In part 1 of a two-part conversation with Ron, investigative journalist & constitutional lawyer Glenn Greenwald discusses President Obama’s ardent enthusiasm for NSA spying, just how creepy it is to know you’re being monitored & how Bill Maher’s attacks on Edward Snowden show that he’s becoming “increasingly conventional.” Read Glenn’s latest investigative work at THE INTERCEPT.
LET’S START WITH PRESIDENT OBAMA’S PROPOSAL TO REIN IN THE NSA. WHAT WERE YOUR THOUGHTS?
Glenn Greenwald: There’s some value to it on a symbolic level. It could be the fact that he needs to be perceived as reforming the NSA, which is reflective of where public opinion has gone on this issue. From the perspective of Edward Snowden and whether his actions are justified in revealing a once-secret program that the President himself now says should be abolished, that is some pretty compelling vindication. On a substantive level, as usual with Obama, the details are virtually invisible. There’s a long road between him proposing something and it actually happening. Even the proposal itself leaves a huge amount suspicion over surveillance that takes place but left in the hands of a telecom without a satisfactory resolution. On the whole, it shows the direction of the debate.
IS THERE A PART OF YOU THAT BELIEVES THAT THE PRESIDENT HAD IDEOLOGICAL OR ETHICAL PROBLEMS WITH THE NSA’S DATA COLLECTION ALL ALONG, BUT PUBLICLY RETREATED FROM THAT IDEOLOGY TO APPEAR “STRONG” OR EVEN “HAWKISH” IN THE EYES OF REPUBLICANS AND AMERICANS ON THE WHOLE?
Glenn Greenwald: No. I don’t see any evidence at all that President Obama has even the slightest problem what’s so ever with what the NSA is doing. He has been in office for five years now, not five months. He’s never given the slightest indication that what the agency has done was excessive. Quite the contrary, his administration has done everything possible to protect and shield the NSA from any form of the most basic accountability. I think it would be wildly over-generous to make excuses for Obama that say that he secretly in his heart opposes [NSA data collection] and just couldn’t find the political accountability to do it. He has demonstrated over and over again that he has almost no problems with national security policies he pretended to so vigorously oppose when George Bush was doing them. In many cases, he has actually proven that he is actually an ardent enthusiast of these policies by expanding them and protecting them.
IT WAS RECENTLY REVEALED THAT THREE YEARS AGO, THE SENATE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE SECRETLY REJECTED ALTERNATE, PERHAPS LESS INVASIVE, WAYS FOR THE NSA TO COLLECT AND STORE MASSIVE AMOUNTS OF AMERICANS’ PHONE RECORDS… ISN’T THE REAL TAKEAWAY HERE NOT THAT THE COMMITTEE REJECTED THE IDEA BUT THAT THESE ELECTED OFFICIALS HAVE BEEN ENABLING THE NSA BEHIND CLOSED DOORS IN SUCH EGREGIOUS WAYS?
Glenn Greenwald: Of course. Oversight, especially Congressional oversight, is an absolute joke. Even the people on the Intelligence Committee who are perceived as the anti-surveillance state stalwarts like Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Senator Mark Udall (D-CO) were fully aware of what exactly was going on. A lot has been made of the fact that James Clapper lied to the Senate Intelligence Committee – which he did – but the real lie is to the public. The people on the committee knew for awhile and they actually had the ability to go and describe to the American people what it was that was happening and do it with complete Constitutional liberty on the floor of the Senate and they chose not to. It took Edward Snowden to come forward and tell us. Its not only that the people on the committee knew about it and supported it, even the ones who are opposed to it did nothing to put a stop to it.
IS IT ALL BUT A CERTAINTY THAT YOU YOURSELF ARE BEING MONITORED?
Glenn Greenwald: It is a certainty. The British government, in the lawsuit brought about by my partner, made it clear that in the court file that they were surveilling the private communications of myself, him and/or The Guardian by making it clear that they knew in advance that they knew why he was going to Berlin and what they thought he would be carrying. The fact that our private communications – our electronic communications – have been under some form of surveillance is no longer in doubt.
HOW DOES THAT AFFECT YOUR PERSONAL AND PROFESSIONAL LIFE ON A DAILY BASIS?
Glenn Greenwald: Obviously I knew that there was a serious possibility that my conversations would be monitored by one intelligence agency or another when I took on this story and I have been taking precautions to secure my communications. It’s interesting, it’s actually a big difference physiologically – if for no other way – between suspecting that you are under surveillance and having a confirmation that you are. There is something kind of creepy and disturbing about seeing the evidence of governments being able to cite your communications. Obviously you get more careful about what you’re willing to discuss, how you’re willing to discuss it even in the privacy of your own home. Then you take even greater precautions to make sure that your communications are as protected as they can be technologically and make it as hard as possible for anyone to invade them.
THAT MUST, BY DEFAULT, STIFLE YOUR JOURNALISTIC ABILITIES.
Glenn Greenwald: It does. That is one of the most underrated aspects of everything we have reported. If you look just at metadata collection by itself, there’s obviously a debate about the effect of Fourth Amendment rights, privacy rights and the like. How do you maintain a private realm if the government is monitoring everyone you’re talking to? But an impact that is as profound that gets very little attention is the impact on First Amendment rights. How do you have a free press if the government is able always to know what other sources you are talking to – sources who contact you and want to disclose. It becomes virtually impossible to engage in journalism if we can’t communicate securely. Investigative journalism has come to a virtual standstill in the United States by virtue of surveillance and attacks on sources. It also makes it very difficult to work with your colleges. In order to edit the stories that I publish, I can’t work remotely with journalists and editors because it’s too insecure to send off top-secret documents so they have to come here [to Brazil]. Yes, it’s been a huge impediment to my work professionally, how I communicate with my colleagues and to journalism in general being able to work with sources.
I HAVE A FACEBOOK QUESTION FROM TOMMY CARSON: “HOW DID YOU FEEL WHEN BILL MAHER LIKENED EDWARD SNOWDEN AND BEING CRAZY TO RON PAUL?”
Glenn Greenwald: It’s interesting because Bill Maher himself has been wrongly demonized for saying things outside the mainstream – even being fired for it once, unjustly. It’s always striking to me how quick he is to equate people who say out-of-the-ordinary things with those who have derangement. He has done that to you, too. And if he does it, a lot of other people do it in the same way. Bill Maher is an interesting thinker in some ways and a really mundane, conventional thinker in other ways and he’s becoming increasingly conventional in that he views political issues almost exclusively through a Democratic prism so that people who don’t speak in those terms seem strange to him. So it didn’t surprise me and I gave very little thought about what Bill Maher thought about Edward Snowden. Having said that, he was more supportive than most commenters about the revelations, and ultimately that’s the most important thing.