Surveil the Surveillors

In Conversation with Glenn Greenwald

by Elias Bresnick

Illustration by Ivan Rios-Fetchko

published March 11, 2016

In 2013, Glenn Greenwald published a series of articles in the Guardian outlining the stunningly invasive and widespread data-collection tactics of the NSA. The information released—highly classified and previously unknown to the public—unleashed domestic as well as global uproar, and placed questions of mass-surveillance and the security-state squarely in the public consciousness. The documents Greenwald published were supplied to him by NSA contractor Edward Snowden, codenamed Citizen4, who has since become a fixture in the history of U.S whistleblower lore. Snowden is often spoken of in the same breath as other unforgettables such as Watergate informant Deep Throat. Many have drawn the parallel between Greenwald and journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Greenwald won a Pulitzer for his work, and he continues to write and speak vociferously in defense of the right to privacy. Aside from his award-winning journalism, he has written numerous bestsellers, including his most recent No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S Surveillance State. Greenwald currently lives in Rio de Janeiro, where he continues to do journalistic work for his website the Intercept. He agreed to a phone call with the Indy—the transcript of our conversation appears below.




The College Hill Independent: So while on the one hand your campaign against intrusive mass surveillance has been successful—in that it’s made people aware of the issue—in another sense it seems to have failed to make people care enough about NSA overreach to actually do something to curb it. A recent Pew poll says 54 percent of Americans disapprove of NSA surveillance while only 42 percent are in favor. Two questions come to mind—why hasn’t more been done, and what can people do?


Glenn Greenwald: Well, first of all, I would dispute the premise of the question—in two regards, actually. One is that not much has changed beyond just making people aware. If you see for example the very significant dispute currently taking place between Apple and the FBI over whether the iPhone of the San Bernardino shooter should be bypassed by having Apple create specialized software that would enable the FBI to access it and therefore all of their iPhones—this is the kind of dispute that never, ever would have taken place prior to the Snowden revelations; where all Silicon Valley companies, certainly including Apple, were very eager to cooperate in every way with the surveillance state because they were able to do so in secret and there was no cost, and there was no customer or user demand that these companies should protect privacy. And now the world has completely changed—Apple perceives that it’s very much in their own interest to demonstrate to current users, but also future users of the Internet, that they’re very serious about safeguarding the privacy of people’s data, even if means being perceived in this case as preventing the FBI from accessing the telephone of someone who engaged in mass murder on American soil. So they obviously are willing to incur some pretty high costs, because they perceive that the benefit of being depicted as privacy protectors is worth it. And the reason it’s worth it is because so many people do care, in the wake of Snowden, that they not feel their data is being turned over to the U.S government by companies that are collaborating with the surveillance state; and that is a huge change, in that there is a much broader conflict and a wedge now that has been insinuated into the relationship between government and Silicon Valley, over the extent to which those companies are now protecting user data with things like encryption rather than just handing it over wholesale to the NSA. 

The other thing I would say is that the idea of people being aware of the extent to which their privacy is being compromised isn’t just a matter of education or changing the way that people think about the government—it has very real consequences, in that there are actually really effective tools of encryption and other means of concealing what you do on the Internet that have skyrocketed in terms of usage, in the wake of the Snowden revelations. There are studies that have shown that [the use of these tools has] tripled or quadrupled, and that puts a real wall around what people do on the Internet and the ability of governments to spy. And then finally there’ve been ruptures to diplomatic relations and international efforts to create new privacy safeguards that are also really significant. It’s true Congress hasn’t passed a bunch of laws restricting what the NSA can do—they’ve passed one that was pretty mild—but I don’t think that’s the right metric. I mean, of course governments don’t like to admit their own power, but if you look to other realms you see some really substantial changes due to the fact that large numbers of people have cared enough about the extent to which their privacy is being invaded.


The Indy: Do you see, in the near future, any kind of diminishment of NSA power and reach? Is anyone campaigning against that issue directly?


GG: Well, interestingly, we’ve seen politicians in both political parties making limitations on NSA a central part of their campaigns. In fact, one of the really revealing aspects of the fallout from the Guardian reporting was that we received support in equal measure from the right and the left—from Republicans and Democrats. It was one of the very few highly contentious political issues that didn’t break down along ideological or party lines because a lot of the support came from across the political spectrum. And just today, actually, Bernie Sanders, who’s obviously in the middle of a really contested political campaign, tweeted some kind of absolutist declaration against the NSA’s collecting data about American’s telephone records and other communication information. So he obviously perceives it to be in his interest to take that position as well. I think you’ve seen a lot of political actors tending to side with privacy for the same reason that Apple perceives it to be in their interest.


The Indy: I’ve read and listened to many of your arguments that cite Bentham and Foucault and the kind of coercion people may unwittingly be subject to, just by feeling that they’re surveilled. Do you worry about being surveilled yourself, and do you feel like it affects the way you live your life day to day?


GG: Oh, yeah. I mean, when I began doing the Snowden reporting it was pretty much 100 percent certain that my communications were being surveilled. It would be shocking if they weren’t, right? I was in possession of—and still am—a huge number of top secret documents. Of course governments around the world had an interest in knowing A) what I had and B) what I intended to do with it. Then when my partner was detained in Heathrow, there was the question of why British government detained him. And as part of the litigation that he commenced against them, they filed papers essentially saying, we believe with a very high degree of likelihood that he would be carrying materials that I (Glen) and Laura Poitras and the Guardian were working with that the British considered a threat to national security. The only way they could have known that he’d be carrying that stuff is if they were monitoring my communication, and/or his, and/or Laura Poitras’. Probably all of ours. And yeah, when you have a suspicion that you’re being surveilled, and when that transforms into an essential certainty that you are, it absolutely changes your perception of your own ability to say things, even in your own home, and the choices that you make; you’re constantly aware of the fact that what you’re doing is being monitored and recorded, and it absolutely provides a confining mental limitation on how you think of your own place in the world.


The Indy Another thing that comes to mind is that we make trade-offs between security and privacy all the time, and you’ve spoken a lot about that. Most agree that a nation without privacy wouldn’t be somewhere we’d want to live. With that said, what do you think is the proper level of NSA involvement and surveillance over the American people?


GG: Well I think what’s really interesting is that this question was answered so long ago, you know, during the founding of the country. One of the primary grievances that the American revolutionaries had against the British crown was the idea of general warrants—that the crown’s police forces could issue these documents essentially subjecting entire neighborhoods or towns to surveillance, and then the security forces of the monarchy would go from door to door intruding into people’s homes in search of evidence in connection with a crime and some kind of indication of who was involved in dissent or agitation against the king. This idea was incredibly offensive to all basic notions of post-Enlightenment liberty—it was essentially a form of collective punishment. You could have done nothing wrong, no one would have had to think you’d done anything wrong, and yet the police just had a right to bust into your house. And that was why the Fourth Amendment was so aggressive in barring the police from searching—even though there was this recognition that if you place those kinds of limitations on the police it’ll be much more difficult to catch dangerous criminals. Obviously, if the police are looking for murderers or rapists or child molesters or whatever, people that’ve done horrible things, they’re a lot more likely to find those people or even to prevent crime in advance if they can just barge into any house they want. But instead, the Constitution says ‘no, you have to go to a court first and demonstrate evidence that this person likely has evidence of serious criminality before you can do that.’ 

And the distinction there is between mass surveillance and targeted surveillance, right? I mean, the debate was resolved by saying you cannot legitimately engage in mass surveillance where you subject entire communities of people who’ve done nothing wrong to being monitored; you have to instead target people for surveillance once you demonstrate to an independent body that there’s evidence proving they’ve done something wrong. So that, for me at least, continues to be the relevant distinction: mass surveillance is inherently illegitimate, but targeted surveillance, where you actually have an adversarial judicial process and the government body can convince the court that there’s a legitimate reason to target this specific individual—that is legitimate. And had the NSA been engaged in targeted surveillance instead of mass surveillance, there never would have been an Edward Snowden.


The Indy: You practiced law until around 2005; how essential do you think that’s been to your position in the journalistic world and the work that you do?


GG: I mean, it’s important for a couple reasons. I think that in order to be an effective journalist you need to develop expertise in the areas in which you’re reporting, because it prevents you from being manipulated and makes it so that you’re not engaging with shallow superficial analysis. And a lot of the early reporting that I did when I first started writing about politics was, you know, related at least to the law. One of the big issues on which I originally focused was the controversy over the Bush administration’s warrantless eavesdropping program in 2005, which involved a lot of constitutional and statutory questions. And so the expertise I had, I think, gave me credibility in writing that and developing a readership. But then beyond that—I think one of the things you learn in law school is how to make arguments in a logical coherent evidence-based manner. You know, to break down arguments into logical steps and make certain the each step has evidence supporting it rather than skipping over things or being kind of muddled. I think Internet journalism is really conducive to that and actually demands that, because there’re no space constraints and being able to provide links means that not only are you able to show people the evidence for what you’re saying, but people want and expect that, and if you don’t provide it they start questioning what it is you’re saying. So I think that kind of legal training of always providing evidence for what you’re saying and going in that step by step methodical process has really helped me create a certain form of journalism that not a lot of other people are doing.


The Indy: In your current work with the Intercept, you advocate for, and practice, a kind of openly subjective style of news writing, arguing that publications like the New York Times and Washington Post’s kind of vaunted objectivity is a myth. My question on this is, in moving away from traditional established media outlets, how can we be sure of maintaining standards of journalistic integrity, and does having a name people trust—yours, for instance—play a role in that?


GG: Well, for one thing it’s really fascinating that a lot of people call this kind of faux, feigned objectivity traditional journalism, especially if you actually look at the history of journalism as it’s been practiced in the US. Journalism as it originally flourished was of a very partisan, crusading type. You had left wing press and right wing press, pro-business press, pro-labor press, and everybody knew what their position was and what their viewpoint was—and yet they uncovered scandals. They tried to uncover the scandals of their adversaries, but at the same time the reporting tradition was steeped in this kind of honesty about perspective. And it wasn’t really until the 1950s and 1960s, when large corporations started buying the most influential media outlets and became petrified of having any position—because their goal in life is to offend nobody—that this idea of the neutral, objective, viewpoint-free journalism was created. It’s actually a new concoction, not at all the traditional model. 

And I think that this [current] model has failed, not just because it’s boring and because people know that it’s deceitful, since nobody is objective or opinion-free, but also because it produces shitty journalism. I mean, the New York Times has probably the single worst journalistic disgrace on its resumé, which is helping the Bush administration sell lies about the war in Iraq, and the reason for that was because this feigned objectivity just meant that all they did was just write down what the government was saying and then publish it, without any kind of commentary, without any sort of real scrutiny or debate. Similarly, they along with a lot of other media outlets refused to call torture torture, so they used government-created euphemisms for it like ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ even as they were calling identical techniques torture when used by adversaries. 

Ultimately what makes a good journalist or a bad journalist is not ‘do we have opinions?’—it’s ‘are we honest about our viewpoints?’ and then, ultimately, ‘is what we’re reporting reliable?’ And that’s the test. I mean, the reason I was able to do the NSA reporting with credibility isn’t because I hid the fact that I thought mass surveillance was evil. I’d said that over and over for years, including as I was doing the reporting. It is because the facts that I was reporting ended up holding up, and that really is the only thing that matters in journalism.


The Indy: What would you say the Intercept is doing that other papers aren’t, and are there other publications like it? Also, where does someone like Glenn Greenwald get news? I know you’re big on Twitter…


GG: I’m not going to make the claim that there are certain things we’re doing that nobody else in the world is doing. But I think that one of the things we set out to create, in terms of our journalistic identity, is that we wanted to be very adversarial to the people who wield the greatest power; and not do reporting by cozying up to them and using them as our sources, but instead reporting from the outside on what it is they’re doing. I think our goal is basically to look at whoever has the greatest amount of financial, political, or social power and subject everything they say or do to the greatest amount of scrutiny that we can. And, then as for your second question, I think there’s a lot of great journalism taking place in a lot of different places, including the media outlets I most criticize like the New York Times or the Washington Post. But there’s a lot of horrible journalism at those places too. So I do think one of the great benefits of the Internet is that you can kind of curate your own news by following the reporters and the individuals and the writers that you most trust. Twitter is a very good way to do that—other forms of social media are as well—and I tend to rely on that kind of a method rather than saying ‘here are the newspapers I like,’ like it’s 1971, putting that on my breakfast table, and reading from back to front.


The Indy: But do you worry at all about shoddy journalism or misinformation in moving away from traditional media outlets? Is that an issue for you?


GG: I mean I think it’s sort of a double-edged sword. There’s been really damaging, destructive journalism on a systemic level by the largest and most well-regarded media institutions for a long time. It’s fascinating, if you go back and read I. F. Stone, the left wing media critic who was writing in the ‘50s and ‘60s, in so many ways he was, like, the first blogger, in that so many of his media criticisms about how the New York Times and Washington Post and NBC News were covering the Vietnam War, the lies they were telling and the pro-government stance they were propagating, are very similar to the media critiques made by people like me and others now. So I think it’s a big mistake to say too soon that just because there’s a media organization that’s large and has a good reputation, that it means they’re doing good journalism. There’s been a lot of terrible journalism, and in a lot of ways the proliferation of new voices is a really important check on that, it’s an antidote to that. But sure, the Internet, because it’s unregulated and because it’s so vast, also produces its own really unreliable, crappy forms of writing, and I think it’s incumbent upon the reader to make certain, as I said earlier, that whoever it is you’re reading is providing evidence for what it is they’re saying and that you’re constantly critically evaluating everybody, including the people you’ve come to trust, because that’s what makes a healthy citizen and a healthy consumer of news.