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The investigative journalist has led the reporting on Edward Snowden’s leaks about the National Security Agency
May 16, 20145:00AM ET
John Seigenthaler: Let me start with [your new] book ["No Place to Hide"] and go back to the first time you met Edward Snowden in Hong Kong. Tell me what it was like.
Glenn Greenwald: It was like living in a spy film, essentially, because we knew a couple of things: that this was certainly the biggest leak in national security history; that if the U.S. government found out what it was that he was doing, that they would take very extreme measures to put a stop to it one way or the other. But we didn't know much else. We didn't know whether the U.S. government knew anything or what they knew, or whether Hong Kong and Chinese authorities knew anything that was happening.
So everything that we did needed constantly to be shrouded in extreme levels of secrecy, and Snowden, as a highly trained operative in the intelligence community, was very well versed in how that needed to be done. And everything we did was in that context.
You were surprised by what he looked like.
I was shocked by what he looked like. I had spent several weeks talking to him. I knew that he had access to enormous amounts of top-secret material, I knew that he had some pretty sophisticated insight, and I knew most of all that he was prepared to spend the rest of his life in prison. So I assumed he was in his 60s or 70s.
Did that give you pause, that you might be writing articles that would, in essence, send him to prison?
It made me need to know that he was making a choice with a full understanding of what the likely consequences would be, and that the decision process was one grounded in rationality and a lot of agency and autonomy. And I got that assurance pretty quickly.
How did you do that?
I sat him down and I questioned him very aggressively for six consecutive hours in the hotel on the first day, and I insisted upon understanding the thoughts behind his thoughts, the moral framework that led him to this reasoning that ultimately led to this decision. And I needed to know that it was coherent and cogent and rational. And it was, it was extremely well thought out.
But do you think that he recognized all the things that he might go through and has been through since?
There is a video clip that Laura Poitras, the documentarian with whom I was working, filmed in which I asked him, "What do you think are the likely consequences for you for having made this choice?"
He said, "I think I'm going to be called a traitor by the United States government. I'm certain to be charged with multiple felonies under the Espionage Act. There will be people digging into all aspects of my life, and my freedom and my life as I know it will never be the same."
There is a moment where you talked about the impact on his girlfriend and his family. How is he doing? How is he handling all that now?
Remarkably well. You know, when we were in Hong Kong the working assumption was that he was going to spend the next several decades, probably the rest of his life, in a cage in the American penal space.
You thought that would happen?
We, all three of us, thought that would happen. He certainly thought that would happen. Now, seeing him being able to freely participate in the debate around the world that he helped to galvanize, for him is something incredibly fulfilling. And it is the case that he's had contact with his family cut off, he's been forced to be in a country that he didn't choose. His life has unraveled.
Yet, at the same time, of all the people I know in my life, the one who is most at peace and most fulfilled and probably the happiest is Edward Snowden. Because he told me recently, he gets to put his head on his pillow every night knowing that he took actions in defense of his principles.
[Snowden] told me recently, he gets to put his head on his pillow every night knowing that he took actions in defense of his principles.
You talk to him often?
I talk to him very regularly.
You talk to him on a secure phone or secure line?
We use secure Internet technology, chat technology.
What's his life like?
He spends a lot of time following the debate around the world that is unfolding and the reform movements that take place. He's asked to speak all the time at various events, and he's increasingly doing that. He speaks to journalists. He's always been a person of the Internet, spending a lot of time indoors, online. And essentially, he continues to do that.
Does he feel like a prisoner in Russia?
No, he doesn't. To the extent that — I know for myself that I spent 10 months feeling that I couldn't safely travel back to the U.S., and I did my reporting in Brazil, and I felt like a free person in the sense that I could do what I wanted within those confines. So the ability not to be able to travel freely deprives you of your freedom. He's aware that he can't leave Russia. He's not completely free, but he's certainly free when one compares it to what we thought was going to be the outcome of his choice.
We asked some people to submit questions on the Web, and we've got a couple of them, one in regards to Russia — and this is from Gary in Honolulu. He says, "Has Mr. Snowden expressed his opinions and feeling regarding his life in Russia in light of Mr. Putin's annexation of Crimea, support for pro-Russia thugs in eastern Ukraine, constraint on the media in Russia, etc.?"
I always find that a bizarre question, in part because he didn't choose to be in Russia, but more because people seek asylum in the United States by the thousands every single year, and I've never heard anybody ask any of those people who have asylumed in the U.S., "How do you feel about seeking asylum from a country that invaded and destroyed another country of 26 million people or that erected a torture regime around the world, or that continues to imprison people without charges for over a decade in Guantánamo?"
Because the point of asylum is not to declare which country you love the most; it's to seek protection for persecution at home. So, again, he didn't choose Russia. So it's kind of odd to demand that he be accountable for its abuses. The point of why he's there is that he's forced to be there by the U.S. government, which wants to put him in prison for the rest of his life.
And he could have chosen to come back to the United States?
He could choose to do that now, absolutely. If he were to come back to the U.S., [though,] what [would] the U.S. media and political elites have [to] say? When they're in public they have this bravado and they say, “He should man up. If he thinks he did the right thing, he should come back to court and make his case before a jury.”
And the reality, which they know but hide when speaking publicly, is that the way the law works is, if you're accused of violating the Espionage Act, the fact that you acted with justification or as a whistleblower is not a defense. He would be barred from raising that defense in court under those charges. So it isn't a fair trial. It isn't a fair fight. His conviction would be virtually guaranteed. There is no reason why he should meekly submit to a decade or four decades in prison.
We have a number of questions along these lines. This was from Facebook, from Linda on Facebook. She said, "How many agents had to be removed from their assignments because their cover had been blown and they were now in danger?"
None. None that the U.S. government has ever identified. Nobody has been injured or in any way harmed as a result of our reporting.
Now, the U.S. government makes these claims without any evidence every time there's any unwanted disclosure, going all the way back to Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, which always turns out to be false. We have evidence, and that's certainly the case here.
What's it like to be called a traitor and a hero by lots of different folks?
I think if you're going to do journalism and the kind of journalism you want to do is adversarial journalism against those in power, then you have to expect that you're going to alienate and anger lots of people. It will be controversial. If you're not prepared for that, you probably shouldn't go into journalism.
You're pretty critical of mainstream journalism in America. What's your biggest beef?
That the idea of why there's a free press — it's supposed to be that journalists are an adversarial force to those who wield political and economic power. And for a variety of reasons over the last several decades, but particularly the last decade, the American media with some exceptions has become subservient to and helpful to those in power rather than adversarial to it. And it's really neutered and rendered impotent the idea of what journalism should be.
You believe in a new form of journalism, of adversarial journalism. Does it include your opinions on things and your opinions of, like, the NSA, let's say? There are a lot of people that say, so what do you think the NSA should do? Should the NSA exist? What do you say?
I don't know of anybody who believes that all forms of surveillance should be abolished or all forms of surveillance are legitimate.
I don't know anyone who does, including myself. I think everyone acknowledges that some limited, targeting, discriminating, oversight-driven surveillance is justified. I've made my opinions clear as part of the journalism, which isn't actually a new form of journalism. If you look at American journalism for the last three centuries or two centuries, it's been this kind of crusading, adversarial journalism where the journalists don't deceitfully pretend that they're without opinions. They candidly acknowledge the opinions that they have, and tell their readers, "You can still rely on the facts that I'm reporting." And ultimately that is what determines the credibility of a journalist.
Mainstream journalism might include the Pulitzer committee. You won a Pulitzer Prize. What was that like for you?
It was gratifying and vindicating, given the debates that have arisen that you're referencing, about whether this was journalism. It was also a little bit disconcerting, to be honest, about why this sort of "belly of the beast" of establishment journalism is giving this award. I don't think they had a choice. So on the whole, I think it was very good for the story and for what Edward Snowden did.
There were some people who thought that you might be arrested the next time you came back to the United States. Do you think that getting the Pulitzer and the Polk awards that you've received recently helped?
I do. You know, part of why Laura Poitras and I were willing to return to the U.S. when we did was because our plane landed when there was a roomful of 300 journalists waiting for our arrival to receive awards for the journalism that the U.S. government would have had to have arrested us for conducting. So I think it made the cost far too high for anyone in the U.S. government to want to do that.
Part of why Laura Poitras and I were willing to return to the U.S. when we did was because our plane landed when there was a roomful of 300 journalists waiting for our arrival to receive awards for the journalism that the U.S. government would have had to have arrested us for conducting.
You went with The Guardian, and they went with your story, but it wasn't easy. And based on your book, you describe a very difficult process of getting The Guardian to publish the information you wanted to publish. Didn't you expect that from the start?
The real issue is that when I started this reporting, I had only been at The Guardian for eight months, and I hadn't done much reporting with the other editors there because I generally work exclusively on my own, very independently. So there was no relationship of trust.
I didn't know how aggressive they were willing to be in putting their reputation on the line for this story, and they didn't know how I was going to handle this story.
In retrospect, there really wasn't all that much delay on the part of The Guardian. Although at the time it seemed as if there was. When I wrote the story, I wanted it done that minute. Ultimately, I think The Guardian did report the story very aggressively and intrepidly, and it was a big part of why it made such an impact.
You made the point about the fact that mainstream organizations like The New York Times, The Washington Post go to the U.S. government before they print things, and you don't like that.
It isn't so much that I am opposed to the idea of advising the U.S. government —
You could have fooled me in the book.
What I dislike about the process is when it results in the suppression of information that the public ought to know because it's newsworthy, as it's happened so many times before. That's the real problem.
Can you describe the excitement and the fear that you felt when you had this information in your hands and you knew that this was going to go public? What is that like for a journalist?
It was really overwhelming. I mean, on the one hand, there was a huge amount of excitement. I've been working on surveillance and NSA issues for many years. The difficulty has been that you don't have the instruments to make the public aware of what's going on. Suddenly in my lap there were all the instruments in the world that I could have ever dreamed of having.
But at the same time, I knew that it was an enormous responsibility to the source, to the public, to my colleagues at The Guardian to make the right decisions about how this information ought to be reported.
Why not dump all the information like WikiLeaks to the public and let them make up their own mind?
For one thing, Edward Snowden didn't want that. He came to me and actually demanded that we enter into an agreement about how it would be reported. If he wanted to do that, he wouldn't have needed me. He could have just uploaded those to the internet himself.
I think his belief — and it's actually a belief that I share — is that the impact from these disclosures is higher because we took the time to report the stories one by one, explain to the public what their meaning was, did reporting around them, and let the public digest each individual story, rather than just dumping them all at once.
Is there information in there that could put people in danger?
Again, anything is theoretically possible. We obviously made the decision to withhold some information.
Because it was too sensitive?
Because it just wasn't newsworthy and had the potential to create harm for innocent people. That was the process we engaged in for every document we released and will continue to release in the future, is to weigh those considerations.
So how many more documents?
There's many more stories to go. I can't quantify them for you. There's among the biggest stories that are left to be reported. Obviously there were a lot of stories in the book and a lot of new documents in the book. And there are still many of those left that we will continue to report.
You've got one big story, apparently, that's coming at the end, and you and Edward Snowden have discussed that and he's excited about that?
It's a story that — we haven't deliberately saved it for the end. This story is a very complicated story to report. It takes a lot of time, and there's legal sensitivities, but I do think it will help to shape how this story is remembered for many years to come, because it answers some central questions about how surveillance is conducted that still aren't answered.
So you think you're out of legal trouble in the United States?
I think there's still a risk with some of these impending stories that the NSA is particularly angry about, but I think, by and large, the cost of the U.S. government to take action against me or other journalists is too high for them to be willing to incur.
I want to talk about how this has changed your personal life, and I've got a question from a viewer who asked about your partner, David Miranda, being detained in the U.K. at Heathrow airport, and on Facebook said, "In February, a panel of U.K. judges ruled that detaining your partner, David Miranda, while he was in transit through Heathrow was legal. Are there any challenges to that ruling in progress?"
It's on appeal. And part of what happens in the United States is the abuses of political power permeate the judiciary, and the same is true in the United Kingdom. There's a chance that ruling could get overturned on appeal, but I think the public has rendered its verdict about how abusive that detention was.
You said you were a fan of "All the President's Men."
And in that movie there are a number of scenes in which [Bob] Woodward and [Carl] Bernstein seem pretty paranoid that the government's listening to everything they're saying and doing. Do you feel that way now?
Well, the British government in that lawsuit that you just referenced about my partner filed documents making conclusively clear that they were actually eavesdropping on emails and telephone calls of myself and David and/or my colleagues at The Guardian. They knew what he was doing in Berlin, what he intended to carry. So there clearly was invasion into our communication, and that's why we take very extreme steps to protect the communications with encryption.
Do you think they're following you around? Do you think they're on every phone call you make, every email you send?
What I decided at the very beginning was I would be aware of the risks, take precautions that I could take, and then forget about them. Because I wasn't going to let them paralyze the journalism that I was doing. So I spend very little time thinking about that.
You're famous now around the world. Edward Snowden did drop these documents kind of in your lap. Clearly, you had a reputation for reporting on this issue. But are you the luckiest guy in the world when it comes to reporting this story?
I mean, you know, I think there is a context. I've been working on these issues for seven or eight years, when very few people cared about them. I think I had a theory about how journalism should be conducted, and have conducted myself in a way that he found appealing, and there was a huge amount of work that went into building the trust with him, to creating a framework for how the issues could be reported. It didn't just fall into my lap. There was an enormous amount of work that went into why I got the story, and I don't feel "lucky" to have gotten it, no.
Is he getting anything out of this? Does he get any financial benefit from the book, from the documentary that's going on? Maybe a movie?
He has extremely lucrative offers from all over the world to write books, to sell his rights, his life rights for a film. He gets paid to do speeches. He gets awards that include monetary prizes. But he didn't do this for the money. He could have sold those documents for tens of millions of dollars to any intelligence agency on the planet, had he wanted. He did it because he believed in the principle and the cause. And that, in his view, is his payment.
In one way, you talked about in the book that he didn't want this story to be about him.
But in some ways it has become about him, hasn't it?
Because media figures make it about him. But I think he's done an outstanding job of avoiding the media spotlight to the fullest extent possible, by turning down TV — he's never done a television interview in the United States or in any other country.
He was in South by Southwest, right?
He made appearances when he was assured that he would be able to confine his comments to the documents and the revelations and issues surrounding privacy and surveillance and not be asked the kind of questions that virtually every TV interviewer would ask, about his girlfriend and what he's doing in Russia and what his life is like and those kind of things.
He wanted to avoid having the issue personalized about him, with the understanding that he did something extraordinary, there was going to be legitimate interest in him. But the reason he stayed out of the media limelight was so the focus to the fullest extent possible would remain on the story.
When I was talking about your personal opinions, one of the personal opinions that is making news is your comments about Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state.
You know, the context for the interview was that a journalist from GQ came down to Rio de Janeiro, where I live, and essentially followed me around three or four days. We spent a long time together, and what happens is you talk openly and candidly. I have strong opinions about all sorts of things. I don't think I've ever remotely hidden the fact that that's the case. I do think that Hillary Clinton's candidacy is representative of many of the worst attributes of our political culture, this kind of the dynastic succession, politicians who are rewarded for just always being very calculating or devoid of passion.
She supported the war in Iraq, she supported most of the post-9/11 abuses of the U.S. government and militarism around the world, and I just don't think that she's a candidate who is worth getting excited about; quite the opposite.
[Snowden] wanted to avoid having the issue personalized about him, with the understanding that he did something extraordinary, there was going to be legitimate interest in him. The reason he stayed out of the media limelight was so the focus to the fullest extent possible would remain on the story.
Is there anyone that you are getting excited about? What should the next president of the United States be thinking about when it comes to the NSA and it comes to the abuses that you talk about?
I think, clearly, even if you don't believe that the system is inherently abusive, there are enormous costs now to having this ongoing surveillance. There are people around the world who refuse to buy American technological products because they're not confident that their privacy is protected. There is a wide array of diplomatic harm that has come to the United States' relationship to other countries. There's a perception on the part of the citizenry that their own government can't be trusted. So I think genuine fundamental reform is something that any rational leader would want to embark on.
Have there been threats to you and your partner?
Sure. I mean, there have been threats from the U.S. government to prosecute me, there have been email death threats that occur regularly. But, I mean, genuinely it is the case that journalists all over the world have those same kinds of threats, and worse. So it's just something that you deal with.
You say that. But I mean, how's your life changed?
My life has changed in every single way possible. You know, the pressures of this story, the visibility of the platform that I have is obviously much, much greater than it ever was before. The opportunities I have to spread the ideas and talk about the things that I believe in is much greater, but so are the threats and so are the risks and so are the costs.
But you know, if I had to do it over again, I would do everything exactly the same way, because this is what I went into journalism to do.
I understand. You know, it does seem that, given what's happened to your partner when he was detained in the U.K. and the threats that you just described, that that might be just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how tough it's been for you.
Yeah, it has been difficult. But it has, at the same time, been very gratifying. And that always is the balance. If you are going to do, you know, kind of the story of your lifetime, and if you're going to say all the time that journalists have the obligation to confront those in power, the nature of confronting people in power by definition is that they can then do things back to you that are unpleasant. If they couldn't, they wouldn't be powerful. So there definitely are costs. But I think the costs are very well worth it.
I've got one more question from the Web. This comes from Jordan in Delaware. It says, "I've signed petitions, made calls, sent emails to congressmen and attended protests, in addition to changing my habits when using the Web. What do you think citizens should do to stop the overreach of the NSA?"
I think those are all excellent things to do, everything that that individual said that they are doing. But I think there's ways to pressure politicians to make clear that this is an issue of high priority and to encourage lots of others to run on a platform of opposing NSA and also not to use companies, techno companies, that aren't guaranteeing that they will protect your privacy by refusing to cooperate with the NSA.
There's a story out today that suggests that almost every company in America is collecting information on us, from the electric company to all the utilities, the cable companies. It's not just the NSA, but it may be the NSA through some of those companies, as you suggested.
There's a huge, huge difference, fundamental difference, between having a single company collecting information about you that they're able to know when you use their service, or Google can collect your Google searches, Yahoo can collect your Yahoo emails, and it's all divided and fragmented in the hands of these companies, versus having the United States government collect, in a centralized way, everything that there is to know about you online.
There's also a difference about corporate and government power. The government that can put you into prison, that can take your property and even that can kill you, which is why the Bill of Rights and the Constitution limits what the government can do, because we've always looked at government and state power as particularly and uniquely threatening.
When you arrived at the museum today there are a lot of kids outside, students, who you probably walked through as you came into our studio. Do you think those young people in high school and college understand what you're saying?
Completely. What has fascinated me the most about the fallout from this story is that unlike almost every other significant political controversy, the reaction to the story really doesn't break down on partisan lines — Democrats and Republicans either dislike or support the reporting I've been doing and what Edward Snowden does — or on ideological lines. The most reliable metric for how people react to this story is age, because younger people, who overwhelmingly view Snowden as a hero, understand the centrality of the Internet in a way that older people don't. I think people have been inspired by what he did and by the journalism that has resulted.
Your partner in this endeavor, Laura Poitras, we don't see her that much. Is there a reason for that?
She's an incredibly private person, and she's also a filmmaker and is very comfortable being behind the camera and doesn't particularly like being in front of it. She likes to let her work do her speaking for her. And she speaks through her documentaries, one of which is going to be forthcoming this year, about everything that happened in Hong Kong and about the broader issues of the surveillance state.
And you say there's a possibility of a movie, as well?
There actually was announced today that Sony has purchased the rights to produce a film based on my book. So that is likely to happen.