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Glenn Greenwald: As Bezos Protests Invasion of His Privacy, Amazon Builds Global Surveillance State

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Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is publicly accusing the owner of the National Enquirer of “extortion and blackmail,” weeks after the paper revealed details about his extramarital affair. Bezos had recently hired a private investigator to determine how the tabloid newspaper obtained private text messages between him and his lover, and whether the paper’s actions were politically motivated. The National Enquirer’s parent company, American Media, Inc., responded to Bezos’s investigation by threatening to publish revealing photos of Bezos if he did not agree to publicly state that the Enquirer’s coverage was not politically motivated or influenced by political forces. We speak with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald about the dispute and Amazon’s role in building the surveillance state.

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

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show looking at the ongoing fight between the world’s richest man and the National Enquirer. Last week, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos publicly accused the owner of the tabloid newspaper of “extortion and blackmail,” weeks after the paper revealed details about his extramarital affair. Bezos had recently hired a private investigator to determine how the tabloid newspaper, the National Enquirer, obtained private text messages between him and his lover, and whether the paper’s actions were politically motivated. The National Enquirer's parent company, American Media, Inc., responded to Bezos's investigation by threatening to publish revealing photos of Bezos if he did not agree to publicly state that the National Enquirer’s coverage is not politically motivated or influenced by political forces.

The dispute became public Thursday, when Bezos wrote a detailed blog post on the site Medium and reprinted AMI’s threatening letters. Bezos suggested the leak of his text messages might be connected to his ownership of The Washington Post. Bezos wrote, “It’s unavoidable that certain powerful people who experience Washington Post news coverage will wrongly conclude I am their enemy. President Trump is one of those people, obvious by his many tweets. Also, The Post’s essential and unrelenting coverage of the murder of its columnist Jamal Khashoggi is undoubtedly unpopular in certain circles,” he wrote. In his blog post, Bezos went on to write, “For reasons still to be better understood, the Saudi angle seems to hit a particularly sensitive nerve,” unquote.

While the National Enquirer has had a long, close relationship with President Trump, the paper is denying its reporting on Bezos was politically motivated. On Sunday, Elkan Abramowitz, an attorney for National Enquirer editor David Pecker, appeared on ABC’s This Week, hosted by George Stephanopoulos.

ELKAN ABRAMOWITZ: Both Bezos and AMI had interests in resolving their differences. Bezos didn’t want another story written about him or those pictures published. AMI did not want to have the libel against them that this was inspired by the White House, inspired by Saudi Arabia or inspired by The Washington Post. It had nothing to do with it. It was a usual story that National Enquirer gets from reliable sources.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: The National Enquirer believes that these photos were newsworthy, yet they’re offering their not to publish them in return for a thing of value from Jeff Bezos, letting go of the legal liabilities, saying that it wasn’t politically motivated. How is that not extortion?

ELKAN ABRAMOWITZ: That is not extortion because all that AMI wanted was the truth. Bezos and Ms. Sánchez knew who the source was. Any investigator that was going to investigate this knew who the source was. It was not the White House. It was not Saudi Arabia. And the libel that was going out there, slamming AMI, was that this was all a political hatchet job sponsored by either a foreign nation or somebody politically in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Elkan Abramowitz, an attorney for former National Enquirer editor David Pecker, the CEO of American Media, Inc. He was being interviewed by George Stephanopoulos of ABC.

While Abramowitz did not name the paper’s source, The Daily Beast is identifying the source as Michael Sánchez, the brother of Bezos’s lover Lauren Sánchez. Michael Sánchez reportedly has ties to several people with connections to Donald Trump, including Roger Stone and Carter Page.

We turn now to the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald, co-founder of The Intercept, who joins us from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His latest piece is headlined “Jeff Bezos Protests the Invasion of His Privacy, as Amazon Builds a Sprawling Surveillance State for Everyone Else.”

Glenn, welcome back to Democracy Now! So, for people who are not following every step of this case, the first part of this, in the past few days, where Jeff Bezos said he was not going to be intimidated, he would not be blackmailed or extorted, with the general counsel of AMI, American Media, which owns National Enquirer, writing a letter to Jeff Bezos’s lawyer saying, “You say we’re not political, or we will release this trove of texts and photos.” Some people are calling for Bezos to get the Pulitzer Prize and others for standing up to National Enquirer threatening them. Your thoughts on this? And take it from there.

GLENN GREENWALD: It’s a very complicated story. Americans love to venerate billionaires, and so it’s not a surprise that one of the first instincts was to herald Jeff Bezos as some sort of grand hero of a free press and open transparency. I do think one of the benefits of what he did could be important, and it’s perhaps something that it takes a billionaire to do, which is to kind of remove the stigma that surrounds adult consensual sex in the United States. Whenever there’s a sex scandal, there is this sort of adolescent, prurient interest on the part of the media. People love to sit in judgment of other people. And he essentially said, “Look, I prefer that you not publish naked photos of me and my mistress, but if that’s what you’re going to do, I’m not going to be bullied and intimidated by you. I’m not going to be ashamed.” And to the extent that in the future we can be a little bit more mature about the fact that adults do in fact have sexual relations with other adults and that it’s none of our business when they do, as long as it’s consensual and with other adults, I think this could be a positive aspect to the story.

Having said that, it is, I think, something that seems to be true that Jeff Bezos was trying to imply, and a lot of media outlets were using innuendo to support, the notion that the National Enquirer was able to obtain these text messages between him and his mistress as a result of abuse by the surveillance state, meaning that Donald Trump views Jeff Bezos as a political enemy because Jeff Bezos is the owner of The Washington Post, that has become very antagonistic to Donald Trump during the Trump presidency, and that either the powers of the NSA or the FBI were abused in order to intercept these messages and then give them to the National Enquirer to harm Jeff Bezos. And as it turns out, that speculation seems to be unfounded. As you said, The Daily Beast and other outlets in the U.K. are reporting that the source of this material was not the NSA or the FBI, but was the brother of Jeff Bezos’s mistress, who, although he’s politically connected to right-wing operatives, nonetheless is a private individual and seemingly obtained this material not by abusing surveillance state authorities, but instead by using his relationship with his sister to do it.

The one last point I’ll make just on this initial question is that, obviously, if it were the case that the powers of the NSA or the FBI or the CIA or the surveillance state had been abused against a political enemy to collect embarrassing information about Jeff Bezos, that would be a really serious scandal that we should all be extremely indignant and concerned about. The problem I have with that is that as part of the Snowden reporting in 2014, we were able to report, with The Huffington Post, that one of the programs of the NSA is to do exactly this, is to collect the browsing histories and sex chats and porn site visits of people, typically Muslims that the NSA regards as, quote, “radicalizers”—not terrorists, not people plotting terrorist plots, just people who the NSA or the U.S. government believes disseminates radical messages—and collects their porn site visits and their sex chats in order to leak them, ruin their reputation, destroy their ability to speak out. This is an actual NSA program. And I think we ought to care about that not just when it’s used against white billionaires like Jeff Bezos, but also when it’s used to target Muslims that the NSA regards as radical, which is an actual thing the NSA is doing, that we revealed in 2014, thanks to the Snowden documents.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the letter that—before we get to that, the letter that Jon Fine, the general counsel for AMI, for American Media, wrote, it’s quite amazing he put this on paper, “A public”—that they are demanding “A public, mutually-agreed upon acknowledgment from the Bezos Parties, released through a mutually-agreeable news outlet, affirming that they have no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AM’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces, and an agreement that they will cease referring to such a possibility.”

Now, this is particularly significant, if this is blackmail or extortion, saying that they would release the photos and texts if they didn’t, because of AMI’s agreement with—immunity agreement with the Southern District of New York, that they were granted immunity, and if in fact they broke the law by being involved with extortion or blackmail, they could lose that immunity. And this is investigating, you know, AMI’s relationship, the National Enquirer’s relationship, with Donald Trump and whether this was an unlisted campaign contribution, you know, paying for and suppressing negative stories about Trump and instead just printing numerous negative stories about Hillary Clinton in the lead-up to the election.

GLENN GREENWALD: Yeah, I think it’s really interesting, because one of the undercovered stories of 2016 was how significant of a role the National Enquirer played in that election. And I think the reason for that is, is that most major media elites don’t pay much attention to the National Enquirer or take it very seriously. But their circulation is really quite large. So, the fact that they were covering the Donald Trump campaign in a very positive way and the Hillary Clinton campaign in a very negative way had a much larger effect than I think most of us—and I include myself here—and the national media realized. There were a couple of bloggers, I remember, at the time, like Digby, who were warning, “Look, the National Enquirer is, every week, publishing positive material about Trump and negative material about Clinton, and there are millions of voters who take that seriously, even if the national media doesn’t.” So, that is a real issue. And the National Enquirer now is swept up in a criminal investigation where they’ve essentially admitted guilt in participating in hush money payments by agreeing to silence stories of Donald Trump’s mistresses in order to help him become elected, which may very well be a campaign violation.

So, the National Enquirer is the—are the last people I want to defend. They’re the slimiest, most, you know, bottom-of-the-barrel-scraping operatives, and have been for a long time. On the question of whether this is actually criminal, though, legally, it is a bit ambiguous, because typically what does happen is, if two parties believe that they’re libeling one another—so, I believe that you’re saying bad things about me that are false, and you believe I’m saying bad things about you that are false—it’s common for our lawyers to write each other letters saying, “Look, we’ll agree that we’ll stop saying this about you, as long as you agree that you’ll stop saying this about us.” And the National Enquirer is saying this wasn’t extortion; this is the standard settlement offer for two parties that believe they were extorted, that they were defaming one another, to stop doing that. But it certainly looks a lot like extortion, given the question that George Stephanopoulos asked, which was actually a good one, which is, “Look, if you believe that these photographs of Jeff Bezos naked with his mistress are newsworthy, how can you possibly agree or offer to conceal them in exchange for Jeff Bezos refusing to investigate your ties to Saudi Arabia or to the Trump administration?” So, it’s at least on the legal line, if not crossing it. And it’s obviously something prosecutors will look at.

AMY GOODMAN: Very interestingly, if this is true, Jon Fine, the general counsel now for AMI, American Media, Inc., which owns National Enquirer, according to The Hill, reportedly worked at Amazon for nine years before taking on his current job at American Media, Inc., worked closely with, under billionaire executive Jeff Bezos as a lawyer, director and then vice president at Amazon between 2006 and 2015—the lawyer that’s threatening him.

GLENN GREENWALD: Yeah, I mean, the old line from—yeah, the old line from George Carlin, I think, really fits well here, which is, there’s a really big, powerful club, and you’re not in it. And that’s one of the odd parts of this story, is that, ordinarily, we would sympathize with the person who was being threatened with exposure of their private life if they didn’t stop making claims about a powerful media outlet, and yet, in this case, the person who is the, quote-unquote, “victim” is not just the world’s richest person, who has gotten extremely rich by virtue of exploiting labor in ways that are wholly horrific and on all different aspects, but also somebody who’s used these tactics himself in the past, and then, most significantly of all, as you referred to earlier, is somebody whose company has become one of the most valuable in the world by virtue of working hand in hand with the U.S. government and with police departments throughout the West in constructing exactly the kind of sprawling, invasive surveillance state that he believes himself now to be a victim of.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to go to break, and we’re going to come back to discuss these issues and more. Yes, Trump has been highly critical of Bezos. And Bezos, Amazon, has a very close relationship with the NSA, with the FBI and other surveillance agencies. We’re going to talk more about that and more with Glenn Greenwald, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, one of the founding editors of The Intercept. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “This Is America” by Childish Gambino, aka Donald Glover, who, last night at the Grammys, became the first-ever artist to take home both record of the year and song of the year. It was the first rap song of the year to win a Grammy. He also won for best music video. He did not attend the ceremony.

This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Glenn Greenwald is our guest for the hour, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, one of the founding editors of The Intercept, his latest article headlined “Jeff Bezos Protests the Invasion of His Privacy, as Amazon Builds a Sprawling Surveillance State for Everyone Else.”

So, Glenn, let’s take it from there. Talk about this sprawling surveillance state, as you describe it, and Bezos’s relationship with the national security state.

GLENN GREENWALD: So, obviously, as a result of the Snowden reporting, a lot of attention was devoted to the sprawling, invasive surveillance activities of government agencies, like the NSA in the U.S. and the GCHQ in the U.K. and their partners in Australia, New Zealand and Canada. And less attention has been paid, or at least was paid, as part of that story, to the private corporations, the Silicon Valley giants, who play a crucial role in partnering with these government agencies to construct that surveillance state.

And some attention has been devoted in recent years to the role both Google and especially Facebook are playing in creating a ubiquitous surveillance state, but much less so for Amazon, which has done a really good job of branding itself in this very kind of unthreatening and benign way as a deliverer of books and other merchandise, when in fact one of the central components of Amazon’s business, that has made it one of the most valuable companies in the world, are extremely lucrative contracts with the CIA, with the Pentagon, with the Air Force, with police departments all over the Western world, not just in the U.S., to use technology to enhance the ability of governments and police forces to engage in surveillance.

They’ve created a facial recognition software that they call Rekognition—with a K—that can scan millions or thousands of faces in crowds and identify them, to enable police to find people they’re looking for. They’ve developed software algorithms to determine somebody’s accent—

AMY GOODMAN: This is Rekognition?

GLENN GREENWALD: —so police forces can—I’m sorry?

AMY GOODMAN: This is Rekognition, R-E-K-O-G?

GLENN GREENWALD: Exactly, exactly. And the ACLU has warned that it’s one of the most threatening and potentially menacing privacy-invasive technologies yet, because it destroys the ability to be anonymous even just on the street. It allows the police and the government to just identify every person where you are, when you’re just walking in public. That’s an Amazon product.

They’ve developed apps that enable police departments to allow citizens to report suspicious people, so that the information is stored not with the police, but with Amazon cloud services.

There’s a product called Ring, that has been wildly successful, that is marketed as a home security system, that surveils the perimeter of your house and records everybody coming in and out of your house. And The Intercept, last month, has reported that they’ve been incredibly reckless with allowing Ukrainians and other government agencies to have access to this vast amount of data, that actually ends up spying on your own home.

They have a $500 million contract with the CIA to provide cloud services. They have a $600 million contract with the Air Force to build spying satellites. And they’re now vying for and are the leader—the favorites to win a $10 billion contract with the Pentagon to provide cloud storage services to put all of the data that the Pentagon stores into Amazon technology. So they have become a central cog in the military-industrial complex, as well as the invasive surveillance state that Jeff Bezos spent a week trying to imply—falsely, it turns out—was misused in order to invade his privacy.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about a piece you did a while ago, “Amazon’s Accent Recognition Technology Could the Government Where You’re From”? It’s not from you, but from The Intercept.

GLENN GREENWALD: Yeah, that’s the interesting thing, is The Intercept has actually been doing ongoing coverage, not necessarily from me, but from our team of technology reporters, about all of these innovations that Amazon is boasting, that are incredibly privacy-invasive, one of which you just mentioned, that allows the technology, through Skype, through chats, through other writing analysis, to determine what your accent is. So, if you’re not a native speaker of English, it will be able to identify the original language that you learned as your first language, and therefore determine where you’re from—a tool that the CIA and the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, including the NSA, want to get their hands on in order to start looking for people of specific national origin or where they came from. ICE is particularly interested in that technology.

And again, the ACLU issued a really vehement warning about this particular product, saying that it will almost certainly target marginalized groups, vulnerable groups, not just people who are here on an undocumented basis, but people that the government are searching for based strictly on national identity, so that you can’t even type on your computer or speak on the telephone without Amazon enabling the government to analyze where you’re from.

AMY GOODMAN: You also wrote a piece in October [sic] saying that Bezos’s company—you said, “Just last October, [Bezos’s] company, Blue Origin, won a $500 million contract from the U.S. Air Force to help develop military rockets and spy satellites. Bezos personally thanked them in a tweet, proclaiming how 'proud' he is 'to serve the national security space community.'”

GLENN GREENWALD: This is what’s really frightening, Amy, is that Silicon Valley is producing companies, and the billionaires who control them, whose wealth and power are unprecedented. Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg and the people who control Google have more power than almost every nation-state, if not more power than all of them. And increasingly, they’re integrating into these nation-states and performing the core functions, the most threatening and dangerous functions of them, with almost no transparency. And this is the frightening thing. So, if we have, for example, NASA or the Air Force, we at least have congressional oversight. We nominally have laws, like FOIA, that enable us to find out what they’re doing. With Amazon and with Google and Facebook’s development of artificial intelligence, it’s almost entirely opaque.

And so, you have these people of unlimited wealth, virtually, but also sitting on huge amounts of our personal data, who now, increasingly, are buying media outlets—Jeff Bezos is the owner of The Washington Post—so they have media power, as well, consolidating all of that into the military-industrial complex. And the fact that Jeff Bezos just openly tweets how happy he is to receive a $500 million contract in service of the U.S. Air Force shows how much this partnership is growing and how kind of open they are about it, despite how little we know about it and how little time we spend talking about its implications.

AMY GOODMAN: Interestingly, you point out Jeff Bezos’s maternal grandfather, Lawrence Preston Gise, worked for DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, in the 1950s?

GLENN GREENWALD: Yeah. I mean, the ties go back very, very far. And again, you know, it’s one of these things where if you talk to people about what Amazon is, most people’s interaction with Amazon is very unthreatening. It’s the place that you buy books from, that we now download our Kindle books from, that we order household products from, that deliver it to our house. But just like Google, which we only interact with as kind of the free search term, that, in reality, every time we use, its real business is unseen to us, which is to analyze how the human brain functions, so that it can replicate and then even improve upon brain functioning in order to create artificial intelligence that’s more potent than the human brain—that’s its real businesses, that’s hidden—the real business of Amazon also remains hidden because of the power of their branding and marketing.

AMY GOODMAN: Gleen, we’re going to break again, and then, when we come back, well, you’re in the news today, and it involves a controversy with Ilhan Omar. We’re also going to talk about Brazil, hopefully get to Venezuela. Glenn Greenwald, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, founding editor—one of the founding editors of The Intercept. And we’re going to link to his piece, “Jeff Bezos Protests the Invasion of His Privacy, as Amazon Builds a Sprawling Surveillance State for Everyone Else.” Stay with us.

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