Læsetid: 24 min.

Glenn Greenwald – full interview

Photo: M. Scott Brauer

Photo: M. Scott Brauer

19. maj 2014

On the occasion of the publication of his new book No Place To Hide American journalist Glenn Greenwald granted an interview to the Danish daily Information, in which he spoke about the lack of power of the smaller allied Europeans countries to resist the "dictates" of the NSA. He also predicted that Edward Snowden will be granted an extension of his temporary political asylum in Russia next month and belittled the importance of the NSA spying on allied leaders like Angela Merkel and Dilma Rousseff. »It really does not offend me,« he said.

Background: Earlier this year the American documentary maker Laura Poitras handed over a top secret NSA document to the Danish daily Information, in which a source stated that the agency planned to monitor electronic communications at the UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen in 2009 (COP-15)

– On the COP-15 story: It turned out that the Danish government stalled and never wanted to admit to anything. We were in shock at the newspaper that they could get away with that. Was this because we did not have a smoking gun or is it because governments of smaller countries are in a relationship of dependence to the US and NSA?

I think the relationship of Denmark with the US is extremely unbalanced in general. The Danes are very willing to carry out the sort of dictates by the US without very many limits. The close relationship between the intelligence agencies, the NSA and the Danish Intelligence Agency, is an outgrowth of that mentality. As far as the specific reaction to the story is concerned it shows that even when you find the evidence demonstrating what they did their instinct is still to conceal all of their behaviour on the ground that they just want everything to remain as unaccountable and secret as possible.

– Is there also something owed to the fact that these intelligence agencies in smaller allied countries are so dependent on such a huge agency as NSA, and in particular this case. We had the issue of the Muhammed cartoon and the various plots that were revealed against the Danish newspaper and the cartoonist himself. On terrorism there has been a very close relationship between the two countries as well as between some of the other countries.

Well, I think the concept of terrorism has lost all perspective and all sense of proportion. There are, of course, threats from terrorists, and there are individuals who want to do harm to civilians, but in the context of threats that human beings face to their lives, not just to the existence of it, but to their well-being. The threat of terrorism is actually extraordinarily small. The idea that the Danes have to be dependent on this extremely subservient relation to the NSA because somehow they need this information to stop this threat I think is extremely unpersuasive. That is a part of what the surveillance system built by the West is about. But it is only a small part.

– Would you say that smaller countries like Denmark, Sweden and Norway – you have this revised list of states with a different kind of relationship with the NSA – have less leverage over NSA than larger countries like Germany and France?

Sure, of course. I think smaller countries in general have very little leverage with the US. One of the interesting things about that list in the book is that obviously there is a first tier partnership – Five Eyes – with the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. And then that second tier is about cooperating with countries in specific projects. So they will cooperate in Afghanistan or against a particular group or movemement, against a set of of individuals. But in general, the NSA views that part of the list more as list of targets of their surveillance than as partners for surveillance, although it is both.

– Recently, the Danish parliament refused to grant Snowden political asylum. His time in Russia is soon up. Perhaps, he will be grantedan  extension, but what are the prospects right now for him to normalize his life.

There are some pretty strong indications that the Russians are going to extend his asylum by at least a year, if not longer. There is also a pretty spirited debate in Brazil and to a lesser extent in Germany over whether they should grant him asylum as recognition for the sacrifice he made in defense of their rights. I do have to say that I find it utterly disgraceful that countries that have benefited from these revelations, and the people in those countries that have benefitted from them, have been completely unwilling to do what he did for them, which is to take some sacrifice and some risk in order to protect his rights the way he sacrificed his life to protect theirs. That is true for all European countries.

– Brazil, I suspect, is the best opportunity for Snowden. That’s the country most upset and affected by the revelations. You have had people in the street, because of David …

Right, in the street because of David (Miranda, his partner,mb). But also because the spying there was about indiscriminate spying on the population, it was about spying on their elected president and about spying on Petrobras, the oil company that funds huge amounts of social programs. At the same time, Brazil is a large country. It is the fifth largest economy in the world, and it is an important goal politically for leaders to demonstrate their independence from the West, so from the US. So, it is an election year, and there may be real benefits for the government to do that.

– It is under serious consideration in Brazil?

It is a serious debate. The formal position of the government is: he has not asked us yet, so we haven’t formed a position. They are clearly not saying no.

– There is a lot of confusion about the number of classified docs. Some say 1,7 mio. you say 10.000’s. How to explain this discrepancy? Is that because some documents don’t add up to one document?

No. It was the US government that put that number out , 1,7 mio., even if at the same time it admits, Keith Alexander said this the other day in an interview with an Australian newspaper that they don’t have actually any idea how many documents he took. So, how the media can repeat repeating this number, 1,7 mio., just because the government says it while simultaneously saying they actually don’t know how many he took …  so 1,7 mio. is the number of documents he interacted with digitally over the course of his career, which he accessed, read or otherwise engaged with for hsi work over years. That is not necessarily the number of documents he downloaded and took. Then there is also a difference potentially between the number of documents he took, and the number of documents he gave to me. These numbers are not necessarily the same numbers.

– How is that?

I only know what documents he gave me. I don’t know that he might have taken and not given to me, by definition, I don’t know that there are some other documents.

– He told you there are?

No. He never told me there are documents that I have not gotten, but he never told me these are all the documents I took and I am now giving them to you.

– But you talk to him regularly. Could you not ask him, it is encrypted communication, right?

It is encrypted, but it is also, because it is encrypted it doesn’t mean it is 100 pct. proof. We are talking about extremely sensitive questions that impact on his legal matters and everything else, there are things he is reluctant to talk about, because it is a security issue.

– I would like you to make clear that there are no documents he took that do not shed light on anything else but what he was actually interested in revealing?

No, there are documents he took that he does not think should be published, but that he took because they are important to give the journalist who he is working with for backgriund and understanding. Sometimes, there are documents that he took where parts of them are very newsworthy and parts of them should not be published. So in order to get the whole picture inevitably he has to include things that he thought should not be published. Then there are other documents, which he thinks are close calls where he let it up to the journalists to make the decision to disclose.

– So he might be sitting on documents that he does not want journalists to disclose?

Yes, there are documents like that. There are certain categories of documents he gave that I know he didn’t want published.

– You adhere to that?

Yes, it is as with any agreement between a journalist and a source. You adhere to it.

– Are you going to stay in this country working?


– You will go back.

I will be in Brazil. I won’t be in the office here.

– How was it to arrive here for the first time after Snowden’s revelations?

It was 3 weeks ago.

– Did you get any gurantees from Justice you were not indicted?

No. We tried. We did not even ask for gurantees, just an informal indication. I have lawyers who are very capable of getting people on the phone to get those kind of assurances, and usually they give those. And they just refused. They really almost did not return my lawyers’ call. They wanted us to be in a state of uncertainty on purpose.

– How were your feelings when you arrived?

It was a little. I mean that is why I came back. I did not need to come and get the Polk award, they could have mailed it to me. I could have accepted by video. Brazil is a beautiful country. I would be very happy staying there for the rest of my life. It was just the principle that I was not going to be excluded from my own country for completely invalid reasons. That was why we came back. That is really the only reason.

– The New York Times andThe Washington Post only possess a limited number of documentss. How have they handled this material in terms of stories they have researched and written? I presume they don’t have the same number of documents as you have?

I think it is important to discuss these two newspapers separately because they are two different cases. The New York Times does not have a limited number of documents, at least in the sense that limited means small. They have many thousands of documents, in fact, tens of thousands of documents.

– As many as you do?

No, no. They have a subset of … the only people who have the full set, the full archive of documents that he gave to journalists are Laura Piotras and me. The Washington Post and The New York Times have different subsets of those, but each of them number in the tens of thousands. The New York Times have published, I don’t know exacly how many stories, maybe a half a dozen or eight in the 8 months they have had these documents.

– You are unhappy with that?

Well, I am not really unhappy with that. I would just rather have other news organizations report them, but I find it kind of amazing, and the few that they have reported have been at Laura’s initiative, so she went to them and worked with them with documents she has, so that wasn’t even from their archive, and they barely published any of the documents, maybe a dozen. So, I have actually been shocked at how little they have done with the archive they have.

But that’s them. The Washington Post, if you look at how the story unfolded, they published one story, that is the PRISM story on the second day. And I think they did not do the second story for many weeks after that. I don’t think they were planning on doing that many. It was only once we started to publish as many as we were doing (from Hongkong, mb) and the reaction was what it was, they then started. But at the end of the day, I think they did a pretty decent job in reporting that archive.

– Better than the New York Times?


– Do you expect to get a free hand in working with Pierre Omidyar. It is a big corporation?

If I don’t get a free hand that would be the day I leave. He knew that from the first second. I mean, if you want to create a news organization where you can interfere with journalists that you hire, you don’t go and hire me and Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill and Matt Taibi, people who have a reputation for being the most difficult people to manage, maybe kind of cantankerous assholes. So that is what convinced me that he is sincere about his commitment, because not only does he know we won’t tolerate that. It is not like this is a job we need. We can all leave, we were doing perfectly very well before, and we will do very well if we go somewhere else. It only makes sense to do if you are really committed to building a news organization that has as its primary principle the concept of full journalistic independence.

– You urge people to encrypt their internet communication as one way to resist surveillance. You also want to build an internet infrastructure that is independent of the US – is there not a risk it will be country-based and thus subject to political pressure on national level? Have you thought about that?

Of course, I have. I mean one of the things to be in guard about is that whatever reforms happen aren’t means for other countries to enable them to excert the same kind of control that the US has. Those countries are going to want to. And obviously balkanizing the internet and having segregated means of communication based on national borders is a henious and horrible proposal, and nobody thinks that is a good idea. What people are talking about doing is building an infrastructure that enables internet communications to continue performing the same way without regard to borders but just not transiting the US, which is is the key thing that enables the US to exert congrol. It would still be connected to the internet. It would not be a segregrated intranet.

– It is a physical thing, in other words.

Yeah, one of the reasons the US is able to dominate the internet is because the fact that the internet was basically created in the US, largely, means a lot of the physical infrastructure is based on American soil, and they can exploit that fact to access those systems. And that is what needs to change. But that doesn’t mean at all that that will become a segragated internet.

– Well, conceptually that makes a lot of sense. The question is how do you implement that idea?

I mean, I am not an expert in this. There are all kinds of proposals as to how to internationalize control over the internet through regulatory bodies and new underwater fiber optic cables that will transmit internet communications in a more direct way. Right now, if someone in Chile sends an email to somebody in Iceland it goes through the US. It does not need to.

– What do you say to those who claim that other countries do the same – that is diplomatic and economic espionage? So, I mean I completely understand what the Canadians were doing in Brazil, the French against the US, the Chinese are all over the place. In the book I get the sense that it is particularly upsetting when the Americans conduct economic espionage. Is that because the NSA is so much more powerful than other countries’ agencies?

No, no. First of all, as a journalist you report on the fact and documents you have. And I am reporting on NSA spying. That is what I am reporting on. I don’t know the extent of Chinese economic espionage. There  has not been much evidence presented publicly when the US government makes the allegations. They are just allegations they want everybody to believe.

– Well, they are secret documents, which they don’t want to make public …

Right, but I mean, it would not shock me if the Chinese and everyone else were engaged in economic espionage, but I think that – the, first of all, noone spies to the extent that the US does in terms of the indiscriminate spying and in terms of putting the entire population under that kind of microscope. But the fact that other countries are spying economically does not make it justifiable for the US to do it. What it really does and to underscore the broader point, which is  - we spend 75 bio. dollars a year, and a lot of what the NSA is doing is weakening the internet. The NSA weakens privacy protocols, it makes our systems more vulnerable, not just to invasion by the US, but by other countries as well. If a fraction of that money were spent on fortifying the communication systems Americans are using to make it more difficult for the Chinese or the French to invade our communications, that would be a perfect solution. I think that the US government should be thinking about how to strengthen privacy on the internet, not how to weaken it.

– You say that the US spies more on its citizens in terms of surveillance than anyother country. How do you know that? It may be the case that states like China and Russia do it even more?

I mean, you can just look at the system. So, the resources that the US spends on building a surveillance system and the number of people who are working within the system, the capabilities that the US possesses technologically – there is nobody who disputes that the NSA is the most aggressive and most prolific agency.

– Well, technologically yes, but in terms of ressources, the US is transparent to a certain extent about that, the congressional committees …

The whole budget is secret.

– Yes, but we know that the NSA budget is 75 bio dollars

Yes, but that is only because the budget was leaked.

– Oh, was it! But then we don’t know how much the Chinese and Russians are spending on their surveillance.

Well, I mean …

– I am not trying to go after them, but I think it is important to make comparisons …

Even the NSA acknowledges that they collect more data and are more aggressive and more capable in surveillance than anyone else. It is a source of pride for them. They don’t deny that. And I think there are reasonable ways of concluding that the Russians aren’t spending some gargantuac sum of their GDP on their electronic surveillance based on the number of people they have doing it, the size of their agency and I mean Russia is not North Korea, it is nota completely closed off society. There is information about what Russian intelligence is doing. The same with the Chinese, as well. I don’t think that that issue is even in dispute. Even the NSA says: sure we do it more, but that is because we do it better.

– When it comes to economic espionage the Chinese and Russians need technology for growing their economies and they are heavily reliant on American and West European technology, I would expect them to be much more engaged in economic espionage than the Americans?

I don’t know if the Americans are more engaged in economic espionage than the Russians and the Chinese. I know that the Americans are engaged in aggresive economic espionage at the very same time they are publicly denying to their citizens that they are doing that. I know the Canadians and the British do it.

– I get it – but my point is that it is perhaps an unhelpful distraction to focus on American economic espionage, your strong argument is surveillance of individuals.

If the Chinese or Russian Edward Snowden comes to me with documents from inside their intelligence agencies, I would report that. But that is not what happened. An American whistleblower from inside the American intelligence community came to me. The other thing is that: the idea that the Chinese spy economically is something that is widely known in the world, because the US government has complained about it forever. What was not widely know was the extent to which the US did it. So I feel like journalistically there is more value in pointing out that the Americans are doing it too.

– I see. Diplomatic espionage has been around for centuries. Some historians and academics would argue it contributes to stabilizing relationships between nations, and in some cases even preventing outbreak of wars. There are different kinds of diplomatic espionage. It depends on the specific case and situation. I would say COP 15 was very unfortunate because the NSA intelligence probably gave the Americans a one-up on the others coming into the summit in a situation where the Congress was against any kind of compromise and so the American gvernment had knowledge that made it possible for them to not work out the solution we all wanted. But there are other situations where you could argue that kind intelligence prevented perhaps the outbreak of a war. I am saying: There are different kinds of diplomatic espionage. You seem to say: It doesn’t matter. I want to reveal everything.

No. First of all, the fact that I reveal something does not mean I think it is wrong. It means that the public ought to know about it so that they can debate it. Secondly, of all the various revelations that have happened the state-on-state spying is the one that interests and concerns me the least, as I actually said in the book. I do think that states have always spied on one another. I think it is more or less within the legitimate boundaries of what is acceptable surveillance. I think there are different questions when it comes to spying on democratically elected leaders and spying on their personal communications and spying on allies. But it really does not offend me. The idea that Angela Merkel’s or Dilma Rousseff’s communications were targeted is not something that concerns me in the schemes of the revelations. But I absolutely do think that in a democracy if a government is going to develop a system capable of that kind of evasion and then apply it against our allies and alike that it ought to be known.

– You talked at the meeting tonight about one person, Snowden, inspiring you with his spirit, which then contaminated the Guardian, and then journalists around the world and in the end incentivized young people globally to become activists. I heard you saying it was like a spark that ignited a fire.

Yes, I think so.

– The way you explained that – it makes a lot of sense. But number one – is that actually what is happening and what is this change that we want? We knew what Occupy wanted – less inequality. In this cas,e we want less surveillance, but is that something that is tangible that would create a movement, which would affect change?

Well, I mean there are movements for that. I think that again in different countries there have been different reactions. Some countries are apathetic, some countries are angry, but not doing much about it, and then there are other countries where it is a serious political issue. I think the prelude to any kind of change is changing how people think about these issues and think about how they conceive of these things. I don’t think the story is only about surveillance or even about privacy. I think it is about the role of government in terms of how they exercise their power and the relationship with the individual. I think it is about the role that the US is playing in the world as a dominant hegemon and whether or not it is a force for good or a force for eveil or something in between. I think it is about whether we can trust the claims that our government makes to us without evidence, so talking in secret. It is about the role of journalism.

So, yeah. Of course the identifiable immediate change can be encapsulated as you said in terms of less surveillance. And I do think that will be the result of what happens. There are already bills in Congress about limits to what the NSA can do. There are efforts with the tech community and with tech companies.

But I think it is a bit more ambitious undertaking than that. I think it is about engaging people in thinking about issues that for a long time they have really not been thinking about and making them aware of the fact that they have a role to play in the decisions to be made.

– See, it’s interesting because it takes a long time time to digest what has come out. We have had one year of revelations. It is a long time. As you said yourself tonight – it is amazing how long time the interest has been sustained over time. Normally, this kind of stuff lasts a week or perhaps a month. Still, a year, though, is not a long time because of the complexity of the matter. It is really hard for people to digest. I am speaking for myself. Sometimes, I get lost in all the information. How about you. Have you digested it all?

I mean, it’s interesting you say that because when I went back to write the book, I talked to my editors about the mix of new and old stories, and we talked about the value of taking the old stories that have already been published but still writing about them in order to this overall story that has kind of gotten lost in this case-by- case story. When I went and did that I actually found stories that not only Der Spiegel reported or other people reported but that even I reported and that I basically had forgotten or incidents that I had completely forgotten about. You are right, it is a really complicated and multilayered story and it does take a long time to digest. That is exactly, number one, the reason it has sustained interest for so long and it will continue to because it involves so many interesting questions, but I also think that is the reason why the change that will come will take a fairly good amount of time, but will actually happen. I mean, a year is not a lot of time for these huge entities.

– Let me ask one more question since we have a few minutes left. I think this is an interesting one. In the book you talk about radical dissent and you actually compare Stasi to NSA ..

In a limited way.

– Well, not exactly, but somewhat.

Well, Angela Merkel did that, actually.

– I lived in Poland in Communist times. I was a journalist there. I was followed by the secret policy, they tapped my phone. etc. What I saw in Poland – you remember the Solidarity movement – was the ability of people who were subjected to that kind o surveillance and who had no power to speak up and defend themselves because they can be surveilled anywhere. Still, we had 1 ½ year in which 10 mio. people stood up and claimed their freedom and to get rid of the Polish Stasi. Compare this to what is happening in the US today. I would say there is a huge difference in the sense is that I don’t actually see where political dissent is suppressed in this country. I can see the potential the NSA has by surveilling to suppress dissent. But I don’t see much suppression around me.

Have you ever spent any time in American Muslim communities here?

– Yes, that was revealed by The New York Times.

What was?

– That they were spied on.

Well, that was the AP.

– I see.

If you go into American Muslim communities they will pretty much uniformly tell you that they are petrified to speak about political issues for fear that something they say can be used as evidence for radical beliefs. They tell you that if somebody shows up in the mosque as a new person instead of welcoming them with open arms, they regard them with extreme suspicion, that they have been sent by the FBI as infiltrators. They get put on no-fly lists at the slightest provocation without any opportunity to understand why they have done it. If you are an average white American who has no interest in challenging the government then I agree with you that in general there is no oppression because you are not doing anything to warrant that. My guess is that was true in Poland as well. If you were an ordinary citizen.

– Not really. People were informing on each other for nothing – even more so in the DDR.

But in general, if you look at Mubarak’s Egypt, the people who got imprisoned were the people out marching and demanding an overthrow of the regime. Now, the people who are just sitting at home are supporting the government. The same in Syria and wherever. I mean, in general the measure of a society is how marginalized people are treated. I think in the US – even the Occupy movement where people were peacefully assembling to protest inequality they were treated with all kinds of police abuse or with shows of force or with prosecution and the movement was crushed and the idea has emerged in the US that if you are going to be a dissident you are probably going to have the full force of the state come down upon you, if you are effective and engaged in real dissidence. That results in this kind of internalized selfsuppression, where a lot of people say: I will refrain from doing that, and then they don’t even realize they have done it and convince themselves they are free.

– So your argument is that as soon as a movement appears then it becomes a problem if you are a political dissenter, that is the moment the government acts. Whereas before that you don’t feel the surveillance.

The bargain that is offered is as long as you don’t threaten us or challenge our power in any meaningful way we will leave you alone. And a lot of people who accept that bargain and then deny to themselves they have done it tell themselves there really is no acquiescence, because they are not being bothered. And they are not being bothered because they have agreed to pay the price of submission. And that really is an important way of crushing dissent. It is not a show of force in the street, the way in Poland and the police and security forces would show up, but they don’t need to do that here, because they have created this environment of selfcensorship and selfsuppression.

Hotel Marlowe, Cambridge, May 15, 2014

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