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Glenn Greenwald: Growing Backlash Against NSA Spying Shows Why U.S. Wants to Silence Edward Snowden

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As Congress holds its second major public hearing on the National Security Agency’s bulk spying, we speak with Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who first published whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations. The NSA admitted their analysis of phone records and online behavior far exceeded what it had previously disclosed. “The fact that you now see members of both political parties increasingly angry over the fact that they were misled and lied to by top-level Obama administration officials, that the laws that they enacted in the wake of 9/11 — as broad as they were — are being incredibly distorted by secret legal interpretations approved by secret courts, really indicates exactly that Snowden’s motives to come forward with these revelations, at the expense of his liberty and even his life, were valid and compelling,” Greenwald says. “If you think about whistleblowing in terms of people who expose things the government is hiding that they shouldn’t be, in order to bring about reform, I think what you’re seeing is the fruits of classic whistleblowing.”

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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: On Wednesday, lawmakers held the second major public congressional hearing into the NSA’s widespread surveillance programs since they were revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden. During a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, representatives on both sides of the aisle expressed deep concern about the bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records and other communications. In a stark contrast to last month’s hearing before the House Intelligence Committee, the bipartisan House panel forcefully questioned senior officials from the NSA, FBI, Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Democratic Representative John Conyers of Michigan, the committee’s highest-ranking Democrat, noted that collecting telephone metadata is not covered under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act.

REP. JOHN CONYERS: We never at any point during this debate have approved the type of unchecked, sweeping surveillance of United States citizens employed by our government in the name of fighting the war on terrorism. Section 215 authorized the government to obtain certain business records only if it can show to the FISA court that the records are relevant to an ongoing national security investigation. Now, what we think we have here is a situation in which if the government cannot provide a clear, public explanation for how its program is consistent with the statute, then it must stop collecting this information immediately. And so, this metadata problem, to me, has gotten quite far out of hand, even given the seriousness of the problems that surround it and created its need.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: During Wednesday’s hearing, the NSA admitted its analysis of phone records and online behavior far exceeded what it had previously disclosed. NSA Deputy Director John Inglis revealed that analysts can perform what is called a “second or third hop query” in its pursuit of terrorists. The word “hop” is a technical term indicating connections between people. So, a three-hop query means the NSA can look at data not only from a suspected terrorist, but also from everyone that suspected terrorist communicated with and then from everyone those people communicated with, and so on.

Republican Congressmember James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, author of the PATRIOT Act, called on the Obama administration to rein in the scope of its surveillance on Americans’ phone records, saying it would otherwise lack enough votes in the House to renew the provision, which is set to expire in 2015. Sensenbrenner said, quote, “You’re going to lose it entirely.”

Meanwhile, the man who sparked the national—and global—discussion on the NSA surveillance programs remains stranded in Russia, unable to travel to Latin America, where three countries have offered him refuge. Edward Snowden spoke Friday after he met with officials from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in Moscow’s airport.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: I also had the capability, without any warrant of law, to search for, seize and read your communications, anyone’s communications at any time. That is the power to change people’s fates. It is also a serious violation of the law.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, for more, we’re joined now by Glenn Greenwald, a columnist on civil liberties and U.S. national security issues for The Guardian. He’s also a former constitutional lawyer. Greenwald first published Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA surveillance programs and continues to write extensively on the topic. His most recent piece looks at “The Crux of the NSA Story in One Phrase: 'Collect It All.'”

Glenn Greenwald, welcome back to Democracy Now!

GLENN GREENWALD: Good to be back, Juan. Thanks.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Glenn, let’s start—your reaction to this latest hearing now, where now both Democrats and Republicans are beginning to seriously question government officials about the NSA scandal?

GLENN GREENWALD: It’s very encouraging. It’s really remarkable that if you look at what much of the American media is focused on—the trivialities and the personalities surrounding the story—it’s completely divergent from what is taking place in the halls of Washington, in the FISA court and in American public opinion. The most recent poll of Americans showed that they view Edward Snowden overwhelmingly as a whistleblower and not a traitor, because they know that the revelations for which he’s responsible were extremely significant and things that they ought to know. And the fact that you now see members of both political parties within the United States Senate and the House of Representatives increasingly angry over the fact that they were misled and lied to by top-level Obama administration officials, that the laws that they enacted in the wake of 9/11, as broad as they were, are being incredibly distorted by secret legal interpretations approved by secret courts, really, I think, indicates exactly that the motives that motivated Snowden to come forward with these revelations, at the expense of his liberty and even his life, were valid and compelling. And if you want to think about whistleblowing in terms of people who expose things the government is hiding that they shouldn’t be doing, in order to bring about reform, I think what you’re seeing is the fruits of classic whistleblowing. And it’s encouraging and gratifying certainly to him and, I think, to me and lots of other people, as well.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Glenn, I want to go to a clip from Republican Representative Blake Farenthold of Texas, who tore into the administration officials testifying before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Here’s Farenthold questioning Deputy Attorney General James Cole, one of four administration witnesses who were present.

REP. BLAKE FARENTHOLD: How is having every phone call that I make to my wife, to my daughter, relevant to any terror investigation?

DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL JAMES COLE: I don’t know that every call you make to your wife—

REP. BLAKE FARENTHOLD: But you’ve got them.

DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL JAMES COLE: I don’t know that they would be relevant, and we would probably not seek to query them, because we wouldn’t have the information that we would need to make that query.

REP. BLAKE FARENTHOLD: But, you know, somebody like Mr. Snowden might be able to query them without your knowledge.

DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL JAMES COLE: I don’t believe that’s proven. Mr. Inglis could answer that. I don’t think he would have access to that or be able to do it.


DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL JAMES COLE: We don’t believe that he could query those without our knowledge, and therefore those would be caught.

REP. BLAKE FARENTHOLD: All right, that’s slightly reassuring. The Fourth Amendment specifically was designed, as Judge Poe pointed out, to prohibit general warrants. How could collecting every piece of phone data be perceived as anything but a general warrant?

DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL JAMES COLE: Because the phone data, according to the Supreme Court, is not something with which—within which citizens have a reasonable expectation of privacy.

REP. BLAKE FARENTHOLD: So, do I have a reasonable expectation—


REP. BLAKE FARENTHOLD: —of privacy in any information that I share with any company, my Google searches, the email I send? Do I have a reasonable expectation of privacy in anything but maybe a letter I hand-deliver to my wife in a skiff?

DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL JAMES COLE: Those are all dependent on the facts and circumstances of the documents we’re talking about. In the case of metadata, the Supreme Court specifically ruled that there was not coverage by the Fourth Amendment, because of no reasonable expectation of privacy.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Republican Representative Blake Farenthold of Texas questioning the Deputy Attorney General James Cole. Glenn Greenwald, your response?

GLENN GREENWALD: First of all, Obama officials and NSA officials have been bald-faced lying to the public ever since we first revealed the identity of Edward Snowden and published the video online, in which he now, rather famously, said, “As an NSA analyst, I could access anyone’s communication that I wanted, including even the president’s, if I had their email address or their telephone number.” NSA officials came out and said that it was—that Mr. Snowden was lying about that, but NSA officials are lying about that, as that exchange just revealed.

The NSA is collecting, storing and monitoring billions of emails and telephone calls every single day—”billions” with a B, every single day. Once those communications, the content of those communications, are stored in the NSA system, any NSA analyst sitting at their terminal can query those communications, pull them up on their screen, and then listen to the telephone calls or read the emails or listen—or read the content of the chats. Any NSA analyst has the technological capability to do that, exactly as Mr. Snowden said, and there are hundreds of documents, if not thousands, in our possession that prove that conclusively, including training manuals that tell the NSA analysts how to do that.

There are legal constraints on their ability to do that. They’re not supposed to read the communications of Americans without first getting individual warrants from the FISA court, but the technological and physical capability exists. All they have to do is click a few pull-down menus, and they have exactly what they want. The oversight is very poor, to the extent it exists at all. And so, what that exchange was really getting at was the extraordinary potential for abuse that this system not only has embedded within it, but virtually guarantees. We know from the Church Committee, from investigations, from how human nature functions, that if we allow a spying agency to collect all of our communications—all of our communications—of American citizens and people around the world, and do so in the dark, with virtually no oversight, no need to go to a court except in the rarest of cases to get individual warrants, that that power is going to be abused.

And that, more than anything, is what prompted Mr. Snowden to step forward, was to tell Americans and the world that there has been this spying agency creating a ubiquitous spying program, an apparatus unlike anything we’ve seen before, that sweeps up all forms of human communication and is doing so unbeknownst to the citizenry which pays for it and which—and in whose name it’s being done. And it’s a real threat to privacy, but also to democracy.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Glenn, I think it was particularly significant that Sensenbrenner, the author of the PATRIOT Act, is now telling the federal government, “You’ve gone too far, and we’re likely to withdraw your authority to do this, if you don’t begin to change what you’ve been doing.” But I also wanted to go to another Republican, who you have written about, and—former two-term Republican Senator Gordon Humphrey of New Hampshire, who emailed Edward Snowden on Monday. And he wrote, in part, quote, “Mr. Snowden, provided you have not leaked information that would put in harms way any intelligence agent, I believe you have done the right thing in exposing what I regard as massive violation of the United States Constitution. Having served in the United States Senate for twelve years as a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, the Armed Services Committee and the Judiciary Committee, I think I have a good grounding to reach my conclusion. I wish you well in your efforts to secure asylum and encourage you to persevere.” You wrote about this exchange of emails between Snowden and Gordon Humphrey.

GLENN GREENWALD: I think it’s remarkable on several levels. I’ve been writing for years about the fact that civil liberties abuses and excessive government invasions are really the issue that can bridge the ideological gap and create these transpartisan, transideological coalitions more than probably any other. And then you’ve seen this over the past 10 years. The ACLU has long partnered with right-wing groups like the Christian Coalition to challenge the PATRIOT Act. And I think what you’re seeing is lots of support for Mr. Snowden and for our NSA reporting on the left, groups like Amnesty International and the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, lots of liberals and progressives who have been outspoken in their support of these disclosures, but you also see a lot of support for it on the right, as well, from people who take seriously their rhetoric about limited government and the rights of individuals and the need for safeguarding individual privacy. And I think Senator Humphrey’s letter really reflects that.

What you—the only people at this point who are defending the NSA are the hardcore neocons in the Republican Party, people like Lindsey Graham and John McCain and the like, who see national security as the only value that matters, and the really hardcore Obama loyalists and Democrats, who defend anything the Obama administration does and have become the loudest proponents, ironically, of the massive secret surveillance state and of the government’s power to listen in. So those two groups—Republican neocons, Democratic Party loyalists—are at this point the only real defenders the NSA has left. And I think you’re seeing a real breakdown of partisan and ideological divisions in support of what Mr. Snowden did, of the reporting that we’ve done, and the need for there to be transparency and light shined on what the government has been doing to our privacy completely in the dark.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Glenn, I wanted to ask you about another development, the move by several major Silicon Valley companies, together with civil liberties groups, again, to request—formally request in court that they be allowed to disclose the numbers and the extent of requests from the government to get into their systems. Could you talk about that?

GLENN GREENWALD: Yes. One of the big problems is that most of what the government is doing is being done without any transparency of any kind. And one of the most significant things they’ve done, completely in the dark, is that they have all sorts of agreements in place with Silicon Valley companies—Facebook, Google, Yahoo!, Skype—that allow them all sorts of access. And sometimes the Internet companies say, “We’re only doing what we are compelled by law to do.” There’s other evidence, including an article we published 10 days ago, that shows, in the case of Microsoft, that they go far beyond what the law requires and collude and cooperate very aggressively with the NSA in secret. And what these Internet companies are saying, in essence, is that “We don’t want there to be this wall of secrecy built around what it is that we’re told by the NSA to do. We want to be able to engage in the public debate in order to tell all our customers, look, this is what we’re being forced to do, this is what we think goes too far, and here’s what it is that we’ve been doing to try and resist some of these things.” And it’s great to see these Internet companies wanting to have light shined on what it is it’s been doing. That’s certainly part of the impact of the reporting we’ve done. Unfortunately, the law and the Obama administration are really rigidly holding onto this requirement that these things stay secret.

And I think you’re going to see the FISA court increasingly looking toward transparency as a guiding value and allowing at least some of this process, some of this legal process, to see the light of day. I mean, that might be the most amazing thing about all of this, is that we have a secret court that meets in complete secrecy, with only the government present, and this court is issuing rulings that define what our constitutional rights are. How can you have a democracy in which your rights are determined in total secrecy by a secret court issuing 80-page rulings about what rights you have as a citizen? It is Orwellian and absurd. And I think one of the reforms that will come and is coming from our reporting is that a lot more light is going to be shined on the shenanigans that have been taking place within that court.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, Glenn, interestingly, the companies like Google and Facebook and Twitter are saying that they want to release this information, but not the telecom companies. And some people are saying that for Google and Facebook and Twitter, there’s international implications, that other countries will not want to use their systems if they think that the—if they’re allowing easy access to the government to the information they collect. Your response to the silence of the telecom companies?

GLENN GREENWALD: That’s a really important point, Juan. Look, we’ve known for a long time that the telecoms—AT&T, Sprint, Verizon—are completely in bed with the United States government. Remember, the scandal of the NSA in the Bush years was that—not just that the Bush administration was eavesdropping on the calls of Americans without the warrants required by law, but also that the telecoms were vigorously cooperating in that program and turning over full and unfettered access to the telephone calls and records of millions of their customers even though there was no legal basis for doing so. And, in fact, the telecoms were on the verge of losing in court and being sued successfully by millions of their customers that they had violated their civil rights and also that they had violated their privacy rights and broken the law, criminally and civilly. And it was only because the Congress stepped in, with the leadership of both political parties, and retroactively immunized the telecoms. But the telecom industry makes massive profits on their extreme cooperation with these—with the NSA to allow all kinds of unfettered access to the communications of their customers. And so, the telecoms are the last people that want transparency brought to their cooperation with the NSA, because that would really shock people to learn just how untrustworthy those companies are when it comes to protecting the privacy of their customers’ communications.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: OK. And, Glenn, finally, I want to go into the flap that has arisen between you and Carl Bernstein. On Monday, the veteran investigative reporter Carl Bernstein publicly criticized you for the statements you allegedly made during an interview with an Argentinian paper over the weekend. Reuters reported you said, quote, “Snowden has enough information to cause more damage to the U.S. government in a minute alone than anyone else has ever had in the history of the United States,” and then went on to say, quote, “The U.S. government should be on its knees every day begging that nothing happen to Snowden, because if something does happen to him, all the information will be revealed and it could be its worst nightmare.” This is how Carl Bernstein responded to those supposed quotes that Reuters had from you.

CARL BERNSTEIN: With all my regard for The Guardian, which is considerable, especially given its role in the Murdoch case, that’s an awful statement—


CARL BERNSTEIN: —that that reporter made, and the tone in which he made it. It’s one thing to say that Mr. Snowden possesses some information that could be harmful, and that ought to be part of the calculation that everybody makes here. It’s another to make that kind of an aggressive, non-reportorial statement that seems to me—

MIKA BRZEZINSKI: I—something has happened.

CARL BERNSTEIN: —a reporter has no business making.


CARL BERNSTEIN: At the same time, there indeed are precautions—I, other journalists know about this—that Snowden has taken in terms of secreting some information in various places that perhaps would disclose—definitely would disclose more things, some of which might or might not be inimical to the interests of the United States. But that statement by that reporter is out of line.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Glenn Greenwald, briefly—we just have a few seconds—your response to Carl Bernstein?

GLENN GREENWALD: Yeah, I think the way that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein went from being aggressive adversarial reporters against the government to insider Washington defenders of the government is a nice illustration for what happened to the U.S. media. My criticism of him was that he relied on a Reuters summary of what I said, rather than taking the time to go read the actual interview. The Reuters summary was a complete distortion of what I said. I made the exact opposite point, that the criticism of Mr. Snowden for being reckless or harming the U.S. is based in complete fantasy, given that what he has could be damaging if he released it, if that were his goal, and yet he has safeguarded that very responsibly to make sure that only what the public should know is learned and that nothing harmful has been released. But it was a 36-hour media frenzy attacking him, attacking me, based on a complete distortion by Reuters. And Carl Bernstein and others were just too lazy to look into what was actually said.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Glenn Greenwald, I want to thank you again, a columnist on civil liberties and U.S. national security issues for The Guardian, is also a former constitutional lawyer. Greenwald first published Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA surveillance program and continues to write extensively on the topic. His most recent articles are “The Crux of the NSA Story in One Phrase: 'Collect It All'” and “Email Exchange Between Edward Snowden and Former GOP Senator Gordon Humphrey.”

When we come back, we’ll go to South Africa, as the nation celebrates former President Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday. Stay with us.

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