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Journalist Glenn Greenwald on interrogating Snowden, ‘limitless’ ambitions of NSA

Glenn Greenwald was the first reporter to meet with Edward Snowden when the former NSA contractor wanted to disclose secrets of the agency. Greenwald sits down with chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner in Washington to discuss that initial encounter and what he learned, detailed in his new book, “No Place to Hide.”

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    We return again this week to the U.S. government's surveillance programs.

    On Tuesday, I spoke with General Keith Alexander, who recently stepped down as head of the National Security Agency.

    Tonight, we look at the topic from another point of view.

    Journalist Glenn Greenwald was the first reporter to meet with Edward Snowden when the disgruntled former NSA contractor wanted to reveal the secrets of the agency.

    The NewsHour's chief foreign affairs correspondent, Margaret Warner, sat down with Greenwald late yesterday in Washington. They discussed that initial encounter and much more, which he details in his new book, "No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State."


    Glenn Greenwald, thanks for joining us.

    GLENN GREENWALD, Author, "No Place to Hide": Great to be with you.


    And congratulations on your book.


    Thank you very much.


    Now, you are an experienced skeptical journalist. And, yet, by the end of this process, you seemed to be admiring of Edward Snowden.

    Is that the case? And, if so, why?


    It is definitely the case.

    I subjected him to very, very rigorous interrogation over the course of many hours, both first over the Internet and then in person. And it was only once I began to see that the choice that he has made — he had made was extremely thought-through, that there was a really complicated moral reasoning process that led him to do what he did, did I begin to trust him as a source, and then, as I began to know him over time, have a better understanding of what drove his decision.

    I do consider it heroic and noble for someone of that age to be that self-sacrificing in pursuit and in defense of the political values they believe in.


    In this dramatic early chapter about your 10 days in Hong Kong interrogating him, there is one thing that doesn't ring true to you for quite a while, which is his rationale, until he starts talking about how important privacy is to actually the essence of being human.

    Explain that.


    That was, for me, the towering question from the beginning, which is, why would a 29-year-old with a very stable career in a lucrative job and a girlfriend who loves him and a family who supports him and his whole life in front of him be willing to unravel all of that and throw it all away, with the likely outcome of spending the rest of his life in a cage in the American penal system?

    I needed to understand the motive to know that it was a choice made of agency and autonomy. And what he ultimately described to me was that, for people of his generation, who grew up in a culture where the Internet wasn't just some instrument that you use for discreet tasks, but was really a world unto itself, it is the place where people explore who they are.

    It's where they choose what to read. It's where they express their preferences and interests. It's where they make their friends. It's where they communicate in the most intimate ways, and things that you will only do if you think that other eyes aren't casting a judgmental glance at you.

    And once the Internet gets converted into the most oppressive surveillance system human beings have ever known, all of that is lost. And not only is that lost collectively, but it's lost personally. And it was something that he couldn't in good conscience allow to be attacked without taking a stand in defense of it.


    Now, let's talk about the new revelations that you pulled out of the Snowden archives.

    And one had to do with the scope of the NSA's ambitions. And you published a slide, that 2011 NSA slide called "New Collection Posture." It starts with "Collect it all" and it ends with "Know it all."

    Do these archives show that their ambitions are really that great?


    They show that they're limitless, in exactly the way that that slide describes.

    So, this, to me, is the central point of the debate we have been having since the Snowden revelations began, which is the NSA, in order to reassure the public that they are not menacing and threatening, continually claim that they are this targeted, discriminating agency that only is interested in the communication of terrorists, of other people posing national security threats.

    And the documents reveal an NSA that say radically different things in private, when they thought that nobody would ever hear what they were saying, which is really an expression of this idea that there should be no place in the digital world, on the Internet or on telephones where you can go and communicate free of the NSA's intrusive eye.

    And to look at documents which describe the collection of 125 billion — with a B — e-mails and 95 billion phone calls every month is shocking in terms of its vastness. It's one thing to say, this is an out-of-control agency; it's another thing to see the quantity of what they are collecting.


    But now NSA, former NSA Chief Keith Alexander, who was on our program this week, President Obama, have said, look, that is misleading. We are not actually looking at the content of almost any of those e-mails and phone calls without a warrant. Mistakes have been made. People have been punished, but there are very few.


    First, that is an incredibly misleading statement in a variety of ways.

    For one thing, under the law, they are actually permitted to read the e-mails and listen to the telephone calls of American citizens without a warrant in any case where those American citizens are communicating with foreign nationals whom they have targeted, which happens very, very frequently.

    Beyond that, it is extremely difficult to know when you're looking at Internet data who is an American citizen and who isn't an American citizen.


    Let's turn to another element, the collusion of the private companies, because these archives seem to show tremendous cooperation between the big Internet and telecom companies with the surveillance.

    Do the archives tell us why? In other words, is it willingly? Is it — are they coerced? Are they duped?


    It's a little bit of all of that.

    So, one of the claims that the tech companies like Facebook and Google and Yahoo! make in response to these stories is, we cooperate with the NSA only to the extent that the law obligates us to do so. But when it comes to foreign nationals, meaning 95 percent of the planet, the NSA has almost no legal constraints on what kinds of collection they can engage in.

    So when they go to Facebook or Yahoo! or Google and say, we want the e-mails and chats of these specific foreign nationals, the companies are obligated to give it. There's no warrant requirement. There is no going to a court.

    Then there's other instances in which the companies go beyond what the law requires and cooperate eagerly and actively with the NSA to ensure better access than the law even says they should give.


    So who is watching these companies? Do you think that could be the next shoe to drop, that people inside some of these companies, equally upset with what is going on, may start leaking?


    There are a large number of people, I know for certain, within these companies extremely indignant over the cooperation these companies have given.

    But there's a lot of documents in the vaults and files of these companies that I think ought to see the light of day. But we have had sources inside the tech industry that — who have indicated that they do have information they want to make public.


    Now, Edward Snowden has critics, first of all, from the intelligence community.

    Keith Alexander, former NSA chief, said on our show just this week that, once again: "Our tools are being publicly revealed. We put our nation and our allies at greater harm. People are going to pay for this with their lives."


    In every case, it is just a script from which they reflexively read: This transparency is going to damage national security. It's going to result in the loss of lives.

    They never offer any evidence for it. There's never any specifics proffered. And it has proven to be false in virtually every single case.

    The reality is, is that Edward Snowden gave us many tens of thousands of documents. And even though we have had them for close to a year, we published a relatively small percentage of them because we have been so painstaking and so careful and meticulous about making certain that the only documents we're publishing are ones that don't put innocent people in — in danger.


    Now, you have also had critics from the left, though.

    And I think will give you an example. David Cole, noted constitutional lawyer here in Washington, big civil liberties advocate, does say that you don't acknowledge that in this digital age now, the choices are more difficult.

    I mean, what is the line, in your view, between legitimate activities by the NSA and protecting the privacy rights that Americans cherish and many people around the world do?


    I think people who, where there is evidence to believe that they are engaged in serious wrongdoing or violence, are legitimately surveilled. I think people who are guilty of absolutely nothing should never be monitored or scrutinized by their government.

    We had a framework in place for four or five decades that draws from the Fourth Amendment, in which the country was born in a rebellion against the idea of general warrants, the idea that whole communities or cities or states could put under surveillance by the king. And that kept us safe with the Cold War. They could certainly keep us safe now.


    And you know the counterargument is that, unless you see the dots, you can't connect the dots. And these are digital dots. And you're trying to — you're trying to map a matrix of connections that are otherwise hard to penetrate.


    Well, right. So if you read the 9/11 report, it's very clear when it says that the NSA and the U.S. government and the FBI had in its possession all of the dots. It had in their possession the clues that it needed to be able to know the plot of 9/11 was coming.

    And the reasonable it failed to detect it wasn't because they hadn't collected enough. It was because they had collected so much, that they didn't even know the meaning of what it is that they had. They weren't able to make sense of what they had.

    And so the response of that was to say, well, now we're going to go and collect everything. And when you are collecting billions of calls and e-mails every day, as the NSA is, it becomes harder, not easier, to find the person who is plotting to attack the Boston Marathon or to explode an airplane over Detroit on Christmas Day.

    And the only other thing I would say is, we have a history in the United States that's very clear, which is that, if you vest surveillance power in government officials to spy on whoever they want without real oversight, it will not sometimes or usually, but inevitably be abused in very serious ways.


    Well, Glenn Greenwald, thank you very much.


    Thank you very much as well.

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