2013-07-18 Glenn Greenwald interview at Harper's

Harper's published an insightful interview with Glenn Greenwald yesterday on the evolving PRISM story. It's very much worth a read.


Greenwald began his career in journalism in 2005 with Unclaimed Territory while still working as a lawyer in New York. Salon picked up the blog in 2007. Since then Greenwald's gone over to the Guardian, and in December last year was contacted by Edward Snowden. Alex Mierjeski spoke to him on the phone for Harper's.

Not for profit

Greenwald points out at the end of the interview that Snowden had every chance to profit by his leaks but chose not to do so.

If you talk to Snowden, what he'll say is, "Look, I'm not trying to destroy the surveillance state." If he were, he could've done so many things: he could have sold the documents for millions of dollars to China or Iran; he could have passed them on covertly; he could have dumped them all on the Internet. What he's trying to do is enable a democratic debate.

Snowden sent Greenwald an anonymous message back in December 2012.

I and a few other people have some things that you’d be interested in. The problem is we can only communicate with you by encrypted email, so do you have PGP encryption?

Greenwald never got PGP installed, so Snowden, after posting a "how-to" for PGP at YouTube and still not getting Greenwald to install PGP, turned to Laura Poitras.

I'm going to give this stuff to you and then get Glenn involved.

Snowden was most interested not in the response of the Obama administration which was considered a given, but in the public's response. So they discussed together how they would get the public's attention to engage a real debate.

What the Obama Administration was going to do was pretty predictable. We knew they were going to accuse him of being a traitor, to depict him as fleeing to China, as having endangered the people to terrorists. They do the same thing in every single case.

Greenwald expounds a bit on the nature of power and the allergy of those in power to transparency. "People in power don’t want to be checked", Greenwald says.

It's just a natural instinct for people in power to want to hide what they do, because secrecy is the lynchpin for abuse of power, and transparency is the antidote to it.

"They want you to be scared"

Greenwald understood that giving Snowden the support he needed would take a lot of courage.

I definitely knew it was going to take a lot of resolve, right? Because the government relies on this climate of fear. They want you to be scared. But this is what I've been working for ever since I started writing about politics and doing journalism. So I was pretty resolved that I wasn't going to let fear impede what I did. I had to commit to doing it in a really aggressive and adversarial way.

But the thing that really focused me was seeing how courageous Snowden was. I mean, here's this twenty-nine-year-old kid who has made a conscious choice to subject himself to a substantial risk of being in prison for the rest of his life, and yet he never evinced even a molecule of remorse or regret or fear. He was completely convinced and tranquil about the rightness of his choice. That kind of courage is contagious.

The worst is yet to come

Greenwald still hasn't gone through all the materials from Snowden.

I still haven't gone through all of it, but even though I had been writing for the past four years about how the NSA was building this completely unaccountable and sprawling surveillance system, seeing the truth of it - the hardcore reality of it in their documents - was kind of shocking, I have to say. And I really believe that the most significant revelations are yet to come... The stuff that has shocked me the most is the stuff we haven't even written about.

Not the same as wiretapping

Greenwald points out that the PRISM scandal is global, unlike the wiretapping scandals of the Bush years.

What makes this different is the scale, combined with the complete secrecy. So if you're all of a sudden learning that the government is collecting everyone's phone records - local, national, and international - and having all these murky agreements with the world's main mechanisms of communication - Facebook and Google and Skype - you get the feeling that you don't have any kind of democratic accountability. Everything they're doing of great significance has been completely hidden from you.

This really erodes trust in political institutions. It makes people question the true nature of the society in which they're living and the kind of government that they have.

There's a big difference between tethering phone records and tapping into the Internet, because telephones are almost an obsolete technology at this point. Tapping phones seems familiar to people, whereas the Internet, from the start, promised that you could be anonymous. This is where people explore their internal lives and push the boundaries of what's acceptable. The things they do that they like to hide, they tend to do on the Internet.

Read the complete interview at Harper's.

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