillance functions. But what's different about now is that the technology of the Internet is unlike anything that has ever happened before in terms of centralizing all forms of human behavior and thought and communication.

Maybe in the past, you could eavesdrop on a particular telephone conversation or read a particular letter, which would give you a bit of insight into the private thoughts or words of someone else. But now, the Internet has become, especially for the younger generation, a place where everything of any significance takes place. It's where we make our friends. It's where we explore our thoughts. It's where we develop our personality. It's where we store all of our communications. It's where everything of any significance takes place.

So to be able to convert that from a wild, limitless field of freedom and anonymity into the greatest tool of social coercion and control ever known presents really serious dangers to what it means to be a free individual. That's the reason so much money and effort is being put into dominating the Internet and having information hegemony over the Internet. It's precisely because the amount of power that it has is unlike anything that has come before it.

SO OBVIOUSLY, SocialistWorker.org is a left-wing publication, with an audience of readers that's already on the left. If you had to say to someone who's already aware of injustice and active against injustice what they should be conclude about the last year of revelations, what would you tell them? And what would you say about how to go about changing things?

USUALLY, WHEN you expose an injustice, the question immediately arises: What can I as an individual do about it? And it's not easy to answer.

I think in this case, first of all, you have the lesson of Edward Snowden, who grew up in a more middle-class environment, was a high school dropout, had no real power or prestige--and yet through nothing more than a brave act of conscience, he literally changed the world. I hope that we all focus on the lesson that has about our ability as individuals to confront injustice.

But more concretely, there are things that individuals can do. You can just stop using services like Facebook and Google and Yahoo that have a record of collaborating with the NSA until they conclusively and persuasively demonstrate that they're going to safeguard the privacy of your data--and start to use other services instead that are devoted to privacy and have a record to prove it.

Then, more importantly, there are tools of encryption and tools of anonymity that let us engage in genuinely private communications--that put a brick wall around what we're doing on the Internet, and keep out the NSA and other states and other groups that might want to engage in surveillance. The more people use these tools, the harder it is for the NSA to essentially convert the Internet into this regime of limitless surveillance. I think those two things are really critical for individuals to start doing.

DO YOU foresee new restrictions or regulations or limitations being placed on the NSA? If the compulsion is so great that it's almost irresistible for the state not to abuse our privacy rights, how do we go about reigning in this beast?

I DON'T think that the place to look is laws that are going to be passed by Congress and signed into law by the president. I don't think the U.S. government is going to impose restrictions on its own power in any meaningful way.

They did just pass a bill two or three weeks ago, which got significantly watered down. But even in the watered-down version, it's the first time that limits have been placed on the power of the U.S. state in the post-9/11 era, as opposed to expanding its power. I think that's symbolically significant--the fact that they know people in the country are concerned and angry about this surveillance. But I don't think that's where change is going to come from.

I think that the panic of the U.S. tech companies like Facebook, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft--the genuine panic they have over the fact that they think this surveillance will destroy their future business prospects--will impose some real limitations in the form of technology that these companies develop to keep the NSA out of their customer data. Not because they care about people's privacy, but because they care about their business interests.

And I think they'll start applying pressure on the political system to impose limits on and reign in the NSA. I don't think the U.S. Congress is going to care about the views of ordinary Americans, but I definitely think it cares about the views of Silicon Valley billionaires.

I think there are serious efforts underway on the part of other countries and coalitions around the world to think about how to undermine U.S. hegemony over the Internet by reconstructing the Internet so it doesn't have to rely on U.S. soil, or to create international regulatory regimes to keep the Internet free of U.S. domination and control. I think that will matter a lot. And I also think that the individuals' use of encryption will start to make it much, much harder for the NSA to do what they've been doing.

WE'RE REALLY looking forward to the tour you're doing with Haymarket Books, because that's also part of building the kind of resistance you've been talking about.

DEFINITELY. IT'S interesting because I've been doing a lot of traveling the last two or three months in connection with my book, and then also just doing speeches and a lot of media. Sometimes, I think there's like a little bit of suspicion about you if you start entering the big media venues, or you write books or films or whatever.

To me, the ability to go around the world and bring a focus, not just to state surveillance, but to the dangers of power being vested in powerful people in secret, to the role that the U.S. government plays in the world, to the proper role of journalism to those in power--the ability to go around talking about those things and gathering people by the thousands and having this kind of movement of ideas take place from these revelations is a critical part of engaging people in a widespread way.

So I'm excited by it. I assume you guys are going to be at the Socialism conference, right? I love that conference. The energy there is like filling up your gas tank--the inspiration you find and just getting emboldened. I love stuff like that.

Transcribed by Rebecca Anshell Song

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