Glenn Greenwald on U.S. Hacking, Edward Snowden, the Dangers of Obsessing over Russia & More

Web ExclusiveOctober 05, 2018
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Extended conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept on the U.S. indictment of Russian hackers, U.S.-China relations, Noam Chomsky’s visit to Brazil, Edward Snowden and more.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we bring you Part 2 of our discussion with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald.

Bloomberg is reporting that China inserted microchips into servers used by major tech companies such as Apple and Amazon that give backdoor access to data. The minuscule, “grain of rice”-sized chip would allow hackers to bypass security and remotely access the networks of these companies. Both Apple and Amazon are denying the claims in the report.

Meanwhile, Vice President Mike Pence accused China of interfering in the U.S. midterm elections in order to undermine President Trump.

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: The American people deserve to know. In response to the strong stand that President Trump has taken, Beijing is pursuing a comprehensive and coordinated campaign to undermine support for the president, our agenda and our nation’s most cherished ideals.

AMY GOODMAN: Vice President Pence’s warning to Beijing comes amidst this growing U.S.-China trade war and as the Pentagon is reportedly planning a massive show of force in November, with U.S. warships and planes set to carry out exercises near China’s territorial waters in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait.

Glenn Greenwald, you’re speaking to us from Rio de Janeiro. You’re near your home in Brazil. Can you talk about the significance of this, this happening at the same time—and we’ll talk about this in a moment—that the Justice Department was indicting a group of Russian hackers, Pence is focusing on China and how it is the greatest threat to the midterm elections in the United States?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, as you know, we’ve talked about the Trump-Russia controversy on your show many times over the last two years, and one of the points I’ve made often is that even if you believe the kind of maximalist theory about what Russia did in the 2016 election, the focus on it, and the scope of and in the context of geopolitics, is so wildly exaggerated and has the effect of drowning out a lot of other extremely important—in fact, more important—concerns. And it always seemed much more political to me than rational or intellectual.

And I think China is a really good example, because, by every metric, China is a much more powerful country than Russia. It’s a much more serious and wily competitor than Russia is to U.S. hegemony and to U.S. power. And if you look at not what right-wing think tanks, but left-wing think tanks and economists have been focused on over the last decade or more, it isn’t economic policies of Russia threatening wages and threatening economic equality in the United States; it’s the ability of China to use unfair trade practices to undermine the American worker and the like.

This whole thing about Pence and China interfering in our elections is obviously a kind of attempt to exploit the narrative of the Democrats that the Russians are interfering to help Trump, by saying, “No, actually, China is doing the opposite.” I don’t take that very seriously at all. I’m sure China is involved in our politics, just like we’re involved in theirs and every other countries’.

But what I do think is a legitimate issue is that if you look at any policy perspective from the United States, China is a more serious competitor and a more influential and consequential competitor than the country on which we’ve obsessively and monomaniacally focused for the last two years, which is Russia.

AMY GOODMAN: And this issue of the U.S. military exercises that will be—that the U.S. will be sending planes and ships right off the coast of China?

GLENN GREENWALD: I mean, I think that one of the big problems in the narrative that has emerged in the United States over the last two years is that we need to be belligerent and more aggressive with whoever we regard as our adversaries. That’s certainly been the bipartisan consensus when it comes to Russia, and I think you see this now migrating towards China and to other countries, as well.

At the very same time that the Democrats and others have accused Trump of being insufficiently belligerent to Russia, he’s been surrounding himself with people I would regard as not just deranged, but almost maniacal, when it comes to recklessness in dealing with other countries, led by people like John Bolton, whose fingerprints, I think, are all over things like these threats towards China, the withdrawal from international tribunals and other institutions, things John Bolton wanted to do, by all accounts, during the Bush administration, where, even with Dick Cheney as his ally, he wasn’t able to get done and now is able to do.

So I think that a lot of our focus has been kind of misdirected to places that aren’t very dangerous, namely Moscow, and has caused us to ignore things that the Trump administration is doing that are genuinely very dangerous, such as this kind of provocation when it comes to China and other countries that are a lot more threatening than Russia is.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to talk about Russia for a minute. The Justice Department has just indicted seven Russian agents for conspiring to hack the computers of anti-doping officials who uncovered a massive ring of Russian state-sponsored cheating by athletes ahead of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where you are, actually, Glenn. U.S. Attorney Scott Brady said Thursday the seven agents have ties to the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency; he said they went on to attempt hacks against other targets.

U.S. ATTORNEY SCOTT BRADY: They targeted Westinghouse, a nuclear power company based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that supplied nuclear fuel to the Ukraine. They targeted the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which was investigating the use of chemical weapons in Syria and the poisoning of a former GRU officer and his daughter in the U.K. And they targeted a lab in Switzerland that analyzed the nerve agent used in that poisoning.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.S. indictments came as the Dutch Defense Ministry said counterintelligence officials broke up a hacking attempt by four Russians last April, as they used sophisticated electronic equipment to try to break into the computers of the OPCW—that’s the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons—from a parking lot in The Hague. The Dutch said the Russians had a receipt which showed they took a taxi ride from the headquarters of GRU in Russia—that’s Russia’s military intelligence service—to Moscow’s main airport. The four Russians arrived on diplomatic passports, and they were then expelled from the Netherlands. Russia has rejected the U.S. indictments and the Dutch allegations, calling them part of a disinformation campaign. Glenn Greenwald?

GLENN GREENWALD: I mean, to be honest, I find all of these stories extremely baffling, the attempt to criminalize international espionage, electronic surveillance and hacking. And maybe the reason for that is, is that, as you know, I spent two or three years of my life, very recently, in 2013, 2014 and 2015, reading through hundreds of thousands, if not more, of top-secret documents from the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Australia that details extensively the fact that those five countries do exactly what this indictment lays out against Russia toward every conceivable target that you could possibly think of, from human rights institutions to the United Nations to foreign governments, including allied ones, even to private companies. Here in Brazil, the biggest story, for example, or one of the biggest stories, as part of the Snowden reporting that we did, was the NSA attempts—not attempts, but success, in hacking into the email accounts and telephone lines of Petrobras, the state-owned oil giant here in Brazil that funds Brazilian social programs.

So, I don’t mean at all to suggest that because the United States does it, it’s OK for Russia or anybody else to do. But what I do mean to suggest is that this is unbelievably commonplace and widespread among every large-scale country. Iran does it. China does it. The Russians certainly do it. The U.S. and their allies do it. And so, this idea that we’re now going to start criminalizing hackers and indicting Russian hackers, that we know we’re never actually going to be able to apprehend, makes no sense to me. What will happen if the Russians start indicting NSA agents who are hacking into Russian oil companies, as they are absolutely doing and has been reported, or into the allies of Russian governments or foreign companies or international organizations that monitor human rights? It just—the purpose of it is very difficult to understand, given that, A, we’re never going to actually be able to apprehend them—Russians never—the Russians are never going to extradite them—and, B, it’s creating a framework in which the U.S. is just as susceptible as everybody they’re accusing to the same kinds of accusations, and everybody knows that. So, other than this kind of political effort to continue to point fingers at Russia for political purposes and propagandistic purposes, it’s hard for me to understand what, beyond that, might be motivating this.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn, you know, you talked about what the U.S. is doing, and we’re talking on the day of the announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize, and it went to two people, Dr. Mukwege and Nadia Murad, who fight sexual violence—Nadia, a sexual violence survivor, as well. But one of the people on the shortlist, the name being bandied about, was Edward Snowden. I thought I might be talking to you about him today, but I want to anyway, because the significance of this, that he is considered by so many not only so important for breaking open what the U.S. is doing, not to mention other countries, but hailed for so many as a hero in the world for talking about threats to privacy. Can you talk about what’s happening with him right now and what he did, why it matters so much to so many, and particularly key in understanding what’s happening when the U.S. talks about China and Russia but doesn’t talk about itself?

GLENN GREENWALD: Yeah, you know, one of the advantages of living in a country other than the one in which you were born and raised is that you do see sometimes how aberrational the perspective is of your own country, which is very difficult to see when you’re kind of immersed in it and you think that everybody sees the world the same way. And so, I mean, we talked, for example, briefly, during the live part of the show, about the Brazilian elections and the way in which Noam Chomsky has spent the month here in Brazil, in part because his wife is Brazilian, in part because he’s a longtime activist when it comes to Latin American politics and has known Lula for a long time. And what amazed me was not just the way in which Noam Chomsky’s visit to Lula and just his general pronouncements were covered by the mainstream Brazilian press, but also the way in which every major center or center-left candidate went to visit and meet with Chomsky, took pictures of themselves with him and then published it proudly online. So, the contrast between how Noam Chomsky is treated in multiple countries around the world, including in Brazil, as one of the world’s most important intellectuals, with whom political figures want to meet and want people to see they’re meeting, because it raises their credibility, and whose pronouncements are treated as important news events by media institutions, in contrast to the U.S., where he’s silenced, where he’s ignored, where he’s suppressed from mainstream media outlets, is incredibly stark. And it makes you realize that, actually, the way that the U.S. sees so many things is itself aberrational, because the treatment of Chomsky and how he’s regarded around the world is much closer to what happened in Brazil than what happens in the U.S.

And the same is true of Edward Snowden. If you go to the U.S., he’s largely talked about often as a traitor, or at least somebody whose motives are in serious doubt or should be questioned, whereas in most places around the world he’s celebrated and regarded as a hero. People forget that the reason the Hong Kong government allowed him to leave, despite U.S. government demands, was because by that point he had become such a hero, not just in Hong Kong and China, for exposing U.S. surveillance of the entire Chinese telecommunications system, that the Chinese government and the Hong Kong government couldn’t withstand popular pressure and had to let him go. When I go anywhere in Brazil, including when I went to testify before the Brazilian Senate, members of the Brazilian Senate, from many different parties, wore Edward Snowden masks, in solidarity with him, because of their gratitude for what he showed Brazil about what the NSA was doing. And so, so often the way the U.S. looks at the world is actually the rogue way of looking at the world, not the mainstream way of looking at the world. And how Edward Snowden, in particular, is regarded, the fact that he was a serious candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, whereas in Washington he’s talked about as though he’s some kind of traitor who belongs in prison—and, in fact, they’re trying to put him in prison, and would, if they could—further shows this kind of disparity. And it’s difficult to see when you’re in the U.S., even if you’re looking at things with a critical eye, because of how dominant media narratives can be.

AMY GOODMAN: Actually, if you could give us an update on what is President Trump—or, what’s going on behind the scenes? Since you speak with Edward Snowden, who’s in Moscow, got political asylum there, but obviously would like to come back to the United States. What’s the Trump administration saying to Snowden right now? What is his possibility of returning?

GLENN GREENWALD: I think the possibility of his returning under a Trump administration is basically zero, not because of President Trump himself, although Donald Trump did say in 2013, when the Snowden story happened, that Snowden was a traitor who ought to be executed, but because of the people who Trump has empowered and with whom he has surrounded himself. The military and the intelligence community continue to hate Edward Snowden with a passion that is exceeded only by the contempt that they harbor for Julian Assange. And so, the idea that he would be able to come back to the U.S. and not go to prison for a long time, I think, continues to be a fantasy that no one is seriously considering.

There was some talk for a while, among Democrats, that Trump and Putin would reach some kind of a deal where Putin would hand over Snowden to Trump in order to empower Trump and make him stronger. And that was never a real possibility for a lot of reasons, including the fact that, as I learned when I went to Moscow just recently, it’s kind of embedded in the Russian culture that people who seek asylum and political protection from the West in Russia are people who the Russian government has a duty to protect. And in the words of certain journalists and activists I’ve talked to, including ones opposed to Putin, it would kind of be an un-Russian thing to do for Putin to turn Snowden over to the U.S. So I think he’s safe in Russia. He’s free to speak out. He’s free to criticize the Russian government, as he does very, very frequently and aggressively. But I don’t think there’s any prospect that he’ll be returning to the United States anytime soon.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, I want to go back to Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who’s been accused of sexual assault and misconduct by several women. On Thursday, over 300 protesters were arrested on Capitol Hill protesting his confirmation. President Trump just tweeted, “The very rude elevator screamers”—let me just say, he is responding to some women coming up to Orrin Hatch going into an elevator as they were protesting, and he responds, “Grow up,” and then paternalistically waves at them while the elevator was closing. So, Trump responds and says, “The very rude elevator screamers are paid professionals only looking to make Senators look bad. Don’t fall for it! Also, look at all of the professionally made identical signs. Paid for by Soros and others. These are not signs made in the basement from love! #Troublemakers.” That’s President Trump’s tweet today. Glenn Greenwald?

GLENN GREENWALD: You know, there’s so much going on with the whole Kavanaugh nomination, and obviously the fact that he was nominated by somebody who himself not just was accused of, but was caught on tape admitting to, multiple acts of sexual assault makes it—you know, it’s one of the ugliest things we’ve witnessed in U.S. politics in quite a long time. And I’m sure that even Kavanaugh’s most dedicated supporters would wish that Donald Trump would remove himself from defending Kavanaugh, because everything he does makes the case for Kavanaugh much more difficult, particularly when it comes to looking at people like Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, who must be cringing at the idea that Brett Kavanaugh’s leading defender is somebody who we all know has committed sexual assault, because he boasted of doing so on tapes that we all heard.

You know, I think that there is this real question that isn’t just a question about the #MeToo movement, but has gone back many decades, about how it is that we treat accusations of sexual assault, because it is true that it is a crime that is more insusceptible to evidence than pretty much every other crime, in part because it usually happens with no witnesses, in part because usually physical evidence is not left, and, most importantly, because it’s the only crime that I can think of where there’s an actual stigma and societal shame attached not to the perpetrator of the crime but to the victim of the crime, which makes immediate reporting, or even reporting in a short period of time, very unlikely, for reasons that are highly understandable. On the other side, we should take seriously the possibility that sometimes people are wrongfully accused and want a procedure in place that ensures a fair process, even if just their reputation is at stake, as opposed to putting them in prison. And I think so many of these values are clashing in a way that we, as a society, haven’t quite figured out what to do.

But I don’t think any fair-minded person could have listened to Dr. Ford and come away with anything other than a belief that what she was saying was true and credible. And as I said earlier, the fact that Brett Kavanaugh exploded with this internal rage and extremely partisan anger, that’s not surprising given his history as a political operative, not a judicial scholar in D.C., makes it such that putting him on the court would seriously harm an institution whose integrity has already been harmed over years, in a way that I think makes his nomination untenable. At the end of the day, though, Republicans have been savoring this moment for decades, to have five reliable right-wing votes on the Supreme Court, and so I can’t imagine the Republican-controlled Senate not confirming him. But I hope I’m wrong about that.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Greenwald, we want to thank you so much for being with us, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, one of the founding editors of The Intercept. Go to democracynow.org for Part 1 of our discussion about the elections in Brazil, which take place on Sunday. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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