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Glenn Greenwald: As Obama Makes “False” Surveillance Claims, Snowden Risks Life to Spark NSA Debate

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Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who broke the NSA surveillance story earlier this month, joins us one day after both President Obama and whistleblower Edward Snowden gave extensive interviews on the surveillance programs Snowden exposed and Obama is now forced to defend. Speaking to PBS, Obama distinguished his surveillance efforts from those of the Bush administration and reaffirmed his insistence that no Americans’ phone calls or emails are being directly monitored without court orders. Greenwald calls Obama’s statements “outright false” for omitting the warrantless spying on phone calls between Americans and callers outside the United States. “It is true that the NSA can’t deliberately target U.S. citizens for [warrantless] surveillance, but it is also the case they are frequently engaged in surveillance of exactly that kind of invasive technique involving U.S. persons,” Greenwald says. After moderating Snowden’s online Q&A with Guardian readers, Greenwald says of the whistleblower: “I think what you see here is a person who was very disturbed by this massive surveillance apparatus built in the U.S. that spies not only on American citizens, but the world, with very little checks, very little oversight. He’s making clear his intention was to inform citizens even at the expense of his own liberty or even life.”

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

AARON MATÉ: We turn now to the latest news in the NSA surveillance scandal. On Monday, both President Obama and whistleblower Edward Snowden gave extensive interviews on the surveillance programs Snowden exposed and Obama is now being forced to defend. Speaking to Charlie Rose on PBS, Obama drew a line between his surveillance efforts and those of the Bush administration. He also reaffirmed his insistence that no Americans’ phone calls or emails are being directly monitored without court orders.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What I can say unequivocally is that if you are a U.S. person, the NSA cannot listen to your telephone calls, and the NSA cannot target your emails.

CHARLIE ROSE: And have not.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And have not. They cannot and have not, by law and by rule, and—unless they—and usually it wouldn’t be “they,” it would be the FBI—go to a court and obtain a warrant and seek probable cause, the same way it’s always been, the same way, when we were growing up and were watching movies, you know, you want to go set up a wiretap, you’ve got to go to a judge, show probable cause.

AARON MATÉ: Obama’s comments came as new poll numbers showed his approval rating has dipped 8 percent since the NSA disclosures emerged nearly two weeks ago. The drop was even higher among young voters, whose support for Obama fell 17 points. In his interview with PBS, President Obama was also asked about the potential extradition of whistleblower Edward Snowden. Obama referred questions to federal prosecutors but said Snowden faces “criminal investigation—and possible extradition.”

AMY GOODMAN: Well, after going public as the source behind the NSA disclosures just over a week ago, Edward Snowden remerged on Monday after several days of quiet. In an online chat with the British newspaper The Guardian, Snowden rejected what he called “smear” efforts to paint him as a spy for China, saying he’s had no contact with the Chinese government. He also defended his leaking of classified NSA documents, saying he deliberately chose not to reveal, quote, “any US operations against legitimate military targets,” unquote. He added, “I pointed out where the NSA has hacked civilian infrastructure such as universities, hospitals and private businesses because it is dangerous. These nakedly, aggressive criminal acts are wrong no matter the target,” he wrote.

Snowden indicated he remains in Hong Kong after arriving there last month, but wouldn’t confirm his exact location. He also stood by his controversial assertion that he has—as an NSA contractor, had the capability “to wiretap anyone” in the U.S. with a personal email address. In comments suggesting he may be concerned his life is in danger, Snowden said more leaks are on the way, no matter what happens to him. He said, quote, “All I can say right now is the US Government is not going to be able to cover this up by jailing or murdering me. Truth is coming, and it cannot be stopped,” he wrote.

In the latest of Snowden’s disclosures, The Guardian of London reported on Sunday the U.S. and Britain spied on foreign diplomats at two international summits in London during 2009. Britain’s NSA counterpart, the GCHQ, established fake Internet cafés to spy on foreign delegates’ computer use, and the NSA shared information on the phone calls of Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev. The revelation came just as the G8 summit opened in Ireland, with President Obama in attendance and Britain again playing host.

All this comes as the Obama administration appears to be stepping up its effort to defend the surveillance program Snowen exposed. Before Obama’s interview with PBS Monday, the National Security Agency disclosed it investigated less than 300 phone records seized in the broad collection of metadata last year. The agency also said the monitoring has foiled terror plots in the U.S. and 20 other countries, and vowed to release details this week. The head of the National Security Agency, General Keith Alexander, is appearing before the House Intelligence Committee today in a rare public hearing.

For more, we’re going to Glenn Greenwald, the columnist for The Guardian of London who broke the NSA surveillance story earlier this month and a number of others since, including Snowden coming forward as the NSA whistleblower. He’s back home in Brazil after returning from Hong Kong, where Edward Snowden is believed to remain. On Monday, Glenn Greenwald moderated Snowden’s online chat with The Guardian.

Well, welcome back to Democracy Now!, Glenn. A lot has been happening. To say the least, you have been very busy. Talk about first—you moderated the discussion yesterday. What most surprised you, or, I should say, what do you feel was most important about what Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower, wrote yesterday and was asked?

GLENN GREENWALD: I think the key thing is that he continuously emphasizes that the caricature being made of him, that he’s some kind of a spy or setting out to destroy the United States, is completely inconsistent with his behavior. He could have released all sorts of extremely damaging, even crippling, documents, if that had been his intention. He could have sold those documents to foreign adversaries, if he wanted to enrich himself. None of those things were what he did. He instead very carefully vetted the documents that he turned over to us, and some to The Washington Post, and urged us that we then conduct our own review to make sure that the documents that end up being published are ones that are truly in the public interest. And I think what you see here is a person who was very disturbed by this massive surveillance apparatus built in the United States that spies not only on American citizens, but the world, with very little checks, very little oversight. And he’s making clear that his intention is to inform his fellow citizens, even at the expense of his own liberty or even life. And I think that comes through very clearly.

AARON MATÉ: Well, Glenn, during his Guardian online chat, Snowden was asked to respond to the recent comments of former Vice President Dick Cheney. Speaking on Fox News, Cheney called Snowden a traitor who may be a Chinese spy.

CHRIS WALLACE: What do you think of Edward Snowden?

DICK CHENEY: I think he’s a traitor. I think he has committed crimes, in effect, by violating agreements, given the position he had. He was a contractor employee, but he obviously had been granted top-secret clearance. And I think it’s one of the worst occasions, in my memory, of somebody with access to classified information doing enormous damage to the national security interest of the United States. I’m deeply suspicious, obviously, because he went to China. That’s not a place where you’d ordinarily want to go if you’re interested in freedom and liberty and so forth. So it raises questions whether or not he had that kind of connection before he did this.

AARON MATÉ: Asked for his response, Edward Snowden told the Guardian readers, quote, “This is a man who gave us the warrantless wiretapping scheme as a kind of atrocity warm-up on the way to deceitfully engineering [the Iraq War] that has killed over 4,400 [Americans] and maimed nearly 32,000 [Americans], as well as leaving over 100,000 Iraqis dead. Being called a traitor by Dick Cheney is the highest honor you can give an American.” Glenn, what is your assessment of the criticism of Edward Snowden from both the right, as personified by Cheney, but also from liberals, from supporters of President Obama?

GLENN GREENWALD: It’s interesting, because the criticism completely converges. In fact, I recall very well during the Bush years of 2006, 2007, when their NSA scandal was really raging, that exactly the same arguments were being made about those of us who were writing about these programs and those who had leaked them and the journalists who had published them, that they were traitors, that they were endangering national security, that they were engaged in all sorts of attempts to harm the United States. And it’s amazing because back then you heard from Democrats, none of whom was saying that, and yet now, under a Democratic president, of course, many of them are mimicking exactly those same beliefs. I mean, give Cheney at least some minimal credit that he’s being consistent, horribly—consistently horrible, but at least consistent, in contrast to these Democrats who, under Bush, were very ardent critics of the surveillance state, of secrecy, of the idea that journalists are criminals or leakers are criminals, who now have completely done a 180 reversal now that it’s a Democrat in office. And I can tell you that, by far, the most vehement and vicious attacks on our reporting and the stories that we’ve been writing come not from Republicans, but from Democratic partisans, both in politics and in the media.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn, right now the G8 summit is taking place. Can you talk about the latest release from Ed Snowden about the U.S. and British governments using Internet cafés, phone taps, etc., to spy on G8—G-20 delegates during the 2009 summit?

GLENN GREENWALD: Sure. I didn’t actually participate in that story, but the reason it was significant is not because it shows that the United States and Britain are spying, say, on the Russian president, which I think everybody expects and probably a lot of people want. The significance is twofold. One is that they are spying very aggressively on their own allies, under the guise of inviting them to an economic summit. But I think the much bigger part of the story is it shows just how sophisticated and deceitful the eavesdropping capabilities are of Western governments, and specifically of their intelligence and surveillance agencies.

And so, this is what I think is really the critical aspect of all of these stories, which is, there are these extremely invasive capabilities being assembled by these governments that allow all kinds of deceitful spying, obviously ones that even trick the Russian government in the efforts to protect themselves from spying, and we ought to have as part of our debate an understanding of what these capabilities are, so that we can have a real discussion about the kind of limits that should be imposed on them. So, that’s always what happens is, when these spying agencies create these capabilities, in the first instance, they direct them at other governments, they direct them at hostile countries, but they always end up creeping further and further toward domestic surveillance. And we ought to know what these capabilities are, so that we can anticipate them and plan for them and talk about ways to limit them and prevent abuse.

AARON MATÉ: Well, Glenn, I’ve read some criticism of Snowden and your reporting, drawing a distinction between exposing domestic surveillance and then blowing the whistle on foreign espionage, saying that they’re separate, and that, in fact, talking about programs like this one that was uncovered in Britain, spying on foreign leaders, distracts from the issue of domestic spying.

GLENN GREENWALD: So, I think there’s a continuum here. You know, the journalistic inquiry is: Is there a significant public interest, and does it outweigh whatever harm you might cause? And so, on the continuum of what’s in the public interest, I think that at the very top end of that spectrum, in terms of public interest, is when a government engages in massive surveillance on its own citizens without suspicion or evidence of wrongdoing, which is what most of our stories have focused on. I think after that comes when the governments of the United States and its allies are spying on citizens of the world without suspicion. There is a huge loss to privacy, Internet freedom, liberty, when the NSA spies on innocent people who aren’t Americans, who live in other countries, as well.

And then, I think at the far end of that continuum, on the other spectrum, is when governments spy on other governments. So I agree that the public interest there is less than it is when the NSA spies domestically, but it’s not nonexistent. As I said, we need to know what these capabilities are, so that we can act before they start being applied domestically. But the vast bulk of our stories have been and will continue to be stories about how the NSA directs its surveillance at Americans and citizens around the world indiscriminately, without any evidence of wrongdoing, what Mr. Snowden yesterday called the largest, suspicionless surveillance program ever created in human history.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s go to what President Obama said in the Charlie Rose interview, when he said he could say unequivocally that we’re not listening to your phone calls. The NSA—it says—”The NSA cannot listen to your phone calls,” Obama said. The NSA cannot target your emails, and have not, unless they get a subpoena. Can you talk about that?

GLENN GREENWALD: I’m staggered by how deceitful and misleading that claim is from President Obama. It’s actually worse than just misleading and deceitful; it’s just outright false. And this is the story that we’re working on to publish next, which is an inside look at what the FISA court really does in terms of what it is called oversight, but is really an empty fig leaf, when it monitors the NSA.

Under the 2008 FISA law, which replaced the 30-year FISA law enacted in 1978, the principal change is that the United States no longer needs an individual warrant when it listens in on the telephone calls or reads the emails of American citizens when they communicate with people outside of the United States. It is true that when American citizens talk to other Americans on U.S. soil, exclusively domestic communications, the NSA legally is required to get an individualized warrant from the FISA court before they can listen to the content of those communications. But when an American citizen is talking to somebody outside of the United States who’s not a U.S. citizen, and the target of those communications is the person outside of the United States, that is now completely legal for the NSA to eavesdrop on that call or read the email without going and getting a warrant. That is the whole point of that 2008 law. Remember, the Bush administration in 2005 got caught eavesdropping on the conversations of American citizens, the international conversations of American citizens, without a warrant. And what that 2008 law did is legalize that Bush program by eliminating the warrant requirement.

And so, every six months, the NSA goes to the FISA court, and they say, “Here are the procedures that we use for determining who is and is not a U.S. citizen, who is and is not on U.S. soil.” The FISA court stamps the—an approval stamp on those guidelines, and the NSA is then empowered to go around collecting whatever calls and whatever emails they want. They can force the telecoms and the Internet providers to give them whatever content they want, which often includes American citizens talking to these foreign targets, without any kind of a search warrant. So when President Obama says nobody is listening to your calls or reading your emails without first getting a search warrant, that is absolutely false. It is true that the NSA can’t deliberately target—deliberately target U.S. citizens for that kind of surveillance, but it is also the case that they are frequently engaging in surveillance of exactly that kind of invasive technique involving U.S. persons.

Let me just say one last thing. This is why—just go to Google and read about this—Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, two Democrats on the Intelligence Committee, have been repeatedly asking the NSA, “How many Americans’ telephone calls and emails are you intercepting without warrants under this program?” And the NSA continuously tells them, “I’m sorry, we can’t provide you with even a rough estimate. We don’t have the technical capabilities to do that. It would take too much time and distract away from our core mission for us to assemble those statistics.” So this idea that President Obama is promoting, that the NSA never listens to Americans’ calls or reads their emails without warrants, is utterly false.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn, we have to break for just 30 seconds, but we want to come back and play another clip for you of President Obama speaking on Charlie Rose on PBS on Monday night. Glenn Greenwald, of course, is the award-winning journalist who has broken the NSA leaks story on Edward Snowden, who has come forward as the whistleblower who released a tremendous amount of information about the NSA and his role as a consultant working in an NSA office in Hawaii as a consultant for Booz Allen Hamilton. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back with Glenn Greenwald in just 30 seconds.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Glenn Greenwald. He is back in Brazil from Hong Kong, where he broke these major stories on the National Security Agency and what it is doing with our email, our phone calls and much more. Aaron?

AARON MATÉ: Well, Glenn, I want to go back to Obama’s interview with Charlie Rose on Monday night. Obama dismissed fears the NSA’s bulk collection of metadata could potentially be abused.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The very fact that there’s all this data, in bulk, it has the enormous potential for abuse, because, they’ll say, you know, you can—when you start looking at metadata, even if you don’t know the names, you can match it up. If there’s a call to an oncologist, and it’s a call to a lawyer, and you can pair that up and figure out maybe this person is dying and they’re writing their will, and you can yield all this information. All of that is true—except for the fact that for the government under the program right now to do that, it would be illegal. We would not be allowed to do that.

AARON MATÉ: Glenn, so that’s Obama saying that we have this trove, but it’s not accessed, basically, unless there’s probable cause. Your response?

GLENN GREENWALD: OK, first of all, the fact that there are legal constraints in place, as we’ve seen repeatedly throughout history, is completely meaningless if there’s no meaningful and robust oversight. And there is nobody that looks over the NSA’s shoulder and finds out whose metadata they are linking to the actual identity of the person, whose metadata they’re investigating and putting together dossiers. It is completely within the discretion of the NSA, checked only by other executive branch agencies, to determine that.

Secondly, there is nothing easier in the world than linking these telephone numbers to any individual. Anybody could do that with very little effort. The American government, the NSA collects these massive databases that contains all sorts of information about people that enables a picture to be put together that is very invasive. So, whether or not there are rules that the NSA has adopted internally that say you can only do this if you have reasonable belief that the person has engaged in wrongdoing is completely independent of the fact that the—as Obama himself says, there is massive potential for abuse inside an agency that is incredibly secretive and that has very few checks and mechanisms for limitations on that abuse. And that, I think, is the key point.

And this is—you know, we have had more debate in the last nine or 10 days over what the NSA is, what it does, than we have had in the last 10 years, and that’s ultimately really what our journalism is intended to achieve, is to drag all of this out into the spotlight and make us understand what the NSA’s capabilities are, what kinds of potential for abuse there is, and what the checks on that abuse are, or the lack thereof.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Greenwald, I wanted to get your response to Republican Congressmember Peter King of New York. Speaking to CNN last week, he called for your prosecution over the reporting you’ve done on Edward Snowden’s revelations.

REP. PETER KING: Actually, if they—if they willingly knew that this was classified information, I think actions should be taken, especially on something of this magnitude. I know that the whole issue of leaks has been gone into over the last month, but I think something on this magnitude, there is an obligation, both moral but also legal, I believe, against a reporter disclosing something which would so severely compromise national security. As a practical matter, I—I guess there have been, in the past several years, a number of reporters who have been prosecuted under it, so I—the answer is yes to your question.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Greenwald, your response?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, first of all, I would defy anybody to go and look at anything that we reported and identify a single piece of information that even conceivably has harmed national security. The idea that we have somehow tipped off the terrorists to the fact that the U.S. government is monitoring their telephone calls and emails is completely idiotic. Any terrorist who’s alive has known for many, many years that the U.S. government is eagerly attempting to do that. The only things that we’ve revealed are things to the American people that they didn’t know about how their communications, not the communication of the terrorists, are being monitored.

Secondly, there’s this thing in the United States. It’s called the Constitution. And the First Amendment to it guarantees the right of freedom of the press. And what freedom of the press means, if it means anything, is the right to, as a journalist or even just as a citizen engaged in journalism, go in and investigate what your government is doing in the dark, and then use the mechanisms of the press to inform your fellow citizens about what it is that they’re doing. That is the heart and soul of investigative journalism. So if you take Peter King at his word, that any time national security secrets are revealed, it would mean that any investigative journalist, by definition, is a felon and ought to be prosecuted and criminalized.

There was a column in The Washington Post by Marc Thiessen, who is the primary apologist and defender of the Bush’s—of the Bush administration’s torture regime—he was a Bush speech writer—also essentially saying that I committed felonies, and The Washington Post did, as well. It’s incredible how menacing that is. If you’re looking for threats to America’s national security, you should look to the people who are calling for prosecutions in this case, not to the people, like Edward Snowden or myself, who are exposing it.

AMY GOODMAN: But, Glenn, are you afraid? Are you afraid for your safety, well, your privacy, etc.?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, I think if you look at what the U.S. government has been doing over the last five or six years, it would be irrational to just dismiss the concern that they may prosecute journalists. They’ve embraced theories that do criminalize journalism. They convened a grand jury in the WikiLeaks case, even though WikiLeaks did nothing more than report government secrets. They didn’t steal them. They didn’t play any role in obtaining them. They embraced a theory that James Rosen, the Washington bureau chief of Fox News, was a co-conspirator in felonies by talking to his source. So, of course there’s a concern that these kind—that this kind of legal jeopardy will become real, but it’s not a fear that will deter me in any way from continuing to report very, very aggressively on these stories.

AMY GOODMAN: Bradley Manning is being tried at Fort Meade. That’s the headquarters of the National Security Agency. Can you talk about the significance of that and how they’re related, Glenn?

GLENN GREENWALD: Sure. I mean, I think the—you know, the critical context for everything that has happened here, from Snowden’s leaks to his decision to leave the United States and go to Hong Kong, the context of it is this incredibly vicious and unparalleled war on whistleblowers that the Obama administration has been waging. And, of course, that war on whistleblowers is as vividly apparent in the case of Bradley Manning as it is anywhere else. Here is somebody who didn’t release any top-secret information. It was all secret and classified. There is zero evidence that any national security harm came from it. There’s certainly no evidence that he intended any national security harm. He, too, could have sold that information or given it to a foreign government that was hostile to the United States. He didn’t do that. His intent clearly was to blow the whistle. And yet he’s almost certain to be in prison for the next two decades, probably, if the U.S. government has its way, for the rest of his life, at the age of 25. He was, as the U.N. found, subjected to very abusive detention practices. And so, when you say that Ed Snowden shouldn’t have left the United States or anything like that, the context is that the U.S. government has proven that whistleblowers will be severely and harshly treated as a way of deterring and intimidating people from engaging in further disclosures.

AARON MATÉ: Glenn, the NSA has promised to come out this week with details on the plots that it says have been foiled by surveillance. Your assessment of what you’ve heard so far? We’ve heard talk of phone records being used to foil the subway bombing plot in 2009. And also, your assessment of the news that the NSA is saying that 300 phone records were searched last year?

GLENN GREENWALD: So, this is the playbook that the U.S. government has been using for I don’t know how many decades to delegitimize any disclosure, going back to the Pentagon Papers, when they accused Daniel Ellsberg of helping the communists in Vietnam and jeopardizing and putting at risk the—

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn, we have 10 seconds.

GLENN GREENWALD: —the lives of American servicemembers. So, it’s completely irrational. I think any of those claims should be very rigorously scrutinized, because they don’t stand up to scrutiny.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn, do you have more pieces coming out?

GLENN GREENWALD: Yes, we do, including in the next couple days.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Greenwald, columnist and blogger for The Guardian. We’ll link to all his articles at

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