Former CIA Agent Says Edward Snowden Revelations Emboldened Apple to Push Back Against FBI

StoryFebruary 25, 2016
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Barry Eisler

former CIA agent and author of several books, most recently, The God’s Eye View.

We speak with former CIA agent Barry Eisler about the role of Edward Snowden in raising public awareness about encryption and privacy ahead of the FBI’s push for Apple to break the encryption of the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters. "So much of Snowden’s revelations were about this very thing. And the fact that the public knows about corporate cooperation with the government now is in part, I think, what has emboldened Apple to push back," Eisler says. "If we didn’t know about these things, I would expect that Apple would be quietly cooperating. There would be no cost to their doing so." Eisner also discusses his new novel, "The God’s Eye View," which he says is "grounded in things that are actually happening in the world. … I realized I was not going nearly far enough in what I had imagined."

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, let’s turn to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. In a 2013 interview with The Guardian just after his identity was revealed, Snowden explained why he risked his career to leak the documents.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: I think that the public is owed an explanation of the motivations behind the people who make these disclosures that are outside of the democratic model. When you are subverting the power of government, that that’s a fundamentally dangerous thing to democracy. And if you do that in secret consistently, you know, as the government does when it wants to benefit from a secret action that it took, it will kind of get its officials a mandate to go, "Hey, you know, tell the press about this thing and that thing, so the public is on our side." But they rarely, if ever, do that when an abuse occurs. That falls to individual citizens. But they’re typically maligned. You know, it becomes a thing of these people are against the country, they’re against the government. But I’m not. I’m no different from anybody else. I don’t have special skills. I’m just another guy who sits there, day to day, in the office, watches what happening—what’s happening, and goes, "This is something that’s not our place to decide. The public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong." And I’m willing to go on the record to defend the authenticity of them and say, "I didn’t change these. I didn’t modify the story. This is the truth. This is what’s happening. You should decide whether we need to be doing this."

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden speaking in 2013. So, Barry Eisler, you begin your book with Edward Snowden. Could you talk about that decision to talk about Edward Snowden?


NERMEEN SHAIKH: And also, the title of your book is The God’s Eye View.

BARRY EISLER: Yeah. So, like all my fiction, but especially so in this case, it’s grounded in things that are actually happening in the world. And when I first had the idea for this book, by the way, I had a notion for a pretty far-reaching surveillance program, and I thought it would make the good basis—a good basis for a novel. My concern was that what I had in mind was going to be too far-reaching. And because my brand has a lot to do with realism, I thought people might say, "Come on, Barry, the government’s not really doing all that." And while I was working on my previous book but just kind of thinking about this next one, I was actually in Tokyo doing research. June 2013 is when Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras first broke—first started breaking stories with The Guardian based on Snowden’s revelations. And I was immediately electrified, and I realized, "Oh, my god! I was not going nearly far enough in what I had imagined."

AMY GOODMAN: Now, I mean, what’s interesting is you’re a fiction writer here.


AMY GOODMAN: But your background is CIA—


AMY GOODMAN: —in covert operations.


AMY GOODMAN: So, you begin this book with Poitras and Greenwald meeting with Snowden in Hong Kong, complete catastrophe for the intelligence agency here.


AMY GOODMAN: They’re woken up in the middle of the night: "What do we do?" And the discussion of just taking them all out—


AMY GOODMAN: —including Ewen MacAskill, who is from The Guardian, who was with them.


AMY GOODMAN: Taking them out.


AMY GOODMAN: But you do have a background in reality, which is in covert operations.

BARRY EISLER: Right, yeah. So, if you’re asking me, have I ever heard the government give an order to kill a journalist, the answer is no. But I do know that, increasingly, the government equates journalism with terrorism—I mean, explicitly. And if we’re using certain tools and tactics against terrorists, then it makes sense those things are going to migrate to other enemies of the state, right? In fact, I think that when you think about terrorist groups like ISIS and then power centers in countries like America, a group like ISIS is nothing but ISIS—is nothing but upside to any political establishment figure who wants to increase his or her budget, or up fear among the public so that the politician can gain more power, and means more profits for corporations involved in the war machine—really, nothing but upside.

But dissident groups—student groups, antiwar groups, civil rights activists—represent a lot of downside. And this is—and journalists, most of all, who are relying—real journalists, who are relying on whistleblowers and real leaks to carry out their journalism. So, when I imagine how is the government going to respond to this kind of thing, I’m thinking, well, how does the government respond to—what sort of tools has it developed and has it deployed against the ostensible enemies of the government, and how is it going to deploy them against real enemies, like journalists?

AMY GOODMAN: How were you deployed in the CIA?

BARRY EISLER: I didn’t do very much with the CIA. And whenever I say that, people are like, "Yeah, right." It’s like when a presidential candidate says, you know, "I have no intention of running for president," and people are like, "Oh, come on, man! You know, when are you really going to"—it really—I was there for barely three years. It was mostly training. It was a super-interesting experience. I’m glad I had it. And it definitely informs everything I write about, and hopefully makes the sort of spycraft, countersurveillance, surveillance, all sorts of tradecraft and the mentality of spies, that sort of thing that I depict in my novels—hopefully, the experience I had with the CIA makes all that as realistic as possible. But I wish I could say on Democracy Now! that I was involved in numerous coups and assassinations. It would be a really cool segment we’re doing. But alas, it was mostly training.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But one of the things that you’ve said that you learned at the CIA was that sometimes it pays to cover up the commission of a serious crime—


NERMEEN SHAIKH: —by confessing to a lesser one.

BARRY EISLER: Yes. And it’s funny how often I see that sort of thing played out in national headlines. There are things they say at the CIA that are said partly in jest, but only partly. So, another one is it is better to seek forgiveness than ask permission. And I see the government doing this sort of thing constantly. And yeah, so, some of these things you really do—another one is deny everything, you admit nothing, make counter-accusations. Keep that one in mind. You will see the government doing it, you’ll see politicians doing it all the time.

AMY GOODMAN: So, The God’s Eye View, what is it?

BARRY EISLER: Well, I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but God’s Eye is a program of far-reaching surveillance in the book. And—

AMY GOODMAN: And this is a fiction book?

BARRY EISLER: Well, I have an 18-page bibliography at the end of the book, because I want people to know that if you don’t follow these things closely, you might have—you might have that reaction I was talking about earlier, which is, you’ll read the book and say, "Well, that was—that was a fun, entertaining thriller, but come on. Can the government really do these things? Is it really doing these things?" And reviews thus far have been really gratifying for me, because people do respond to the book the way I would hope they would respond to fiction: They enjoy it, it’s gripping, they’re on the edge of their seats, and then they say, "And then I came to the bibliography, and I realized, oh, my god, all these things are real." They are real. I speculated a little bit about how a program like God’s Eye would be deployed, but all the technologies I describe in the book—and there are some that will make your hair stand up—they’re real, and they’re actually deployed.


BARRY EISLER: Can you hack into a car? Can you turn a microphone on, not just on a phone, but on all these personal assistant devices that are getting deployed in people’s homes—baby cameras, closed-circuit television, all over the—

AMY GOODMAN: [inaudible]

BARRY EISLER: Yeah, heart devices, pacemakers, these sorts of things. In my very first book, which I started writing in 1993—it was published in 2002—A Clean Kill in Tokyo, my half-American, half-Japanese assassin, John Rain, shorted out a guy’s pacemaker wirelessly. And at the time, there was no Bluetooth, it was all—I was using infrared, but it was wireless. And I checked with a Harvard cardiac pacemaker specialist, a guy I lived with in college, actually. I said, "Could you really do this?" And he’s like, "Well, I guess so. Why would you want to?" as people always asked me at the time. Now they know I’m a novelist. Anyway, yeah, it turns out you can absolutely do this, so much so that Dick Cheney, in his memoirs, acknowledged that he had his heart doctor turn off the wireless feature on his pacemaker because of concerns that somebody might try to turn it off. I was going to say "terrorist," but actually probably there a lot of people who probably, at one time or another, considered pressing the button on that.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, very quickly, before we conclude, I want to ask you about something you said earlier, that the government increasingly equates journalism with terrorism.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: How did you learn that?

BARRY EISLER: Just by observing. I remember when David Miranda was detained at Heathrow. I guess this was about two years ago.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Greenwald’s partner.

BARRY EISLER: Right. And I wondered, why is the government doing this? I mean, they must know. It’s not like he’s got the only copy of whatever it is they’re looking for, so why do something like that? And I realized, look, this is basically a deny-and-disrupt operation. I mean, why does the government want terrorists to know that it’s into their cellphones, that it can track you by your cellphone use and probably put in a drone strike based on that information? In fact, we know that sort of thing goes on, whether it’s a so-called signature struck, where they don’t know your identity, or where they do. Why do they do that? Is it to make terrorists unable to communicate? No, it won’t have that effect. It’s to make it more difficult for them to communicate, to make plotting whatever the terrorists are trying to plot slower and harder. And that’s why the government does these things. So I thought, why detain this guy? Well, it’s—

AMY GOODMAN: Under the Terrorism Act.

BARRY EISLER: Yeah, I know. So, this is another—thank you. That is the quintessential example of like, "Oh, wow, so journalists really are literally terrorists," in this case to the U.K. government, but in cooperation with the American government. So, they’re not going to stop journalists from communicating by this, but it’s a kind of signal. They know that for the most sensitive things that journalists are working on, journalists don’t trust their cellphones, and they’re using human couriers. So what do you do? You let them know even human couriers are not going to be safe for you. Deny and disrupt.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to end by asking you a question that our colleague, Jeremy Scahill, asked you last night—


AMY GOODMAN: —in a Q&A that you had here in New York. And it’s about something that the Clinton campaign is trying to make a big deal of, something Bernie Sanders said decades ago—


AMY GOODMAN: —calling the CIA a dangerous institution that has got to go. He said this in 1974.

BARRY EISLER: Yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, he is not saying that today. These days, he talks about more oversight for the agency.


AMY GOODMAN: But as a former person in covert operations at the CIA—


AMY GOODMAN: —do you share his view more, the one he expresses today, more oversight, or the one he expressed 40 years ago, do away with the CIA?

BARRY EISLER: Yeah, I would say, first, that people need to understand Sanders is not an outlier in calling for the abolishment of the CIA. President Truman said he’d get rid of the agency. John F. Kennedy famously said he would shatter the organization into a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds. This is following the Bay of Pigs. A lot—Daniel Moynihan said, "Oh, my god! We’re not getting our money’s worth. This thing is doing more harm than good."

AMY GOODMAN: The senator.

BARRY EISLER: Yeah, Senator—former Senator Moynihan. So there have been a lot of prominent people who have had—who have been in a position to weigh the costs and benefits of the CIA’s existence, and have come out thinking that, on balance, national security would be improved if we actually just didn’t have a CIA. So that is a perfectly defensible and respectable position. That’s one thing.

The other thing is, look, at a minimum, if I were advising Sanders today, I would say, at a minimum, you’ve got to detach the covert action arm from the intelligence gathering and analysis arm. It’s just—these are two things that inherently don’t function well together. Just as the NSA is tasked with, on the one hand, destroying encryption, and on the other hand, there’s another part of the organization that is tasked ostensibly with improving encryption, you can’t put—that’s like putting a humidifier and a dehumidifier in the room and telling them to battle it out. It’s just like—it doesn’t work. You’re not going to get good results. And so, with the agency, the covert military arm of the agency really should be put in the military. It shouldn’t be in a position to interfere with the objectivity of intelligence analysis that our policymakers rely on.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Barry Eisler, I’d like to ask you to stay afterwards so we can continue this conversation. He is author of The God’s Eye View. He’s a New York Times best-selling author, and he is a former CIA agent. We will continue the conversation after the show and post it at

But when we come back, we’re going to talk to a journalist who was just detained. She was detained by the U.S.-backed government in Bahrain. This is her first interview since. Stay with us.

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