In an exclusive interview with DW, Edward Snowden ally Glenn Greenwald says one central aim of breaking the NSA story was provoking a discussion about journalists’ tacit deference to government power.
DW: You have been attacked in the media by what you have called ‘establishment journalists.’ The New York Times, for example, has just published a review of your new book. Some have called that review unfair. How do you respond to these attacks by fellow journalists?
Glenn Greenwald: When I started working on the NSA story, I knew that the debate we were going to trigger wasn’t just about surveillance and privacy and secrecy and the obvious questions that would be raised by this story, but a debate about journalism. I knew that the more aggressive we got with this story and the more documents we disclosed, the more likely we were to upset some journalists, because we were disregarding these unwritten rules that they abide by and because we were going to start becoming more and more adversarial to the government.
So many of these journalists look at the world through the prism of the government over which they are supposed to exercise oversight. They identify with the people in power. I’ve seen them do it over and over. They regard people who are actually doing journalism and actually bringing transparency as the real enemy. So, that wasn’t something that surprised me. It was something I sought out, because I wanted that debate to emerge.
But some of the attacks on you – like the New York Times book review – just seem really out of bounds. Have any of your critics in the media later backtracked and apologized to you?
If these journalists were just being adversarial, because that’s who they are and that’s what they do, I would be happy about it. I shouldn’t be entitled to delicate treatment any more than anybody else. If they were treating all government officials whom they routinely interview the way they were treating me, I would have no problem with it at all. I’ve had BBC interviews that have been incredibly acrimonious and then, right after I’m done, they bring on some former head of the GCHQ or some national security official, and they basically crawl around on the floor in the most subservient way possible. The contrast couldn’t be clearer. So, you see what their real journalistic mission is – it’s to accommodate those who are in power and to be hostile to anybody who opposes it. So, no, no one writes to me later and apologizes because they are fulfilling the function that they have chosen to perform in life, which is to serve those in power.
You currently live in Brazil. Has the government there made a commitment to your protection?
The Brazilian government has been extremely supportive of my doing the reporting from Brazil. The Brazilian Senate voted to provide us federal security for our home. A lot of officials there have expressed support in all sorts of different ways. When my partner was detained in London, the highest levels of the Brazilian government were very active in trying to find him at Heathrow, and then secure his release. They’ve supported the work that we’re doing in all kinds of ways. When Laura [Poitras] and I flew back to the US a month ago we knew there was a risk, but we did it on principle. We didn’t think they would do anything, but there was a chance they might. It’s sort of the fight that you have if you believe in the things you’re working for.
What did it feel like for you to return to the US for the first time in the wake of the NSA-Snowden leaks?
Well, Laura [Poitras] had been detained something like four dozen times over the course of several years when she was working on these films about the American occupation of Iraq. What would happen when she would be detained is the authorities would make an announcement before deplaning that everyone had to show their passport before leaving the plane, and the agents would look at hers and find her and take her. And that’s actually the same thing that happened with David [Miranda] at Heathrow – they told the passengers to take their passports out, and everyone showed their passports to the agents until they saw David’s and took him. So we were sort of expecting and waiting for this announcement about having the passports ready, and when they opened the plane doors without it, we felt that was a good sign. Of course there was some tension, but we were very prepared for all eventualities. It was tense, and there was anxiety. But we were obviously willing to come back and risk that.
Since the NSA-Snowden documents came to light, have you had the chance to have a frank, private conversation with people in the US government about this affair? These are smart people, and surely they can appreciate your arguments about how a massive state spying regime like the NSA could pose a threat to the American democracy.
I don’t really spend a lot of time talking to officials in the US government. I had lawyers who were trying to find out from them whether or not we would be arrested upon our return. They purposely refused to provide any information because they wanted us to be in this state of uncertainty. I generally have not participated in the discussions that my editors have had about publishing particular documents. They’ve gone to the NSA and let them make their case about why certain documents shouldn’t be published. But I don’t find that process very valuable because usually what they say is so vague and rote that it provides no information. I have had a couple of conversations about particular stories that I’ve done, where I did hear what they had to say. But no, in general, I haven’t had those kinds of conversations.
After the East German government fell, both East and West Germans were able to look at their Stasi files to see what kind of information the East German intelligence agencies were collecting. Could you foresee the US government creating a similar initiative to let Americans see what kind of information the US government is collecting on them?
There is the Freedom of Information Act, which, in theory, is supposed to entitle you to see your own files. But there are so many exemptions to it that it’s essentially a meaningless process. Part of the story we are working on now is how the NSA targets US citizens domestically and what they do with what they gather. So hopefully that story will shed some light on this question.
Glenn Greenwald’s book “No place to hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State” is out now (Metropolitan Books).