NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Glenn Greenwald and Chris Hedges discuss mass surveillance, government secrecy, internet freedom and U.S. attempts to extradite and prosecute WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. They spoke together on a panel moderated by Amy Goodman at the virtual War on Terror Film Festival after a screening of “Citizenfour” — the Oscar-winning documentary about Snowden by Laura Poitras.
AMY GOODMAN: Today, a special on two people who will not be home for the holidays: Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. In this special broadcast, we spend the hour with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, along with two Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists, Glenn Greenwald and Chris Hedges.
I recently moderated a discussion with them at the virtual War on Terror Film Festival after a screening of Citizenfour, the Oscar-winning documentary about Edward Snowden by Laura Poitras. The documentary chronicles how Snowden met with Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald in a hotel room in Hong Kong in June 2013 to share a trove of secret documents about how the United States had built a massive surveillance apparatus to spy on Americans and people across the globe. It was the biggest leak ever to come out of the NSA.
After sharing the documents, Edward Snowden was charged in the United States for violating the Espionage Act and other laws. As he attempted to flee from Hong Kong to Latin America, Snowden was stranded in Russia at the airport after the U.S. revoked his passport. He was granted political asylum and has lived in Moscow ever since.
I began by asking Edward Snowden to talk about why he chose to blow the whistle on the NSA.
EDWARD SNOWDEN: I grew up in the shadow of government. Both my parents worked for the government, and I expected that I would, as well.
September 11th happened when I was 18 years old. And it was one of those things that really changes the politics not only of the people but of the place. And at the time, I didn’t really question that. It just seemed like, you know, we had this new problem. Everybody on TV is saying we can deal with it. And when everybody else was protesting the Iraq War, I was volunteering to join it. And that’s because I believed the things that the government was saying — not all of them, of course, but I believed that the government was mostly honest, because it seemed to me unreasonable that the government would be willing to risk sort of our long-term faith in the institution of government for short-term political advantage. As I said, I was a very young man.
And I ended up going to work for the CIA undercover overseas out in the diplomatic platforms. Then I moved into contracting, which is really — you’re still working for the government, in government offices, taking the directives from government managers, working on government equipment, but the badge that you wear that identifies you changes from blue to green — the color of money, because most people go into contracting still working for the government in these classified spaces because you make basically twice as much for the same work. And then I worked in Japan for the NSA, before eventually bouncing back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, until I ended up in Hawaii in a little place called the Office of Information Sharing.
And it was only here — and I was the sole employee of the Office of Information Sharing; they didn’t realize how good I would be at that job, and neither did I — that I could see the whole picture, which was, at the same time that I was beginning to identify with the government, the government was beginning to identify less with its citizens and the public of the world, more generally.
What had happened was, as — you know, we grew up with this idea of the private citizen, because we have no power or influence relative to the great institutions of the day, and the public official— right? — where we know everything about them and what they’re doing, who they’re meeting with and what their policies are and what their interests are. We scrutinize them because they order our lives. Their directives determine what happens tomorrow. Well, that was being inverted. And because of the new war on terror, all the old norms, all the old ideals could be tossed away and replaced with a new system.
And that was the system of mass surveillance, that we were not publicly told about. The government knew it was likely unconstitutional and certainly illegal, but they continued with it anyway, because they argued to themselves, at least, it was necessary. It was not necessary, and it would take some time to establish that with facts, and that’s the story that we’ve gotten the years since.
But, in brief, realizing this, through the documentation of the architecture of the system, how it came to be, who was involved in building it and authorizing it and constructing it, which fell to people like me, who did not realize at each step of our careers what it was we were actually building, because the need-to-know principle collapsed your universe to your work. You didn’t realize what the office next door to you was doing. You weren’t supposed to, for those of us who did know. And it was only by breaking down those barriers, the fact that I moved from CIA to NSA, that I moved from actual officer of government to a contractor working for private companies extending the work of government, then finally working in this office where I could see sort of everything, not just at my agency but many other agencies, that I saw the large picture. And that was fundamentally that the government had lied not only to me but to all of us.
And this, to me, seemed like something, publicly, broadly, we had to know, because if government is, in a democracy, intended to be mandated by the consent of the governed, but we don’t know what it is that they’re doing, then that’s not consent, or it’s not informed consent. If consent is not informed, it’s not meaningful. And so I started writing to journalists. That brought me eventually to Glenn. And that’s where the story goes from there.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about that, that reaching out to Laura Poitras and Glenn? And yes, I want you to tell the story again because there are many who haven’t seen the film, and it is that act that — and we’ll introduce Glenn — when you decided to leave everything that you knew so well, where you felt so safe, to enter a world where, as you said, you had no idea where you would end up.
EDWARD SNOWDEN: Well, when you first enter on duty at the CIA, they take you in a dark room. It’s a very solemn ceremony. You raise your hand and say, you know, “I,” — state your name, whatever — “do solemnly swear to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” They talk about the oath of secrecy. There is no oath of secrecy. There is a Standard Form 312, classified nondisclosure agreement, whatever, that you sign, which is what they’re actually referring to, but it’s not an oath. It’s a civil agreement.
Now, on the other hand, you do take this oath of service, as they describe it. And this, for me, is what animated [inaudible] forward. What happens when you have conflicting obligations? On one hand, you’re supposed to keep these secrets of government, because this is all classified information that we’re discussing. The fact that the government is breaking the law is itself a secret. But when the government’s lawbreaking is a violation of the Constitution that you entered into duty to uphold, what then do you do?
You know, I talked to my colleagues. I talked to my bosses. They wanted nothing to do with this. Many of them agreed that it was wrong, but they said, “You know, it’s not my job to fix it. It’s not your job, either.” And they knew what would happen as a result. Everybody knew the government was going to be extremely unhappy. And everybody who has done this in the past has ended up charged and imprisoned as a result of this.
But, for me, I felt that I had an obligation to do this. And so I gathered information that I believed was evidence of unlawful or unconstitutional activities. And I could have published it myself. I could have just put it up on the internet, established a website, possibly could have made it so it would not likely track back to me. However, I thought if I just declared myself the president of secrets and that I made some mistake — right? — there wasn’t much process involved there. The problem that got us into this situation was that the government itself was acting as a kind of unitary power. The office of the executive, the president of the United States, was saying that, “Look, you know, we decide what we will and won’t do. The courts have no role in this. The Legislature has no real role in this. Oversight hasn’t been functional for years,” which I’m sure the other panelists will describe. But I didn’t want to replicate that.
So I felt I could check my own worst impulses and suspicions by partnering with journalists — right? — who could then take my bias out of the equation, look at what the documents said, actually go to the government for a clarification where things weren’t here and to challenge government, but to do their own investigations, to go to companies for comment and everything like that, and find the best possible version of the truth, right? What is the most accurate representation of this? And of that superset of their investigation, what is the subset of that that’s in the public interest to know?
And working in absolute secrecy, again, with Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, eventually Barton Gellman and Ewen MacAskill, I shared this archive of information with them, on — through the conditions that they publish, for example, only what they believe is in the public interest to know, not merely what I thought was useful to them. And that’s what brought us to this hotel room in Hong Kong, where I could explain what these documents actually meant for the first time, because, as Glenn can sort of testify to, these were very dense, technical documents, and they’re the sort of thing that journalists in the public world had never seen before, because they were so highly classified.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that does bring us to Glenn Greenwald. Glenn, talk about your first contacts with Ed Snowden, when you decided to make that trip to Hong Kong, the risks that you were taking — at the time, you worked for The Guardian — taking on all the institutions that you knew could certainly take you down.
GLENN GREENWALD: I recall, you know, in the weeks leading up to our ultimate meaning, Ed was kind of fixated on the idea that we all fly to Hong Kong to meet with him. And, you know, we still didn’t know who he was. We didn’t know in which agency he worked. And the fact that he wanted us to go to Hong Kong made everything much more confusing, because why would somebody with high-level access to top-secret documents of the U.S. security state — usually you would expect to find a person like that, you know, in the kind of underworld of Arlington, Virginia, not Hong Kong.
And I remember telling Ed, you know, “Look, I trust you. I feel like what you’re saying intuitively is genuine. But before I get on a plane and fly all the way literally across the world to the other side of the world, show me something that demonstrates that you’re authentic, that you actually have material that makes all of this worthwhile.” And he said, “I’m going to give you the tiniest tip of the iceberg.” And we spent, I don’t know, a good two weeks setting up just an encryption system to let him do that.
He sent me, I think, 20 documents. And even though those documents were, as he said, just the tiniest tip of the iceberg, they were shocking. You know, I mean, just the mere fact alone that top-secret documents had leaked for the first time ever from the NSA, the most secretive agency within the world’s most powerful government, was already momentous enough, independent other content. But among the documents were parts of what we were able to report as the PRISM program, the cooperation on the part of what at the time were the nine tech giants of Silicon Valley with the NSA, widespread data sharing, giving over wholesale information about their users to the NSA with no judicial checks, no legal framework, no democratic accountability. So, suffice to say, Ed sufficiently excited me and lured me.
I think that night I called my editor at The Guardian and demanded to fly to New York the next day, which I did. I met with her, Janine Gibson, showed her what I had, and everyone immediately knew that this was going to be one of the most important stories in the history of modern journalism, just based on those tiny number of documents, let alone the full archive. And that next day — so it was very fast — Laura and I boarded a plane from JFK direct to Hong Kong.
And, you know, I talked about before how I had spent the 16 hours so engrossed with the documents that by that point we had had not necessarily the best operational security ever reading top-secret NSA documents, you know, on a public passenger jet while flying across the world, but I knew this was, by this point, the kind of first opening ever into this sprawling, undemocratic security state. And I couldn’t help myself. I needed to see what was in there. And then we landed in Hong Kong 16 hours later.
And then, the very next morning, through a plan that Ed devised that involved lots of kind of spycraft, which was really important — we didn’t know at the time what U.S. government authorities knew about Ed and what he was doing and what we were doing, what Chinese authorities might have known, what local Hong Kong intelligence officials might have known. So all of that stealth was so important. But it was a huge blur. You know, we were 12 hours in a different time zone, had hurtled ourselves within a very short amount of time over to Hong Kong to meet someone we knew nothing about, you know, and I’ll never forget the moment that Ed walked in.
And I think both Laura and I — we’ve talked about this before — were shocked by many things, including his young age. You know, I thought the whole time I was talking to somebody who was likely 60 or 65 years old, in, you know, I think, part because of the sophistication of Ed’s insights, but also, you know, the thing that struck me so much and that to this day is a critical part of my worldview of how I look at things was, unlike most sources who, understandably, when they’re turning over top-secret documents to journalists and doing something the government regards as a crime, and therefore want to conceal their identity, from the start, you know, Ed’s posture was “I don’t want to hide. I want to identify who I am. I want to explain to the public why I’m doing what I’ve done and why I think it was so important.” And so, you know, my belief was that he was probably 65 or 70. It’s, I think, a lot easier to say, “I’m willing to risk life in prison,” if life in prison means 10 or 15 or 20 years of life expectancy rather than, you know, 60 or 70. So we were shocked by that.
And we went up to Ed’s hotel room and, Laura being Laura, immediately turned on the camera and, me being me, immediately began interrogating Ed. I think we had like maybe 10 seconds of niceties before I forced him into this very intense interrogation. We were sitting maybe a few feet apart from one another in this small hotel room. And by the end of the day, I was convinced that Ed was authentic, that the documents he had given us were genuine, and that this was a story that the public had an immediate right to know, should have known years ago.
And the courage and the kind of principled conviction that drove Ed to do what he did, I think, immediately infected both myself and Laura. Ewen MacAskill, The Guardian journalist, joined us the next day. And he, I think, was contaminated by that, as well. And I think that eventually that made The Guardian very passionate and willing.
And that act, as we all know, created these reverberations that really to this day last, that the government is always trying to spy on what it is that we’re doing — they particularly target marginalized and vulnerable groups; at the time, the hot, you know, number one on their list was obviously Muslim communities around the world, including in the United States — and that journalism and whistleblowing is one of the few, if not the only, means we have to find out what they’re doing and to guard against their abuses.
AMY GOODMAN: Journalist Glenn Greenwald. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on Edward Snowden’s leaked NSA documents. When we come back, we’ll continue our discussion with Glenn and Ed Snowden and be joined by another Pulitzer Prize winner, the journalist Chris Hedges. We’ll talk about surveillance, internet freedom, Julian Assange and more.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our discussion with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Glenn Greenwald and Chris Hedges. I asked Ed Snowden to talk about what he felt was most significant about the documents he leaked in 2013 exposing the NSA’s massive surveillance apparatus.
EDWARD SNOWDEN: The most important thing about the stories of 2013 that I think people can look was it was not a story about surveillance. It was a story about democracy. The surveillance system, the global mass surveillance system, was the product of a failure in governance, where we the public had sort of lost our seat at the table of democratic governance, because secrecy, the state secrets regime and the classification animal had grown to such a size that it was allowed to push public oversight further and further to the fringes of the decision-making apparatus, until it was basically no longer present at all. What that meant was for the first time in history there was the technical capability and the political reality that it was possible to construct a system that had not existed before.
Now, what did that system do? In history, traditionally, government surveillance has occurred in a targeted manner, whether it is the police going, “We suspect this person of a crime,” going to a judge, showing their basis for it, establishing probable cause, the judge OKs it. Then they put teams over this person. They have people follow them when they leave their house in the morning. They have another team go inside their house and place listening devices, place video surveillance, you know, copy their notepads, take photographs of whatever’s going on, flown their hard disks, whatever. This is a human-enabled capability. And that put necessary constraints on how frequently it could be used. And as the government agents are sort of following this person through their life, sitting down in the cafe behind them, you know, trying to see who they meet with, writing down license plates and all these things, they don’t hear every word that the person says, generally, but they get the idea. They see who they met with. They see how long they were there with that person. They see where that person went afterwards, because they sent someone to follow them.
These activity records were now available for the first time in a form called metadata. Things that are analogous to what a private detective would get from following you around in your daily life and taking pictures and writing down notes were now being produced by the smartphones in our pockets, by the laptops on our desk or on the couch next to us. But it was also coming from your TV. It was also coming from your car, you know, the systems inside of that. It was coming from automated license plate readers. All of these things for the first time were producing information, that now the government went, “What if we didn’t have to go to a judge in every individual case and say we thought this person was up to no good? What if, under the aegis of the threat of terrorism, we could say we want to collect all information that could potentially, theoretically, be relevant to a terrorism investigation before we need it? And we’ll simply say, 'Look, we're not going to look at this information if you’re not suspected of a crime, but we will still gather it about you as though you were committing a crime.’”
This is what changed, and this is what continues today. What has actually happened that expands this to an even greater state of alarm is that now this is a business model. Now corporations are getting into this, and they’re competing against each other to see who can provide a similar product, an even more attractive product, not just to governments, who they do sell this information to as a service, but also to advertisers and anyone else who’s willing to pay. That’s what’s changed.
AMY GOODMAN: Which brings us to the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges. Chris, you’ve spent decades exposing how governments wield lethal power, from Central America to the Middle East to the Balkans. Ed Snowden said that behind his disclosures was the balance of state power versus people’s power to meaningfully oppose that power. Can you talk about the significance of what Ed just said in terms of exposing the wars that the U.S. has engaged in to this day?
CHRIS HEDGES: I would focus narrowly on what everything that Ed exposed for the press. So, when I began reporting the war in El Salvador in '83, when we got secret or classified information, they were documents. We didn't transfer anything electronically. And this was the traditional way. But in order to get those documents, you had contacts with people who were willing to pass them to you.
And so, what happened — and this was under the Obama administration — the aggressive use of the Espionage Act against anyone who would reach out — Kiriakou, Drake were mentioned, and others — shut down traditional investigative journalism, which I did periodically as a foreign correspondent and then did after 9/11 when I was based in Paris covering al-Qaeda in Europe and the Middle East. And so, friends of mine — I left the paper in 2005, but friends of mine who were still doing investigative reporting at the paper said, in terms of getting any information on the inner workings of power, of government, it has become impossible. And I won’t quote her, but a former colleague of mine at the paper, an investigative journalist, said, even when she speaks to someone at the DOJ or anyone else, they’re nervous about even reciting official policy over the phone, something that sounds like a press release, because they don’t want to get tagged for speaking to a journalist. In fact, they’re already tagged.
And so, I think it’s important to understand that what Ed did and what Glenn did is the only way left. Jeremy Hammond was another figure. When I sued Obama over Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act, which overturned the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibited the military from being used as a domestic police force, we used the emails — I think there were some 3 million emails — Hammond had hacked into with Stratfor, a private security firm like the one Ed worked for, and the Homeland Security, where they were — the chat was trying to tie domestic opposition groups to foreign terrorist groups. So, I mean, they were asking, “Was anything posted on this particular site, this jihadist site?” so they can use terrorism laws against them.
And so, the last readout, as a journalist, comes from figures like Ed, but, of course, the cost is catastrophic. In his case, if he was not in Moscow and they had grabbed him, he would be facing the kind of charges that Julian Assange is facing — who didn’t leak, by the way, didn’t hack into anything; he just published the material. So, I think, for me, what’s been so distressing about the modern kind of period is that that wholesale surveillance, that ability to follow anyone, has really shut down our traditional access to people with a conscience inside systems of power, which is the only way that we can do any real reporting on the national security state. And it’s left — and you see what they’ve done to Ed, what they’ve done to Glenn. I mean, after he published that, he wasn’t sure whether he could come back to the United States. So, that, for me.
And then, in speaking about the crimes of empire, I mean, that gets into another issue, which is the collapse of foreign correspondents, because as revenues have fallen to the floor, all the foreign bureaus are gone. There’s no reporting. People will pull a clip from — you know, disseminated out of Syria or something that somebody has sent out, but that’s not reporting. So, there’s a giant black hole about what’s happening, which was, of course, again, what made the Iraqi and Afghan War Logs so important.
And then, I will, just in defense of people there, most of whom are now freelance — and covering a war is very expensive, I mean, if you want to be safe. So, I was driving in Bosnia a $100,000 armored car, you know, satphones, all this kind of stuff. But it is dangerous. I think the danger level has exponentially increased, not so much from Sarajevo, where the Serbs were intentionally trying to shoot journalists, indeed shot 45 foreign correspondents. But you can’t go into the caliphate. I mean, you can’t go in with — into Syria with many of these groups, because you’ll get kidnapped. But that has created, for me, as somebody who was overseas, a just terrifying — it’s drawn a veil on what the empire is doing.
And, you know, to quote Thucydides, the tyranny that Athens imposed on others, when he’s attacking the death of Athenian democracy and the rise of the Athenian Empire, it imposes on itself. So I guess my last point would be that many of the techniques of surveillance and control that Ed exposed were often first tested. I mean, Gaza is a laboratory for the Israeli military and intelligence service, and they will talk about it as being tested against the Palestinians. So we often see on the outer reaches of empire the techniques that gravitate back to the United States, as of course they have.
EDWARD SNOWDEN: First off, you’re absolutely right about the laboratory aspect. I’ve said before, all of this stuff moves from war front to home front. And we see these same kind of techniques that were present in the archive of material that I provided to journalists in 2013, being used to, you know, map the movements of cellphones in Afghanistan, being applied by the FBI against Black Lives Matter protesters just within the span of 10 years. I mean, this stuff moves fairly quickly, from something that seems exceptional capability that can only be used in war, far away, against, you know, the other, it moves right here home to being used on your neighbors or you.
But you spoke about this dynamic that, you know, it’s just something I perseverate on — I think about this a lot — which is, it’s become more difficult to access officials and have them tell you anything, much less than the truth about anything. The relationship between sources and the journalists that they work with, in context of power, I think, all over the place, has become a threat. But those doors have really been closed. And this has, I think, enormously increased the necessity but also the power of documentary releases, you know, things like Chelsea Manning provided, things like I provided, Ellsberg provided in the '70s, but also we see in the case of this Facebook person, Frances Haugen. It feels as though we're in — everybody talks about this post-truth dynamic, where the actual facts of a case are disputed as frequently as the interpretation of them. People try to deny what the obvious truth is. And it seems like documentation has a way around that.
I would just ask: Where do you think things are headed from here, if we no longer have access to factual information from the government? You have a much greater history of doing this than a lot of us here do. Amy, you’ve also seen this your entire life. Democracy Now! is one of the few outlets that I think reports aggressively on this. Government is perennially deceptive. It’s snowing on us in regards to what is happening, because they want us to view the facts of our reality through their preferred lens. When they begin shutting out the voting public from the facts of our reality, what they actually are, and at the same time any documentary release is quite literally criminalized, what happens next?
CHRIS HEDGES: Well, what happens next is East Germany, which I covered, except that we’re far more efficient than the Stasi. And I just — I’ll let Glenn, because he’s written on this better than I have — I don’t think the Facebook whistleblower is a whistleblower. I think she’s a tool of the security and surveillance state, and they’re using her to justify the kind of censorship they want against people like you and Glenn.
So, you know, this gets into a whole other analysis, but we’ve undergone what John Ralston Saul calls a corporate coup d’état. It’s over. Anytime you have a tiny cabal that seizes power, in our case corporate, and all of the institutions, especially the democratic institutions, are deformed to essentially buttress and increase that power and wealth, then, of course, you’re leaving the vast majority, you know, the 99%, if we want to use that term, as — the whole process is about disempowering them. And that surveillance has to become more draconian.
AMY GOODMAN: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges, formerly with The New York Times. We’ll continue with Hedges, Edward Snowden and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald when we come back. And we’ll talk more about the imprisoned publisher Julian Assange.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our discussion with National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Glenn Greenwald and Chris Hedges. I asked Ed Snowden to talk about U.S. attempts to prosecute and extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who suffered a mini stroke in a British prison in late October as he fought to avoid extradition to the United States to face espionage charges. He faces 175 years in prison. A British court has now ruled in favor of the Biden administration’s appeal to extradite Assange to face charges in the U.S., in a ruling condemned by journalists around the world as a major blow to press freedom. This is Ed Snowden.
EDWARD SNOWDEN: I think what a lot of people miss — and we see this in the public responses to sort of leaking, whistleblowing, whatever you want to call that, this documentary release — is both sides of the aisle, Democrat, Republican — honestly, pick any country, pick their political dynamic, it doesn’t matter — power does not respond well to its bad behavior or misbehavior being exposed. That’s very clear. And that’s what happened in my case. That’s what will happen in every case. There is no course or access to courts or process or protection for someone who makes the government uncomfortable or produces a large enough political threat, an entirely political threat, a nonviolent publication of truthful information.
This is all Julian Assange has ever done. All of the charges against him that you see the government talk about — communicating national defense information, espionage, conspiracy, there’s even an entirely constructed hacking charge under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which is supposed to show [inaudible] military computers or something but is absolutely ridiculous because, for one, it never actually happened. It’s the product of a 20-second conversation between a supposed Chelsea Manning, supposed Julian Assange, because the chat transcript is pseudonymous; they don’t even know it’s these people. But then it’s describing this alleged Manning trying to access the administrative account for the personal machine, the work machine that’s being used to copy this material. It’s not going to provide any additional access, I can tell you — I work with these kind of machines, I understand how it was. It was entirely a source protection conversation. It was entirely about how could Manning protect their identity, if indeed this was Manning, from being discovered. Now, the government is presenting that as if, you know, Julian Assange hacked the Pentagon or whatever. It’s absolutely ridiculous. If you look at the constellation of all of this, you know Julian is one of history’s greatest criminals, you know? [inaudible] less time than they’re threatening Assange with. And what was Assange’s crime? Telling the truth about something that the government did not want to be told.
And then, you know, Chris mentioned this other Facebook person, and I think a lot of people miss this. It doesn’t really matter why a whistleblower or anyone else publishes this material, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s Facebook’s dirty laundry. It doesn’t matter whether it’s John Podesta’s risotto recipes. It doesn’t matter whether it’s material regarding the absolute government’s internal truth of mass surveillance. The whistleblower is the mechanism. They are the lever. We don’t have to like them, but they don’t truly matter once they’ve done this. And this is why, you know, it’s wonderful, the support that I receive, and I very much hope that Julian will receive more of it. He absolutely hasn’t, particularly from the press, which is, I think, one of the great media tragedies of our time. But the response should be a little bit like, you know, “Thank you very much for your whistleblowing, but now please stop telling us what we should do about Facebook. You are not specially placed to answer a public conversation. We’ll listen to you. We’ll hear you out, sure. But you shouldn’t be treated as the speaker of God’s honest truth simply because you held it in your hand and provided it to someone else.” That’s a wonderful thing. It’s a public interest gesture, right? But I think a lot of the opposition people have to this is there is an elevation where the whistleblower label is applied to someone, and then everything they say from then is supposed to receive additional weight. Perhaps it could, but their statements shouldn’t really be evaluated any differently than another person’s.
GLENN GREENWALD: You know, it’s interesting. I was reflecting on what I had said at the beginning, which is that in some ways these events that we’re convened to discuss seem like they were 10 lifetimes ago, and in a lot of ways anything that happened before Trump does, and then in other ways a lot of it seems like it happened just yesterday. And I think the reason for that is, is because sometimes there are really important details that we’ve forgotten.
So, Chris mentioned and alluded to, for example, the Stasi, and I remembered just now — I probably haven’t thought about this in several years even though it’s incredibly important and revealing — that when there was a report around the time we were doing the Snowden reporting that the NSA had been spying, under President Obama, on the personal cellphone of Angela Merkel. She called Obama, indignant, enraged, by all accounts, and very meaningfully, given that she had grown up in communist East Germany under the actual Stasi — it wasn’t an abstraction to her but a very vivid memory — invoked the Stasi and said, essentially, “What you’re doing is what they did.” And that caused German newspapers to go and interview Stasi agents, former agents of the Stasi. And what they said about these Snowden revelations were, “We would have loved to have had the capacity that the NSA developed, but it was beyond anything that we could have possibly dreamed of. What they have done is so far beyond anything we were capable of doing or even thought about doing. This is ubiquitous surveillance that they’ve created.” And I thought that was really poignant. And sometimes that — details like that have gotten lost.
I think the reason, on the other hand, though, it seems like yesterday is because so many of the kind of battles that were waged as a result of what Ed did and the fallout are very much with us today. You know, I think that at the time when we started the reporting and the debates that were provoked by them unfolded, the focus was on the infringement of our right to privacy. Obviously that was an important part of the story. But I always felt like the story was about a lot more than that. One part of it was whether or not we actually have a democracy in anything other than name only, if incredibly consequential events are being undertaken in the dark without anybody knowing about what’s being done. You know, one of the things that was so striking is, when we revealed these programs, it wasn’t just the public and the media that had no idea the NSA was doing any of these things, it was members of the Intelligence Committee and members of the National Security Committees and the U.K. Parliament who wrote op-eds saying, “We had no idea any of this was happening.” And so, for me, a big part of what we were doing was waging a battle on behalf of the public’s right to know.
And so much of the reason that there was so much intense backlash against the story and against Ed, the reason eight years later he’s still in Russia, and then, when Donald Trump floated the idea of a pardon on a bipartisan basis, people were so outraged — the reason they were so angry about it wasn’t necessarily because of the right to privacy aspect, it was because of their ability to make consequential decisions, the most consequential decisions, without anyone knowing about what they’re doing, was imperiled by these revelations. And that’s the same reason that Julian Assange is now in prison, not necessarily because they’re specifically angry about what he revealed in 2010 or 2016, or even the Apple Vault revelations; what they’re really angry about is that he represents, still, a weapon that prevents them from doing what is most important to them, which is the ability to run the world, including societies that are ostensibly democratic, without anyone knowing what they’re doing.
But the other aspect of it I think is really important with regard to this whole, you know, Facebook disclosures and the debate that’s taking place over how we combat things like misinformation and fake news, as a result of Frances Haugen, but even before that, is — you know, I had mentioned that that first day that I interrogated Ed, what I wanted to know and needed to know more than anything was — you know, you’re 29 years old, you have a loving family, you have a girlfriend with whom you’ve had a very fulfilling relationship, you have this incredibly bright future ahead of you — why would you want to risk your entire life, spending the rest of your life in a high-security prison, for this cause? Like, why is this important enough to you to do? And what finally convinced me about Ed’s motives was when he told me about how a free internet was so central to everything that he was able to do in his life, growing up, you know, in a lower-middle-class home without the ability to travel internationally and lots of those privileges that people who come from wealth have, that the internet was his gateway into exploring the world, something with which I had identified so much. And so, in a lot of ways, I saw our cause back then not necessarily this more limited definition of protecting the right of privacy, but protecting a free internet, this invention that is singularly capable of empowering people and emancipating people and enabling us to communicate and organize without centralized corporate and government control.
And I see so many of the current controversies about how much censorship there should be online that comes from Facebook and Google, the anger that Facebook and Google aren’t censoring enough, which I think is the big takeaway from these disclosures from Frances Haugen, debates about how much the government should be controlling the internet, very much a central part of that same battle that was being waged when Ed came forward, when Julian came forward, which is: Can centers of power around the world tolerate any kind of instrument, like the internet, that enables people to interact freely, to think freely, to develop ideas freely, to organize freely, outside of the control of centralized authority?
EDWARD SNOWDEN: What is happening to Julian Assange today and WikiLeaks, this case, as Glenn said, I don’t think any — any reasonable person believes it has anything to do with what he did in 2009, with publishing the Iraq and Afghanistan War Logs and the Guantánamo Bay Files, which received rewards all over the world, high prizes in journalism. Everyone recognizes it today as a public interest story of historic importance. It is the best work that WikiLeaks has ever done.
GLENN GREENWALD: And The Guardian, New York Times, El País, every major news outlet around the world participated because of that recognition.
EDWARD SNOWDEN: Right, absolutely. And it’s like you just — this was a positive event, even though the administration obviously hated it. But we’re not in that world now, right? We’re 2020, 2021. We are far from it. And now it’s dug up, and now it’s used against him. And I think everyone recognizes the question is why, or should recognize the question is why.
This is a case of political character that asserts a political crime, and political crimes never qualify for extradition. And then, what is a political crime? Political crime is any crime in which the victim is the state itself. Assassination is not a political crime, because the head of state is still a person, right? You shoot the president, the archduke, whatever, you still qualify for extradition because you’ve harmed an individual. The state as an apparatus, when you are publishing its misdeeds, and that is itself held up to be criminal, there is no more political crime, which makes Julian Assange a political criminal, or a political prisoner. They certainly want to make him a political prisoner. If Assange is a criminal, we all are criminals, because we all want to know the truth. We all deserve to know the truth. And we must know the truth, at least the outlines of it, in order to exercise our roles as citizens in a free society. Glenn said, again, that he believed in 2013 the motivating force for his participation is the free internet. I’d go further and say it’s the free society.
CHRIS HEDGES: About the press, they hate — I’m talking about institutions like the Times — they hate Julian. And they hated him when he was giving them that information. And the reason they hate him is because he shamed them into doing their job. I don’t know if I told you, Amy, but every time I sat with Bill Keller, who couldn’t stand me, of course, and wanted me out of The New York Times, he would bring you up. He goes, “Well, I guess you could work for Democracy Now!” I mean, he had this thing about you, well, because you —
EDWARD SNOWDEN: High praise.
CHRIS HEDGES: You shamed him. That’s what the alternative press does: It shames them. But there’s a real hatred, because they want to present themselves as the journalistic and kind of moral center. And so, that’s why the press, after these revelations, turned with a vengeance.
GLENN GREENWALD: I think that the Julian case is so important, not only because he is still in Belmarsh, but because it does provide this prism into all of these issues. It was, ironically, Bill Keller who was the first person to smear Julian’s personality, by writing a column where he said, “I have worked with Julian. He smells. His socks are so dirty. They don’t even come up to his ankles.” This media — the role of the media in all of these things that we’re talking about, the corporate media, I think, is so crucial, because, obviously, if the media were out there, like they were doing under Trump, saying that Joe Biden is imperiling press freedoms, and raising their voice, it would be a lot more difficult to do what they’re doing to Julian, but they’re not.
And I think it gets back to what Chris said: Julian was doing the kind of whistleblowing and reporting, like Ed was doing, that the government doesn’t want. And what they do, what they think is reporting, is when the CIA comes to you or the FBI comes to you and says, “Here’s the information we want to be published,” and then they go and publish it. And I think they are a huge impediment to so many of the goals that we’ve been talking about trying to reach, but also a crucial instrument that’s being used by these centers of authority to maintain these repressive structures in place.
AMY GOODMAN: In the little time we have left, Ed, you know, Julian Assange is in the Belmarsh prison, faces 170 years in prison in the United States. Yahoo News revealed that the CIA had a — was plotting to kidnap or assassinate him. If we could end by you commenting specifically on that, and also, then, in your own case, what is your hope of returning home? What communications are you having with the Biden administration? Is there any hope?
EDWARD SNOWDEN: Well, I definitely haven’t communicated with the Biden administration. I didn’t communicate with the Trump administration. We’re not really calling each other every day. But, you know, that’s quite a ways back.
My case, I’m just going to set it aside, because it’s — you know, there’s no movement, and it doesn’t really matter. History will be the judge. If they want to force me into exile, fine. You know, I’m not going to be miserable. I will make as positive an impact on the world as I can, from the situation that I can.
About the case with Julian and the assassination plans against him, the rendition plans against him, it’s really an extraordinary story. You who are listening, haven’t read this, you absolutely should. You know, the CIA was planning out of the White House, and their partners in London, having gun fights in the streets of London. If, you know, they had to shoot out the tires of a plane, who was going to do that? Which service was going to do it? Just absolutely — you know, it’s crazy. It’s hard to believe — or it should be hard to believe, but, unfortunately, in the direction that our society is progressing in the post-9/11 period, it is becoming more familiar. And I think that’s uniquely threatening.
It’s funny. When I came forward in 2013, in Citizenfour, I think there’s a comment in the film where I’m like, you know, “The embassy is right up the street. They could rendition me, hire the Triads and whatever, you know, just try to off me.” Whether they do it hands-on or whether they say, “Oops, it was an accident. He fell,” to me, those things were possible. And at the time, even journalists who were working with me — Barton Gellman, Washington Post at the time, said he thought that was, you know, a little bit ridiculous. But years later, as he began to see he himself was subjected to surveillance, he saw that the U.S. intelligence services had been keeping tabs on his reporting before he was ever involved with me. And, of course, now we see things like Julian. Force is not a barrier to the state when it comes to securing their objectives. And I believe anything they could have done to stop this story, they would have done, if they believed it did it. If that meant taking action against me, if that meant taking action against a journalist, I believe they would have done it.
In the case of Julian Assange, that thinking has been vindicated. Julian Assange is not a whistleblower. That’s not a judgment on him. That’s the fact. He is not the source; he is the publisher. That means he should be less at risk than the whistleblowers. And yet somehow he has ended up more at risk. Now, the question is: How is that possible? Has Assange changed? And when you look at what the charges against him are, not really — talking about things that happened in the distant past. What has changed is the nature of the state and its relationship to the press. And if we let that be established, with them murdering Assange, not with a gunshot in the streets of London, not with a drone, but with concrete in Belmarsh or Florence or whatever prison they put him in, that is not better. Whether you kill someone fast or you kill someone slow, if you are killing them because you don’t like what they say, that is, I think, a final judgment on the state rather than on the victim of the state.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, along with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Glenn Greenwald and Chris Hedges. I spoke to them as part of our discussion at the virtual War on Terror Film Festival. We’ll link our entire discussion at democracynow.org.
And that does it for today’s show. Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud and Mary Conlon. Our general manager is Julie Crosby. Special thanks to Becca Staley, Paul Powell, Mike Di Filippo, Miguel Nogueira, Hugh Gran, Denis Moynihan, David Prude and Dennis McCormick. I’m Amy Goodman. Remember, wearing a mask is an act of love.