No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the Surveillance State
Glenn Greenwald (2014)
From the time that it first began to be widely used, the Internet has been seen by many as possessing an extraordinary potential: the ability to liberate hundreds of millions of people by democratizing political discourse and leveling the playing field between the powerful and the powerless. Internet freedomthe ability to use the network without institutional constraints, social or state control, and pervasive fearis central to the fulfillment of that promise. Converting the Internet into a system of surveillance thus guts it of its core potential. Worse, it turns the Internet into a tool of repression, threatening to produce the most extreme and oppressive weapon of state intrusion human history has ever seen. That’s what makes Snowden’s revelations so stunning and so vitally important. By daring to expose the NSA’s astonishing surveillance capabilities and its even more astounding ambitions, he has made it clear, with these disclosures, that we stand at a historic crossroads. Will the digital age usher in the individual liberation and political freedoms that the Internet is uniquely capable of unleashing? Or will it bring about a system of omnipresent monitoring and control, beyond the dreams of even the greatest tyrants of the past? Right now, either path is possible. Our actions will determine where we end up.
Still I did nothing. It was at that point that C., as he later told me, become frustrated. “Here am I,” he thought, “ready to risk my liberty, perhaps even my life, to hand this guy thousands of Top Secret documents from the nation’s most secretive agencya leak that will produce dozens if not hundreds of huge journalistic scoops. And he can’t even be bothered to install an encryption program.” That’s how close I came to blowing off one of the largest and most consequential national security leaks in US history.
The article I published in the online political magazine Salon detailing the constant interrogations to which Poitras had been subjected received substantial attention, drawing statements of support and denunciations of the harassment. The next time Poitras flew out of the United States after the article ran, there was no interrogation and she did not have her materials seized. Over the next couple of months, there was no harassment. For the first time in years, Laura was able to travel freely. The lesson for me was clear: national security officials do not like the light. They act abusively and thuggishly only when they believe they are safe, in the dark. Secrecy is the linchpin of abuse of power, we discovered, its enabling force. Transparency is the only real antidote.
We discussed all these possibilities. We knew that a 2008 secret report by the US Army had declared WikiLeaks an enemy of the state and proposed ways to “damage and potentially destroy” the organization. The report (ironically leaked to WikiLeaks) discussed the possibility of passing on fraudulent documents. If WikiLeaks published them as authentic, it would suffer a serious blow to its credibility.
“I don’t like how this is developing,” he told me. “I had wanted someone else to do this one story abut PRISM so you could focus on the broader archive, especially the mass domestic spying, but now I really want you to be the one to report this. I’ve been reading you a long time,” he said, “and I know you’ll be aggressive and fearless in how you do this.”
“I want to spark a worldwide debate about privacy, Internet freedom, and the dangers of state surveillance,” he said. “I’m not afraid of what will happen to me. I’ve accepted that my life will likely be over from my doing this. I’m at peace with that. I know it’s the right thing to do.” He then said something startling: “I want to identify myself as the person behind these disclosures. I believe I have an obligation to explain why I’m doing this and what I hope to achieve.” He told me he had written a document that he wanted to post on the Internet when he outed himself as the source, a pro-privacy, anti-surveillance manifesto for people around the world to sign, showing that there was global support for protecting privacy. Despite the near-certain costs of outing himselfa lengthy prison term if not worsehe was, the source said again and again, “at peace” with those consequences. “I only have one fear in doing all of this,” he said, which is “that people will see these documents and shrug, that they’ll say, ‘we assumed this was happening and don’t care.’ The only thing I’m worried about is that I’ll do all this to my life for nothing.” “I seriously doubt that will happen,” I assured him, but I wasn’t convinced I really believed that. I knew from my years of writing about NSA abuses that it can be hard to generate serious concern about secret state surveillance: invasion of privacy and abuse of power can be viewed as abstractions, ones that are difficult to get people to care about viscerally. What’s more, the issue of surveillance is invariably complex, making it even harder to engage the public in a widespread way. But this felt different. The media pays attention when top secret documents are leaked. And the fact that the warning was coming from someone on the inside of the national security apparatusrather than an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer or a civil liberties advocatesurely meant that it would have added weight.
There it was with incontrovertible clarity: a highly confidential communication from the NSA, one of the most secretive agencies in the world’s most powerful government. Nothing of this significance had ever been leaked from the NSA, not in all the six-decade history of the agency. I now had a couple dozen such items in my possession. And the person I had spent hours chatting with over the last two days had many, many more to give me.
My agreement with the Guardian was that I had full editorial independence, which meant that nobody could edit or even review my articles before they ran. I Monday, June 02, 2014wrote my pieces, and then published them directly to the Internet myself. The only exceptions to this arrangement were that I would alert them if my writing could have legal consequences for the newspaper or posed an unusual journalistic quandary. That had happened very few times in the previous nine months, only once or twice, which meant that I had had very little interaction with the Guardian editors. Obviously, if any story warranted a heads-up, it was this one. Also, I knew I would need the paper’s resources and support.
The first thing we did was go to a store to buy a laptop that would serve as my “air gapped machine,” a computer that never connected to the Internet. It is much more difficult to subject an Internet-free computer to surveillance. To monitor an air gapped computer, an intelligence service such as the NSA would have to engage in far more difficult methods, such as obtaining physical access to the computer and placing a surveillance device on the hard drive. Keeping the computer close at all times helps prevent that type of invasion. I would use this new laptop to work with materials that I didn’t want monitored, like secret NSA documents, without fear of detection.
As we arrived in the vicinity of JFK Airport, Laura pulled a thumb drive out of her backpack. “Guess what this is?” she asked with a look of intense seriousness. “What?” “The documents,” she said. “All of them.”
The ruling I read on the plane to Hong Kong was amazing for several reasons. It ordered Verizon Business to turn over to the NSA “all call detail records” for “communications (i) between the United States and abroad; and (ii) wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls.” That meant the NSA was secretly and indiscriminately collecting the telephone records of tens of millions of Americans, at least. Virtually nobody had any idea that the Obama administration was doing any such thing. Now, with this ruling, I not only knew about it but had the secret court order as proof.
For two years Democratic senators Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of New Mexico had been going around the country warning that Americans would be “stunned to learn” of the “secret interpretations of law” the Obama administration was using to vest itself with vast, unknown spying powers. But because these spying activities and “secret interpretations” were classified, the two senators, who were members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, had stopped short of disclosing to the public what they found so menacing, despite the legal shield of immunity granted to members of Congress by the Constitution to make such disclosures had they chosen to. I knew as soon as I saw the FISA court order that this was at least part of the abusive and radical surveillance programs Wyden and Udall had tried to warn the country about.
How do you document the actions of an agency so completely shrouded in multiple layers of official secrecy? At this moment, we had breached that wall. We had in our possession, on the plane, thousands of documents that the government had desperately tried to hide. We had evidence that would indisputably prove all that the government had done to destroy the privacy of Americans and people around the world.
The other striking facet of the archive was the extent of government lying it revealed, evidence of which the source had prominently flagged.
The source had given us clear proof that NSA officials had lied to Congress, directly and repeatedly, about the agency’s activities. For years, various senators had asked the NSA for a rough estimate of how many Americans were having their calls and emails intercepted. The officials insisted they were unable to answer because they did not and could not maintain such data: the very data extensively reflected in the “BOUNDLESS INFORMANT” documents. Even more significant, the filesalong with the Verizon documentsuggested that the Obama administration’s senior national security official, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, lied to Congress when, on March 12, 2013, he was asked by Senator Ron Wyden: “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” Clapper’s reply was as succinct as it was dishonest: “No, sir.”
[I]t would be very difficult to deny his status as a classic whistle-blower. If disclosing proof that top-level national security officials lied outright to Congress about domestic spying programs doesn’t make one indisputably a whistle-blower, then what does?
My phone only worked in Brazil, but Snowden nonetheless insisted that I remove the battery or place it in the refrigerator of his minibar, which would at least muffle conversations, making them more difficult to overhear. Just as Laura had told me back in April, Snowden said the US government has the capability to remotely activate cell phones and convert them into listening devices. So I knew that the technology existed but still chalked up their concerns to borderline paranoia. As it turned out, I was the one who was misguided. The government has used this tactic in criminal investigations for years. In 2006, a federal judge presiding over the criminal prosecution of alleged New York mobsters had ruled that the FBI’s use of so-called roving bugsturning a person’s own cell phone into a listening device through remote activationwas legal.
That initial interaction between Snowden and myself was already awkward, but as soon as the camera began rolling, we both became instantly more formal and less friendly; our posture stiffened and our speech slowed down. Over the years, I’ve given many speeches about how surveillance changes human behavior, highlighting studies showing that people who know they are being watched are more confined, more cautious about what they say, less free. Now I saw and felt a vivid illustration of that dynamic.
Snowden still believed in the core goodness of the United States government, so he decided to follow the example of many of his family members and went to work for a federal agency.
“Because of the access technical experts have to computer systems, I saw a lot of secret things,” Snowden told me, “and many of them were quite bad. I began to understand that what my government really does in the world is very different from what I’d always been taught. That recognition in turn leads you to start reevaluating how you look at things, to question things more.”
Snowden recounted how one of the undercover officers befriended the banker, got him drunk one night, and encouraged him to drive home. When the banker was stopped by the police and arrested for DUI, the CIA agent offered to help him personally in a variety of ways, provided that the banker cooperated with the agency. The recruitment effort ultimately failed. “They destroyed the target’s life for something that didn’t even work out, and simply walked away,” he said. Beyond the scheme itself, Snowden was disturbed by how the agent bragged about the methods used to reel in his catch.
Near the end of 2009, Snowden, now disillusioned, decided he was ready to leave the CIA. It was at this stage, at the end of his stint in Geneva, that he first began to contemplate becoming a whistle-blower and leaking secrets that he believed revealed wrongdoing. “Why didn’t you do it then?” I asked. At the time he thought or at least hoped that the election of Barack Obama as president would reform some of the worst abuses he had seen. Obama entered office vowing to change the excessive abuses of national security that had been justified by the War on Terror. Snowden expected that at least some of the roughest edges of the intelligence and military world would be smoothed over. “But then it became clear that Obama was not just continuing, but in many cases expanding these abuses,” he said. “I realized then that I couldn’t wait for a leader to fix these things. Leadership is about acting first and serving as an example for others, not waiting for others to act.” He was also concerned about the damage that would result from disclosing what he had learned at the CIA. “When you leak the CIA’s secrets, you can harm people,” he said, referring to covert agents and informants. “I wasn’t willing to do that. But when you leak the NSA’s secrets, you only harm abusive systems. I was much more comfortable with that.”
“The stuff I saw really began to disturb me,” Snowden said. “I could watch drones in real time as they surveilled the people they might kill. You could watch entire villages and see what everyone was doing. I watched NSA tracking people’s Internet activities as they typed. I became aware of just how invasive US surveillance capabilities had become. I realized the true breadth of this system. And almost nobody knew it was happening.”
The Obama administration had waged what people across the political spectrum were calling an unprecedented war on whistle-blowers. The president, who had campaigned on a vow to have the “most transparent administration in history,” specifically pledging to protect whistleblowers, whom he hailed as “noble” and “courageous,” had done exactly the opposite. Obama’s administration has prosecuted more government leakers under the Espionage Act of 1917a total of seventhan all previous administrations in US history combined: in fact, more than double that total. The Espionage Act was adopted during World War I to enable Woodrow Wilson to criminalize dissent against the war, and its sanctions are severe: they include life in prison and even the death penalty. Without question, the full weight of the law would come crashing down on Snowden. The Obama Justice Department would charge him with crimes that could send him to prison for life and he could expect to be widely denounced as a traitor.
He did not want to go to prison, he said. “I’m going to try not to. But if that’s the outcome from all of this, and I know there’s a huge chance that it will be, I decided a while ago that I can live with whatever they do to me. The only thing I can’t live with is knowing I did nothing.”
Snowden was sure that the NSA and FBI would quickly pinpoint the source of the leaks once our stories started appearing. He had not taken all possible steps to cover his tracks because he did not want his colleagues to be subjected to investigations or false accusations.
Worse, I knew that the Post would dutifully abide by the unwritten protective rules that govern how the establishment media report on official secrets. According to these rules, which allow the government to control disclosures and minimize, even neuter, their impact, editors first go to officials and advise them what they intend to publish. National security officials then tell the editors all the ways in which national security will supposedly be damaged by the disclosures. A protracted negotiation takes place over what will and will not be published. At best, substantial delay results. Often, patently newsworthy information is suppressed. This is most likely what led the Post, when reporting the existence of CIA black sites in 2005, to conceal the identities of those countries in which prisons were based, thus allowing the lawless CIA torture sites to continue.
The Guardian still intended to contact the NSA that morning to advise them of our intentions. She said we would know our publishing schedule only once we heard back from them. “I don’t get why we’re going to wait,” I said, now having lost patience with the Guardian’s delays. “For a story this clean and straightforward, who cares what they think we should and shouldn’t publish?” Aside from my contempt for the processthe government should not be a collaborative editorial partner with newspapers in deciding what gets publishedI knew there was no plausible national security argument against our specific Verizon report, which involved a simple court order showing the systematic collection of Americans’ telephone records. The idea that “terrorists” would benefit from exposing the order was laughable: any terrorists capable of tying their own shoes would already know that the government was trying to monitor their telephone communications. The people who would learn something from our article weren’t the “terrorists” but the American people.
I felt like I was running into exactly the sort of institutional barriers to doing aggressive reporting that I had joined the Guardian to avoid: Legal worries. Consultation with government officials. Institutional hierarchies. Risk aversion. Delay.
When Janine told them she wanted to publish that day, and would do so unless she heard very specific and concrete reasons not to do so, they became more belligerent, even bullying. They told her she was not a “serious journalist” and the Guardian was not a “serious newspaper” because of its refusal to give the government more time to argue in favor of suppressing the story. “No normal journalistic outlet would publish this quickly without first meeting with us,” they said, clearly playing for time. They’re probably right, I remember thinking. That’s the point. The rules in place allow the government to control and neuter the news-gathering process and eliminate the adversarial relationship between press and government. To me, it was vital for them to know from the start that those corrupting rules were not going to apply in this case. These stories would be released by a different set of rules, one that would define an independent rather than subservient press corps.
As I hesitated, David said, “You have no choice. If they’re scared to publish, this isn’t the place for you. You can’t operate by fear or you won’t achieve anything. That’s the lesson Snowden just showed you.”
At 5:40 p.m., Janine sent me an instant message with a link, the one I had been waiting to see for days. “It’s live,” she said. “NSA Collecting Phone Records of Millions of Verizon Customers Daily,” the headline read, followed by a subhead: “Exclusive: Top Secret Court Order Requiring Verizon to Hand Over All Call Data Shows Scale of Domestic Surveillance Under Obama.”
The impact of the article was instant and enormous, beyond anything I had anticipated. It was the lead story on every national news broadcast that night and dominated political and media discussions. I was inundated with interview requests from virtually every national TV outlet: CNN, MSNBC, NBC, the Today show, Good Morning America, and others. I spent many hours in Hong Kong talking to numerous sympathetic television interviewersan unusual experience in my career as a political writer often at odds with the establishment press who all treated the story as a major event and a real scandal. In response, the White House spokesman predictably defended the bulk collection program as “a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats.” The Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein, one of the most steadfast congressional supporters of the national security state generally and US surveillance specifically, invoked standard post-9/11 fearmongering by telling reporters that the program was necessary because “people want the homeland kept safe.”
But almost nobody took those claims seriously. The pro-Obama New York Times editorial page issued a harsh denunciation of the administration. In an editorial entitled “President Obama’s Dragnet,” the paper announced: “Mr. Obama is proving the truism that the executive branch will use any power it is given and very likely abuse it.” Mocking the administration’s rote invocation of “terrorism” to justify the program, the editorial proclaimed: “the administration has now lost all credibility.” (Generating some controversy, the New York Times, without comment, softened that denunciation several hours after it was first published by adding the phrase “on this issue.”)
Soon after the story ran, the Associated Press confirmed from an unnamed senator what we had strongly suspected: that the bulk phone record collection program had been going on for years, and was directed at all major US telecom carriers, not just Verizon.
Given Snowden’s plan to out himself after the first week of stories, we both knew that his freedom was likely to come to an end very shortly. For me, the depressing certainty that he would soon be under attackhunted if not caged as a criminalhovered over everything we did. It didn’t seem to bother him at all, but it made me determined to vindicate his choice, to maximize the value of the revelations he had risked everything to bring to the world.
“Everyone thinks this is a onetime story, a stand-alone scoop,” Snowden observed. “Nobody knows this is just the very tip of the iceberg, that there’s so much more to come.” He turned to me. “What’s next and when?” “PRISM,” I said. “Tomorrow.”
What made the PRISM revelations so important was that the program allowed the NSA to obtain virtually anything it wanted from the Internet companies that hundreds of millions of people around the world now use as their primary means to communicate. This move was made possible by the laws that the US government had implemented in the wake of 9/11, which vested the NSA with sweeping powers to surveil Americans and with virtually unlimited authority to carry out indiscriminate mass surveillance of entire foreign populations.
The climate was always tense when we met in Snowden’s room; it only intensified once we began publishing. We had no idea whether the NSA had identified the source of the leak. If they had, did they know where Snowden was? Did Hong Kong or Chinese agents know? There could be a knock on Snowden’s door at any moment that would put an immediate and unpleasant end to our work together.
Then at 2:00 a.m. Hong Kong time, when the PRISM article was about to run, I heard from Janine. “Something extremely weird has happened,” she said. “The tech companies vehemently deny what’s in the NSA documents. They insist they’ve never heard of PRISM.”
Laura shortly learned from Barton Gellman that the Post had got wind of our intentions after US officials had been contacted by the Guardian about the PRISM program that morning. One of those officials, knowing that the Post was working on a similar story, had passed on the news of our article on PRISM. The Post had then rapidly sped up their schedule to avoid being scooped. Now I loathed the deliberation even more: a US official had exploited this prepublication procedure, supposedly designed to protect national security, to ensure that his favored newspaper would run the story first. Once I had absorbed the information, I noticed the explosion on Twitter about the Post’s PRISM article. But when I went to read it, I saw something missing: the inconsistency between the NSA version and the Internet companies’ statements.
I wanted to be clear: the usual intimidation and demonization were futile. Despite this defiant posture, most of the media, in those first days, were supportive of our work. This surprised me because, especially since 9/11 (though before that as well), the US media in general had been jingoistic and intensely loyal to the government and thus hostile, sometimes viciously so, to anyone who exposed its secrets.
On Thursday, day five in Hong Kong, I went to Snowden’s hotel room and he immediately said he had news that was “a bit alarming.” An Internet-connected security device at the home he shared with his longtime girlfriend in Hawaii had detected that two people from the NSAa human resources person and an NSA “police officer”had come to their house searching for him.
The third article, published that same day, disclosed a top secret presidential directive signed by President Obama in November 2012 ordering the Pentagon and related agencies to prepare for a series of aggressive offensive cyber operations around the world. “Senior national security and intelligence officials,” the first paragraph explained, have been asked “to draw up a list of potential overseas targets for US cyber-attacks, a top secret presidential directive obtained by the Guardian reveals.” The fourth article, which ran as planned on Saturday, was about BOUNDLESS INFORMANT, the NSA’s data-tracking program, and it described the reports showing that the NSA was collecting, analyzing, and storing billions of telephone calls and emails sent across the American telecommunications infrastructure. It also raised the question of whether NSA officials had lied to Congress when they had refused to answer senators about the number of domestic communications intercepted, claiming that they did not keep such records and could not assemble such data.
When we asked him about his ability to sleep so well under the circumstances, Snowden said that he felt profoundly at peace with what he had done and so the nights were easy. “I figure I have very few days left with a comfortable pillow,” he joked, “so I might as well enjoy them.”
His boldness in coming forward to claim what he had done and take responsibility for his actions, his refusal to hide and be hunted, would, I knew, inspire millions. What I wanted more than anything was for the world to see Snowden’s fearlessness. The US government had worked very hard over the past decade to demonstrate unlimited power. It had started wars, tortured and imprisoned people without charges, drone-bombed targets in extrajudicial killings. And the messengers were not immune: whistle-blowers had been abused and prosecuted, journalists had been threatened with jail. Through a carefully cultivated display of intimidation to anyone who contemplated a meaningful challenge, the government had striven to show people around the world that its power was constrained by neither law nor ethics, neither morality nor the Constitution: look what we can do and will do to those who impede our agenda. Snowden had defied the intimidation as directly as possible. Courage is contagious. I knew that he could rouse so many people to do the same.
The article told Snowden’s story, conveyed his motives, and proclaimed that “Snowden will go down in history as one of America’s most consequential whistleblowers, alongside Daniel Ellsberg and Bradley Manning.”
I told him about the lawyers, who were ready to go to his hotel room. Snowden said they should pick him up and bring him to a safe place. It was, he said, “time to enter the part of the plan where I ask the world for protection and justice.”
I was immensely relieved that Snowden was in good hands, but we knew there was a strong chance we might never see or speak to him again, at least not as a free man. Most likely, I thought, we would next see him on television, dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit and wearing shackles, inside a US courtroom, being arraigned on espionage charges.
He was now the world’s most wanted man by the world’s most powerful government. The United States had already demanded that Hong Kong authorities arrest him and turn him over to American custody.
When I finally got to the studio for the interviews for Morning Joe and the Today show, I noticed immediately that the tenor of the questioning had changed significantly. Rather than dealing with me as a reporter, the hosts preferred to attack a new target: Snowden himself, now a shadowy figure in Hong Kong. Many US journalists resumed their accustomed role as servants to the government. The story was no longer that reporters had exposed serious NSA abuses but that an American working for the government had “betrayed” his obligations, committed crimes, and then “fled to China.” My interviews with both hosts, Mika Brzezinski and Savannah Guthrie, were acrimonious and acerbic.
Deciphering the archive and the NSA’s language involved a steep learning curve. The agency communicates with itself and its partners in an idiosyncratic language of its own, a lingo that is bureaucratic and stilted yet at times boastful and even snarky.
The BOUNDLESS INFORMANT program was one of the first such revelations, showing that the NSA counts all the telephone calls and emails collected every day from around the world with mathematical exactitude. Snowden had placed these files so prominently not only because they quantified the volume of calls and emails collected and stored by the NSAliterally billions each daybut also because they proved that NSA chief Keith Alexander and other officials had lied to Congress. Repeatedly, NSA officials had claimed that they were incapable of providing specific numbersexactly the data that BOUNDLESS INFORMANT was constructed to assemble.
This bulk telephone collection program was one of the most significant discoveries in an archive suffused with all types of covert surveillance programsfrom the large-scale PRISM (involving collection of data directly from the servers of the world’s biggest Internet companies) and PROJECT BULLRUN, a joint effort between the NSA and its British counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), to defeat the most common forms of encryption used to safeguard online transactions, to smaller-scale enterprises with names that reflect the contemptuous and boastful spirit of supremacy behind them: EGOTISTICAL GIRAFFE, which targets the Tor browser that is meant to enable anonymity in online browsing; MUSCULAR, a means to invade the private networks of Google and Yahoo!; and OLYMPIA, Canada’s program to surveil the Brazilian Ministry of Mines and Energy.
Some of the surveillance was ostensibly devoted to terrorism suspects. But great quantities of the programs manifestly had nothing to do with national security. The documents left no doubt that the NSA was equally involved in economic espionage, diplomatic spying, and suspicionless surveillance aimed at entire populations. Taken in its entirety, the Snowden archive led to an ultimately simple conclusion: the US government had built a system that has as its goal the complete elimination of electronic privacy worldwide. Far from hyperbole, that is the literal, explicitly stated aim of the surveillance state: to collect, store, monitor, and analyze all electronic communication by all people around the globe. The agency is devoted to one overarching mission: to prevent the slightest piece of electronic communication from evading its systemic grasp.
Alexander’s personal motto, “Collect it all,” perfectly conveys the central purpose of the NSA.
William Binney, a mathematician who worked for the NSA for three decades and resigned in the wake of 9/11 in protest over the agency’s increasing domestic focus, has likewise made numerous statements about the quantities of US data collected. In a 2012 interview with Democracy Now!, Binney said that “they’ve assembled on the order of 20 trillion transactions about U.S. citizens with other U.S. citizens.”
These corporate partnerships, which provide the systems and the access on which the NSA depends, are managed by the NSA’s highly secret Special Sources Operations unit, the division that oversees corporate partnerships. Snowden described the SSO as the “crown jewel” of the organization. BLARNEY, FAIRVIEW, OAKSTAR, and STORMBREW are some of the programs overseen by the SSO within its Corporate Partner Access (CPA) portfolio.
The companies listed on the PRISM slide denied allowing the NSA unlimited access to their servers. Facebook and Google, for instance, claimed that they only give the NSA information for which the agency has a warrant, and tried to depict PRISM as little more than a trivial technical detail: a slightly upgraded delivery system whereby the NSA receives data in a “lockbox” that the companies are legally compelled to provide. But their argument is belied by numerous points. For one, we know that Yahoo! vigorously fought in court against the NSA’s efforts to force it to join PRISMan unlikely effort if the program were simply a trivial change to a delivery system. (Yahoo!’s claims were rejected by the FISA court, and the company was ordered to participate in PRISM.) Second, the Washington Post’s Bart Gellman, after receiving heavy criticism for “overstating” the impact of PRISM, reinvestigated the program and confirmed that he stood by the Post’s central claim: “From their workstations anywhere in the world, government employees cleared for PRISM access may ‘task’ the system”that is, run a search“and receive results from an Internet company without further interaction with the company’s staff.” Third, the Internet companies’ denials were phrased in evasive and legalistic fashion, often obfuscating more than clarifying. For instance, Facebook claimed not to provide “direct access,” while Google denied having created a “back door” for the NSA. But as Chris Soghoian, the ACLU’s tech expert, told Foreign Policy, these were highly technical terms of art denoting very specific means to get at information. The companies ultimately did not deny that they had worked with the NSA to set up a system through which the agency could directly access their customers’ data.
The close collaboration between the NSA and private corporations is perhaps best seen in the documents relating to Microsoft, which reveal the company’s vigorous efforts to give the NSA access to several of its most used online services, including SkyDrive, Skype, and Outlook.com.
The close collaboration between the NSA and private corporations is perhaps best seen in the documents relating to Microsoft, which reveal the company’s vigorous efforts to give the NSA access to several of its most used online services, including SkyDrive, Skype, and Outlook.com. SkyDrive, which allows people to store their files online and access them from various devices, has more than 250 million users worldwide. “We believe it’s important that you have control over who can and cannot access your personal data in the cloud,” Microsoft’s SkyDrive website proclaims. Yet as an NSA document details, Microsoft spent “many months” working to provide the government with easier access to that data.
In late 2011, Microsoft purchased Skype, the Internet-based telephone and chat service with over 663 million registered users. At the time of its purchase, Microsoft assured users that “Skype is committed to respecting your privacy and the confidentiality of your personal data, traffic, and communications content.” But in fact, this data, too, was readily available to the government. By early 2013, there were multiple messages on the NSA system celebrating the agency’s steadily improving access to the communications of Skype users.
In 2012, Microsoft began upgrading its email portal, Outlook.com, to merge all of its communications servicesincluding the widely used Hotmailinto one central program. The company touted the new Outlook by promising high levels of encryption to protect privacy, and the NSA quickly grew concerned that the encryption Microsoft offered to Outlook customers would block the agency from spying on their communications. One SSO memo from August 22, 2012, frets that “using this portal means that email emerging from it will be encrypted with the default setting” and that “chat sessions conducted within the portal are also encrypted when both communicants are using a Microsoft encrypted chat client.” But that worry was short-lived. Within a few months, the two entities got together and devised methods for the NSA to circumvent the very encryption protections Microsoft was publicly advertising as vital for protecting privacy.
Finding this mention of FBI surveillance in Snowden’s archive of internal NSA documents was not an isolated occurrence. The entire intelligence community is able to access the information that the NSA collects: it routinely shares its vast trove of data with other agencies, including the FBI and the CIA. One principal purpose of the NSA’s great spree of data collection was precisely to boost the spread of information across the board.
Indeed, almost every document pertaining to the various collection programs mentions the inclusion of other intelligence units. This 2012 entry from the NSA’s SSO unit, on sharing PRISM data, gleefully declares that “PRISM is a team sport!”
In addition to such sweeping surveillance, though, the NSA also carries out what it calls Computer Network Exploitation (CNE), placing malware in individual computers to surveil their users. When the agency succeeds in inserting such malware, it is able, in NSA terminology, to “own” the computer: to view every keystroke entered and every screen viewed.
Canada is also a very active partner with the NSA and an energetic surveillance force in its own right.
When the NSA revelations first came out, the US government tried to defend its actions by saying that, unlike foreign nationals, American citizens are protected from warrantless NSA surveillance. On June 18, 2013, President Obama told Charlie Rose: “What I can say unequivocally is that if you are a U.S. person, the NSA cannot listen to your telephone calls … by law and by rule, and unless they … go to a court, and obtain a warrant, and seek probable cause, the same way it’s always been.” The GOP chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, similarly told CNN that the NSA “is not listening to Americans’ phone calls. If it did, it is illegal. It is breaking the law.” This was a rather odd line of defense: in effect, it told the rest of the world that the NSA does assault the privacy of non-Americans. Privacy protections, apparently, are only for American citizens. This message prompted such international outrage that even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, not exactly known for his vehement defense of privacy, complained that the US government “blew it” in its response to the NSA scandal by jeopardizing the interests of international Internet companies: “The government said don’t worry, we’re not spying on any Americans. Wonderful, that’s really helpful for companies trying to work with people around the world. Thanks for going out there and being clear. I think that was really bad.” Aside from being a strange strategy, the claim is also patently false. In fact, contrary to the repeated denials of President Obama and his top officials, the NSA continuously intercepts the communications of American citizens, without any individual “probable cause” warrants to justify such surveillance.
Further discrediting Obama’s assurances is the subservient posture of the FISA court, which grants almost every surveillance request that the NSA submits. Defenders of the NSA frequently tout the FISA court process as evidence that the agency is under effective oversight. However, the court was set up not as a genuine check on the government’s power but as a cosmetic measure, providing just the appearance of reform to placate public anger over surveillance abuses revealed in the 1970s.
As the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza put it in a December 2013 article, instead of providing oversight, the Senate committee more often “treats senior intelligence officials like matinée idols.” Observers of the committee’s hearings on NSA activities were shocked by how the senators approached the questioning of NSA officials who appeared before them. The “questions” typically contained nothing more than long monologues by the senators about their recollections of the 9/11 attack and how vital it was to prevent attacks in the future. The committee members waved away the opportunity to interrogate those officials and perform their oversight responsibilities, instead propagandizing in defense of the NSA. The scene perfectly captured the true function of the intelligence committees over the last decade.
The “fake reform” faction was led by Dianne Feinstein, the very senator who is charged with exercising primary oversight over the NSA. Feinstein has long been a devoted loyalist of the US national security industry, from her vehement support for the war on Iraq to her steadfast backing of Bush-era NSA programs. (Her husband, meanwhile, has major stakes in various military contracts.) Clearly, Feinstein was a natural choice to head a committee that claims to carry out oversight over the intelligence community but has for years performed the opposite function. Thus, for all the government’s denials, the NSA has no substantial constraints on whom it can spy on and how. Even when such constraints nominally existwhen American citizens are the surveillance targetthe process has become largely hollow. The NSA is the definitive rogue agency: empowered to do whatever it wants with very little control, transparency, or accountability.
For years, President Obama and his top officials vehemently denounced China for using its surveillance capabilities for economic advantage while insisting that the United States and its allies never do any such thing. The Washington Post quoted an NSA spokesperson saying that the Department of Defense, of which the agency is a part, “‘does engage’ in computer network exploitation,” but “does ***not*** engage in economic espionage in any domain, including ‘cyber’” [emphatic asterisks in the original]. That the NSA spies for precisely the economic motive it has denied is proven by its own documents. The agency acts for the benefit of what it calls its “customers,” a list that includes not only the White House, the State Department, and the CIA, but also primarily economic agencies, such as the US Trade Representative and the Departments of Agriculture, Treasury, and Commerce.
More remarkable is the fact that in country after country, revelations that the NSA was spying on hundreds of millions of their citizens produced little more than muted objections from their political leadership. True indignation came gushing forward only once those leaders understood that they, and not just their citizens, had been targeted as well.
Some of the NSA’s methods serve all agendaseconomic, diplomatic, security, and obtaining an all-purpose global advantageand these are among the most invasive, and hypocritical, in the agency’s repertoire. For years, the US government loudly warned the world that Chinese routers and other Internet devices pose a “threat” because they are built with backdoor surveillance functionality that gives the Chinese government the ability to spy on anyone using them. Yet what the NSA’s documents show is that Americans have been engaged in precisely the activity that the United States accused the Chinese of doing.
A June 2010 report from the head of the NSA’s Access and Target Development department is shockingly explicit. The NSA routinely receivesor interceptsrouters, servers, and other computer network devices being exported from the United States before they are delivered to the international customers. The agency then implants backdoor surveillance tools, repackages the devices with a factory seal, and sends them on. The NSA thus gains access to entire networks and all their users. The document gleefully observes that some “SIGINT tradecraft … is very hands-on (literally!)”
If the quantity of collection revealed was already stupefying, the NSA’s mission to collect all the signals all the time has driven the agency to expand and conquer more and more ground. The amount of data it captures is so vast, in fact, that the principal challenge the agency complains about is storing the heaps of information accumulated from around the globe.
To address its storage problem, the NSA began building a massive new facility in Bluffdale, Utah, that has as one of its primary purposes the retention of all that data. As reporter James Bamford noted in 2012, the Bluffdale construction will expand the agency’s capacity by adding “four 25,000-square-foot halls filled with servers, complete with raised floor space for cables and storage. In addition, there will be more than 900,000 square feet for technical support and administration.” Considering the size of the building and the fact that, as Bamford says, “a terabyte of data can now be stored on a flash drive the size of a man’s pinky,” the implications for data collection are profound.
The need for ever-larger facilities is particularly pressing given the agency’s current invasions into global online activity, which extend far beyond the collection of metadata to include the actual content of emails, Web browsing, search histories, and chats. The key program used by the NSA to collect, curate, and search such data, introduced in 2007, is X-KEYSCORE, and it affords a radical leap in the scope of the agency’s surveillance powers. The NSA calls X-KEYSCORE its “widest-reaching” system for collecting electronic data, and with good reason. A training document prepared for analysts claims the program captures “nearly everything a typical user does on the internet,” including the text of emails, Google searches, and the names of websites visited. X-KEYSCORE even allows “real-time” monitoring of a person’s online activities, enabling the NSA to observe emails and browsing activities as they happen.
In the first video interview he gave when in Hong Kong, Edward Snowden made an audacious claim: “I, sitting at my desk, could wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email.” US officials vehemently denied that this was true. Mike Rogers expressly accused Snowden of “lying,” adding, “It’s impossible for him to do what he was saying he could do.” But X-KEYSCORE permits an analyst to do exactly what Snowden said: target any user for comprehensive monitoring, which includes reading the content of their emails. Indeed, the program lets an analyst search for all emails that include targeted users in the “cc” line or mention of them in the body of the text. The NSA’s own instructions for searching through emails demonstrate just how simple and easy it is for analysts to monitor anyone whose address they know.
One of X-KEYSCORE’s most valuable functions to the NSA is its ability to surveil the activities on online social networks (OSNs), such as Facebook and Twitter, which the agency believes provide a wealth of information and “insight into the personal lives of targets.”
The methods for searching social media activity are every bit as simple as the email search. An analyst enters the desired user name on, say, Facebook, along with the date range of activity, and X-KEYSCORE then returns all of that user’s information, including messages, chats, and other private postings.
Both the NSA and GCHQ have been consumed by their perceived need to monitor Internet and phone communications of people on commercial airline flights. Because these are rerouted via independent satellite systems, they are extremely difficult to pinpoint. The idea that there is a moment when someone can use the Internet or their phone without detectioneven for just a few hours while flyingis intolerable to the surveillance agencies. In response, they have devoted substantial resources to developing systems that will intercept in-flight communications.
The Internet has long been heralded as an unprecedented instrument of democratization and liberalization, even emancipation. But in the eyes of the US government, this global network and other types of communications technology threaten to undermine American power. Viewed from this perspective, the NSA’s ambition to “collect it all” at last becomes coherent. It is vital that the NSA monitor all parts of the Internet and any other means of communication, so that none can escape US government control.
Governments around the world have made vigorous attempts to train citizens to disdain their own privacy. A litany of now-familiar platitudes has convinced people to tolerate severe encroachments into their private realm; so successful are these justifications that many people applaud as the authorities collect vast amounts of data about what they say, read, buy, and doand with whom. Those state authorities have been assisted in their assault on privacy by a chorus of Internet mogulsthe government’s seemingly indispensable partners in surveillance. When Google CEO Eric Schmidt was asked in a 2009 CNBC interview about concerns over his company’s retention of user data, he infamously replied: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” With equal dismissiveness, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a 2010 interview that “people have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people.” Privacy in the digital age is no longer a “social norm,” he claimed, a notion that handily serves the interests of a tech company trading on personal information.
Similarly, those Internet tycoons who are apparently so willing to devalue our privacy are vehemently protective of their own. Google insisted on a policy of not talking to reporters from CNET, the technology news site, after CNET published Eric Schmidt’s personal detailsincluding his salary, campaign donations, and address, all public information obtained via Googlein order to highlight the invasive dangers of his company. Meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg purchased the four homes adjacent to his own in Palo Alto, at a cost of $30 million, to ensure his privacy. As CNET put it, “Your personal life is now known as Facebook’s data. Its CEO’s personal life is now known as mind your own business.”
Several years ago, I attended the bat mitzvah of my best friend’s daughter. During the ceremony, the rabbi emphasized that “the central lesson” for the girl to learn was that she was “always being watched and judged.” He told her that God always knew what she was doing, every choice, every action, and even every thought, no matter how private. “You are never alone,” he said, which meant that she should always adhere to God’s will. The rabbi’s point was clear: if you can never evade the watchful eyes of a supreme authority, there is no choice but to follow the dictates that authority imposes. You cannot even consider forging your own path beyond those rules: if you believe you are always being watched and judged, you are not really a free individual. All oppressive authoritiespolitical, religious, societal, parentalrely on this vital truth, using it as a principal tool to enforce orthodoxies, compel adherence, and quash dissent. It is in their interest to convey that nothing their subjects do will escape the knowledge of the authorities. Far more effectively than a police force, the deprivation of privacy will crush any temptation to deviate from rules and norms.
Invoking George Orwell’s 1984 is something of a cliché, but the echoes of the world about which he warned in the NSA’s surveillance state are unmistakable: both rely on the existence of a technological system with the capacity to monitor every citizen’s actions and words. The similarity is denied by the surveillance championswe’re not always being watched, they saybut that argument misses the point. In 1984, citizens were not necessarily monitored at all times; in fact, they had no idea whether they were ever actually being monitored. But the state had the capability to watch them at any time. It was the uncertainty and possibility of ubiquitous surveillance that served to keep everyone in line: The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it; moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to livedid live, from habit that became instinctin the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized. Even the NSA, with its capacity, could not read every email, listen to every telephone call, and track the actions of each individual. What makes a surveillance system effective in controlling human behavior is the knowledge that one’s words and actions are susceptible to monitoring. This principle was at the heart of British philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s eighteenth-century conception of the Panopticon, a building design he believed would allow institutions to effectively control human behavior. The building’s structure was to be used, in his words, for “any sort of establishment, in which persons of any description are to be kept under inspection.” The Panopticon’s primary architectural innovation was a large central tower from which every roomor cell, or classroom, or wardcould be monitored at any time by guards. The inhabitants, however, were not able to see into the tower and so could never know whether they were or were not being watched. Since the institutionany institutionwas not capable of observing all of the people all of the time, Bentham’s solution was to create “the apparent omnipresence of the inspector” in the minds of the inhabitants. “The persons to be inspected should always feel themselves as if under inspection, at least as standing a great chance of being so.” They would thus act as if they were always being watched, even if they weren’t. The result would be compliance, obedience, and conformity with expectations. Bentham envisioned that his creation would spread far beyond prisons and mental hospitals to all societal institutions. Inculcating in the minds of citizens that they might always be monitored would, he understood, revolutionize human behavior.
Additionally, this model of control has the great advantage of simultaneously creating the illusion of freedom. The compulsion to obedience exists in the individual’s mind. Individuals choose on their own to comply, out of fear that they are being watched. That eliminates the need for all the visible hallmarks of compulsion, and thus enables control over people who falsely believe themselves to be free. For this reason, every oppressive state views mass surveillance as one of its most critical instruments of control. When the normally restrained German chancellor Angela Merkel learned that the NSA had spent years eavesdropping on her personal cell phone, she spoke to President Obama and angrily likened US surveillance to the Stasi, the notorious security service of East Germany, where she grew up. Merkel did not mean that the United States was the equivalent of the Communist regime; rather that the essence of a menacing surveillance state, be it the NSA or the Stasi or Big Brother or the Panopticon, is the knowledge that one can be watched at any time by unseen authorities.
And when President Obama appeared on The Tonight Show in August 2013 and was asked by Jay Leno about NSA revelations, he said: “We don’t have a domestic spying program. What we do have is some mechanisms that can track a phone number or an email address that is connected to a terrorist attack.” For many, the argument works. The perception that invasive surveillance is confined only to a marginalized and deserving group of those “doing wrong”the bad peopleensures that the majority acquiesces to the abuse of power or even cheers it on. But that view radically misunderstands what goals drive all institutions of authority. “Doing something wrong,” in the eyes of such institutions, encompasses far more than illegal acts, violent behavior, and terrorist plots. It typically extends to meaningful dissent and any genuine challenge. It is the nature of authority to equate dissent with wrongdoing, or at least with a threat. The record is suffused with examples of groups and individuals being placed under government surveillance by virtue of their dissenting views and activismMartin Luther King, the civil rights movement, antiwar activists, environmentalists. In the eyes of the government and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, they were all “doing something wrong”: political activity that threatened the prevailing order.
The evidence shows that assurances that surveillance is only targeted at those who “have done something wrong” should provide little comfort, since a state will reflexively view any challenge to its power as wrongdoing.
Indeed, after British authorities detained my partner, David Miranda, at Heathrow airport under an antiterrorism statute, the UK government expressly equated my surveillance reporting with terrorism on the ground that the release of the Snowden documents “is designed to influence a government and is made for the purposes of promoting a political or ideological cause. This therefore falls within the definition of terrorism.” This is the clearest possible statement of linking a threat to the interests of power to terrorism.
A separate document contains a summary of a July 2011 exchange regarding whether WikiLeaks, as well as the file-sharing website Pirate Bay, could be designated as “a ‘malicious foreign actor’ for the purposes of targeting.” The designation would allow extensive electronic surveillance of those websites, including US users.
Targeting Anonymous and hacktivists amounts to targeting citizens for expressing their political beliefs, resulting in the stifling of legitimate dissent,” Coleman explained. Yet Anonymous has been targeted by a unit of the GCHQ that employs some of the most controversial and radical tactics known to spycraft: “false flag operations,” “honey-traps,” viruses and other attacks, strategies of deception, and “info ops to damage reputations.” One PowerPoint slide presented by GCHQ surveillance officials at the 2012 SigDev conference describes two forms of attack: “information ops (influence or disruption)” and “technical disruption.” GCHQ refers to these measures as “Online Covert Action,” which is intended to achieve what the document calls “The 4 D’s: Deny/Disrupt/Degrade/Deceive.”
Another slide describes the tactics used to “discredit a target.” These include “set up a honey-trap,” “change their photos on social networking sites,” “write a blog purporting to be one of their victims,” and “email/text their colleagues, neighbors, friends, etc.”
All of the evidence highlights the implicit bargain that is offered to citizens: pose no challenge and you have nothing to worry about. Mind your own business, and support or at least tolerate what we do, and you’ll be fine. Put differently, you must refrain from provoking the authority that wields surveillance powers if you wish to be deemed free of wrongdoing. This is a deal that invites passivity, obedience, and conformity. The safest course, the way to ensure being “left alone,” is to remain quiet, unthreatening, and compliant.
Interviewing me soon after the NSA story broke, MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell mocked the notion of the NSA as “a big, scary surveillance monster.” Summing up his view, he concluded: My feeling so far is … I’m not scared … the fact that the government is collecting [data] at such a gigantic, massive level means that it’s even harder for the government to find me … and they have absolutely no incentive to find me. And so I, at this stage, feel completely unthreatened by this. The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg also asserted similarly dismissive views of the dangers of surveillance. Conceding that there “are reasons to be concerned about intelligence-agency overreach, excessive secrecy, and lack of transparency,” he wrote that “there are also reasons to remain calm,” in particular, that the threat posed “to civil liberties, such as it is, is abstract, conjectural, unspecified.” And the Washington Post’s columnist Ruth Marcus, belittling concern over NSA powers, announcedabsurdly“my metadata almost certainly hasn’t been scrutinized.” In one important sense, O’Donnell, Hertzberg, and Marcus are right. It is the case that the US government “has absolutely no incentive” to target people like them, for whom the threat from a surveillance state is little more than “abstract, conjectural, unspecified.” That’s because journalists who devote their careers to venerating the country’s most powerful officialthe president, who is the NSA’s commander-in-chiefand defending his political party rarely, if ever, risk alienating those in power. Of course, dutiful, loyal supporters of the president and his policies, good citizens who do nothing to attract negative attention from the powerful, have no reason to fear the surveillance state. This is the case in every society: those who pose no challenge are rarely targeted by oppressive measures, and from their perspective, they can then convince themselves that oppression does not really exist. But the true measure of a society’s freedom is how it treats its dissidents and other marginalized groups, not how it treats good loyalists. Even in the world’s worst tyrannies, dutiful supporters are immunized from abuses of state power.
At the time of the 2005 NSA warrantless eavesdropping controversy, liberals and Democrats overwhelmingly viewed the agency’s surveillance program as menacing. Part of this, of course, was typical partisan hackery: George W. Bush was president and Democrats saw an opportunity to inflict political harm on him and his party. But a significant part of their fear was genuine: because they considered Bush malicious and dangerous, they perceived that state surveillance under his control was therefore threatening and that they in particular were endangered as political opponents. Accordingly, Republicans had a more benign or supportive view of the NSA’s actions. In December 2013, by contrast, Democrats and progressives had converted to the leading NSA defenders.
Republicans, who had been defenders of the NSA under Bush, had been supplanted by Democrats once the surveillance system had come under the control of President Obama, one of their own.
The arguments for and against surveillance brazenly rotate, based on which party in power.
The arguments for and against surveillance brazenly rotate, based on which party in power. The NSA’s collection of bulk metadata was vehemently denounced by one senator on The Early Show in 2006 in this way: I don’t have to listen to your phone calls to know what you’re doing. If I know every single phone call that you made, I am able to determine every single person you talked to. I can get a pattern about your life that is very, very intrusive.… And the real question here is: What do they do with this information that they collect that does not have anything to do with Al Qaeda?… And we’re going to trust the president and the vice president of the United States that they’re doing the right thing? Don’t count me in on that. The senator so harshly attacking metadata collection was Joe Biden, who subsequently, as vice president, became part of a Democratic administration that advanced precisely the same arguments he once derided. The relevant point here is not merely that many partisan loyalists are unprincipled hypocrites with no real convictions other than a quest for power, although that is certainly true. More important is what such statements reveal about the nature of how one regards state surveillance. As with so many injustices, people are willing to dismiss fear of government overreach when they believe that those who happen to be in control are benevolent and trustworthy. They consider surveillance dangerous or worth caring about only when they perceive that they themselves are threatened by it.
Moreover, the argument that mass surveillance has prevented terror plotsa claim made by President Obama and a range of national security figureshas been proved false. As the Washington Post noted in December 2013, in an article headlined “Officials’ Defenses of NSA Phone Program May Be Unraveling,” a federal judge declared the phone metadata collection program “almost certainly” unconstitutional, in the process saying that the Justice Department failed to “cite a single case in which analysis of the NSA’s bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent terrorist attack.”
Major international attacks from London to Mumbai to Madrid proceeded without detection, despite involving at least dozens of operatives. And despite exploitative claims from the NSA, bulk surveillance would not have given the intelligence services better tools to prevent the attack on 9/11. Keith Alexander, speaking to a House intelligence committee, said, “I would much rather be here today debating” the program “than trying to explain how we failed to prevent another 9/11.” (The same argument, verbatim, appeared in talking points the NSA gave its employees to use to fend off questions.) The implication is rank fearmongering and deceitful in the extreme.
A population, a country that venerates physical safety above all other values will ultimately give up its liberty and sanction any power seized by authority in exchange for the promise, no matter how illusory, of total security. However, absolute safety is itself chimeric, pursued but never obtained. The pursuit degrades those who engage in it as well as any nation that comes to be defined by it.
The danger posed by the state operating a massive secret surveillance system is far more ominous now than at any point in history. While the government, via surveillance, knows more and more about what its citizens are doing, its citizens know less and less about what their government is doing, shielded as it is by a wall of secrecy.
In the application for the warrant, government lawyers branded Rosen a “co-conspirator” in the source’s felonies by virtue of the fact that he had obtained classified material. The affidavit was shocking because, as the New York Times put it, “no American journalist has ever been prosecuted for gathering and publishing classified information, so the language raised the prospect that the Obama administration was taking its leak crackdown to a new level.”
US journalists, for years overwhelmingly enamored of Barack Obama, were now commonly speaking of him in these terms: as some sort of grave menace to press freedoms, the most repressive leader in this regard since Richard Nixon. That was quite a remarkable turn for a politician who was ushered into power vowing “the most transparent administration in US history.”
US journalists, for years overwhelmingly enamored of Barack Obama, were now commonly speaking of him in these terms: as some sort of grave menace to press freedoms, the most repressive leader in this regard since Richard Nixon. That was quite a remarkable turn for a politician who was ushered into power vowing “the most transparent administration in US history.” To tamp down the growing scandal, Obama ordered Attorney General Eric Holder to meet with representatives of the media and review the rules governing the DOJ’s treatment of journalists. Obama claimed to be “troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable”as though he hadn’t presided over five years of precisely those sorts of assaults on the news-gathering process.
Against that background, the effort by some media figures to cast me out of “journalism”to insist that what I was doing was “activism,” not reporting, and therefore criminalwas potentially dangerous. The first explicit call to prosecute me came from New York Republican congressman Peter King, who had served as chairman of the House Subcommittee on Terrorism and had convened McCarthyite hearings on the terror threat posed “from within” by the American Muslim community (ironically, King was a longtime supporter of the IRA). King confirmed to CNN’s Anderson Cooper that reporters working on the NSA stories should be prosecuted “if they willingly knew that this was classified information … especially on something of this magnitude.” He added, “There is an obligation both moral but also legal, I believe, against a reporter disclosing something that would so severely compromise national security.” King later clarified on Fox News that he was speaking specifically of me: I’m talking about Greenwald … not only did he disclose this information, he has said that he has names of CIA agents and assets around the world, and they’re threatening to disclose that. The last time that was done in this country, we saw a CIA station chief murdered in Greece.… I think [prosecution of journalists] should be very targeted, very selective and certainly a very rare exception. But, in this case, when you have someone who discloses secrets like this and threatens to release more, yes, there has to belegal action taken against him. That I had threatened to release the names of CIA agents and assets was a complete fabrication. Nonetheless, his remarks opened the floodgates and commentators piled on. The Washington Post’s Marc Thiessen, a former Bush speechwriter who wrote a book justifying the US torture program, defended King under the headline, “Yes, Publishing NSA Secrets Is a Crime.” Accusing me of “violating 18 USC 798, which makes it a criminal act to publish classified information revealing government cryptography or communications intelligence,” he added, “Greenwald clearly violated this law (as did the Post, for that matter, when it published classified details of the NSA’s PRISM program).” Alan Dershowitz went on CNN and pronounced: “Greenwaldin my viewclearly has committed a felony.” A known defender of civil liberties and press freedoms, Dershowitz nonetheless said that my reporting “doesn’t border on criminalityit’s right in the heartland of criminality.” The growing chorus was joined by General Michael Hayden, who led both the NSA and then the CIA under George Bush, and implemented the agency’s illegal warrantless eavesdropping program. “Edward Snowden,” he wrote on CNN.com, “will likely prove to be the most costly leaker of American secrets in the history of the Republic,” and then added that “Glenn Greenwald” is “far more deserving of the Justice Department’s characterization of a co-conspirator than Fox’s James Rosen ever was.” At first largely confined to right-wing figures who could be expected to view journalism as a crime, the chorus of voices raising the question of prosecution grew during a now-infamous appearance on Meet the Press.
Indeed, a video of the show’s host, David Gregory, onstage at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, dancing awkwardly but enthusiastically behind a rapping Karl Rove, went viral because it so vividly symbolized what the show is: a place where political power goes to be amplified and flattered, where only the most staid conventional wisdom is heard, where only the narrowest range of views is permitted.
I had harshly criticized Gregory over the years and anticipated an adversarial interview. But I did not expect this question from him: “To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current movements, why shouldn’t you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?” There were so many things wrong with the question that it took a minute to process that he had actually asked it.
The Washington Post’s Walter Pincuswho spied on US students abroad on behalf of the CIA in the 1960swrote a column strongly suggesting that Laura, Snowden, and I were all operating as part of a plot secretly masterminded by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The column was filled with so many factual errors (ones I documented in an open letter to Pincus) that the Post was forced to append an unusually large, three-paragraph, two-hundred-word correction acknowledging multiple mistakes.
That a reporter for the Times, which had fought all the way to the US Supreme Court in order to publish the Pentagon Papers, would advocate my arrest was a potent sign of the devotion of many establishment journalists to the US government: after all, criminalizing investigative journalism would have a grave impact on that paper and its employees. Sorkin did later apologize to me, but his remarks demonstrated the speed and ease with which such assertions gain traction.
Lawyers and other advisers agreed that there was a real risk of arrest should I return to the United States. I tried to find one person whose judgment I trusted to tell me that the risk was nonexistent, that it was inconceivable that the DOJ would prosecute me. No one said that.
Moreover, my commentary about the NSA and the US government had deliberately been aggressive and defiant. The government was no doubt desperate to punish someone for what had been called the most damaging leak in the country’s history, if not to alleviate institutional rage, then at least as a deterrent to others. Since the head most wanted on a pike was safely residing under the shield of political asylum in Moscow, Laura and I were a desirable second choice.
I believed that the probability of arrest upon my return to the United States was less than 50 percent, if only for reasons of image and worldwide controversy. The potential stain on Obama’s legacy, as the first president to prosecute a journalist for doing journalism, was, I assumed, sufficient constraint. But if the recent past proved anything, it was that the US government was willing to do all sorts of reprehensible things under the guise of national security, without regard to how the rest of the world perceived them. The consequences of guessing wrongending up in handcuffs and charged under espionage laws, to be adjudicated by a federal judiciary that had proved itself shamelessly deferential to Washington in such matterswere too significant to blithely dismiss.
That lawyers and a congressman considered the risk real was itself extraordinary, a powerful measure of the erosion of press freedom. And that journalists had joined the call to treat my reporting as a felony was a remarkable triumph of propaganda for the powers of government, which could rely on trained professionals to do their work for them and equate adversarial investigative journalism with a crime.
The attacks on Snowden were of course far more virulent. They were also bizarrely identical in theme. Leading commentators who knew nothing at all about Snowden instantly adopted the same script of clichés to demean him. Within hours of learning his name, they marched in lockstep to malign his character and motives. He was driven, they intoned, not by any actual conviction but by “fame-seeking narcissism.” CBS News host Bob Schieffer denounced Snowden as a “narcissistic young man” who thinks “he is smarter than the rest of us.” The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin diagnosed him as “a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison.” The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen pronounced that Snowden “is not paranoiac; he is merely narcissistic,” referring to the report that Snowden covered himself with a blanket to prevent his passwords being captured by overhead cameras. Cohen added, bizarrely, that Snowden “will go down as a cross-dressing Little Red Riding Hood” and that his supposed desire for fame will be thwarted.” These characterizations were patently ridiculous. Snowden was determined to disappear from sight, as he said, to do no interviews. He understood that the media love to personalize every story, and he wanted to keep the focus on NSA surveillance, not on him. True to his word, Snowden refused all media invitations.
Democratic congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who also serves as chair of the Democratic National Committee, condemned Snowden, who had just ruined his life to make the NSA disclosures, as “a coward.”
Via Janine Gibson, Times executive editor Jill Abramsonat a meeting to convince the Guardian to collaborate on certain NSA storiessent a message: “Please tell Glenn Greenwald personally that I agree with him completely about the fact that we should never have run that claim about China ‘draining’ Snowden’s laptops. It was irresponsible.” Gibson seemed to expect that I would be pleased, though I was anything but: How could an executive editor of a newspaper conclude that an obviously damaging article was irresponsible and should not have been published, and then not retract it or at least run an editor’s note?
Obama officials have repeatedly gone to the New York Times to dish out classified information about topics like drone killings and Osama bin Laden’s assassination. Former secretary of defense Leon Panetta and CIA officials fed secret information to the director of Zero Dark Thirty, hoping the film would trumpet Obama’s greatest political triumph. (At the same time Justice Department lawyers told federal courts that, to protect national security, they could not release information about the bin Laden raid.)
The point here is not the specifics of the FISA court opinion (although when it was released, eight weeks later, it became clear that the ruling did indeed conclude that the NSA had acted illegally). More important is that Gregory claimed that he knew about the ruling because his sources had told him about it, and he then broadcast the information to the world. Thus moments before Gregory raised the specter of arrest for my reporting, he himself leaked what he thought was top secret information from government sources. But nobody would ever suggest that Gregory’s work should be criminalized. Applying the same rationale to the host of Meet the Press and his source would be considered ludicrous. Indeed, Gregory would likely be incapable of understanding that his disclosure and mine were even comparable, since his came at the behest of a government seeking to defend and justify its actions, while mine was done adversarially, against the wishes of officialdom.
The double standard applied to publishing classified information is even more pronounced when it comes to the unwritten requirement of “journalistic objectivity.” It was the supposed violation of this rule that made me an “activist” rather than a “journalist.” As we are told endlessly, journalists do not express opinions; they simply report the facts. This is an obvious pretense, a conceit of the profession. The perceptions and pronouncements of human beings are inherently subjective. Every news article is the product of all sorts of highly subjective cultural, nationalistic, and political assumptions. And all journalism serves one faction’s interest or another’s. The relevant distinction is not between journalists who have opinions and those who have none, a category that does not exist. It is between journalists who candidly reveal their opinions and those who conceal them, pretending they have none.
“Objectivity” means nothing more than reflecting the biases and serving the interests of entrenched Washington. Opinions are problematic only when they deviate from the acceptable range of Washington orthodoxy.
The hostility toward the reporter breaking the storymyselfis perhaps more complex. Part competitiveness and part payback for the years of professional criticism I had directed at US media stars, there was, I believe, also anger and even shame over the truth that adversarial journalism had exposed: reporting that angers the government reveals the real role of so many mainstream journalists, which is to amplify power. But far and away, the most significant reason for the hostility was that establishment media figures have accepted the rule of dutiful spokespeople for political officials, especially where national security is concerned. It follows, then, that like the officials themselves, they are contemptuous of those who challenge or undermine Washington’s centers of power.
The iconic reporter of the past was the definitive outsider. Many who entered the profession were inclined to oppose rather than serve power, not just by ideology but by personality and disposition. Choosing a career in journalism virtually ensured outsider status: reporters made little money, had little institutional prestige, and were typically obscure. That has now changed. With the acquisition of media companies by the world’s largest corporations, most media stars are highly paid employees of conglomerates, no different than other such employees. Instead of selling banking services or financial instruments, they peddle media products to the public on behalf of that corporation. Their career path is determined by the same metrics that amount to success in such an environment: the extent to which they please their corporate bosses and advance the company’s interests. Those who thrive within the structure of large corporations tend to be adept at pleasing rather than subverting institutional power. It follows that those who succeed in corporate journalism are suited to accommodate power. They identify with institutional authority and are skilled at serving, not combating it.
This identification of the establishment media with the government is cemented by various factors, one of them being socioeconomic. Many of the influential journalists in the United States are now multimillionaires. They live in the same neighborhoods as the political figures and financial elites over which they ostensibly serve as watchdogs. They attend the same functions, they have the same circles of friends and associates, their children go to the same elite private schools. This is one reason why journalists and government officials can switch jobs so seamlessly. The revolving door moves the media figures into high-level Washington jobs, just as government officials often leave office to the reward of a lucrative media contract. Time magazine’s Jay Carney and Richard Stengel are now in government while Obama aides David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs are commentators on MSNBC. These are lateral transfers far more than career changes: the switch is so streamlined precisely because the personnel still serve the same interests. US establishment journalism is anything but an outsider force. It is wholly integrated into the nation’s dominant political power. Culturally, emotionally, and socioeconomically, they are one and the same. Rich, famous, insider journalists do not want to subvert the status quo that so lavishly rewards them. Like all courtiers, they are eager to defend the system that vests them with their privileges and contemptuous of anyone who challenges that system. It is but a short step to full identification with the needs of political officials. Hence, transparency is bad; adversarial journalism is malignant, possibly even criminal. Political leaders must be permitted to exercise power in the dark.
Once reporters are branded as activists, once their work is tainted by the accusation of criminal activity and they are cast out of the circle of protections for journalists, they are vulnerable to criminal treatment. This was made clear to me very quickly after the NSA story broke. Within minutes of my return home to Rio after my stay in Hong Kong, David told me that his laptop had vanished. Suspecting that its disappearance was connected to a conversation we had while I was away, he reminded me that I had called him on Skype to talk about a large encrypted file of documents I intended to send electronically. Once it arrived, I’d said, he should put the file somewhere safe. Snowden had considered it vital that someone I trusted without question should have a complete set of the documents, in case my own archive was lost, damaged, or stolen. “I may not be available for much longer,” he said. “And you never know how your working relationship with Laura will proceed. Someone should have a set so that you’ll always have access, no matter what happens.” The obvious choice was David. But I never did send the file. It was one of the things I lacked the time to do while in Hong Kong. “Less than forty-eight hours after you told me that,” David said, “my laptop was stolen from the house.” I resisted the idea that the theft of the laptop was connected to our Skype conversation. I told David I was determined that we not become those paranoid people who attribute every unexplained event in their lives to the CIA. Maybe the laptop was lost or someone visiting the house had taken it, or maybe it had been stolen in an unconnected robbery. David shot down my theories one by one: he never took that laptop out of the house; he had turned the place upside down and it was nowhere to be found; nothing else had been taken or disturbed. I was being irrational, he felt, by refusing to entertain what seemed like the only explanation. By this point, a number of reporters had noted that the NSA had virtually no idea what Snowden had taken or given me, not just the specific documents but also the quantity. It made sense that the US government (or perhaps even other governments) would be desperate to learn what I had. If taking David’s computer would give up the information, why wouldn’t they steal it? By then, I also knew that a conversation with David via Skype was anything but secure, as vulnerable to NSA monitoring as any other form of communication. So the government had the ability to hear that I planned to send the documents to David, which gave them a strong motive to get hold of his laptop. I learned from David Schultz, the Guardian’s media lawyer, that there was reason to believe David’s theory of the theft. Contacts in the US intelligence community had let him know that the CIA’s presence was more robust in Rio than almost anywhere else in the world and that the Rio station chief was “notoriously aggressive.” Based on that, Schultz told me, “You should pretty much assume that everything you say, everything you do, and everywhere you go are being closely monitored.” I accepted that my ability to communicate would now be severely restricted. I refrained from using the telephone for anything but the vaguest and most trivial conversations. I sent and received emails only through cumbersome encryption systems.
Janine told me that she and editor Alan Rusbridger, along with other staffers, had been on a retreat the previous weekend in a remote area outside of London. They suddenly heard that GCHQ officials were on their way to the Guardian newsroom in London where they intended to seize the hard drives on which the documents were stored. “You’ve had your fun,” they told Rusbridger, as he later recounted, “now we want the stuff back.”
The term “demonstrable destruction” was newly invented by the GCHQ to describe what took place. The officials accompanied Guardian staff, including the editor in chief, to the basement of the newsroom and watched as they smashed the hard drives to pieces, even demanding that they break particular parts further “just to be sure there was nothing in the mangled bits of metal that could possibly be of any interest to passing Chinese agents,” Rusbridger recounted. “We can call off the black helicopters,” he recalled a security expert joking, as Guardian staff “swept up the remains of a MacBook Pro.” The image of a government sending agents into a newspaper to force destruction of its computers is inherently shocking, the sort of thing Westerners are told to believe happens only in places like China, Iran, and Russia. But it is also stunning that a revered newspaper would voluntarily, meekly, submit to such orders. If the government was threatening to shut down the paper, why not call its bluff and force the threat out into the daylight? As Snowden said when he heard the about the threat, “the only right answer is, go ahead, shut us down!” Voluntarily complying in secret is to enable the government to conceal its true character from the world: a state that thuggishly stops journalists from reporting on one of the most significant stories in the public interest.
Still, both before the destruction of its hard drives and after, the Guardian remained aggressive and intrepid in how it published Snowden’s revelationsmore, I believe, than any other paper comparable in size and stature would have been.
Both the United States and the United Kingdom have made clear that there are no limitsethical, legal, or politicalthat they will observe when they claim to be acting in the name of “terrorism.” Now David was in custody, being held under a terrorism law.
I wasn’t worried about how David would handle the detention. An unimaginably difficult life growing up orphaned in one of the poorest favelas in Rio de Janeiro had made him extremely strong, willful, and street smart. I knew he would understand exactly what was happening and why, and I had no doubt that he was giving his interrogators at least as hard a time as they were giving him. Still, the Guardian lawyers noted how rare it was for anyone to be held this long.
The stated purpose of the Terrorism Act, as the name suggests, is to question people about ties to terrorism. The detention power, the UK government claims, is used “to determine whether that person is or has been involved in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism.” There was no remote justification for detaining David under such a law, unless my reporting was now being equated with terrorism, which appeared to be the case.
They took all of his electronic equipment, including his cell phone containing personal photographs, his contacts, and his chats with friends, forcing him to give up the password to his cell phone upon threat of arrest. “I feel like they invaded my whole life, like I’m naked,” he said.
Shortly before he died in 2005, the heralded Vietnam war correspondent David Halberstam gave a speech to students at the Columbia Journalism School. The proudest moment of his career, he told them, was when US generals in Vietnam threatened to demand that his editors at the New York Times remove him from covering the war. He had, Halberstam said, “enraged Washington and Saigon by filing pessimistic dispatches on the war.” The generals considered him “the enemy” since he had also interrupted their press conferences to accuse them of lying. For Halberstam, infuriating the government was a source of pride, the true purpose and calling of journalism. He knew that being a journalist meant taking risks, confronting rather than submitting to abuses of power. Today, for many in the profession, praise from the government for “responsible” reportingfor taking its direction about what should and should not be publishedis a badge of honor. That this is the case is the true measure of how far adversarial journalism in the United States has fallen.
In the very first online conversation I had with Edward Snowden, he told me he had only one fear about coming forward: that his revelations might be greeted with apathy and indifference, which would mean he had unraveled his life and risked imprisonment for nothing. To say that this fear has gone unrealized is to dramatically understate the case. Indeed, the effects of this unfolding story have been far greater, more enduring, and more wide-ranging than we ever dreamed possible. It focused the world’s attention on the dangers of ubiquitous state surveillance and pervasive government secrecy. It triggered the first global debate about the value of individual privacy in the digital age and prompted challenges to America’s hegemonic control over the Internet. It changed the way people around the world viewed the reliability of any statements made by US officials and transformed relations between countries. It radically altered views about the proper role of journalism in relation to government power. And within the United States, it gave rise to an ideologically diverse, trans-partisan coalition pushing for meaningful reform of the surveillance state.
Until the Snowden revelations, it was simply inconceivable that any bill designed to gut a major national security program could receive more than a handful of votes. But the final vote tally on the Conyers-Amash bill shocked official Washington: it failed by just a tiny margin, 205–217. Support for it was wholly bipartisan, with 111 Democrats joining 94 Republicans to vote for the bill. This discarding of traditional party-line divisions was as exciting to Snowden and me as the substantial support for reining in the NSA. Official Washington depends upon blind tribalism engendered by rigid partisan warfare.
Support from the American public has also been inconstant: polls show that a majority of Americans, though they oppose the NSA programs that Snowden exposed, nonetheless want to see him prosecuted for those exposures. And top US officials have even begun arguing that not only Snowden himself but also some of the journalists with whom he worked, including me, deserve prosecution and imprisonment.
International effortscurrently being led by Germany and Brazilto build new Internet infrastructure so that most network traffic no longer has to transit the United States could go a long way toward loosening the American grip on the Internet. And individuals also have a role to play in reclaiming their own online privacy. Refusing to use the services of tech companies that collaborate with the NSA and its allies will put pressure on those companies to stop such collaboration and will spur their competitors to devote themselves to privacy protections.
Additionally, to prevent governments from intruding into personal communications and Internet use, all users should be adopting encryption and browsing-anonymity tools. This is particularly important for people working in sensitive areas, such as journalists, lawyers, and human rights activists. And the technology community should continue developing more effective and user-friendly anonymity and encryption programs.
The Obama administration, which has brought more prosecutions against leakers than all prior presidencies combined, has sought to create a climate of fear that would stifle any attempts at whistle-blowing. But Snowden has destroyed that template. He has managed to remain free, outside the grasp of the United States; what’s more, he has refused to remain in hiding but proudly came forward and identified himself. As a result, the public image of him is not a convict in orange jumpsuit and shackles but an independent, articulate figure who can speak for himself, explaining what he did and why. It is no longer possible for the US government to distract from the message simply by demonizing the messenger. There is a powerful lesson here for future whistle-blowers: speaking the truth does not have to destroy your life. And for the rest of us, Snowden’s inspirational effect is no less profound. Quite simply, he has reminded everyone about the extraordinary ability of any human being to change the world. An ordinary person in all outward respectsraised by parents without particular wealth or power, lacking even a high school diploma, working as an obscure employee of a giant corporationhe has, through a single act of conscience, literally altered the course of history.
Bringing to light the ubiquitous system of suspicionless surveillance being secretly constructed by the United States and its allies was Snowden’s own self-sacrificing act of conscience. To watch an otherwise ordinary 29-year-old knowingly risk life in prison for the sake of a principle, acting in defense of basic human rights, was simply stunning. Snowden’s fearlessness and unbreakable tranquilitygrounded in the conviction that he was doing the right thingdrove all the reporting I did on this story, and will profoundly influence me for the rest of my life.