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“Collect It All”: Glenn Greenwald on NSA Bugging Tech Hardware, Economic Espionage & Spying on U.N.

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Nearly a year after he first met Edward Snowden, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald continues to unveil new secrets about the National Security Agency and the surveillance state. His new book, “No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State,” is being published today. It includes dozens of previously secret NSA documents, including new details on how the NSA routinely intercepts routers, servers and other computer hardware devices being exported from the United States. According to leaked documents published in the book, the NSA then implants backdoor surveillance tools, repackages the devices with a factory seal and sends them on. This gives the NSA access to entire networks and all their users. The book includes one previously secret NSA file that shows a photo of an agent opening a box marked CISCO. Below it reads a caption: “Intercepted packages are opened carefully.” Another memo observes that some signals intelligence tradecraft is “very hands-on (literally!).”

Greenwald joins us in the studio to talk about this and other new revelations about the NSA, including its global economic espionage, spying at the United Nations, and attempting to monitor in-flight Internet users and phone calls. For his reporting on the NSA, Greenwald recently won a George Polk Award and was part of the team from The Guardian that just won the Pulitzer Prize in Public Service.

“Once people understood that this extraordinary system of suspicionless surveillance, which was truly unprecedented in scope, had been created completely in the dark, it became more than a surveillance story,” Greenwald says. “It became a story about government secrecy and accountability and the role of journalism, and certainly privacy and surveillance in the digital age.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: Today we bring you a Democracy Now! special: the first of a two-day interview with investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald. He has just published a riveting new book, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State. The book chronicles the inside story behind perhaps the biggest leak in the nation’s history.

Greenwald and filmmaker Laura Poitras were the journalists who first met former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden in Hong Kong last June. Days after their first meeting, Greenwald published an explosive article in The Guardian about the NSA collecting the phone records of millions of Verizon customers daily. It was the first of hundreds of articles based on documents leaked by Snowden. And more disclosures are now coming out. Greenwald’s book includes dozens of previously secret NSA documents.

For his reporting on the NSA, Glenn Greenwald recently won a George Polk Award and was part of the team from The Guardian that just won the Pulitzer Prize in Public Service.

Glenn Greenwald came to Democracy Now!’s studios on Monday.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Greenwald, we welcome you back to Democracy Now! Great to have you in our studio for the first time since the Edward Snowden revelations, because of concerns you had of coming into this country with threats that you could be arrested. It’s great to have you here with your new book.

GLENN GREENWALD: Yeah, it’s great to be here, always great to be on Democracy Now!, and particularly in person, so I’m thrilled.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s go through the remarkable revelations in these documents, that you and Laura and other of these news publications have released one by one. Start with PRISM and then go on to what you think are the most significant now.

GLENN GREENWALD: The first story that we actually reported on was the bulk metadata collection program, where the NSA is collecting the telephone records of every single American every single day, so that they always know who we’re calling, who’s calling us, how long we speak, where we are when we talk, and the device that we use. And that was one of the reasons why the story had such a huge impact in America, was because this was not spying on Muslims in Muslim countries, which Americans are easily able to ignore or dismiss or justify, but spying on Americans domestically.

The second story which I think was probably even more responsible for the worldwide explosion was the PRISM program, because this program revealed that Facebook and Google and Yahoo and Skype and Microsoft were directly cooperating with the NSA in all sorts of extensive ways to ensure easy NSA access to the communications that take place through those companies. And the reason that was so significant is because, unlike the NSA story of 2005 that involved AT&T and Sprint and Verizon, U.S. domestic telephone companies, these Internet companies are the primary means that the entire First World, for lack of a better term, uses to communicate, and even lots of people in developing countries who are now looking to these companies as the primary means. So you’re not just talking about one country; you’re talking about hundreds of millions, probably billions of people around the world who use these companies. And so, to learn that the NSA had invaded these systems to such an extent made this a global story. I mean, I remember the day after we published PRISM, my email inbox was filled not just with requests for interviews from U.S. newspapers and U.S. networks, but from television outlets and newspapers all over the world, literally all over the world. And that was what made it such a global story.

And then I think every story after that, there are lots of very independent, individual significant ones, but I think what became apparent to people is that literally the mission of the NSA—and this is them in their own words—is to eliminate privacy globally. And that’s not hyperbole. Literally, their institutional mandate is to collect and store and, when they want, analyze and monitor all forms of electronic communication that take place between human beings around the planet. And once people understood that this extraordinary system of suspicionless surveillance, which was truly unprecedented in scope, had been created completely in the dark—I mean, no one knew about any of this, even though it had been done by allegedly democratic governments—it became more than a surveillance story. It became a story about government secrecy and accountability and the role of journalism, and certainly privacy and surveillance in the digital age.

AMY GOODMAN: Your book is called No Place to Hide. In it, you reveal previously—previously secret NSA files. Why don’t you go through some of those?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, one of the first set of documents that I wanted to publish, that were new, was about this NSA mission—collect it all—because what had happened was when we first reported that Keith Alexander, the longtime chief of the NSA, went to the British version of the NSA, which is the GCHQ, and gave a speech and said, “Why can’t we just collect all of the signals, all of the signals all of the time?” the NSA’s claim was, “Oh, that was just an off-handed joke. You’re vesting far too much significance in this comment. That was just sort of an out-of-context quip that he made.” And the reality is, is that document after document after document in the NSA boasts of how “collect it all” is their driving mission. In fact, one document not only says what we want to do is collect it all; it says, our, quote, “new collection posture is collect it all, sniff it all, process it all, partner it all, exploit it all.” And so I just wanted to settle that debate once and for all, that the claims that the NSA is making versus the claims that we’re making don’t need to be resolved based on faith, but just look at what the NSA’s documents say.

There are other documents that talk about the strategic partners that the NSA has in the corporate world. In fact, they list 80 of their most significant corporate partners, that include companies like AT&T and Hewlett-Packard and Oracle, essentially the leading lights of the technological world. And we detail how they use those partnerships to access not only domestic communications, but communications all over the world. There’s lots of documents that detail—that are new—that detail how the purpose of the spying system is not to detect terrorist plots or national security plots, but is overwhelmingly economic in nature. They spy on the U.N. They spy on oil companies. They spy on corporations. They are spying on behalf of the Department of Commerce, which the NSA considers one of its, quote-unquote, “customers.” So that’s a big part of it.

And then, one of the biggest stories that’s new in the book is this program that really is quite remarkable, which is, all over the world, people buy routers and switches and servers, which are the devices that let corporations or municipalities or villages provide Internet service to large numbers of people at once, hundreds or even thousands. And there are American companies that are leaders in these products, such as Cisco. And what the NSA will do, whenever it decides that it wants to, is, once somebody orders a product from Cisco, Cisco then ships it to that person; the NSA physically intercepts the package, takes it from FedEx or from the U.S. mail service, brings it back to NSA headquarters, opens up the package, and plants a backdoor device on one of these devices, reseals it with a factory seal and then sends it on to the unwitting user, who then provides Internet service to large numbers of people, all of which is instantly redirected into the repositories of the NSA.

AMY GOODMAN: You, Glenn Greenwald, show a photo of this happening in No Place to Hide.

GLENN GREENWALD: Yeah, it’s courtesy of the NSA, because what this document is, is it’s an internal newsletter, where the NSA communicates with itself and essentially boasts of what it considers its, quote, “successes.” And it’s a very gushing, easy-to-read document that describes with excitement how they do this. And they even show pictures of them cutting open the packages and then resealing them.

AMY GOODMAN: So, they get the Cisco router—with the knowledge or without the knowledge of Cisco?

GLENN GREENWALD: It’s unclear. There’s certainly no evidence that Cisco knows about this or participates in it. They could be an unwitting victim. But at the same time, Cisco is listed as one of the NSA’s strategic partners, so they certainly cooperate in some way with the NSA. Whether they cooperate on this specific program or are victimized by it is something that we’re not able to discern.

AMY GOODMAN: So there’s a lot of people who are watching or listening or reading this right now, Glenn Greenwald, who are looking at their Cisco routers. Maybe they’re in the ceiling. Maybe they’re in some box somewhere. What should they be thinking or doing?

GLENN GREENWALD: You know, I mean, it’s hard to say. I mean, one of the remarkable parts about this story, this specific story, is that for many years the U.S. government has been warning the world not to buy routers, switches and servers from Chinese companies, on the grounds that the Chinese government is invading these products and putting backdoor surveillance devices onto them, and saying, “You cannot trust Chinese products.” And in fact, the largest Chinese technology company, Huawei, recently announced it was leaving the U.S. market, because they had been so demonized by the U.S. government that they couldn’t sell their products anymore. And so, to find out that the U.S. government is doing exactly that which they’ve been accusing the Chinese doing—

AMY GOODMAN: Or maybe saying it because they don’t—they want people—they want to push people in the direction of Cisco, so they can monitor?

GLENN GREENWALD: Precisely. I mean, it’s not just a case of typical gross hypocrisy, right, where the U.S. government criticizes another government for doing exactly that which they’re doing. That is there, of course, but it’s way more extensive than that. Here, I do think that a big part of the motive in warning the world off Chinese products is so that the world will instead buy the products that the NSA can invade.

AMY GOODMAN: Any more on Cisco and the memo that the NSA had that you read about Cisco?

GLENN GREENWALD: Yeah, I mean, there’s documents in which they discuss failures in the system and how to fix that and the communications that they’re losing because they’re not able to operate very effectively the Cisco routers and switches, just showing some kind of daily, banal problems that arise as part of how widespread this program is.

AMY GOODMAN: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald, author of the new book, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State. We’ll be back with him in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We’re speaking with Glenn Greenwald, the George Polk Award-winning, Pulitzer Prize award-winning journalist, who is back in the United States after, well, almost a year since those first revelations came out from Hong Kong. His new book, out today, called, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State. Let’s turn to Edward Snowden in his own words speaking to German television in January.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: I don’t want to pre-empt the editorial decisions of journalists, but what I will say is there’s no question that the U.S. is engaged in economic spying. If there is information at Siemens that they think would be beneficial to the national interests, not the national security, of the United States, they will go after that information, and they’ll take it.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Edward Snowden. Talk about economic espionage.

GLENN GREENWALD: This is a really critical point, not so much because the U.S. government has vehemently denied that they engage in economic spying—though they have—and not so much because they’ve accused other countries, particularly the Chinese, of engaging in economic spying while they do it—although that, too, is true—but it shows how deceitful the U.S. government is with its own public, because they have vehemently denied to American citizens that they engage in economic spying, and yet so many of the revelations that we’ve managed to report on, from targeting the largest Brazilian oil company, Petrobras, that funds huge numbers of Brazilian social programs, to spying on economic conferences that take place in various regions throughout the world that are designed to negotiate financial treaties, to spying on the World Bank and the IMF and the SWIFT banking system, are all about, obviously, spying for economic gain.

And there are documents in the NSA’s own archive, which we publish in the book for the first time, that simply state explicitly that a function of the NSA is to gain economic insight into what is taking place in the world. There are what the NSA calls its customers, which are the agencies within the U.S. government who submit requests to the NSA, just like any other customer would to a business, and ask it to spy on certain people. And some of those customers are the ones you would expect, like the CIA and the Department of Defense. But others are the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Commerce. Exactly as Mr. Snowden said, there are clear, ample mountains of evidence that the NSA engages in exactly the kind of economic spying that they’ve vehemently denied to the American people they engage in.

AMY GOODMAN: One slide presented by the NSA and GCHQ shows targets include, as you said, Petrobras, the SWIFT banking system, the Russian oil company Gazprom and the Russian airline Aeroflot. It says, “In 2009 … Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon wrote a letter to Keith Alexander, offering his 'gratitude and congratulations for the outstanding signals intelligence support' that the State Department received regarding the Fifth Summit of the Americas.” Shannon wrote, “[T]he NSA gave us deep insight into the plans and intentions of the other Summit participants.” Shannon went on to name Cuba and Venezuelan government—oh, and the—Cuba and the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez.

GLENN GREENWALD: Right. I mean, this was a really fascinating story, because this is part of actually what we had reported on in Brazil, and the amazing thing about the summit was that the summit was actually spearheaded by then-President Lula of Brazil, who wanted a regional summit to essentially let all of these countries who have tensions in the hemisphere band together on the one area where they can agree, which are economic contracts. And what this document showed is that Thomas Shannon, who was then at the State Department, was effusive in his praise for the NSA, essentially saying, “Thank you for letting us learn the negotiating strategy and what they were really willing to do,” these other countries in negotiating these financial contracts. And we broke that story in Brazil. And at the time, very awkwardly, Thomas Shannon was the U.S. ambassador to Brazil and was sort of the person who had been taking the lead in responding to our stories there and saying, “We don’t do this, and we don’t do that,” and then suddenly he was the one who got revealed to not only be leading and encouraging and cheerleading the spying and asking for it, but doing so specifically at an economic summit that Brazil itself had helped to organize. So it was a very awkward moment for Thomas Shannon.

AMY GOODMAN: And the response of President Dilma Rousseff? And again, this is a story you know extremely well, because you live in Brazil.

GLENN GREENWALD: Yeah, and I did, essentially, all the reporting on the NSA in Brazil. I mean, it was really interesting because the first story we did in Brazil, with O Globo newspaper, which is a large daily in Rio de Janeiro, was about spying on Brazilians indiscriminately, the collection of two billion email and telephone events each month by the NSA. And it shocked Brazilians, but the Brazilian government wasn’t particularly moved by that. But then, once we began reporting on things like the invasion of this economic summit, and particularly the targeting of President Rousseff herself, and then the targeting of Petrobras, and then finishing with the Canadian targeting of the Brazilian Ministry of Mines and Energy, it became an enormous story in Brazil, to the point where President Rousseff, despite really not wanting to, was forced to cancel her state visit, her planned state visit to the White House, the first time a Brazilian leader was going to appear there, and then went to the U.N. and gave a stinging denunciation of the American spying program, while Barack Obama waited in the hallway and was next to speak. So, it was really some impressive leadership on the part of the Brazilian government, even though it took a lot of stories to get them there.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, President Obama just met with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and much of the coverage of what happened in Washington had to do with what was happening to her and her cellphone.

GLENN GREENWALD: Yeah, I mean, it was almost ironic. The same thing that happened in Brazil happened there, which was the first story that Der Spiegel broke about the NSA story was done by Laura Poitras and several Der Spiegel journalists, and the article was about spying indiscriminately on the German population. And the Merkel government really made clear that they didn’t really care about that much. They issued some meek denunciations but were very willing to ignore the story. Only once it then got reported that Angela Merkel herself was the target of surveillance did it suddenly become a serious issue. But that has now created real difficulties in the U.S.-German relationship because of the history of spying abuses in Germany, both under the Nazi regime, but especially the Stasi regime.

AMY GOODMAN: No Place to Hide, Glenn Greenwald, also includes a letter from a high-level Australian official asking the U.S. government to help it spy on Australian citizens.

GLENN GREENWALD: Yeah, I mean, this is a big part of the story, which is, if you listen to these governments, in response to the stories that we’ve been reporting, what they’ll say is, “Oh,” to their own citizens, “you don’t need to worry, because there’s all these restrictions on how we can spy on you. Yes, we can spy on the rest of the world as much as we want. But,” these governments say, “when it comes to you, our wonderful citizens, we have all kinds of legal restrictions.” And yet, what this document shows, that’s being published for the first time, is that what these governments will do is they will ask their surveillance partners to spy on their own people for them and then give them the fruits of that surveillance so they can learn everything that they want to know about their own population while pretending to abide by the legal restrictions that have been imposed on them.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Glenn Greenwald, a lot of people are happy that in planes you can increasingly get access to the Internet. Can you talk about your new revelations in this book, GCHQ and NSA, their access to the Internet in planes?

GLENN GREENWALD: Yeah, I mean, you know, the reason why I published this story was because it reveals so much about how these agencies think. And, you know, the documents demonstrate that there have been tens—hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars spent to make certain that the NSA and the GCHQ can listen to any in-flight cellphone calls that they want, from those phones that are embedded on the seats in front of you, and, more importantly, to be able to monitor all Internet activity that takes place over the wi-fi service of a commercial jet. And they didn’t do this because there was a case where someone on a plane plotted something that they weren’t able to monitor. They’re not doing it because there are specific, targeted concerns. The reason they’re doing this is because they are obsessed with the idea that there might be some place on the planet that you can go for a few hours and communicate without their being able to monitor what it is that you’re saying. That shows the institutional mindset, which is there should never be a moment where you can develop the capability to go and speak without their surveillance net. And that’s the reason why they targeted airplanes as the one place left in the world, other than in person in the middle of nowhere, that you can actually speak or do things without their knowledge.

AMY GOODMAN: One NSA chart that you have lists some of the countries whose embassies and consulates were targeted by the NSA—the countries, as you mentioned, Brazil, Bulgaria, Colombia, the EU, France, Georgia, Greece, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Slovakia, South Africa, Taiwan, Venezuela, Vietnam—and also lists the methods of collection. And you can explain some of them—computer screens, sensor collection of magnetic emanations. Go on from there, including jumping the air gap.

GLENN GREENWALD: Right, I mean, this is—the reason this document is so significant is because, as you can see, you know, we took some of the names of the countries that were on that list out, which were the ones that you would expect them to be targeting. But these are the lists of countries that are democratically elected, for the most part, and allies of the United States. And these are buildings that are supposed to be sacred. They’re consulates and embassies in the United States that are a crucial part of diplomacy, of the ability of nations to communicate with one another and have diplomatic relations. And what the list shows is that for pretty much every single one of these buildings, the NSA has invaded the communication systems and is collecting the information that take place, even with some really extreme tactics, like, for example, an air gap computer is a computer that is used that never connects to the Internet, the idea being that you can work with very sensitive documents on this computer, and since you never connect to the Internet, it’s almost impossible for someone to know what you’re doing. We use that as journalists all the time when we work on these documents. And the only way to, quote-unquote, “jump the air gap,” meaning to actually invade those computers, is to physically go into the computer itself and implant a surveillance device within it covertly. And what this document shows is that the NSA is doing even that kind of invasive, stealth surveillance on its allies in their own consulates and embassies, even breaking into their offices and implanting surveillance devices within the machine. That’s the extreme lengths to which the NSA goes for spying that has always been deemed essentially illegitimate.

AMY GOODMAN: Computer screens?

GLENN GREENWALD: Computer screens, computer—to be able to monitor what it is that they’re doing on their computers.

AMY GOODMAN: Magnetic emanations?

GLENN GREENWALD: Yeah, these are ways of essentially figuring out what a computer is doing, tapping into how it functions, and then being able to suck all the data up.


GLENN GREENWALD: Yeah, I’m not sure what that is, actually. We’ve asked several experts. It could be, you know, some tactic that people aren’t aware of.

AMY GOODMAN: And the document you include from October 3rd, 2012, about the NSA targeting of, quote, “radicals”?

GLENN GREENWALD: You know, one of the interesting things is, obviously, people are very aware of the COINTEL abuses. I know you’ve had people on your show who actually participated in the break-in of the FBI and took the documents that unveiled that program. People are aware of J. Edgar Hoover’s abuses. The nature of that series of events is that the United States government looks at people who oppose what they do as being, quote-unquote, “threats.” That’s the nature of power, is to regard anybody who’s a threat to your power as a broad national security threat. And a lot of times people will say, “We don’t yet have the reporting in this case that shows that kind of abuse.” And a lot of that reporting is still reporting that we’re working on and that I promise you is coming.

But there has already been reporting that shows that—the document, for example, in the book that shows the NSA plotting about how to use information that it collected against people it considers, quote, “radicalizers.” These are people the NSA itself says are not terrorists, do not belong to terrorist organizations, do not plan terrorist attacks. They simply express ideas the NSA considers radical. The NSA has collected their online sexual activity, chats of a sexual nature that they’ve had, pornographic websites that they visit, and plans, in the document, on how to use this information publicly to destroy the reputations or credibility of those people to render them ineffective as advocates. There are other documents showing the monitoring of who visits the WikiLeaks website and the collection of data that can identify who they are. There’s information about how to use deception to undermine people who are affiliated with the online activism group Anonymous. So there are lots of—

AMY GOODMAN: No mention of Occupy?

GLENN GREENWALD: Right, no mention of Occupy, which hardly means that it wasn’t done. It could be by other agencies. It could just be documents that were not among the ones Edward Snowden collected. But it certainly is the case that they are targeting people who engage in similar kinds of political activism for surveillance targeting.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re speaking with Glenn Greenwald, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author of the new book, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State. If you want to get a copy of the show, you can go to our website at democracynow.org. When we return, Glenn tells us just who NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden is. What is his life story? Stay with us.

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