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“We Won’t Succumb to Threats”: Journalists Return to U.S. for First Time Since Revealing NSA Spying

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Ten months ago, Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald flew from New York to Hong Kong to meet National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden. Poitras and Greenwald did not return to the United States until this past Friday, when they flew from Berlin to New York to accept the George Polk Award for National Security Reporting. They arrived not knowing if they would be detained or subpoenaed after Director of National Intelligence James Clapper described journalists working on the NSA story as Snowden’s “accomplices.” At a news conference following the George Polk Award ceremony, Poitras and Greenwald took questions from reporters about their reporting and the government intimidation it has sparked.

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

AMY GOODMAN: Music from the album The Celestial Green Monster by Fred Ho, the baritone saxophonist, composer, bandleader, writer and activist. Ho passed away Saturday after a long battle with cancer. He was 56 years old. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

After winning the George Polk Award for National Security Reporting on Friday in New York, journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras held a news conference along with Guardian reporter Ewen MacAskill. The three of them were the reporters NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden met with last June in Hong Kong. Poitras and Greenwald flew in from Berlin for the ceremony, arriving midway. The reporters in the room did not know what would happen. Democracy Now! attended the news conference after the ceremony. Greenwald and Poitras began by responding to a question about whether they were worried about getting detained or arrested entering the United States Friday for the first time since they started working on the NSA story.

GLENN GREENWALD: We weren’t so worried that we weren’t willing to get on the plane. I mean, if we were really worried, we wouldn’t have come. There was no need for us to come. But we knew, certainly, that it was a risk.

I mean, I think the important thing to realize about this is that American national security officials and other officials in the government have deliberately created an environment where they wanted us to think there was a risk. They have very deliberately and publicly suggested that the journalism we were doing was a crime. They have advocated that we be arrested. They have had their favorite media figures openly speculate about the possibility that we would be. They detained my partner for nine hours. They announced that there was a terrorism investigation pending in the U.K., and they refused to give my lawyers any information at all about whether there was a grand jury investigation, whether there was an indictment under seal—very unusual behavior when dealing with these lawyers, in particular, who say that they can always get at least something.

So they wanted us to have this kind of uncertainty about whether or not they would take action upon our return to the U.S. That’s very clear. And it’s easy, I guess, to say it doesn’t seem likely that it will happen, but when those threats are being directed at you, you take them seriously. And so we did, but then, obviously, assessed that the risk was low enough, mostly because we didn’t think that they would be so counterproductive or self-destructive to do it, and were willing, therefore, to get on a plane and come back.

REPORTER: And those conversations about the indictment, how long—or if there was an indictment or grand jury out, how long did those conversations go on?

GLENN GREENWALD: We’ve been trying to get information from the government about whether or not we could safely return to the U.S. for at least four to five months. And originally, the government said that they were willing to have conversations about what that might entail, and then, ultimately, I guess, decided that they weren’t willing to have those conversations, because they just stopped returning calls and stopped giving any information. And so, they just expressly refused to say whether or not there were—whether there was a pending indictment under seal or whether or not we were the targets of a grand jury investigation.

AMY GOODMAN: Your trip isn’t over. It doesn’t just have to happen at the airport. What are you concerned about, for both Glenn and Laura? And, Laura, if you could describe how your experience coming through the airport today compared with your previous experiences?

LAURA POITRAS: Sure. I mean, you know, the other risk that I think that we face as journalists right now are the risk of subpoena, where the government subpoenas our material to try to get information about our source. And we know that the government has been using the border as a sort of legal no man’s land to get access to journalists’ materials. I mean, I’ve experienced that for six years, where I’ve been detained, interrogated and had equipment seized at the border, and never told, you know, for what reason that’s happening. So—

AMY GOODMAN: How many times have you been stopped?

LAURA POITRAS: You know, I’ve asked the government to answer that question, and they won’t tell me. I think close to 40 or more. I’ve got FOIAs out, and soon as I can get a precise count, I’ll certainly publish it. So, I mean, the risks of subpoena are very real. And as—you know, as you indicate, I mean, the fact that we’re here is not an indication that there isn’t a threat. We know there’s a threat. We know there’s a threat from what the government is saying in terms how they’re talking about this journalism, the journalism that we’re doing. And, I mean, the reason we’re here is because we’re not going to, you know, succumb to those threats.

AMY GOODMAN: What are your plans for the United States? Will you be staying here long? Glenn, will you be moving back? Laura, will you be moving back?

GLENN GREENWALD: I mean, I think—you know, I think that this first step—I mean, since we didn’t know what today held, we haven’t been doing a lot of long-term thinking, because we had no idea what the outcome would be of our deplaning. But I think that once we got on the airplane this morning, it was a commitment not just to come back for this one time, but to come back whenever we want, which is our prerogative as American citizens. And it ought to be our right, not just to come back, but to come back without fear of that kind of harassment, to even have that enter our thought process.

So I don’t know what Laura’s long-term plans are, I mean, but for me, you know, I have a book coming out next month, and I want to be able to come to the U.S. to talk about the issues that it raises. I have a lot of journalistic colleagues here with whom I’m working. I want to be able to freely travel to work with them and work on stories in the United States and to talk about the things I think we need to be talking about. So I do think this sort of presages more visits to the U.S. for me.

LAURA POITRAS: I mean, I started working outside of the United States and setting up my edit studio in Berlin before I was contacted by Snowden, and because of the sort of repeated targeting that I had at the border, and so this was the decision I had made before working on the NSA material. And for me, the decision is: I don’t feel confident I can protect source material in the United States right now. I mean, it’s just—I certainly can’t cross a border with it or with my equipment or anything that I consider to be sensitive. And so, my plan is to finish editing and then return. I mean, I absolutely plan to return.

REPORTER: What worries each of you the most about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, what worries me is the fact that it doesn’t have any of the attributes that we’re taught as first-year law students, or even as American citizens, make a court an actual court. It operates in complete secrecy. There’s only one side allowed to be heard, which is the government. And it even for a long time was housed in the Justice Department, indicating what its real purpose is, which is not to be an outside body exerting oversight, but to be an enabler of what the executive branch wants to do. And the proof is in the pudding, in that there’s been 30 years of FISA court decisions and an infinitesimal, humiliatingly small number of demands by the U.S. government to surveil that have been even modified, let alone rejected, by that court. So it’s purely fictitious, the idea that it exerts any real oversight over the surveillance regime.

AMY GOODMAN: What has been your latest communication with Edward Snowden? What is he—what are his concerns now and where he stands in Russia?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, I mean, you know, I don’t think it’s any secret that I talk to him regularly. And, you know, I feel like a lot of what we do has an impact on him, because things—just choices that we make can have an influence on how he’s perceived or even what his legal situation is. So, you know, we certainly talked about our plans to come back, and he was very supportive of that.

And, you know, I think that his situation in Russia is what it’s basically been for the last eight months, which is that he’s in a country that he didn’t choose to be in, that he was forced to remain in by the United States revoking his passport and then threatening other countries not to allow him safe transit. But at the same time, that alternative, as imperfect as it might be, is certainly preferable to the alternative of not being in Russia, which is being put into a supermax prison in the United States for the next 30 years, if not the rest of his life. And so, given how likely of an outcome that was, and he knew that was when he made his choice, I think he’s very happy with his current situation.

REPORTER: Do you know what kind of—whether he’s still—whether he’s actively being pursued now? It seems like recently he’s been speaking a lot, speaking out a lot more, like giving telepresence talks. Does he feel safer?

GLENN GREENWALD: I mean, you know, I think his—I mean, it’s really kind of an extraordinary thing that’s sort of been underappreciated, the fact that he made the choice to go before the world and say that this leak, which is the largest national security leak in American history, the one that has made the American national security state angrier than any other, “is something that I did. And I’m not only saying that I did it, but I want to tell you my rationale for why I did it, and I’m proud of it.” And, you know, eight months later, he is further away from the grasp of the United States than he has ever been. And, you know, I think that he feels not just a duty, but a sort of a responsibility, to participate in the debate that he helped to trigger around the world. And the fact that he’s able to do that is one of the reasons why I think it’s so important that he hasn’t been in prison. I don’t think he’s ever going to feel safe, but I think he feels confident enough to be speaking out, and especially because he feels like the focus will remain on the revelations and not on him personally.

REPORTER: What’s the most important revelation, do you think, that came from all the documents that were released because of Edward Snowden?

GLENN GREENWALD: For me, the most significant revelation is the ambition of the United States government and its four English-speaking allies to literally eliminate privacy worldwide, which is not hyperbole. The goal of the United States government is to collect and store every single form of electronic communication that human beings have with one another and give themselves the capacity to monitor and analyze those communications. So, even though I’ve been warning for a long time about this being an out-of-control, rogue surveillance state, long before I ever heard the name Edward Snowden, to see in the documents that that not only is their ambition, but something that they’re increasingly close to achieving, was, to me, by far the most significant goal, something that I don’t think anyone in the world knew or understood. And every other revelation is really just a subset of that one.

REPORTER: And just to follow up, do you think that nuclear terrorism or any of the threats against the United States would justify that kind of searching of the world? I mean, would we want a nuclear terrorist to go off in New York?

GLENN GREENWALD: Yeah, I mean, I don’t—no, I don’t think that the desire to detect what a small number of people are doing justifies ubiquitous, mass, suspicionless surveillance. And I actually think that the system that says collect everything makes it actually harder to find the things that they claim they’re looking for, because when you collect so much, it’s really impossible almost to find the Boston Marathon attack or the attempted detonation of a bomb in Times Square, any of the other things that the surveillance state, as ubiquitous as it is, failed to detect.

REPORTER: The Obama administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers than all other administrations combined. What is the future of whistleblowing?

GLENN GREENWALD: Do you want to—

LAURA POITRAS: Well, I mean, I think—I’m not going to go into too many details, but I think what we’re seeing is actually more people coming forward, you know, more people realizing that they—that their conscience is telling them that there are things that they know of that should be public. And I can’t go into lots of details. I mean, one that is—actually has been reported was a story that Glenn did with Jeremy Scahill, which was on the targeted killing program and how they’re using metadata to assassinate people without actually knowing the identities of the people. And that came—that information was—that was a source that came forward. So I think, you know, we’re—I mean, I think, you know, in this sort of post-9/11 era, I think there are a lot of people who have sort of a heavy conscience over what has happened and who have a lot of information. And I think that maybe the risk that Snowden has taken opens up a space where people will maybe feel that now is the time to come forward.

MIKE BURKE: What tips do you have for journalists working in the United States regarding securing their data and communications with sources?

LAURA POITRAS: OK, so—and you’re talking about people who are doing like national security reporting? So, I’m on—Glenn and I are both on the board of an organization called the Freedom of the Press Foundation. We just published a blog about a tool that’s called Tails, which is a operating system that runs on a—either USB stick or SD disc, that is a sort of all-in-one encryption tool that you can use for PGP and encryption [inaudible]. And it’s just quite—it’s just really secure. And we are—we didn’t talk about it for a long time, because we didn’t necessarily want to draw attention to it, so that it would be—avoid being targeted. But we figured, by now, the intelligence agencies who are paying attention would sort of—it would be on their radar. So, it’s actually—it’s a really important tool for journalists.

And I think there are huge concerns for international journalists and their communications and how they protect sources, and that these revelations have exposed. So, for instance, information that’s foreign information that’s transited to the United States gets sucked up, and so how are you going to protect your sources? And how do intelligence agencies behind the scenes share information? And those are all the—these are all things that I think will continue to come forward as more sources come forward and more reporting is done. And, yeah.

REPORTER: How do you feel the U.S. public has reacted? And do you feel like there’s been a sufficient amount of reaction from the U.S. public?

GLENN GREENWALD: I mean, I think the number of people in this room, 10 months after we first did our reporting, is a testament to how much the story has resonated. And, you know, because I live outside the United States, I think I’m probably a little bit more attentive to how it has resonated internationally, which sometimes I think gets lost in the debate in the United States. But really, I mean, literally around the globe, people think not only about surveillance, but about individual privacy in a digital age and the trustworthiness of government officials to exercise power in the dark and the proper role of journalism vis-à-vis the state, and a whole variety of other topics, including the role that the United States government is playing in the world, in a radically different light than they did prior to this reporting. And I—you know, I see the impact when I go other places and talk about the story, how much it continues to resonate.

And I know I’ve said this before over many months, many times, and there’s a little bit of skepticism when I say it in some circles, but I say it because it really is true: In my opinion, the stories that are the most significant and that are the most shocking and that will have the broadest and most enduring implications are the ones that we’re currently working on and have not yet been reported. And so, I think it’s really hard to assess while we’re still in the middle of the story, which is really where we are, what the ultimate consequences will be. I don’t think we know. But, for me, of course, there’s some indifference or some apathy. There’s some jaded, you know, sort of cynicism. But in general, the public reaction has been, speaking for myself, just vastly larger and more consequential than even in my wildest dreams I imagined could happen when I started working on the story.

AMY GOODMAN: Edward Snowden just warned that the U.S. government is surveilling human rights groups in the United States. Can you, any of you, address this, what you know about this, from the documents, and to U.S. just refusing to give Chancellor Merkel her NSA file?

GLENN GREENWALD: I’ll only break news on Democracy Now!, as you know, but not at press conferences. But, no, I mean, you know, as I said, I mean, I think some of the most significant stories are left to come, and it’s hard to preview them when they haven’t gone through the journalistic process and to talk about ones that we haven’t published. But obviously, Edward Snowden is aware of what’s in the material that he gave us. And so, when he describes what the surveillance state is doing, I think it should be deemed pretty reliable, since everything else that he said about that has proven to be true. And I believe that will, as well, without sort of talking about the reporting that we’re doing.

LAURA POITRAS: I mean, working in Germany, I mean, as we all know, the history of the Stasi in Germany makes this country very, very sensitive to these kinds of invasions of privacy and very aware of their corrosive and pernicious effects when you have governments that surveil their own populations. And so, you have that, and then you’re also balancing the sort of global politics of allies and how—I mean, the government there, I think, is deeply, deeply, deeply concerned about the spying that’s happening there, and they’re trying to, you know, really, I think, investigate that. And I also think, though, there are a lot of things in which the BND is working with the NSA. And so, I think it’s too soon to say what’s going to happen there.

SAM ALCOFF: A lot of the focus has been on the government and the NSA. Would Booz Allen Hamilton, as private clients—is there any reason to believe that they shared any of the vast troves of information they had with private clients?

GLENN GREENWALD: I mean, it’s—you know, I think it’s hard for us to talk about things that we haven’t actually reported, because it just wouldn’t be a meaningful way to talk about it, because the reporting that we do—oftentimes you read a document, and you think you know the meaning of it, and then you go and do your research and read other documents and consult with experts, and it turns out that the understanding that you had of it originally isn’t the accurate understanding. So I try really hard not just to spout off about things that we haven’t gone through the process of reporting.

Having said that, I will just say that in general the—there almost is no division between the private sector and the NSA, or the private sector and the Pentagon, when it comes to the American national security state. They really are essentially one. And so, to talk about whether or not there are protections on how Booz Allen uses the material versus how the NSA uses it almost assumes, falsely, that there is this really strict separation. They call each other partners because that’s what they are. And they’re indispensable in every way to the national security state, which is why Edward Snowden had access to all these materials, not as an NSA employee, but as a Booz Allen employee.

REPORTER: Any regrets on what you’ve done so far?

GLENN GREENWALD: No, I have none at all. I doubt they do, either. But—

REPORTER: What are your hopes for actual reform in—U.S. surveillance reform, in general?

GLENN GREENWALD: I mean, speaking for myself, I would like to see the debate be about not whether the U.S. should be collecting metadata under a specific provision of the PATRIOT Act, 215, but the broader question of whether or not we want to empower the government to monitor and surveil people who are suspected of absolutely no wrongdoing whatsoever, essentially to engage in mass surveillance. Is that really a proper function of the state? And even beyond just domestically, why should one government, in particular, turn the Internet from what it was intended to be, and its greatest promise, which is a tool of freedom and human exploration and liberation, into the most oppressive tool of human control and surveillance ever known in history?

And so, I don’t think anybody thinks that there’s no legitimate form of surveillance. I think that it’s perfectly legitimate for the government to surveil people about whom there’s evidence, real evidence, to believe and convince a court to believe that they’re engaged in actual wrongdoing, a targeted surveillance of people for whom there’s probable cause or some similar standard. But mass surveillance, suspicionless surveillance, of our private communications, I think, is without any justification whatsoever. And I think the national security state ought to be reined in and converted from a system of mass surveillance into one of targeted surveillance.

REPORTER: Have you yet seen any evidence that other countries have regarded these revelations as “we better up our game”?

GLENN GREENWALD: No. Actually, I think that’s an interesting point, as a matter of fact, is I don’t think any countries—you know, I can’t talk to closed societies like China. I don’t know what, you know, their reactions have been. But I think open governments, open countries, their reaction has not been, “Let’s pull our resources to match and replicate the capabilities of the United States.” Instead—it is, instead, “Let’s figure out how to defend ourselves from what essentially is this digital invasion of the privacy of our citizens and our elected leaders.” And I know in Brazil, for example, and in Germany, the two countries that probably have been the most affected by the revelations and where the reaction has been most intense, there has been very serious debate and resources devoted to figuring out how to build defenses to protect the sanctity of the privacy of their communications.

AMY GOODMAN: Quickly, your—President Obama renewing the bulk phone record data collection despite calling for some reforms, your response to it?

GLENN GREENWALD: I mean, you know, I think that it’s—you know, President Obama likes to parade around as some sort of, you know, King Solomon figure in between the excesses of the NSA and those who are raising concerns about it, and trying to balance it and come up with some reasonable centrist approach. I mean, that’s generally his political brand. The reality is, is that he’s presided over this out-of-control system for five years and has never expressed a single inclination to rein it in in any way. So the fact that he’s continuing it for as long as he can, I think, is the opposite of surprising. I mean, he is an advocate of this system over which he presided for so many years. I mean, I think he’s one of the obstacles to reform, not a vehicle for it.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, speaking at a news conference on Friday after winning the George Polk Awards—the ceremony took place in New York—for their reporting on Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency. They flew in from Berlin that day. They came in in the midst of the ceremony, not knowing if they would be detained or subpoenaed by the U.S. government when they entered the country. They won the George Polk Award along with Ewen MacAskill of The Guardian and Barton Gellman of The Washington Post. The Pulitzer Prize will be announced today. Greenwald and Poitras recently launched The Intercept along with Jeremy Scahill. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, another George Polk Award winner will talk about the elections in Afghanistan. Stay with us.

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