Skip to main content

Glenn Greenwald in Rio de Janeiro Apr 29, 2014.Jimmy Chalk/The Globe and Mail

Journalist Glenn Greenwald is in Toronto this weekend to participate in the Munk Debates on the legitimacy of state surveillance. Mr. Greenwald and filmmaker Laura Poitras recently won the Pulitzer Prize for their work in The Guardian exposing the scope of the U.S. National Security Agency's surveillance of American citizens and governments around the world, as revealed in the document cache of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. A U.S. citizen, Mr. Greenwald today lives in and blogs from Rio de Janeiro; the Globe's Latin America correspondent Stephanie Nolen spoke with him there. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Q. The question you need to argue this weekend is that state surveillance is not a legitimate defence of our freedoms. Why not?

A. We have a very easy case to make because the documents we have been able to publish have left little doubt in the minds of most reasonable people that, whatever your views are, the surveillance state that has been erected is way too oppressive and ubiquitous from any reasonable perspective. The courts and the panels [U.S. president Barack] Obama has appointed and even Obama himself have concluded that the surveillance state they have created is excessive and threatening and needs to be reigned in. Once you have the U.S. government itself saying that the surveillance apparatus is a threat to freedom, it's pretty hard to lose the debate.

Q. How do you respond to people who say, If you're not doing anything wrong, why do you need privacy?

A. Privacy is critically important even if you're not doing anything wrong. That is why people put locks on their bedroom and bathroom doors and passwords on their email and social media accounts and adopt pseudonyms for online activity and do things in private like sing songs and say things that they wouldn't do if people are watching. Privacy is where we get to experiment with who we are as human beings. It is the realm in which freedom and creativity and exploration and dissent reside. When you are always being watched, the range of options that you have as a human being significantly diminishes. Because you will only then do things that you think other people will approve of. That's the purpose of a surveillance state: to keep people in line by communicating to them that anything you do at any moment is susceptible to being monitored and therefore your choices should be confined to only those things society would want you to do. And who we are as individuals and the freedom that we have as human beings is obliterated when we live in a world where we are constantly monitored or can be monitored.

Q. How much has the fact that you have lived in Brazil for the past eight years shaped how you view events in the U.S.?

A. When you remove yourself from the place that's most familiar and put yourself in a completely different culture, you are forced to reevaluate a whole bunch of assumptions that you have about the world. Also the ability to have a buffer between yourself and the society about which you are writing enables you to be more independent and to avoid groupthink. Being on the outside of a system lets you critique it more independently, aggressively, fearlessly and insightfully.

Q. If you think back to when you received those first Snowden emails: would you get on the rollercoaster again?

A. I stopped practicing law and became a political writer because I wanted to have a platform that enabled me to express and advocate ideas that I thought were getting short shrift in western political discourse. There's a lot of cost, nothing is free in the world. The more you have a platform the more you get attacked and scrutinized. But even before Snowden I wanted to be in a position where I could participate in the most significant ways in political discourse. So it's largely gratifying.

Q. Yet you didn't even reply to Mr. Snowden when he first got in touch with you.

A. People retrospectively think, 'You're such an idiot, the most important story in the world …' but the thing about Snowden is he's not a person prone to drama or being really persistent – he's very even-keeled and he was very reluctant to say anything on an unencrypted channel. So the combination of him being so placid and so unwilling to say anything of substance gave me no reason to think that I should pay attention to him at all. We've joked about that, mocked each other, him saying, 'You didn't have time, you were too busy to pay attention to the most important story in the world' and I was like, 'Maybe you could have said, Hey, I actually have something really good for you …'

Q. What's happening with The Intercept, your new publication: so far it seems to be just you.

A. If you were going to start a new media organization in the normal world – you would take your time and you would hire journalists and reporters and writers and editors and op-ed people and people to design to your website. You would take your sweet time so that at launch you had everything ready and you could hit the ground running. We didn't have that luxury because I couldn't just disappear for nine months while I was sitting on the most significant leak in the world. Also I have built up a community of readers over the last eight years from having a blog and I felt an obligation to give them a place to gather – I didn't want to lose that either. So the compromise was, We'll launch something that's very preliminary, even primitive, but where we can do the NSA reporting that we need to do and offer a responsible journalistic context and also where I can write. But we hired so many great writers, they wanted to write. So a month ago we said, 'Look, we said we're launching just to do the NSA reporting and give me a place to blog, we should probably stick to that, otherwise we're going to confuse people, it's like this incoherent scattershot.' So we pulled back a bit and said we're going to revamp, and said we're only going to do things that we're ready to do well.

Q. Why did you need to leave the Guardian to have your own company, when that paper supported your Snowden reporting so courageously?

A. Laura [Poitras], [the journalist Jeremy Scahill] and I had decided we wanted to build our own organization to do journalism the way we thought it should be done, without any interference whatsoever. When [eBay founder Pierre Omidyar] came along, the only reason that we entertained his offer all, let alone wound up taking it, was the promise of journalistic independence. That means Pierre plays no role in limiting anything we want to say or do, nor does anybody else – this was not just a promise that was made but the central value defining and shaping everything that we were building. That's why I still don't think of myself as working at a corporate media outlet, because the core value that we're building on is the scrappy independent journalist who just works more or less on their own, maybe with one or two people, and is never in any way subject to having this code of how you speak or what you write about or what kind of journalism you can do imposed on them from above. And the minute that that ever happened we would all be gone in a second. I think Pierre knows that, we all know that.

Q. You work for a $250 million media organization. Can you really call yourself a scrappy independent journalist?

A. I still don't think of myself that way but I guess when you're funded by the 100th richest person in the world – it's time to start thinking about yourself a little bit differently.

Q. Would Guardian reporters say someone tells them what to write?

A. Everyone at Guardian is told what to do, what stories to go cover.

Q. You're not going to assign reporters? Just, do whatever?

A. We want reporters to follow their own passion. We want them to decide what to write about. We probably will hire two or three curator people to make sure that we're covering big news because people who come to our site are going to expect to read something about big news. But we really want to create a climate where there's no set number of issues that need to be covered and then the editor tells you go to write about these things. We want to have a collection of really heterodox impassioned journalists who are working in a climate that is designed to support their passion, the thing that drove them to get into journalism in the first place. And to make it as collaborative and non-hierarchical as possible. And it's definitely easier said than done – how do you do that without creating chaos and anarchy and still having some coherence. But often the way people are limited in what they can do is less overt and more institutionally subtle and cultural. There is just an understanding of what you can do and can't do and what the expectations are.

Q. How long will the Snowden files be what you do?

A. If I wanted to I could probably work on the archive for the next two years to the exclusion of everything else, if not longer. But there is a point of diminishing returns in terms of the story itself and you own ability to tolerate working on the same thing for years. At some point my willingness to do that is going to expire. At the same time I feel an obligation to the archive to make sure that no newsworthy stories go unreported.

We're hiring people and there are going to be a lot more people working on the archive, there are already are, than there ever were before. At the same time we are trying to figure out ways to expand the system so that other media organizations can have access to the archive in a way that keeps it secure. But there are legal implications to that: if you go around the world handing out hundreds of thousands of documents to news organizations you become a source not a journalist. I do feel a genuine obligation to make sure no story goes unreported. Just, it doesn't need to go unreported by me.

Q. Your trip home to collect the Polk Award last month was your first time on American soil since you started the Snowden reporting. Did you worry about being detained?

A. The reality is all sorts of senior officials in the US government have been overtly arguing for months that what we're doing is criminal and we ought to be prosecuted for it. They argue that I was selling documents, that I was lining my bank account – this is the language that puts people in prison as spies for decades, that you sold documents for profit around the world. And they were deliberately creating this climate so that we were uncertain about what the outcome would be if we went back. On top of which they did actually detain my partner [David Miranda], they did march into the Guardian newsroom, they did tell courts that there was a criminal investigation ongoing, they did refuse to communicate with my lawyers in any way about whether there was a grand jury investigation or if we were already indicted under seal – they purposely left us in a state of uncertainty. We would be idiots to get on the plane and think, 'Hey, we're just gong to go to the US and they're not going to do anything' – the risk was non-trivial. But we strategized about it and made it so that if they wanted to do something it would have a very high cost.

Q. What sort of strategy can you make for this situation?

A. We all sat down and had an explicit conversation about what would happen if it went wrong. Guessing wrong means they meet you at the plane, they ask for your passport, they take you into custody, they put metal handcuffs on your wrists behind your back, they put you in an FBI car and put you in a cage in a courthouse which you cannot escape from until a judge at some point says that you can, which theoretically could be years or decades. That's guessing wrong. So it was really important to internalize what that meant. And the fact that it had actually happened to David, that he was effectively imprisoned for 11 hours with a very real possibility the whole time that it was going to be a lot longer, made it even more real – because we had already lived through that experience. And even though at the back of my mind I always felt like David was going to get out at the end of the day the possibility that he wouldn't – you feel that terror.

Q. So why not just stay here – your exile is pretty comfortable.

A. Brazil is nirvana – you could stay in Brazil for the rest of your life and have a really nice existence. And I can work and so I didn't need to leave. It was this psychological limit, the resentment feeling that I had been limited in some way for no valid reason.

Q. You felt that your profile would protect you?

A. Imagine if we're sitting in a jail cell and the Pulitzer was announced – 'Oh, they didn't make it because they've actually just been detained. There were dozens of cameras at the airport and that really keeps them in check.

Q. You still believe the U.S. government cares about being embarrassed or counter to prevailing public opinion on issues like this?

A. Look, Guantanamo is still open – they don't really care … I was pretty sure that Obama and Eric Holder don't want on their legacy that they arrested the journalist on one of the most important stories around the world – to have that mar their reputations historically and internationally – it would have been a huge thing forever. But there are definitely people in the government, powerful national security people, who don't give a shit about those things. And you just wonder the extent to which their demands might outweigh – the US government does seemingly counter-productive things all the time and have proven over and over that they don't actually care. If you look at polling around the world on drone strikes, it's 30 per cent for versus 70 per cent against in the entire world but the US just keeps doing it because they are willing to be counter to that opinion.

Q. If they wanted to send a message, you would be a pretty powerful example to make.

A. It would be a good deterrent – saying, 'If you the average whistleblower, the average journalist, want to do something against us – we did it to him or her in front of everybody and if we can do it to them we can do it to you.'

But it worked out in the end. For now.

Q. Does the average Canadian realizes the magnitude of what the Snowden documents tell them about the relationship Canadian security agencies have with the NSA?

A. So many people didn't know that [the Communications Security Establishment Canada] even existed, that these capabilities had been developed, it was so inconsistent with the national image of Canada, and still, the story hasn't 'stuck.' One of the reasons the first story that we did [about the US] resonated so much was that it was a story about the NSA spying on Americans – it wasn't about the NSA spying on the world – and there hasn't really been a story about Canadian government spying on Canadians. That piece has been missing. CSEC is well funded and they do a lot of stuff. They're not just symbolic members of the [NSA's] alliance – after the UK, Canada is the most important.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct