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Greenwald On NSA Leaks: 'We've Erred On The Side Of Excess Caution'

Journalist Glenn Greenwald says he and his team weighed the public's interest against the potential harm to innocent people when deciding how many of Edward Snowden's leaked documents to make public.



May 14, 2014

Guest: Glenn Greenwald

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When Edward Snowden was ready to contact a journalist and leak the classified documents he'd stolen from the National Security Agency, the first journalist he contacted was my guest, Glenn Greenwald. Snowden knew of Greenwald through Greenwald's coverage of the NSA warrantless wiretapping scandal, on his blog and in a book. Snowden said he believed Greenwald could be counted on to understand the dangers of mass surveillance, and not back down in the face of government pressure.

The first story Greenwald broke from Snowden's documents was about how the government collects the metadata from telecom companies, including the metadata of calls made by people in the U.S. Ever since publication, Snowden and Greenwald have been at the center of controversies about whistle-blowing and journalistic ethics.

Greenwald has written a new book that tells the story of how he met Snowden, explains the editorial decisions he's made, and analyzes the revelations contained in some of the leaked documents. It's called "No Place To Hide."

Glenn Greenwald, welcome to FRESH AIR. Are you confident you're going to make it through the book tour without being arrested?

GLENN GREENWALD: At this point, I'm reasonably confident. There was clearly an attempt by the part of national security officials and U.S. government officials at a high level to create an area - aura of uncertainty about whether we could safely return to the U.S. But since I came back three weeks ago for the George Polk Awards and nothing happened, I feel reasonably confident that nothing will.

GROSS: Are you traveling with security and legal counsel?

GREENWALD: I have legal counsel that is ready in the event they're needed in all of the cities I'm visiting, both here and in Europe, and security is also an issue that has been taken care of. But, I mean once you - you know, it's with all risks. I mean, you should be aware of them. You should take reasonable precautions to guard against them and then sort of put them out of your mind, and that's what I'm trying to do.

GROSS: I don't want to dwell too much on the security or make you paranoid.


GROSS: But, you know, in addition to your concerns about possibly being put up on criminal charges for what you published, are you concerned about that, that there might be criminal charges?

GREENWALD: Well, you know, as I said, I mean the U.S. government, you know, beginning with President Obama's senior national security official, James Clapper, Keith Alexander, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, have all publicly said that they think the journalism we're doing should be criminalized, that we ought to be arrested and prosecuted, that I specially ought to be.

So there was definitely a concern for many months, and in fact I stayed out of the U.S., in Brazil where I live, for 10 months as I was doing the reporting and didn't return to the U.S. until just a few weeks ago, primarily due to that concern and on advice of my lawyers, who were unable to get assurances from the Justice Department that nothing would happen.

But since I've returned to the U.S. without incident, I do feel confident that that's probably not on the table for them.

GROSS: Are you concerned about people who are just extremists and think you need to be punished?

GREENWALD: Sure, you know, I mean this story has had all kinds of risk from the beginning. I mean obviously when you are in possession of many tens of thousands of top secret documents that every government in the world would like to get its hands on, including the United States, there are those kinds of risks, and then there are definitely risks from people who feel very strongly that the journalism you are doing is damaging or treasonous or wrong.

So I think all of those risks are there. But lots of journalists face risks like that, and again, you take precautions against them, and then you try and just focus on the journalism.

GROSS: Thanks for clarifying approximately how many documents there are, tens of thousands. That's a lot of responsibility.

GREENWALD: It is. It's part of what made this story, you know, so, so tense and intense in terms of reporting. And it's one of the things also that I think has been misunderstood about Edward Snowden, which is that, you know, he actually hasn't released a single document to the public. He could have, if he wanted to.

He could have uploaded the documents to the Internet on his own. He could have given them to foreign powers. There are all sorts of things he could have done, and what he did instead is he came to journalists and said I don't actually think that I, Edward Snowden, am the person who should be making the decisions about what the public should and shouldn't see. I actually think that that's journalists who ought to be making that call, and I want you to work within media organizations that have experience in making these decisions and make those judgments yourself.

And you're right, there's a huge responsibility that comes from making those choices.

GROSS: There's part of me that's always been wondering why didn't Snowden release the information about some key programs, like the first programs that you wrote about, PRISM and the collection of metadata from the telecom companies, and say and there's a lot more there that Congress should be exercising oversight about, as opposed to downloading tens of thousands of documents and risking that they'd get in the wrong hands.

Now, I know he's a master of encryption, and he says that they are safe, but, like, in this world, I mean, who really knows what's safe.

GREENWALD: You know, I think the - I mean I think that is an important point that you reference, which is that he is a highly trained operative by the NSA in the most advanced techniques for safeguarding digital information and for preventing other governments and other factions from being able to invade them.

But, you know, I think the broader and more important point there is that it's hard to overstate just how impotent and neutered the congressional oversight process has become, the idea that if you're a whistle-blower within the U.S. government and you discover serious abuses, and you take them to the Congress and anything is going to be done, at this point is really fiction.

And I think the key event to understand that is that there are two Democratic senators, Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, both of whom are on the Senate Intelligence Committee, who have been running around the United States for three or four years saying very extremist and alarmist claims about how the powers claimed by the Obama administration under the Patriot Act for surveillance are stunning, that if the American people learned about them, they would be shocked, that it goes far beyond what the law allows.

And yet they didn't do what Edward Snowden did, which is tell the American public what it is that was being done. They were so constrained, even these powerful senators, that they couldn't do anything because the law silenced them. And Edward Snowden knew that and knew that the only way to get this information out was to come and work with journalists.

GROSS: But still, getting to the tens of thousands of documents, it would take you a lifetime to even read those documents if there's tens of thousands, let alone pass judgment on which ones are worthy of publication and which ones it might be harmful if you published and which ones aren't really important. I mean, I still keep wondering, like, what's the motivation for downloading that many documents, and how do you intend to deal with such a massive amount?

GREENWALD: You know, I mean I think it's easy to overestimate the amount of time that it takes to understand what's in that number of documents. Before I was a journalist I was a lawyer, and as a junior lawyer, like every junior lawyer, I spent a month in a conference room many times with enormous boxes of documents where you have to make decisions about which documents can be withheld, which have to be produced to the other side.

You got through tens of thousands, literally; maybe you don't read every line but you certainly get enough of a sense of what these documents are to make decisions about them. And that's what he did before he gave them to us. And we do feel that we've gotten a handle on what all of these documents are. We've looked at them several times; we've spent many months doing it.

We've had teams of reporters from around the world helping us, and experts and consultants. But I think, you know, the bigger point here is that Edward Snowden does not think that there is one or two discrete programs within the NSA that are abusive and out of control.

He believes the NSA system itself, the entire ubiquitous system of suspicion-less surveillance, is itself inherently abusive and that the public has a right to know, not about every detail, not about every program, but about the capabilities that this agency has developed.

GROSS: So let's talk about some of the programs that you've been reporting on. I want to ask you about PRISM, and this is the program that collects personal data from Internet companies, including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo!, AOL, Skype, YouTube. One of the things that really surprised you when you were reporting this is just before you were about to publish, the Guardian was checking with these companies to get comments from them and found that some of these companies said that they had no idea that their - the information they were collecting on their users was being mined by the NSA. And The Guardian thought they were being honest about that, and you were really surprised.

GREENWALD: We were shocked because the documents that the NSA created where they explained this program are incredibly clear. They're written in very easy-to-understand language, essentially free of a lot of jargon. And what it said is that the NSA has created this new program, which it called PRISM, that allows the agency what it calls direct access to the servers of these companies, meaning that instead of having to go find the communications in the underwater fiber optic cables where the Internet typically is transmitted, they can go directly onto the Facebook or Yahoo! or Google servers and take what it is that they're looking for.

And when we went to the companies to get comment, the companies didn't actually deny that they work with the NSA. What they denied was that there was a thing called the PRISM program that gave the NSA this capability.

And so what we essentially decided to do in our reporting was to bring this discrepancy to light, to say that here's the NSA claiming privately that it has successfully infiltrated these systems, and here are the private corporations denying that it's happened, so that they would have to resolve that discrepancy in public and that the truth would come out.

GROSS: And do you think that's been resolved?

GREENWALD: To a large extent I do. I think what has ended up happening is that it isn't the case that the NSA has unfettered access to their servers, meaning the NSA can't just go in and grab whatever they want without the companies knowing. But what they do do, and what they absolutely can do and what the tech companies have largely acknowledged by now that is the case, is that when the NSA wants, say, a Facebook chat or a Google search or a private message sent over Yahoo! or a chat, what they do is they go to those companies and they do take it from their servers by telling the companies what it is that they want.

And the companies' position is we only give the NSA what we're legally obligated to give them. And the problem, though, is that the NSA is almost limitless in terms of their authority to get whatever they want about foreign nationals, and they have very few limits when it comes to U.S. persons. So to say we only give them what we're legally obligated to give them is technically true but doesn't get very far in terms of imposing real limits on the agency's ability to surveil.

GROSS: You write that one of the ways you learned the NSA has of intercepting information is by intercepting shipments of computer network devices, like servers and routers, redirecting them to a secret location and then sending them back to where they were intended to go. What happens at that secret location before they're sent to where they were initially intended to go?

GREENWALD: This is one of the documents that I found the most remarkable, and the document we publish almost in its entirety in the book because it's so clear in what it's saying. In fact it's an internal NSA newsletter, essentially boasting of their success in doing this, where they literally interdict the package, take it back to the NSA's location.

They then open the package, and these routers, servers and switches are intended to provide Internet service to large groups of people, municipalities or large corporations or companies or villages. They physically implant a backdoor device internally in the product that would be undetectable to the eye. They then close the package, reseal it with the factory seal and then send it on to the unwitting user so that any communications that ever are transported over any of those products are automatically redirected into NSA repositories.

It's a remarkably invasive program. There's an entire unit and team in the NSA devoted to doing this on a regular basis. And I always found the most remarkable part of this revelation to be that for many years, without evidence, the U.S. government was accusing the Chinese of doing exactly that with Chinese products and warning the world not to buy Chinese products, routers, switches and servers, on the claim that the Chinese government is implanting backdoors into it.

And it turns out that it's exactly what the U.S. government through the NSA is actually doing to American products.

GROSS: And are we doing this to intercept government communication, intelligence, information about other intelligence agencies, information about individuals in other countries?

GREENWALD: Well, to me, you know, when I get asked, as I often do, what is the most significant revelation that you think you've made, you know, I generally say that, you know, you can't really identify a specific revelation, a specific story that is the most significant. What is the most significant is the purpose and goal of the NSA institutionally, which is not to target individuals who are suspected to terrorism or individual governments or their operatives or their military and intelligence officials.

It is instead, in the NSA's own words, their own motto, is to collect it all. There is a particular document in here where they describe what they call as their collection posture, and the phrases they use to describe that are collect it all, sniff it all, process it all, exploit it all, know it all. That really is the goal of the NSA, and that's why there's been such a wide range of targets from this surveillance, from the Brazilian oil company Petrobras to regional economic conferences to UNICEF and the World Bank and the IMF to entire populations.

It really is a ubiquitous system of spying that is not all directed or discriminating.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Glenn Greenwald. He has a new book called "No Place To Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Glenn Greenwald, and he met with Edward Snowden in Hong Kong after Edward Snowden chose Glenn Greenwald to be the person to break the NSA stories. Now Glenn Greenwald has written a new book called "No Place To Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State."

The impression I got from your book, which is an impression I maybe already had, was that other countries are doing this too. And you write, for instance, how there's three levels of spying that the United States has in its relationship with other countries. Do you want to just run through what those three levels are?

GREENWALD: So the NSA calls these different levels different things at different times, but one of the things they call them is Tier A, Tier B and Tier C levels of cooperation. So we can talk about it that way. Tier A tends to - it is what is known to the NSA as the Five Eyes Alliance, which is by far the closest surveillance partnerships that the NSA has. They pretty much do all of their spying in conjunction with these four other countries, which are the English-speaking countries of the U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

In general, they share everything with those countries. They do everything conjunctively. They have all kinds of conferences each year where they share their technologies that they've recently developed.

The second tier, which is Tier B countries, are countries where the NSA both cooperates with those countries and their surveillance agencies but also spies directly on their populations and on their governments. And those tend to be European countries like Spain and Italy and Germany, some Asian countries, Israel is on that list. And in general, the NSA looks at those countries more as spying targets than spying partners, but they're both.

But the spying cooperation will be very limited. So they'll spy only in Afghanistan together, or they'll spy on a particular group, like Al-Shabab in Somalia, or a particular group in Yemen. It's very limited on that cooperation.

And then Tier C are countries where they do extremely rare and limited spying but overwhelmingly view as surveillance targets. And then there are just some countries that the NSA never partners with but only spies on.

GROSS: Is there a chance that revealing which countries cooperate with us on spying and which countries we spy on and which countries we cooperate on some level, but we also spy on them, that that's going to harm diplomatically our relationship with some of those countries or interfere with our efforts to spy on extremist groups that we really do want to know what they're up to?

GREENWALD: Yeah, well, those are two separate questions. So I would say that, you know, of course there's a chance that our reporting might harm diplomatic relations. I mean our reporting has already harmed diplomatic relations. It harmed diplomatic relations with Germany when we revealed that the NSA was spying on hundreds of millions of Germans and also on their chancellor, Angela Merkel.

It harmed diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Brazil when we reported that they were doing the same thing to Brazilians indiscriminately, and the Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. Lots of reporting that is very important harms diplomatic relations because it reveals the U.S. is doing things that, in the eyes of other countries, are really bad things to do.

And I don't think it's my job as a journalist to try and protect the U.S. diplomatic interest. If they're doing things that are damaging to their allies, I think the solution is for them not to do it.

And the other point I would make is, you know, I mean one of the things that we did was we partnered with foreign media outlets when we did stories affecting those countries. So, you know, I think the privacy of Germans and Brazilians and Italians is really important, just like the privacy of Americans is important.

And so, you know, I think it was important as a journalist to get those stories out in those countries, and if there's diplomatic harm, then the United States should think about whether or not it wants to continue to do these things. As far as spying on extremists and the like, you know, it's always the case that whenever you have a whistle-blower who brings unwanted transparency to the government, they accuse not just the whistle-blower but the journalist of harming national security and the like.

They did it to Daniel Ellsberg. They've done it to the whistle-blowers on the war on terror. The reality is, is that terrorists and extremists and the like have always known that we are trying to eavesdrop on their communications. Osama bin Laden would only communicate, quite famously, though personal courier because of how widespread that knowledge already was long before Edward Snowden.

So I don't think there's any evidence at all that the reporting that we've done has in any way impeded the U.S. government's ability to spy on actual terrorists. What we've really revealed is that everybody else in the world is also the target of this spying.

GROSS: Do you think it was at all disingenuous on part of leaders of other countries to criticize the United States for what you revealed the United States is doing in spying on other countries when those other countries are probably doing similar things too?

GREENWALD: You're absolutely right that there's an element of hypocrisy when foreign leaders stand up and say we are shocked and angry by revelations of spying, for example, on our embassies or on our defense ministry because all countries try and spy on other countries' defense ministries, economic centers, intelligence factions and the like.

But what is really distinct and new about the NSA and what it is that they're doing is that it's this indiscriminate, suspicionless surveillance in which they're putting entire populations under a spying microscope. And I think that the anger that was expressed in many countries around the world upon learning about how vast and indiscriminating this system is was really quite genuine because this is something new that is enabled only by recent developments in technology.

Is it possible that some of those countries would do it if they could? You know, maybe. But it's really only the United States that has devoted $75 billion a year to private corporations and the NSA to develop this kind of a capability, and it's unlike anything that anybody else is doing.

GROSS: Glenn Greenwald will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "No Place To Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Glenn Greenwald. He was the first journalist Edward Snowden approached after Snowden stole tens of thousands of documents from the NSA. Greenwald has access to those documents and is continuing to report on them. Greenwald broke the story that the NSA collects the metadata from telecom companies about phone calls within the U.S. and between the U.S. and other countries.

Greenwald has written a new book called "No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State." Greenwald has been at the center of controversies over journalistic judgment.

I want to read something critical that was written this week in review of your book by David Cole, who's a constitutional lawyer. He's no legal affairs correspondent of the liberal publication The Nation. He's the co-author of a book called "Terrorism and the Constitution: Sacrificing Civil Liberties in the Name of National Security," a book that warns against sacrificing civil liberties for national security. And so in reviewing your book, he wrote, (Reading) Some disclosures raise more questions about Greenwald's judgment than about the NSA's activities. One document, for example, identifies the specific methods used to bug 24 named foreign embassies. The document reveals top-secret methods and targets, and its disclosure is likely to undermine legitimate intelligence-gathering and cause serious diplomatic problems. Yet it is difficult to see what possible value it adds to the public debate. It's one thing to disclose secret government practices that raise serious moral, political and constitutional concerns - as many of Snowden's disclosures have done. But bugging foreign embassies is at the core of foreign intelligence, and there is nothing illegal or particularly surprising about the fact that we do it. Greenwald does not always recognize the difference between justified and unjustified disclosures.

I'd be interested to hear your response to that criticism.

GREENWALD: Well, first of all, there are lots of other media outlets besides me and my book that have reported on parts of the document, The Guardian, The New York Times and The Washington Post have all made judgments that U.S. surveillance on allied governments, or the kind that that document revealed is newsworthy and ought to be published. So I'm very comfortable with the fact that the leading American journalistic outlets have all reached the same conclusion that I did and disagree with David Cole that that sort of information ought to be known. I would also add that people in those countries whose consulates and embassies on American soil have been invaded using very extreme forms of surveillance, not just listening in through remote devices, but literally physically invading the consulates and embassies, implanting backdoor devices on their computers in order to gather the information that their diplomats and that their officials and ambassadors are saying - not Iranian and North Korean ones, but French and Italian and German and Spanish and Brazilian, people in those countries consider that extremely newsworthy. And the extent of the United States capabilities to invade even protected communications, these consulates and embassies are really well fortified. They use encryption; they use other forms of sophisticated means to keep people out. The ability of the NSA to invade pretty much anything that they want is a critical part of understanding what our government has developed - largely in the dark - so that we can debate whether or not real limits need to be imposed on it.

GROSS: Do you think that the NSA has the right to spy and to keep secrets? And if so, where do you draw the line between what secrets they have the right to keep and what secrets you as a journalist have the responsibility or the right to divulge?

GREENWALD: Sure. I mean we were talking earlier about how Edward Snowden gave us many tens of thousands of documents. And we have published a small percentage of those, even though we've had them for close to a year now. And in fact, we've been criticized in some circles for not publishing more, for holding onto so much of the information. So clearly, I believe - and actually Edward Snowden was vehement about the fact - that not all of this information should be published, that some of this is kept secret legitimately, that the NSA has the right and the duty even to spy on al-Qaida and other groups that are genuinely threatening to the United States.

And so the decision-making process that we've engaged in has been the one that I think journalists all over the world use every single day, which is weighing the value of the disclosure for the public interest versus the potential harm that it may have to innocent people. And I've never made a decision on my own about what should be published. I've worked with extremely experienced editors and national security reporters and my colleagues' at large media institutions. We've had debates about it every day, just like journalists always do, and we've reached conclusions that we're very comfortable with, where we feel like, if anything, we've erred on the side of excess caution.

I think the criticism that we've publish too little is actually a more valid criticism that the one that says we published too much.

GROSS: Early in the game, when you were preparing to publish the first documents about the collection of metadata from phone companies, you put a lot of pressure on The Guardian. You know, you had recently met with Snowden in Hong Kong. You had tried your best to vet him. You thought that he was for real, that he was being honest, that his motives were good motives and you wanted to move forward. You were partnering with The Guardian, you already had a contract writing a column with them and you were really pressuring The Guardian to like publish now or else you were going to publish it on your website. Why were you in such a hurry to publish?

GREENWALD: You know, I've been a critic of the U.S. media outlets for a long time and sort of the excess caution that they, I think exercise when reporting. They're kind of subservient to the government. There's been a lot of controversies about the New York Times sitting on information at the behest of the U.S. government. And, you know, one of the reasons why I wrote the book was because that experience in Hong Kong and going and meeting Edwards snowed in the weeks that led up to that, you know, so much has been written about it and so much of it is sort of untrue or distorted that I wanted to give people insight into what it was like to go through that because so much of that shaped the choices that I made, including the one that you just referenced.

And, you know, one of the things that I saw was this 29-year-old previously obscure and anonymous very kind of ordinary person knowingly sacrificing his entire life, pretty certain that he would go to prison for decades - if not for the rest of his life - in order to undertake this act of conscience to bring to the world things that he thought people should know. So watching him go through that and then explain to me why he did it and be so convinced and tranquil about the choice that he made, made me want to do justice to his sacrifice. And the fearlessness with which he came forward I thought was the fearlessness that needed to drive how the reporting was done. And I was concerned that Guardian lawyers and just the standard institutional impediments that arise when you want to do something like this in a large corporation would start to infuse the reporting with fear and risk aversion and try to dilute it and neuter it, and so I'd very much felt an obligation to my source and to the story to make sure that The Guardian was as aggressive as I thought the story needed to be - which meant not stopping because lawyers wanted to meet for weeks with the government, but going ahead and telling the world what they clearly had a right to know.

GROSS: You've criticized The New York Times and The Washington Post for approaching the government before publishing stories that the government may say would affect national security and finding out if there's a legitimate reason not to publish, maybe it will really jeopardize an important operation or put individuals or our country in harm's way. What's your approach to doing that? What's your journalistic philosophy about how and when and if to approach the government when you're publishing a story about, you know, about spying, as you've been doing?

GREENWALD: I don't have any objection to the process itself, where as a journalist you go to the government before you publish top-secret documents, inform the government about what you intend to publish and then giving them an opportunity to give you information that you don't actually have that makes you, enables you to make a better decision about whether the material should be published. And in fact, with all of the material that I've reported on from this archive, the editors with whom I worked have done exactly that. And I required that foreign media outlets with which I was doing this reporting went to the government and gave the government an opportunity to make their case about why things shouldn't be published. So I don't actually have a problem with the process itself. I think it's a responsible thing to do. It would be ridiculous as a journalist to purposely publish something and deny yourself information that somebody else has, like the U.S. government, you should get all the information you can get.

The problem that I have is that this process has been so corrupting and corrupted that it has resulted so often in a kind of excess deference to the demands of the government - that material not be published, that clearly, you should be. I think the leading example, the one that made Edward Snowden not want to go to The New York Times, the one that at the time it happened maybe a very vociferous critic of The Times, was when two of the leading investigative reporters, Eric Lichtblau and Jim Risen, learned in mid-2004 that the Bush administration was eavesdropping on Americans for years without the warrants required by the criminal law that ultimately became the NSA scandal. And when The New York Times advised the Bush administration that it intended to report on the story, George Bush summoned Bill Keller and The New York Times publisher to the Oval Office and told them you cannot publish this story, it will damage national security if you do. And The Times forced Risen and Lichtblau to sit on the story. They suppressed it for 15 months. They let George Bush be reelected without telling the American people that he was eavesdropping on their conversation without warrants and it was only once Risen finally got so frustrated that he wrote a book and was going to break the story in the book that The New York Times finally summoned the courage to publish the story because they didn't want to be scooped by the book and then they won the Pulitzer Prize for it.

GROSS: So you said you're comfortable contacting the government telling them what you're going to publish and hearing them out. In the case of the telephone metadata collection that the NSA is doing, my understanding from your book is that The Guardian contacted government officials and basically gave them a few hours to make their case. In part, because of your pressure, you know, to like publish now or else you're going to take it to your own website. So they said like we're going to publish today unless you convince us otherwise. And the way you describe it, it sounds like the government officials were kind of outraged at having so little time to make their case, to prepare their case, to talk to the people they need to talk to before making their case. And so I'm wondering like is that really a genuine opportunity for debate about it or is that just a kind of pro forma, yeah, yeah, we're consulting you and OK, but we're going to publish it?

GREENWALD: Right. I mean I think different stories require different levels of discussion. There have been some stories that we've done that involved multiple conversations over the period of several weeks with government officials because they're very complex. There are serious arguments and sensitivities that we want to understand before making choices and so we give the government ample opportunity. We go back and forth with them. And like with that story in particular, the first one that we reported, there was no conceivable circumstance, none at all in, which I would ever make the decision that I would suppress rather than report a story that said that the U.S. was collecting the list of all the telephone calls of all Americans every single day without the slightest bit of discrimination or targeting. There was just no conceivable argument that a government could ever make to me that would persuade me that that ought to be censored rather than just disclosed. And so that was a story where I felt that there was almost no point in consulting the government unless they had something extremely surprising to say about what would happen from the disclosure of this program. And I think that that proved to be true. There's never been a single amount of harm that anyone has said came from the publication of that story. A federal court ruled the program that we reported was a violation of the constitutional rights of millions of Americans. And even President Obama now says that program should end.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Glenn Greenwald. And along with the documentary filmmaker, Laura Poitras, he was the person who met with Edward Snowden in Hong Kong, the person that Snowden chose to release the secret NSA documents to. And he's already written about some of those documents. He has a new book about those documents and about the whole story of how he met Snowden and why he decided to move forward. The book is called "No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State."

Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Glenn Greenwald, the journalist, who along with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, met with Edward Snowden in Hong Kong. He released secret NSA documents to them and they've been reporting on it since. And Greenwald has a new book called "No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State."

I know Russia was not Edward Snowden's choice of where he wanted permanent or temporary sanctuary. He was hoping for Iceland or, you know, other places. Nevertheless, it seems so paradoxical that he's taking shelter in a country notorious for its surveillance of its citizens, a country that's cracked down on gay people, a country that just annexed Crimea. And I'm wondering your thoughts about that.

GREENWALD: I've two thoughts about that. First of all, I think the premise of your question that you knowledge is vital, that he didn't choose to be there. In fact, he tried to leave Russia. He was only intended to transit through on his way to Ecuador and on the flight from Hong Kong to Russia, the U.S. government revoked his passport and they then been bullied the Cubans out of rescinding their guarantee of safe passage through Havana on his way to Ecuador where he intended to seek asylum. So I think it's very difficult to first force him to stay in Russia against his will and then raise questions about why he's there. I mean, the real reason that he's there is because if the U.S. government got their hands on him, they would put him into prison for the rest of his life. But the other aspect that I think is really crucial, too, is to think about asylum means, when you seek asylum. There are thousands of people every year who seek asylum in the United States and claim that they're being persecuted at home and need protection.

Nobody ever says: Isn't it paradoxical that people are seeking asylum in a country that invaded, then destroyed Iraq in an aggressive war and ruined the lives of 26 million people or set up a torture regime around the world or continues to imprison people without charges in Guantanamo or drones children to death with no due process?

Because the process of asylum is not about declaring which country you think is the civil liberties Nirvana. That's not why he's in Russia. It's to ask a country to protect you from what you believe is persecution of your basic human rights. And that's why he's in Russia and what he's doing.

GROSS: You quote Snowden as saying: I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions, and that the return of this information to the public marks my end. I will be satisfied if the federation of secret law, unequal pardon, and irresistible executive powers that rule the world that I love are revealed for even an instant.

So, he says that he knows that this marks his end. And I know a lot of people are wondering: So why doesn't he come back to the United States and, you know, accept whatever punishment is meted out and try to, you know, defend himself in some kind of court?

GREENWALD: You know, the U.S. prison system is one of the harshest prison systems in the West. I mean, the idea that somebody would voluntarily submit themselves to be put in a cage inside of an American prison for decades I think is one of those things that much, much, much more easily said than done.

But I think the other more substantive issue - and actually, Daniel Ellsberg wrote a brilliant op-ed about this in the Washington Post in July of last year when he defended Snowden's decision to flee. And he said the world has - the United States has changed so radically in the post-9/11 era, it's not the same country as when I, Daniel Ellsberg, was tried in 1971.

This system is rigged, and he would not get a fair trial. And one of the claims that's often made, this sort of bravado inside Washington circles, is Snowden should, quote, "man up" and come back to the U.S. And if he really believes that what he did was justified, make that argument in court and let a jury decide his fate.

And the problem is, is that the government has succeeded in convincing federal courts that when a defendant (technical difficulties) Espionage Act violations - which is what he's been charged with - they're not permitted to even raise the defense that what they did was justified, that it was whistle-blowing, that it was intended to inform the public.

It doesn't actually matter what his motives were in court. He wouldn't even be permitted to raise that defense. His conviction would essentially be guaranteed. And so until he feels that he can get a fair trial and that he has some fighting chance to avoid spending the rest of his life in an American prison system, he won't come back. And I don't think very many people who are saying he should would do so if they were in his position.

GROSS: My guest is Glenn Greenwald, whose new memoir is called "No Place to Hide." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Glenn Greenwald, the first journalist that Edward Snowden approached with the documents he'd stolen from the NSA. Greenwald has access to tens of thousands of documents leaked by Snowden and is continuing to report on them. Greenwald's new memoir is called "No Place to Hide."

You've done, you know, extraordinary work in breaking these stories, and it's having, you know, enormous ripple effects. It seems to be leading to some reforms. Do you ever worry about unintended consequences?

GREENWALD: You mean - I'm certainly aware that I can't anticipate the future, and when you're working with documents this complicated, that affect, you know, potentially the lives of huge numbers of people, you know, certainly, you can make wrong choices that end up having an impact that you don't want to have and don't intend to have. And it's definitely a burden to be in the position where you're making those choices, or certainly involved essentially in the making of them.

So, sure, I'm very aware that there is that possibility. And that's one of the reasons why we have been as careful as I think we've been.

GROSS: Do you feel you're more cautious now than you were at the start, because of the responsibility of having tens of thousands of documents?

GREENWALD: I think that the reasons why the first set of stories became the first set of stories was because they were fairly, relatively speaking, easier ones to report. As I said, I didn't think the Verizon story was a close call. It was not a hard story to understand. The document told the story itself. That's been true for a lot of these other stories.

As we get more into the archive, the reason these stories that remain are still remaining is because they're a lot more complicated to do the reporting on. They're more complicated legally. They have a lot more sensitivities. And so, part of the reason why the pace is sometimes slowed down is just because these are hard stories to report. And so there's definitely problems or obstacles that way.

GROSS: You know, people within the National Security System say that your reports are causing harm. They're compromising our safety. James Clapper, who's the director of National Intelligence, he said that the disclosures have caused and continue to cause profound damage, and as a result, we have lost critical foreign intelligence collection sources.

Richard Ledgett, who is the deputy director of the NSA, said that the unconstrained disclosure of these capabilities means the targets see it and recognize it and move away from our ability to have insight into what they're doing. Then we are at greater risk, because we don't see the threat coming. Richard Clarke, who is the first cyber security czar at the White House, said what Snowden did made us less safe as a nation.

When you hear people who are insiders like that saying those things, do you just dismiss it?

GREENWALD: Yes. And I'll tell you why. It's because I've looked at every single case over the last 50 years where whistle-blowers have come forward and told the American people about things that government officials were doing that they didn't want anyone to know about, beginning with Daniel Ellsberg, going through all sorts of disclosures on the War on Terror and everything in between.

And in every single case, every last one of them, government officials say exactly the same thing, which are the quotes that you just read. I mean, you should go back - I don't mean you personally, but one should go back and look at what they said about Daniel Ellsberg, who I've talked to about this. And he said there wasn't a day I woke up when I wasn't accused on major national television and in every newspaper of having blood on my hands and being a traitor, of being reckless with people's safety and lives.

They said the same thing about WikiLeaks, that they had blood on their hands, and McClatchy did an investigation and found that it was exaggerated and fictitious and untrue. There's not a single specific case in which our capabilities that are legitimate have been undermined, in which terrorists have learned anything they didn't already know, in which anyone has been injured or harmed as a result of our reporting.

And the one thing I would hope is that people have learned by now after the Iraq War and everything else that before you believe the self-serving claims of national security state officials, that you demand that they present evidence for what they're saying rather than just believing it on faith.

GROSS: You're in frequent contact with Snowden through secure channels, right?


GROSS: How is his mental and physical health holding up? I read him describe himself as a house cat, which I thought was hysterical, you know, that he's basically confined to wherever it is that he's staying. So how is he doing?

GREENWALD: One of the stunning things to me about this whole experience has been to watch him and maintain this extraordinary level of tranquility and contentedness about the choice that he made. You know, when we were in Hong Kong, the working assumption that we had, the three of us - myself, Warren, Snowden - was that it would be a matter of weeks, if not days, until he was in American custody, and that the next time we would see him would be on television wearing an orange jumpsuit and shackles inside of a courtroom, charged with espionage

And so for that not to have happened, and for him to be free to participate in the debate that he helped galvanized around the world and to see how much reform it has led to and how much debate it has trigged - which is something that we were hoping for, but didn't necessarily know would take place - has been incredibly gratifying.

I mean, he told me recently that he's one of the rare people who gets to put his head on his pillow every night in the knowledge that he took self-sacrificing action in pursuit of his beliefs. And you're right, he is an inside cat, I think is what he called himself. But, you know, before the world knew him as Edward Snowden, he was somebody who spent a huge amount of time on the Internet.

He was one of those people who grew up with the Internet. He's always spent a lot of time indoors online, which is how he developed the skills and capabilities that he had. He's sad to be away from his family. He's sad he can't come back to his home. He's sad to be in a country he didn't choose to be in and forced to remain there. But given the alternatives, and given what it is that he produced in the world, I would say he's probably one of the happiest people I know.

GROSS: Glenn Greenwald, thank you very much for talking with us.

GREENWALD: Thank you. Thank you. I really enjoyed it.

GROSS: Glenn Greenwald's new book is called "No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State." You can read an excerpt on our website,

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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