Glenn Greenwald, the US lawyer-turned-blogger-turned-journalist, has been writing about state-sponsored repression, surveillance, torture and leaks for years. He has four best-selling books but nothing compared to the watershed event in June when Greenwald and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras received a cache of top secret documents from NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden. On August 21, from his home in Rio de Janeiro, Greenwald described the latest twists and revelations in the NSA spy scandal.
Jonathan Franklin: Your partner, David Miranda, was detained and held at Heathrow airport for 9 hours; all his electronics were taken away, and he was interrogated about your reporting on the NSA. What was the message the US/UK governments were trying to send you by detaining David Miranda?
Glenn Greenwald: That if we continue to report on what the NSA and [the UK surveillance agency] GCHQ are doing, they will continue to target us for all sorts of retribution.
JF: Puts a different meaning to the term “Miranda” warning, eh?
GG: Yeah, it is ironic that he was denied the right to the lawyer; they actually offered one of their lawyers, and he said he didn’t trust their lawyers and wanted his own, and they refused that; so yeah, there is an irony there.
JF: How would you describe this new kind of Miranda warning? Incriminate yourself or else?
GG: It is pretty amazing that they have this law, and in this law, they force you to cooperate with them fully, not just answer their questions but to give them passwords if they ask for that; and then if you don’t [provide passwords], you are committing an entirely separate crime.
JF: [ed. note: Miranda was apparently carrying large amounts of encrypted documents and communications when stopped in Heathrow.] Why are you so confidant the world’s best code breakers can’t break the encryption in [Miranda’s] seized computers?
GG: Because I have read the documents of the world’s best code breakers, and they have talked about their inability to crack certain types of encryption.
JF: How do you think history will remember this whole affair? It is still unfolding but nonetheless, a lot has already gone down. What is Glenn Greenwald’s prediction on the historic legacy of all this?
GG: I think this will be the time the world realizes that the US and its closest allies are trying to build a surveillance system that has as its primary objective the elimination of privacy globally, by which I mean that everyone’s communications electronically will be collected, stored, analyzed and monitored by the US government.
I think it will be seen as the moment that the United States showed its true face to the world in terms of attacks on journalism and their desire to punish anyone who brings transparency.
JF: What precautions would you give to the average internet user vis-a-vis encryption?
GG: I think encryption is vital; I hope that people will use encryption in every way possible. It helps prevent intervening in their private communications, and they should definitely start using encryption.
JF: Is it correct to say that you have taken a crash course on encryption over the past few months?
GG: That is definitely correct to say (laughing).
JF: When you saw Edward Snowden for the first time, and when you saw that baby face, what went through your mind?
GG: Up until that point, I had no idea whether or not this was completely real. I did not know what to expect, and I had seen some documents, so I was pretty certain that it was, that it – but I did not quite know the scope of it or the magnitude. When I saw him, I said there is just no way that he has access to anything nearly as significant as I had led myself to believe he was talking about and that I had probably just flown all the way around the world for nothing. I also contemplated that he was the assistant of the source? Or his son. And would take us to the actual source. That is actually what I started contemplating. It was a definite period of significant disorientation and confusion.
JF: Can you repeat the story about putting your cellphone in the freezer in Hong Kong when you first met Snowden. What is that for? Is it true? Does it work?
GG: The NSA has the capability, which is widely reported, to remotely activate people’s cellphones and turn them into listening devices. Even if you turn your cellphone off, as long as the battery is in it, it will still function that way. You could take the battery out, but I actually had a cellphone of the type where the battery could not be taken out. The only real solution was to leave it somewhere outside of the room but there was no real place we could leave it. So Snowden suggested that we put it in the refrigerator; there, it would be hermetically sealed and there would be no pickup of audio.
JF: Was there a time when Snowden was thinking about turning himself in in the USA? Or going public in the USA? I hear rumors that there was talk of a [Washington, D.C.-based] National Press Club-type appearance?
GG: No, I never heard anything like that. My understanding from the start is that he believed that the US is not a safe place for whistle-blowers, that whistle-blowers cannot get a fair trial in the United States and that he wanted to participate in the debate that he helped to prompt rather than spending the rest of his life in a cage or incommunicado. So I never understood that he had planned to come back to the United States.
JF: You are a US lawyer. You are a world famous journalist. Do you dare travel to the USA? How does that make you feel?
GG: Right at the moment, I don’t have to cross that bridge, because I am writing a book; I am doing a lot of reporting, so I actually don’t even have time to go the US right now. But obviously I am an American citizen, and I haven’t committed any crime. The Constitution guarantees me the right to a free press, and I take all of that seriously. I won’t be kept out of my country for doing journalism. At the same time, the Obama Administration has become notorious for targeting the newsgathering process and trying to criminalize investigative journalism. There are prominent journalists and politicians in the United States who have called for my arrest. Obviously what just happened, with my partner being detained for 9 hours under a terrorism law by the US’ loyal servant in the UK, makes that analysis even a little bit more cumbersome – the idea that there is a real possibility that I could be arrested. I am working with lawyers. I absolutely intend that I will come back to my country when I choose, but I am not going to pretend that I think there is zero risk. There is definitely a risk, and it is less trivial than it was 3 days ago.
JF: You have cracked many a secret at the NSA, but we all think this is just the tip of the iceberg. What are your deepest fears about surveillance and spying? How much more insidious, widespread is this?
GG: The goal of the United States, which they are rapidly approaching fulfilling, is to be able not just to collect and monitor everybody’s electronic communications, but to store them for increasingly long periods of time. They are building a massive facility in Utah that has as its purpose storage of electronic data that they are collecting. They are collecting electronic data in such large quantities that they are incapable of storing it for very long, and they want to make sure that they can keep it for as long as they want. So you are really talking about a radical transformation in what kind of society we have if everyone of our electronic communications is being monitored and stored by this government that operates with very little accountability or transparency for anybody.
JF: What do you find encouraging about the public and international reaction to the disclosures? It is pretty depressing stuff that can keep you up at night, but it has lit a thousand fires in the world. What inspires you? What do you find very positive regarding citizen outrage and public indignity?
GG: I am extremely encouraged. It has actually gone much much better than I ever dreamed in my wildest dreams that it would. There are countless countries around the world in which Edward Snowden is considered a hero and in which there is a raging debate over the dangers of secret American surveillance and the value of internet privacy. Huge numbers of governments have openly defied the orders of the United States . . . beginning with Hong Kong, China . . . now Russia, multiple countries in Latin America. There are opinion polls in the United States that are incredible that show for the first time since 9/11 more Americans are worried about abuses of their civil liberties than they are of the threat of terrorism. You see new coalitions in congress forming against the surveillance state and could place serious limits on it. I think you are going to see more and more people inspired by the acts of Edward Snowden and the people who have tried to help report his documents, knowing that you can stand up to the United States government and to do so in a way that exercises your rights, without fear. I think it is going to have long-lasting implications on all those levels.