Saving the Net from the surveillance state: Glenn Greenwald speaks up (Q&A)

The man to whom Edward Snowden entrusted his NSA documents isn't content just to save the Bill of Rights and reinvent journalism. He also wants to stop the Internet from becoming history's most dangerous spy tool.

Edward Moyer Senior Editor
Edward Moyer is a senior editor at CNET and a many-year veteran of the writing and editing world. He enjoys taking sentences apart and putting them back together. He also likes making them from scratch. ¶ For nearly a quarter of a century, he's edited and written stories about various aspects of the technology world, from the US National Security Agency's controversial spying techniques to historic NASA space missions to 3D-printed works of fine art. Before that, he wrote about movies, musicians, artists and subcultures.
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  • Ed was a member of the CNET crew that won a National Magazine Award from the American Society of Magazine Editors for general excellence online. He's also edited pieces that've nabbed prizes from the Society of Professional Journalists and others.
Edward Moyer
21 min read

Brazil-based journalist and NSA foe Glenn Greenwald testifies on US surveillance before an investigative committee of the Brazilian senate this past October. Evaristo Sa/AFP/Getty Images

Big Brother may be watching you. But Glenn Greenwald is watching Big Brother.

That's not a bad take on how the 46-year-old constitutional-law attorney turned crusading journalist turned thorn in the side of the NSA might describe his mission.

At least in part. Greenwald is doing more than just watching. By combing through the tens of thousands of classified NSA documents leaked to him by Edward Snowden, and publishing in newspapers around the globe report after report on the secretive agency's mass-spying activities, he's got the world watching too.

Through his efforts, he's looking not only to buttress the Bill of Rights and protect the sanctity of privacy -- he also wants nothing less than to stop the Internet from being warped into what he fears would be "probably the most effective means of human control and oppression ever known," a technology that allows "people's every thought and word to be comprehensively chronicled" by the "surveillance state."

Even in a world where Web sites and mobile apps have woven themselves into the fabric of our lives, Greenwald has what's perhaps an exceptionally tight and personal relationship with the Internet. His earliest forays online involved locking horns with right-wingers on conservative message boards and assuming various identities in chat rooms, including sexual identities (Greenwald is openly gay). He's characterized those Web-enabled experiences as integral to his development and self-exploration.

Then there's the Net's central role in his career. He started out as a corporate lawyer but quickly opened his own firm, where, he's said, he spent most of his time doing pro bono work related to civil liberties. In 2005, however, he took his legal knowledge and outsider, fight-the-power energy online, starting a blog called Unclaimed Territory. After about a year it got picked up by Salon, and several years after that, Greenwald was invited to write for the UK's Guardian newspaper.

The alternative attitude of what used to be called the blogosphere has stayed with him. That's in part why, in addition to the not insubstantial tasks of helping save the Constitution and rescue the Internet, Greenwald also wants to change journalism as we know it. And he's got $250 million from eBay founder Pierre Omidyar to help him do it.

With those cash reserves, and the team of talent he and his partners are assembling -- including not just journalists but also lawyers, media theorists, and source-protecting cryptographers -- Greenwald hopes to provide a formidable counterpoint to the "establishment press." In his view, the mainstream media is too often dazzled by those in power, parroting press releases and basing stories on strategic leaks that let government forward its own agenda (while cracking down on leaks that counter its aims and expose its do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do hypocrisies).

Greenwald spoke with CNET's Edward Moyer by phone from Brazil, where he's living with his husband, David Miranda (and probably will be for the foreseeable future, since the attorney general of the US has been unclear about whether Greenwald would be arrested if he returned to the States). The articulate and passionate Greenwald talked about press freedom; tech firms and privacy; totalitarianism and the banality of evil; and the struggle over the fate of the Internet.

Here's a lightly edited transcript:

Q: You've said of the NSA stories, that beyond the evidence they've provided of vast surveillance programs, they've revealed important information about the mainstream media. What do you mean by that? What's wrong with the media, and how will your new venture address this?
Greenwald: I think the principal problem with the establishment press, at least in terms of political journalism, has been excess deference to, and closeness with, the most powerful political factions, the very precincts over which journalism is, at its best, supposed to exercise oversight and serve as a watchdog, and instead it serves as a kind of amplifying mechanism and as a servant to them.

And we've seen even with national security reporting in general, NSA reporting in particular, that media outlets tend to collaborate very extensively with the US government before they do their reporting -- the most infamous example, of course, is The New York Times suppressing [at the behest of the Bush administration] the NSA story in 2004 that it ultimately won a Pulitzer Prize for when it finally got around to publishing it 13 months later. [That's] the kind of excess accommodation to political power that I think the establishment media in the United States has been guilty of.

And one of the things we tried to do in how we reported the NSA story was to kind of revitalize the idea of an adversarial relationship between government and journalists, tonally but also behaviorally. And I think that one of the principle objectives of our new organization is to not just tolerate but encourage and foster journalists who think that way.

Do you think "NewCo" (as you're temporarily calling your new venture) and its question-authority approach is going to influence the mainstream press eventually?
Greenwald: I think so. I think journalists tend to engage in a herd behavior, so they try to copy the things that work. I think there's a perception that our [NSA] journalism has been effective by all the normal metrics, and so there's already -- not on the part of everybody, but at least a good number of people -- an effort to try to replicate some of those mechanisms we used. And then when you see that being institutionalized in the form of an extremely well-funded media organization, at a time when media organizations are struggling financially, and you add on to that the quality of the reporting that I think we're going to be doing, the names that we're going to be attracting, yeah, I do think a lot of journalists are going to try to get into that success by doing the kind of journalism I think should have been done all along.

In your back-and-forth with New York Times journalist Bill Keller, you said that "reclaiming basic press freedoms in the US is an important impetus for our new venture." Can you explain?
Greenwald: One of the things that's happened to media outlets in the United States is that because of the financial struggles they've undergone, there is a fairly risk-averse, fear-driven climate in which these institutions are eager to avoid protracted [legal] battles with the government or with large corporations because they simply can't sustain those kind of battles financially. So one of the benefits of being a well-funded media organization is that you can do the kind of journalism you want to do without being afraid of ending up in those battles.

And those battles are often necessary to defend the basic prerogatives of press freedom. I mean, if the government is threatening you in a certain way that clearly violates the First Amendment's free press guarantee, but you're financially incapable or unwilling to have that fight, and you instead voluntarily walk away from that journalism, then I think the ground of press freedom will be invaded, and that's what's happened. And I hope that we're going to be -- and I think we're going to be -- an institution that'll be willing to have those fights in defense of our press freedom.

And another, crucial part of press freedoms that's been attacked is the way sources have been deterred from going to journalists out of fear that surveillance will immediately detect who they are and then they'll be prosecuted very aggressively. And source protection, meaning enabling sources to come to us with the confidence that they can do so safely, is a crucial part of our strategy. That too will go a long way to revitalizing press freedoms.

In a recent tweet, you pointed to a Foreign Affairs article that discusses how the digital era and the massive leaks it enables (e.g., those by Snowden and Chelsea Manning) mean an end to government hypocrisy. Government's policy and its rhetoric "will have to move closer to each other," the piece says. Can you talk about that, and the importance of whistle-blowers, WikiLeaks, and the Snowden-NSA pieces?
Greenwald: Well, the West in general, and the United States in particular, has spent the last four years vehemently condemning the Chinese government for using its surveillance powers for economic purposes rather than national security purposes and has insisted this is a breach of all international norms and jeopardizes the fairness of international markets. And what a lot of our reporting has revealed is that the United States and the UK in particular have used their surveillance systems to spy for plainly economic ends as well. And that kind of exposure of the huge gap between the rhetoric of the United States government and the reality, as people perceive it, has been a major part of what I think our reporting has achieved.

Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden speaks with Greenwald and Greenwald's future NewCo colleague Laura Poitras in Hong Kong in early June. The interview, filmed by Poitras, was later published by The Guardian. Guardian/Screenshot by CNET

That's true in the general area of press freedoms, of transparency, of Internet freedom -- all these values the United States government constantly trumpets itself as supporting have been revealed as values that the United States simultaneously is sort of waging war against. And I think that's really going to eat into and undermine the ability of the US government to have this massive gap between the rhetoric they issue to other countries and the reality of their own behavior.

Both you and Julian Assange have said it's crucial for governments to be transparent and for individuals to have privacy. Talk about your views on privacy -- how it's important not just politically but also in terms of creativity and self-exploration.
Greenwald: You know, I think it's interesting because a lot of times people have difficulty understanding why privacy's important...and so what I try to do is look at human behavior, and what I find, I think, is that the quest for privacy is very pervasive. We do all kinds of things to ensure that we can have a realm in which we can engage in conduct without other people's judgmental eyes being cast upon us.

And if you look at how tyrannies have used surveillance in the past, they don't use surveillance in support of their tyranny in the sense that every single person is being watched at all times, because that just logistically hasn't been able to be done. Even now it can't be done -- I mean, the government can collect everybody's e-mails and calls, but they don't have the resources to monitor them all. But what's important about a surveillance state is that it creates the recognition that your behavior is susceptible to being watched at any time. What that does is radically alter your behavior, because if we can act without other people watching us, we can test all kinds of boundaries, we can explore all kinds of creativity, we can transgress pretty much every limit that we want because nobody's going to know that we're doing it. That's why privacy is so vital to human freedom.

But if we know we're being watched all the time, then we're going to engage in behavior that is acceptable to other people, meaning we're going to conform to orthodoxies and norms. And that's the real menace of a ubiquitous surveillance state: It breeds conformity; it breeds a kind of obedient citizenry, on both a societal and an individual level. That's why tyrannies love surveillance, but it's also why surveillance literally erodes a huge part of what it means to be a free individual.

What about private companies and privacy? We have Google scanning people's Gmail and collecting search terms; Facebook and others track our movements around the Web. Companies sell our data to marketers. What's your take on all that?
Greenwald: I think there's a serious danger posed by large Internet corporations collecting data, but I also think there's a big difference between the state doing that and private corporations doing it. I mean, the idea that the state can be uniquely threatening is embedded in all of our political awareness. If you look at the Bill of Rights, it limits what the state can do but doesn't limit what corporations can do, and that's because, as oppressive as corporations can be, the state has unique powers -- like the ability to put you into a cage for a long time, or life, or even take your life; and the ability to take your property; to impose all kinds of taxation; to build weapons that can be used against people around the world -- that corporations don't actually have alone.

And the other thing I would say is that corporations, by the way they're structured, are geared toward generating profit, whereas states are constructed for a whole variety of reasons having to do with power, which includes profit but extends far beyond it as well. And so corporations that are collecting information about you are likely to use it to do things like sell you to advertisers for targeted advertisements or [sell] other kinds of composite pictures of who you are for a profitable end, whereas the state historically has used surveillance for far more than that, including suppressing political dissent, or punishing people who in any way are kind of deviant of the norm, putting people in check in terms of their behavior. So I think the dangers are more manifold and possibly more severe from state surveillance than from corporate surveillance, even though they're both a serious concern.

Let's discuss the Internet. You've talked about the importance of your early online experiences in terms of your self-exploration. And you've said that debating people in right-wing Web forums "taught [you] not to make assumptions about who people are." Can you discuss what it was like to discover the Net in the way you did? Did it awaken something in you? Did it change your way of thinking about communication? About politics? About civil society?
Greenwald: Oh yeah, it did all of that. You know, I think the way our society tends to be structured -- and by "our society" I mean sort of American, you know, kind of middle class/upper middle class existence (and probably the lower classes as well, economically) -- is that our environment is structured to be extremely limited, so we tend to interact with people who are like us, who have been raised like us, in similar environments, to think more or less fundamentally the same as we do. And it's a very limiting experience because all it does is bolster the assumptions that have been indoctrinated into your head, and it's designed to just strengthen those over and over because they're constantly being reinforced and they're very rarely being challenged.

So one of the things the Internet does is it lets you transcend those physical and socioeconomic and cultural limitations so that it's just as easy to speak with somebody on the opposite side of the world who has been raised in a radically different environment as it is to speak on the telephone to the person down the street. For people my age or even younger -- you know, not that long ago when we were growing up it was very difficult to speak with people far away: domestic long-distance calls were expensive, let alone international calls. And the Internet has wildly expanded the range of our experiences as human beings -- the ideas to which we're subjected, the kinds of assumptions of ours that get challenged, the type of information to which we're introduced.

But I think what it does even more than that is it just expands your sense of possibility as a human being, so that you realize just how many options you have in terms of the kind of person you want to create yourself as, the kind of thought systems you think are valid or to which you ultimately even subscribe. And this freedom that the Internet affords is, I think, unprecedentedly valuable.

And a big part of it is anonymity, because that kind of freedom is possible only if you're secure in knowing that the conversations you're exploring, the kind of ideas you're testing out, the identities you're assuming in order to gain entrance to certain places or to see how people are reacting to you in different circumstances is possible only if you're able to do that anonymously. And, you know, when I was trying to ask Edward Snowden in Hong Kong why -- not just abstractly, but on a visceral level -- he decided to risk his liberty and his life in pursuit of these sort of ethereal, distant, political objectives, that's what he talked about, was what the Internet culture did for his life, for him as a human being, and how he didn't want to live in a world without it. And I definitely empathized with that completely.

You've said the Internet has enabled "a massive diversification of media voices and democratization of our political discourse." But with the types of spy programs put in place by the NSA, you've said we're at a crossroads as to what the Net will be: a tool of "liberalization and democratization" or of "control and oppression." Talk about the importance of the Net in this regard and the threat posed by a "surveillance state."
Greenwald: If you look at what people were saying about the Internet in general, say 15 or 20 years ago, in terms of its promise, it was incredibly wide-ranging, from political liberation to eliminating economic inequality to just individual growth. It was literally conceived of as -- I don't mean by the people who created it, but by the people who started using it -- as this instrument of personal and political freedom.

Greenwald frequently taps Twitter to get his message out and link to supporting documentation. Screenshot by CNET

And I think the surveillance state is not only threatening to undermine that promise but to completely reverse it, so that as we do more and more on the Internet, as we live more on the Internet, as we engage in more activity on the Internet -- all of which we're doing -- states are exercising more and more control over the Internet, and especially monitoring over the Internet, and that means this instrument is being degraded from what its promise was, which was an instrument of freedom, into probably the worst means of -- the most effective means of -- human control and oppression ever known in human history, because there never existed a technology before to allow people's every thought and word and conversation and interest and reading and just interest level and fears to be comprehensively chronicled in the way that the surveillance state allows.

And there's an irony to the fact that this technology that once held such great promise in these areas is now posing the greatest threat to those same values. But I think that's how all technological innovation ultimately ends up being fought over -- that any technology can undermine the interests of the prevailing power factions and therefore it's targeted for co-option by those same power factions, to prevent it from being used as a challenge against them, and ultimately to be used to further shield their power from challenge. And I think that's exactly the battle we face when it comes to Internet freedom.

A few questions about the NSA. How would you answer someone, the man or woman "on the street," say, who asked you the following: "Warrantless wiretapping, and other things besides, have apparently been going on for years -- but the US hasn't become a totalitarian state. Doesn't that show there's nothing to worry about?"
Greenwald: All totalitarian states before they became full-fledged totalitarian states were, at some point, not totalitarian states. But they were on the path to becoming totalitarian societies. And I don't think it makes a lot of sense to say, "We should wait to be concerned about the threats posed by state power to cross the line into full-fledged totalitarianism before we start to worry about it."

You know, I think these labels tend to be unhelpful because what does it really mean to be a totalitarian society or not be one? But I think the critical point to recognize here is, the extent to which a state is oppressive is often determined by one's vantage point. And by that I mean: The greater the extent to which one engages in dissent, the more one is threatened by state abuse of power. And the less one engages in dissent, the less threatening state abuse of power is.

So, if you're somebody who basically just wakes up every day and accepts the government power and the prevailing order and kind of goes about your business, doesn't really threaten anybody in power -- it isn't just in the United States but in every society, including the most extreme tyrannies -- you're basically not going to be bothered by the state, and you're going to be able to tell yourself, "Well, I don't see any state abuse of power."

I mean, it was the people who were marching in the streets demanding [former Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak's ouster who were gunned down or threatened. The people who just stayed at home to watch television and didn't agitate against Mubarak could have easily said, "Well, I don't see any real threat to my individual liberties; I don't see what's so extreme about this government." So, a lot of the people who say, "Well, I don't think we have anything to worry about" are just people who have made a deal with power, which is: We will obey you and avoid being a threat to you in exchange for you leaving us alone.

You can tell yourself, easily, that because you're being left alone, that there is no real abuse of power going on, but the price that you're paying for it, which is this obedience to power and refraining from dissent, is its own form of tyranny. I mean, it's essentially saying, "I'm going to stay here in this little box and not get out and never move from it, in exchange for your leaving me alone."

I think if you go into American Muslim communities or people who are antiwar activists or who oppose international trade organizations or who are transparency activists or hacktivists, or if you talk to Chelsea Manning or whistle-blowers, I think they would have a much different view on the extent to which the United States has become oppressive or totalitarian, because totalitarianism by its nature targets those who challenge its power.

Protesters rally outside the US Capitol this past June, against the NSA's surveillance programs. Win McNamee/Getty Images

I mentioned your remark about how your early experiences debating conservatives online "taught [you] not to make assumptions about who people are." And your NewCo colleague (and drone critic) Jeremy Scahill has discussed how he's had beers with people in the drone program and learned about the issues they grapple with day to day. Do you ever wonder what it might be like to meet the NSA analysts who are presumably monitoring your communications? What they might be like as people?
Greenwald: Sure. I don't assume that everybody who works at the NSA or even most people who work at the NSA are evil, malicious people. I think the system in which they're working is evil and malicious, but I don't think they personally are.

And this is now a commonly understood dynamic. I mean -- without, you know, trying to invoke or in any way compare the NSA to Nazism or anything else like that, I'm just invoking the theory -- Hannah Arendt when she covered the trial of former SS officer Adolf Eichmann was shocked to find that he wasn't this fire-breathing, savage monster but seemed very mild-mannered. Sort of like the kind of midlevel insurance agent, father-type down the street who -- there's nothing really extreme about them. And she said they're just banal, it's the banality of evil. If you enter a system that has become sociopathic, you can look only at what's in front of your face -- which is the instructions you're getting from your supervisor, the rules that you're inspected to obey -- and just sort of go about your business, implementing in a very kind of value-neutral way the rules of this system without ever analyzing whether it's good or bad. And then you can serve ends of evil without yourself being evil.

And I have no doubt that lots of decent people who are in the NSA, who are analysts who listen to people's conversations...have become convinced that this system is either neutral or even serving the greater good and think they're doing good, even if they do really destructive things.

What do you think motivates someone like NSA head Keith Alexander or National Intelligence chief James Clapper? Or, for that matter, George Bush or Barack Obama?
Greenwald: I think human beings are extremely complicated, and I think it's very difficult to know our own motives, let alone the motives of other people. And so it's hard to say, in any one of those particular cases, what exactly motivates them.

But I think that if you look at the history of people who seek out political power, of the kind that they've acquired, it becomes its own intoxicating force. So the more power people acquire, the more power they crave, because it's addictive, there's a rush that comes with great power. And when you combine that rush with the fact that people convince themselves that they are good people, on the side of good, then it means that acquiring more power becomes an end unto itself. If you're Barack Obama and you think, "I am a truly good person who seeks to do good things," you'll believe that the more power you have, the better -- because the more powerful you are, the more good you'll be able to do. So I think power becomes the ultimate end.

And the more you can know about other people -- what they're saying, what they're doing, what they're thinking, what they're reading, what they're pursuing -- the more power you have over them, especially if they know less and less about what you're doing, as a result of a wall of secrecy. So power operates in a lot of different realms -- there's psychological power, there's financial power, there's political power, there's an infinite array of other kinds of power -- but power itself is the ultimate causation.

Some of your former colleagues at The Guardian were recently asked where they thought all this NSA stuff was headed long term. Ewen MacAskill replied, "Expect only cosmetic changes. Now intelligence agencies have this capability, they are not going to get rid of it." Spencer Ackerman said, "The intelligence cycle in the US historically is: abuse, outrage, reform, repeat." What do you think? Will these revelations lead to any real change? And what would true reform of the NSA and its oversight mechanisms look like? Is there any legislation being hashed out in Congress that could potentially lead to such reform?
Greenwald: I agree with what both Ewen and Spencer said, as far as it goes -- I think they accurately summarized how these things normally go, and I wouldn't blame anybody for thinking that it's likely to go like that this time too. I do, though, think there are some differences in this episode versus prior, similar ones.

For one thing, I think that the anger has been not only domestic but global. And when you combine that global reaction with the fact that the United States is much less able to exercise this hegemonic power over the world than it was even 10 years ago -- that world opinion matters more to the US and can restrain the US more than it could previously -- I think it's a major factor. I also think the fact that the Internet itself is global and that everybody has an equal interest in it means that -- that introduces a much different factor into the prospect for reform as well.

But ultimately what I think is that you cannot have just reform, legislative reform in a vacuum, because then I think both Spencer and Ewen are right: It really will just be symbolic and, you know, basically empty.

If you look at the reforms of the mid 1970s that came out of the Church Committee, they made a big deal out of announcing this newly created FISA court and the fact that there was going to be a Senate Intelligence Committee that was going to oversee the Intelligence Community. And then they just co-opted those institutions: They made the FISA court unbelievably toothless so that it approves everything the Intelligence Community wants, and then they just installed their most ardent loyalist as the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee or of the House Intelligence Committee, so that it is worse than toothless, it exists to endorse what the Intelligence Community does.

So if you just have reform legislatively, without massive fundamental changes of public opinion, then Spencer and Ewen are right: Nothing significant and meaningful will happen. But I don't think that's the case here. The extent to which people think differently about a whole variety of topics, as a result of this NSA reporting -- not just surveillance, but journalism, their relationship to the state, the role of secrecy, the role that the United States plays in the world -- there's been radically different opinions around the world about all these topics. I really do think the last six months have been consciousness-shifting.

And I think that's going to continue as more reporting gets done, because there is a lot more reporting to do that will shock people around the world and further change how they think. So when you start to have radical changes in public opinion, not just domestically but globally, that will then be the real cause. Legislative reform might be an outcome or an effect, but the real change will come from those kind of consciousness changes that can make legislative reform or other kind of changes much more effective than they would be without that.