In May 2013 journalist Glenn Greenwald set out for Hong Kong to meet an anonymous source who claimed to have evidence of pervasive government spying. The source, who insisted on communicating only through heavily encrypted channels, turned out to be 29-year-old National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden, and his revelations about the agency’s systemic overreach proved to be some of the most explosive and consequential news in recent history. In an exclusive interview with Cato, the Institute’s director of multimedia Caleb Brown sat down with Greenwald to discuss his new book, No Place to Hide — revealing his thoughts on everything from the response from the “establishment media” to the broader implications of the current surveillance debate.
CALEB BROWN: In June 2008, Gen. Keith Alexander, then-head of the NSA, asked in reference to intercepting communications, “Why can’t we collect all the signals all the time?” Is that the direction the NSA is moving in?
GLENN GREENWALD: It’s important to understand that Gen. Alexander’s comment was not just an off-handed quip, as it has sometimes been characterized. One of the things I try to convey in my book is just how pervasive this motto — “all the signals all the time” — is in terms of what the NSA sees as its mission. Their goal is not just a targeted operation designed to monitor the communications of particular people. They want to turn the Internet into a limitless system of surveillance. And it’s not just an institutional aspiration. It’s something that they are extremely close to fulfilling.
The NSA is already collecting so much data that their primary problem at this point is finding a way to store it all. Keep in mind that enormous sums of data can be stored on thumb drives now. The amount of data that the NSA collects is so gargantuan — billions of emails, telephone calls, and other online activities everyday — that they’re building a sprawling new facility in Utah just to be able to store it all.
In fact, the idea of collecting everything was something pioneered by Gen. Alexander when he was deployed in Baghdad during the Iraq war. What we really have now is a communications strategy that was developed for an enemy population in a time of war that has now been imported onto American soil and aimed at our own population. I think that’s an expression of just how radical it is.
Is there any evidence that the national security apparatus has been used at lower levels of government?
Yes. One of the more revealing episodes took place when I started reporting for GloboNews in Brazil. Thomas Shannon, the U.S. ambassador to Brazil at the time, was the point person for tamping down the outrage, and he assured the public that these operations were only used in a targeted way to detect terrorist plots and protect Americans. Then, in a 2009 letter, it was revealed that Shannon had thanked the NSA for the outstanding surveillance they performed on a regional financial summit organized by Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva — activities that, as Shannon himself acknowledged, gave the United States insight into the negotiating strategies of each of the countries present at the conference.
In short, the same person who defended U.S. surveillance three years earlier was now effusively praising the NSA for its economic espionage. That’s the culture that has developed: if the U.S. government is interested in certain information, it can, should, and will infiltrate. This speaks to a broader point about how those in control come to justify their own exercise of power. At some point, the practice of encroachment becomes normalized.
They convince themselves that it’s being put toward positive ends, and ultimately there’s no accountability or punishment for this sort of mission creep. Is the NSA simply another bureaucracy trying to maximize its budget?
The NSA shouldn’t be thought of in isolation. It is not some uniquely malevolent agency within a benevolent executive branch. It’s an appendage of the overall machine. In the wake of 9/11, the executive branch went completely insane and, along with Congress, began ignoring the balance between basic privacy rights and those measures ostensibly taken in the name of security. There was an institutional inertia that allowed this machinery to keep growing.
I should add that you can’t underestimate how much the profit motive has driven all of this. Roughly 70 percent of the NSA’s $75 billion budget goes into the coffers of private companies like General Dynamics or Booz Allen Hamilton. The revolving door between these corporations and the Pentagon too often becomes its own driving force. In essence, crony capitalism encourages profiteering off of these ever-expanding government programs.
Can the private companies that complied with these surveillance activities win back their customers’ trust?
Well, those companies are suffering now. They weren’t before, because this was all done in secret. There are great benefits to cooperating with the NSA and establishing relationships with the U.S. government. It’s incredibly lucrative for these companies. Nevertheless, to sustain profitability, companies like Facebook, Google, and Yahoo have to be global in nature. And, unfortunately for them, you already see German and Brazilian and Japanese companies advertising that customers should entrust their personal data with them instead because they won’t turn it over to the NSA. The perception is that American technology is now unsafe and that is truly threatening to some of our companies.
Yet, it’s also important to keep in mind that American tech companies exert enormous influence in Washington. Silicon Valley is probably the most important financial backer of the Democratic party, and certainly was of the Obama campaign. It’s a very powerful sector. So if they’re serious about imposing constraints on the surveillance state — even if it’s simply out of selfinterest — that’s probably one of the most promising avenues for reform.
Public outrage can be a critical force in a responsible democracy. But when you live in what is essentially an oligarchy, business tycoons exert much greater influence. What happens is both political parties compete for power and almost never diverge in any meaningful way over issues like this. There are certain politicians on both sides of the aisle riding the current crest of anger. But by and large the U.S. government is constructed to prevent fundamental reform. It’s designed to placate public outrage with symbolic gestures. Fortunately, the tech sector may actually be able to make a difference.
Are there any lawmakers that understand the importance of getting these surveillance reforms right?
Sure, there are several senators who are reasonably good on the issue, including Ron Wyden, Mark Udall, Rand Paul, and a few others from both parties. There are also House members — such as Justin Amash and John Conyers, who introduced a bill to end the NSA’s blanket collection of Americans’ telephone records — who are excellent.
One of the things that gives me the most hope is that this is one of the few controversial issues that does not break down along partisan or ideological lines. In fact, I would say it’s almost 50/50. If you look at who is least supportive of Snowden and the reporting we’ve done, the most vociferous critics are probably Democrats because there’s a Democrat in the White House. Although, I should add that when I was doing the same work during the Bush years, they were my greatest supporters. To the extent that there is a predictable metric of reaction, it’s probably age group more than anything else.
Younger people tend to be extremely supportive of the disclosures, whereas older people are more wary of them. But, in general, the fact that there’s this coalition of disparate forces is really encouraging.
The NSA has procedures in place to “minimize” the data it collects on U.S. citizens. But to what extent does the NSA provide unminimized data to foreign governments?
One story we published that got less attention than expected involved a memorandum of understanding between the NSA and its Israeli counterpart. Basically, the United States provides Israel with large amounts of raw communications from American citizens — data that is unminimized, meaning that it hasn’t been sifted through in order to remove personal information. The memorandum was designed with safeguards laying out what the Israelis can and can’t do with this data. But the United States also shares this data with the inner core of surveillancesharing countries — Britain, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, also known as the Five Eyes.
The primary defense of the NSA has been that there are rigorous controls on personal data that are tightly managed. Perhaps the leading example discrediting this claim is the fact that over a few months Edward Snowden downloaded tens of thousands of their most sensitive documents right under their noses. Even now, after spending tens of millions of dollars to investigate, they still have no idea what he took. This is the opposite of a tightly controlled system.
As Snowden has explained, he had access to programs like XKeyscore, which literally allowed him to enter an email address, click on a prepopulated menu, and hit search. There’s no audit, and basically it returns emails from the past and records ones in the future, allowing for real-time surveillance. “I, sitting at my desk,” Snowden said, could “wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email.” Even post-search auditing was extremely sporadic. It mostly consisted of getting the paperwork right.
One of the concerns that Snowden expressed to you was that the public would react to these revelations with indifference. That obviously didn’t happen.
Snowden’s concern was that people would say they assumed this was already happening and that “I’m probably not the person the NSA is targeting, so who cares?” But as you said, there has been sustained outrage around the world. My book tour will take me to 11 different countries, and the book itself is already translated into 9 or 10 languages. Back when Snowden and I were sitting in Hong Kong anticipating the impact, we never would have expected all of this. The reaction has exceeded our wildest dreams.
But looking ahead, you don’t change the American national security state overnight. One indication of the extent of this enormous behemoth’s power is the fact that it can fortify itself against sustained global public outrage for a good period of time. Perhaps the most significant change thus far is the way that people around the world now think about various issues, from the importance of privacy in the digital age to the role of journalism vis-á-vis the state.
What do you make of the criticism you’ve received from other members of the media?
There are a lot of factors. People break big stories all the time and they aren’t treated with hostility by other reporters, at least not in public. They’re not accused of being hacks or criminals who belong in prison, the way that I was by several leading lights of the journalistic world. One thing that’s going on is a general fear that the new order that’s represented by the Internet is a threat to their way of doing things. It’s a classic tale of the Old Guard feeling besieged by something new and wanting to lash out and delegitimize and discredit it. I’ve been very harsh and vocal critic of those who practice that kind of journalism, so in some ways their hostility is unsurprising.
Simply put, I set out to break a lot of the rules that traditional journalists treat as sacred. I began writing about political issues after spontaneously creating my own blog one day. For the first year-and-a-half or so, I wrote whatever I wanted, how I wanted, without anyone telling me different. Once I started generating interest, I began writing for media outlets on the condition that I retain that full-scale independence. I was able to do that at Salon, then at The Guardian, and now at my own news organization, where we are grounded in that principle of journalistic independence.
But I think the biggest factor is that, with some exceptions, American journalists at these large media institutions see themselves as part of the circle of power. They identify with leading political and economic elites because it solidifies their position within that circle. They look at the world through that socioeconomic prism. They become guardians of the status quo, and they react to threats with as much hostility as do those with political power. There’s almost no division between the two factions any longer. They’ve essentially merged.
There’s another strain of critics who, despite being very vocal, have gained little attention. And they’ve objected to the journalism we’ve done on the grounds that we actually haven’t released enough of the documents. They argue that we’ve been concealing too much information, that we’ve been too slow in releasing it. I’m actually more sympathetic to that critique than the one that we’ve been reckless in releasing too much. This idea that anything we’ve released will help the terrorists or somehow undermine legitimate espionage is just incoherent. We are very careful about the information that we release. Multiple people scrutinize it. If anything we’ve erred on the side of excess caution.
You’ve compared the national security state to Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. It goes without saying that that’s a very troubling paradigm to think about.
The idea that the mere existence of a surveillance system, regardless of how it is used, will severely limit and alter human behavior is something that has been recognized for centuries. There’s a reason that insight so critical. There seems to be this prevailing sentiment that if someone poses no threat to the government, they have no reason to fear this type of surveillance. But embedded within that statement is a certain acceptance of this bargain. It says that if you become sufficiently obedient and compliant and passive, you can continue living your life unmolested by power. And that is the recipe for tyranny.
Even in the worst tyrannies, those who don’t bother tyrants are rarely targeted for oppression outright. But what Bentham recognized is that if you create institutions where the people you’re trying to control — whether it be inmates, students, or patients in a psychiatric ward — know that they can be watched at any moment, they will assume that they are being watched at every moment. They may not know when — or even if — they’re being watched, but they will act in compliance with the dictates of authority if the possibility is always there. It’s a way to keep people under control. That was the essence of 1984.
In fact, Michel Foucault called this the foundational point of western democracy. We don’t have concentration camps or political dissidents because we don’t need that. We’ve effectively put prisons into people’s minds. They think they’re free, but it’s only at the price of relinquishing their basic political rights in order to be seen as nonthreatening and avoid punishment. That is why a surveillance state is so insidious. It removes the essential part of what it means to be a free individual.