Saving the Net from the Surveillance State: Glenn Greenwald Speaks Up (Q&A)

Big Brother may be watching you. But Glenn Greenwald is watching Big Brother.

That’s not a bad take on how the 46-year-old constitutional-law attorney turned crusading journalist turned thorn in the side of the NSA might describe his mission.

At least in part. Greenwald is doing more than just watching. By combing through the tens of thousands of classified NSA documents leaked to him by Edward Snowden — and publishing in newspapers around the globe report after report on the secretive agency’s mass-spying activities — he’s got the whole world watching too.

Through his efforts, he’s looking not only to buttress the Bill of Rights and protect the sanctity of privacy — he also wants nothing less than to stop the Internet from being warped into what he fears would be “probably the most effective means of human control and oppression ever known,” a technology that allows “people’s every thought and word to be comprehensively chronicled” by the “surveillance state.”

Even in a world where Web sites and mobile apps have woven themselves into the fabric of our lives, Greenwald has what’s perhaps an exceptionally tight and personal relationship with the Internet. His earliest forays online involved locking horns with right-wingers on conservative message boards and assuming various identities in chat rooms — including sexual identities. (Greenwald is openly gay.) He’s characterized those Web-enabled experiences as integral to his development and self-exploration.

Then there’s the Net’s central role in his career. He started out as a corporate lawyer but quickly opened his own firm, where, he’s said, he spent most of his time doing pro bono work related to civil liberties. In 2005, however, he took his legal knowledge and outsider, fight-the-power energy online, starting a blog called Unclaimed Territory. After about a year it got picked up by Salon, and several years after that, Greenwald was invited to write for the UK’s Guardian newspaper.

The Internet is being degraded from what its promise was, which was an instrument of freedom, into probably the most effective means of human control and oppression ever known — because there never existed a technology before to allow people’s every thought and word to be comprehensively chronicled in the way the surveillance state allows.”

The alternative attitude of what used to be called the blogosphere has stayed with him. That’s in part why, in addition to the not insubstantial tasks of helping save the Constitution and rescue the Internet, Greenwald also wants to change journalism as we know it. And he’s got $250 million from eBay founder Pierre Omidyar to help him do it.

With those cash reserves, and the team of talent he and his partners are assembling — including not just journalists but also lawyers, media theorists, and source-protecting cryptographers — Greenwald hopes to provide a formidable counterpoint to the “establishment press.” In his view, the mainstream media is too often dazzled by those in power, parroting press releases and basing stories on strategic leaks that let government forward its own agenda (while cracking down on leaks that counter its aims and expose its do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do hypocrisies).

Greenwald spoke with CNET’s Edward Moyer by phone from Brazil, where he’s living with his husband, David Miranda (and probably will be for the foreseeable future, since the attorney general of the US has been unclear about whether Greenwald would be arrested if he returned to the States). The articulate and passionate Greenwald talked about press freedom; tech firms and privacy; totalitarianism and the banality of evil; and the struggle over the fate of the Internet.

Here’s a lightly edited transcript:

Q: You’ve said of the NSA stories, that beyond the evidence they’ve provided of vast surveillance programs, they’ve revealed important information about the mainstream media. What do you mean by that? What’s wrong with the media, and how will your new venture address this?
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Greenwald: I think the principal problem with the establishment press, at least in terms of political journalism, has been excess deference to, and closeness with, the most powerful political factions, the very precincts over which journalism is, at its best, supposed to exercise oversight and serve as a watchdog, and instead it serves as a kind of amplifying mechanism and as a servant to them.

And we’ve seen even with national security reporting in general, NSA reporting in particular, that media outlets tend to collaborate very extensively with the US government before they do their reporting — the most infamous example, of course, is The New York Times suppressing [at the behest of the Bush administration] the NSA story in 2004 that it ultimately won a Pulitzer Prize for when it finally got around to publishing it 13 months later. [That’s] the kind of excess accommodation to political power that I think the establishment media in the United States has been guilty of.

And one of the things we tried to do in how we reported the NSA story was to kind of revitalize the idea of an adversarial relationship between government and journalists, tonally but also behaviorally. And I think that one of the principle objectives of our new organization is to not just tolerate but encourage and foster journalists who think that way.

When I asked Edward Snowden in Hong Kong why — not just abstractly, but on a visceral level — he decided to risk his liberty and his life in pursuit of these sort of ethereal, distant, political objectives, he talked about what the Internet culture did for his life, for him as a human being, and how he didn’t want to live in a world without it.”

Do you think “NewCo” (as you’re temporarily calling your new venture) and its question-authority approach is going to influence the mainstream press eventually?
Greenwald: I think so. I think journalists tend to engage in a herd behavior, so they try to copy the things that work. I think there’s a perception that our [NSA] journalism has been effective by all the normal metrics, and so there’s already — not on the part of everybody, but at least a good number of people — an effort to try to replicate some of those mechanisms we used. And then when you see that being institutionalized in the form of an extremely well-funded media organization, at a time when media organizations are struggling financially, and you add on to that the quality of the reporting that I think we’re going to be doing, the names that we’re going to be attracting, yeah, I do think a lot of journalists are going to try to get into that success by doing the kind of journalism I think should have been done all along.

In your back-and-forth with New York Times journalist Bill Keller, you said that “reclaiming basic press freedoms in the US is an important impetus for our new venture.” Can you explain?
Greenwald: One of the things that’s happened to media outlets in the United States is that because of the financial struggles they’ve undergone, there is a fairly risk-averse, fear-driven climate in which these institutions are eager to avoid protracted [legal] battles with the government or with large corporations because they simply can’t sustain those kind of battles financially. So one of the benefits of being a well-funded media organization is that you can do the kind of journalism you want to do without being afraid of ending up in those battles.

And those battles are often necessary to defend the basic prerogatives of press freedom. I mean, if the government is threatening you in a certain way that clearly violates the First Amendment’s free press guarantee, but you’re financially incapable or unwilling to have that fight, and you instead voluntarily walk away from that journalism, then I think the ground of press freedom will be invaded, and that’s what’s happened. And I hope that we’re going to be — and I think we’re going to be — an institution that’ll be willing to have those fights in defense of our press freedom.

And another, crucial part of press freedoms that’s been attacked is the way sources have been deterred from going to journalists out of fear that surveillance will immediately detect who they are and then they’ll be prosecuted very aggressively. And source protection, meaning enabling sources to come to us with the confidence that they can do so safely, is a crucial part of our strategy. That too will go a long way to revitalizing press freedoms.

In a recent tweet, you pointed to a Foreign Affairs article that discusses how the digital era and the massive leaks it enables (e.g., those by Snowden and Chelsea Manning) mean an end to government hypocrisy. Government’s policy and its rhetoric “will have to move closer to each other,” the piece says. Can you talk about that, and the importance of whistle-blowers, WikiLeaks, and the Snowden-NSA pieces?
Greenwald: Well, the West in general, and the United States in particular, has spent the last four years vehemently condemning the Chinese government for using its surveillance powers for economic purposes rather than national security purposes and has insisted this is a breach of all international norms and jeopardizes the fairness of international markets. And what a lot of our reporting has revealed is that the United States and the UK in particular have used their surveillance systems to spy for plainly economic ends as well. And that kind of exposure of the huge gap between the rhetoric of the United States government and the reality, as people perceive it, has been a major part of what I think our reporting has achieved.