Snowden interview: Why the media isn’t doing its job
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The Tow Center for Digital Journalism’s Emily Bell spoke to Edward Snowden over a secure channel about his experiences working with journalists and his perspective on the shifting media world. This is an excerpt of that conversation, conducted in December 2015. It will appear in a forthcoming book: Journalism After Snowden: The Future of the Free Press in the Surveillance State, which will be released by Columbia University Press in 2016.
Emily Bell: Can you tell us about your interactions with journalists and the press?
Edward Snowden: One of the most challenging things about the changing nature of the public’s relationship to media and the government’s relationship to media is that media has never been stronger than it is now. At the same time, the press is less willing to use that sort of power and influence because of its increasing commercialization. There was this tradition that the media culture we had inherited from early broadcasts was intended to be a public service. Increasingly we’ve lost that, not simply in fact, but in ideal, particularly due to the 24-hour news cycle.
We see this routinely even at organizations like The New York Times. The Intercept recently published The Drone Papers, which was an extraordinary act of public service on the part of a whistleblower within the government to get the public information that’s absolutely vital about things that we should have known more than a decade ago. These are things that we really need to know to be able to analyze and assess policies. But this was denied to us, so we get one journalistic institution that breaks the story, they manage to get the information out there. But the majors—specifically The New York Times—don’t actually run the story, they ignore it completely. This was so extraordinary that the public editor, Margaret Sullivan, had to get involved to investigate why they suppressed such a newsworthy story. It’s a credit to the Times that they have a public editor, but it’s frightening that there’s such a clear need for one.
In the UK, when The Guardian was breaking the NSA story, we saw that if there is a competitive role in the media environment, if there’s money on the line, reputation, potential awards, anything that has material value that would benefit the competition, even if it would simultaneously benefit the public, the institutions are becoming less willing to serve the public to the detriment of themselves. This is typically exercised through the editors. This is something that maybe always existed, but we don’t remember it as always existing. Culturally, we don’t like to think of it as having always existed. There are things that we need to know, things that are valuable for us, but we are not allowed to know, because The Telegraph or the Times or any other paper in London decides that because this is somebody else’s exclusive, we’re not going to report it. Instead, we’ll try to “counter-narrative” it. We’ll simply go to the government and ask them to make any statement at all, and we will unquestioningly write it down and publish it, because that’s content that’s exclusive to us. Regardless of the fact that it’s much less valuable, much less substantial than actual documented facts that we can base policy discussions on. We’ve seemingly entered a world where editors are making decisions about what stories to run based on if it’ll give oxygen to a competitor, rather than if it’s news.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this, because while I do interact with media, I’m an outsider. You know media. As somebody who has worked in these cultures, do you see the same thing? Sort of the Fox News effect, where facts matter less?
The distance between allegation and fact, at times, makes all the difference in the world.
Bell: It’s a fascinating question. When you look at Donald Trump, there’s a problem when you have a press which finds it important to report what has happened, without a prism of some sort of evaluation on it. That’s the Trump problem, right? He says thousands of Muslims were celebrating in the streets of New Jersey after 9/11 and it’s demonstrably not true. It’s not even a quantification issue, it’s just not true. Yet, it dominates the news cycle, and he dominates the TV, and you see nothing changing in the polls—or, rather, him becoming more popular.
There are two things I think here, one of which is not new. I completely agree with you about how the economic dynamics have actually produced, bad journalism. One of the interesting things which I think is hopeful about American journalism is that within the last 10 years there’s been a break between this relationship, which is the free market, which says you can’t do good journalism unless you make a profit, into intellectually understanding that really good journalism not only sometimes won’t make a profit, but is almost never going to be anything other than unprofitable.
I think your acts and disclosures are really interesting in that it’s a really expensive story to do, and it is not the kind of story that advertisers want to stand next to. Actually people didn’t want to pay to read them. Post hoc they’ll say, we like The Guardian; we’re going to support their work. So I agree with you that there’s been a disjuncture between facts and how they are projected. I would like to think it’s going to get better.
You’re on Twitter now. You’re becoming a much more rounded out public persona, and lots of people have seen Citizenfour. You’ve gone from being this source persona, to being more actively engaged with Freedom of the Press Foundation, and also having your own publishing stream through a social media company. The press no longer has to be the aperture for you. How do you see that?
Snowden: Today, you have people directly reaching an audience through tools like Twitter, and I have about 1.7 million followers right now (this number reflects the number of Twitter followers Snowden had in December 2015). These are people, theoretically, that you can reach, that you can send a message to. Whether it’s a hundred people or a million people, individuals can build audiences to speak with directly. This is actually one of the ways that you’ve seen new media actors, and actually malicious actors, exploit what are perceived as new vulnerabilities in media control of the narrative, for example Donald Trump.
At the same time these strategies still don’t work […] for changing views and persuading people on a larger scope. Now this same thing applies to me. The director of the FBI can make a false statement, or some kind of misleading claim in congressional testimony. I can fact-check and I can say this is inaccurate. Unless some entity with a larger audience, for example, an established institution of journalism, sees that themselves, the value of these sorts of statements is still fairly minimal. They are following these new streams of information, then reporting out on those streams. This is why I think we see such a large interplay and valuable interactions that are emerging from these new media self-publication Twitter-type services and the generation of stories and the journalist user base of Twitter.
If you look at the membership of Twitter in terms of the influence and impact that people have, there are a lot of celebrities out there on Twitter, but really they’re just trying to maintain an image, promote a band, be topical, remind people that they exist. They’re not typically effecting any change, or having any kind of influence, other than the directly commercial one.
Bell: Let’s think about it in terms of your role in changing the world, which is presenting these new facts. There was a section of the technology press and the intelligence press who, at the time of the leaks, said we already know this, except it’s hidden in plain sight. Yet, a year after you made the disclosures, there was a broad shift of public perception about surveillance technologies. That may recede, and probably post-Paris, it is receding a little bit. Are you frustrated that there isn’t more long-term impact? Do you feel the world has not changed quickly enough?
Snowden: I actually don’t feel that. I’m really optimistic about how things have gone, and I’m staggered by how much more impact there’s been as a result of these revelations than I initially presumed. I’m famous for telling Alan Rusbridger that it would be a three-day story. You’re sort of alluding to this idea that people don’t really care, or that nothing has really changed. We’ve heard this in a number of different ways, but I think it actually has changed in a substantial way.
Now when we talk about the technical press, or the national security press, and you say, this is nothing new, we knew about this, a lot of this comes down to prestige, to the same kind of signaling where they have to indicate we have expertise, we knew this was going on. In many cases they actually did not. The difference is, they knew the capabilities existed.
This is, I think, what underlies why the leaks had such an impact. Some people say stories about the mass collection of internet records and metadata were published in 2006. There was a warrantless wiretapping story in The New York Times as well. Why didn’t they have the same sort of transformative impact? This is because there’s a fundamental difference when it comes down to the actionability of information between knowledge of capability, the allegation that the capability could be used, and the fact that it is being used. Now what happened in 2013 is we transformed the public debate from allegation to fact. The distance between allegation and fact, at times, makes all the difference in the world.
That, for me, is what defines the best kind of journalism. This is one of the things that is really underappreciated about what happened in 2013. A lot of people laud me as the sole actor, like I’m this amazing figure who did this. I personally see myself as having a quite minor role. I was the mechanism of revelation for a very narrow topic of governments. It’s not really about surveillance, it’s about what the public understands—how much control the public has over the programs and policies of its governments. If we don’t know what our government really does, if we don’t know the powers that authorities are claiming for themselves, or arrogating to themselves, in secret, we can’t really be said to be holding the leash of government at all.
One of the things that’s really missed is the fact that as valuable and important as the reporting that came out of the primary archive of material has been, there’s an extraordinarily large, and also very valuable amount of disclosure that was actually forced from the government, because they were so back-footed by the aggressive nature of the reporting. There were stories being reported that showed how they had abused these capabilities, how intrusive they were, the fact that they had broken the law in many cases, or had violated the Constitution.
One of the biggest issues is that we have many more publishers competing for a finite, shrinking amount of attention span that’s available.
When the government is shown in a most public way, particularly for a president who campaigned on the idea of curtailing this sort of activity, to have continued those policies, in many cases expanded them in ways contrary to what the public would expect, they have to come up with some defense. So in the first weeks, we got rhetorical defenses where they went, nobody’s listening to your phone calls. That wasn’t really compelling. Then they went, “It’s just metadata.” Actually that worked for quite some time, even though it’s not true. By adding complexity, they reduced participation. It is still difficult for the average person in the street to understand that metadata, in many cases, is actually more revealing and more dangerous than the content of your phone calls. But stories kept coming. Then they went, well alright, even if it is “just metadata,” it’s still unconstitutional activity, so how do we justify it? Then they go—well they are lawful in this context, or that context.
They suddenly needed to make a case for lawfulness, and that meant the government had to disclose court orders that the journalists themselves did not have access to, that I did not have access to, that no one in the NSA at all had access to, because they were bounded in a completely different agency, in the Department of Justice.
This, again, is where you’re moving from suspicion, from allegation, to factualizing things. Now of course, because these are political responses, each of them was intentionally misleading. The government wants to show itself in the best possible light. But even self-interested disclosures can still be valuable, so long as they’re based on facts. They’re filling in a piece of the puzzle, which may provide the final string that another journalist, working independently somewhere else, may need. It unlocks that page of the book, fills in the page they didn’t have, and that completes the story. I think that is something that has not been appreciated, and it was driven entirely by journalists doing follow-up.
There’s another idea that you mentioned: that I’m more engaged with the press than I was previously. This is very true. I quite openly in 2013 took the position that this is not about me, I don’t want to be the face of the argument. I said that I don’t want to correct the record of government officials, even though I could, even though I knew they were making misleading statements. We’re seeing in the current electoral circus that whatever someone says becomes the story, becomes the claim, becomes the allegation. It gets into credibility politics where they’re going, oh, you know, well, Donald Trump said it, it can’t be true. All of the terrible things he says put aside, there’s always the possibility that he does say something that is true. But, because it’s coming from him, it will be analyzed and assessed in a different light. Now that’s not to say that it shouldn’t be, but it was my opinion that there was no question that I was going to be subject to a demonization campaign. They actually recorded me on camera saying this before I revealed my identity. I predicted they were going to charge me under the Espionage Act, I predicted they were going to say I helped terrorists, blood on my hands, all of that stuff. It did come to pass. This was not a staggering work of genius on my part, it’s just common sense, this is how it always works in the case of prominent whistleblowers. It was because of this that we needed other voices, we needed the media to make the argument.
Because of the nature of the abuse of classification authorities in the United States, there is no one that’s ever held a security clearance who’s actually able to make these arguments. Modern media institutions prefer never to use their institutional voice to factualize a claim in a reported story, they want to point to somebody else. They want to say this expert said, or this official said, and keep themselves out of it. But in my mind, journalism must recognize that sometimes it takes the institutional weight to assess the claims that are publicly available, and to make a determination on that basis, then put the argument forth to whoever the person under suspicion is at the time, for example, the government in this case, and go—look, all of the evidence says you were doing this. You say that’s not the case, but why should we believe you? Is there any reason that we should not say this?
This is something that institutions today are loath to do because it’s regarded as advocacy. They don’t want to be in the position of having to referee what is and is not fact. Instead they want to play these “both sides games” where they say, instead we’ll just print allegations, we’ll print claims from both sides, we’ll print their demonstrations of evidence, but we won’t actually involve ourselves in it.
Because of this, I went the first six months without giving an interview. It wasn’t until December 2013 that I gave my first interview to Barton Gellman of The Washington Post. In this intervening period my hope was that some other individual would come forth on the political side, and would become the face of this movement. But more directly I thought it would inspire some reflection in the media institutions to think about what their role was. I think they did a fairly good job, particularly for it being unprecedented, particularly for it being a segment in which the press has been, at least in the last 15 years, extremely reluctant to express any kind of skepticism regarding government claims at all. If it involved the word “terrorism,” these were facts that wouldn’t be challenged. If the government said, look, this is secret for a reason, this is classified for a reason, journalists would leave it at that. Again, this isn’t to beat up on The New York Times, but when we look at the warrantless wiretapping story that was ready to be published in October of an election year, that [election] was decided by the smallest margin in a presidential election, at least in modern history. It’s hard to believe that had that story been published, it would not have changed the course of that election.
Bell: Former Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson has said her paper definitely made mistakes, “I wish we had not withheld stories.” What you’re saying certainly resonates with what I know and understand of the recent history of the US press, which is that national security concerns post-9/11 really did alter the relationship of reporting, particularly with administration and authority in this country. What we know about drone programs comes from reporting, some of it comes from the story which The Intercept got hold of, and Jeremy Scahill’s reporting on it, which has been incredibly important. But a great deal of it has also come from the ground level. The fact that we were aware at all that drones were blowing up villages, killing civilians, crossing borders where they were not supposed to be really comes from people who would report from the ground.
Something interesting has definitely happened in the last three years, which makes me think about what you are telling us about how the NSA operates. We’re seeing a much closer relationship now between journalism and technology and mass communication technology than we’ve ever seen before. People are now completely reliant on Facebook. Some of that is a commercial movement in the US, but you also have activists and journalists being regularly tortured or killed in, say, Bangladesh, where it’s really impossible to operate a free press, but they are using these tools. It is almost like the American public media now is Facebook. I wonder how you think about this? It’s such a recent development.
Snowden: One of the biggest issues is that we have many more publishers competing for a finite, shrinking amount of attention span that’s available. This is why we have the rise of these sort of hybrid publications, like a BuzzFeed, that create just an enormous amount of trash and cruft. They’re doing AB testing and using scientific principles. Their content is specifically engineered to be more attention getting, even though they have no public value at all. They have no news value at all. Like here’s 10 pictures of kittens that are so adorable. But then they develop a news line within the institution, and the idea is that they can drive traffic with this one line of stories, theoretically, and then get people to go over onto the other side.
Someone’s going to exploit this; if it’s not going to be BuzzFeed, it’s going to be somebody else. This isn’t a criticism of any particular model, but the idea here is that the first click, that first link is actually consuming attention. The more we read about a certain thing, that’s actually reshaping our brains. Everything that we interact with, it has an impact on us, it has an influence, it leaves memories, ideas, sort of memetic expressions that we then carry around with us that shape what we look for in the future, and that are directing our development.
Bell: Yes, well that’s the coming singularity between the creation of journalism and large-scale technology platforms, which are not intrinsically journalistic. In other words, they don’t have a primary purpose.
Snowden: They don’t have a journalistic role, it’s a reportorial role.
Bell: Well, it’s a commercial role, right? So when you came to Glenn and The Guardian, there wasn’t a hesitation in knowing the primary role of the organization is to get that story to the outside world as securely and quickly as possible, avoiding prior restraint, protecting a source.
Is source protection even possible now? You were extremely prescient in thinking there’s no point in protecting yourself.
Snowden: I have an unfair advantage.
Bell: You do, but still, that’s a big change from 20 years ago.
Snowden: This is something that we saw contemporary examples of in the public record in 2013. It was the James Rosen case where we saw the Department of Justice, and government more broadly, was abusing its powers to demand blanket records of email and call data, and the AP case where phone records for calls that were made from the bureaus of journalism were seized.
That by itself is suddenly chilling, because the traditional work of journalism, the traditional culture, where the journalist would just call their contact and say, hey, let’s talk, suddenly becomes incriminating. But more seriously, if the individual in question, the government employee who is working with a journalist to report some issue of public interest, if this individual has gone so far to commit an act of journalism, suddenly they can be discovered trivially if they’re not aware of this.
We see the delta between the periods of time that successive administrations can keep a secret is actually diminishing—the secrets are becoming public at an accelerated pace.
I didn’t have that insight at the time I was trying to come forward because I had no relationship with journalists. I had never talked to a journalist in any substantive capacity. So, instead I simply thought about the adversarial relationship that I had inherited from my work as an intelligence officer, working for the CIA and the NSA. Everything is a secret and you’ve got two different kinds of cover. You’ve got cover for status, which is: You’re overseas, you’re living as a diplomat because you have to explain why you’re there. You can’t just say, oh, yeah, I work for the CIA. But you also have a different kind of cover which is what’s called cover for action. Where you’re not going to live in the region for a long time, you may just be in a building and you have to explain why you’re walking through there, you need some kind of pretext. This kind of trade-craft unfortunately is becoming more necessary in the reportorial process. Journalists need to know this, sources need to know this. At any given time, if you were pulled over by a police officer and they want to search your phone or something like that, you might need to explain the presence of an application. This is particularly true if you’re in a country like Bangladesh. I have heard that they’re now looking for the presence of VPN [virtual private network software] for avoiding censorship locks and being able to access uncontrolled news networks as evidence of opposition, allegiance, that could get you in real trouble in these areas of the world.
At the time of the leaks I was simply thinking, alright the government—and this isn’t a single government now—we’re actually talking about the Five Eyes intelligence alliance [the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia, Canada] forming a pan-continental super-state in this context of sharing, they’re going to lose their minds over this. Some institutions in, for example, the UK, can levy D notices, they can say, look, you can’t publish that, or you should not publish that. In the United States it’s not actually certain that the government would not try to exercise prior restraint in slightly different ways, or that they wouldn’t charge journalists as accomplices in some kind of criminality to interfere with the reporting without actually going after the institutions themselves, single out individuals. We have seen this in court documents before. This was the James Rosen case, where the DOJ had named him as sort of an accessory—they said he was a co-conspirator. So the idea I thought about here was that we need institutions working beyond borders in multiple jurisdictions simply to complicate it legally to the point that the journalists could play games, legally and journalistically more effectively and more quickly than the government could play legalistic games to interfere with them.
Bell: Right, but that’s kind of what happened with the reporting of the story.
Snowden: And in ways that I didn’t even predict, because who could imagine the way a story like that would actually get out of hand and go even further: Glenn Greenwald living in Brazil, writing for a US institution for that branch, but headquartered in the UK, The Washington Post providing the institutional clout and saying, look, this is a real story, these aren’t just crazy leftists arguing about this, and Der Spiegel in Germany with Laura [Poitras]. It simply represented a system that I did not believe could be overcome before the story could be put out. By the time the government could get their ducks in a row and try to interfere with it, that would itself become the story.
Bell: You’re actually giving a sophisticated analysis of much of what’s happened to both reporting practice and media structures. As you say, you had no prior interactions with journalists. I think one of the reasons the press warmed to you was because you put faith in journalists, weirdly. You went in thinking I think I can trust these people, not just with your life, but with a huge responsibility. Then you spent an enormous amount of time, particularly with Glenn, Laura, and Ewen [MacAskill] in those hotel rooms. What was that reverse frisking process like as you were getting to know them? My experience is as people get closer to the press, they often like it less. Why would you trust journalists?
Snowden: This gets into the larger question—how did you feel about journalists, what was the process of becoming acquainted with them? There’s both a political response and a practical response. Specifically about Glenn, I believe very strongly that there’s no more important quality for a journalist than independence. That’s independence of perspective, and particularly skepticism of claims. The more powerful the institution, the more skeptical one should be. There’s an argument that was put forth by an earlier journalist, I.F. Stone: “All governments are run by liars and nothing they say should be believed.” In my experience, this is absolutely a fact. I’ve met with Daniel Ellsberg and spoken about this, and it comports with his experience as well. He would be briefing the Secretary of Defense on the airplane, and then when the Secretary of Defense would disembark right down the eight steps of the plane and shake hands with the press, he would say something that he knew was absolutely false and was completely contrary to what they had just said in the meeting [inside the place] because that was his role. That was his job, his duty, his responsibility as a member of that institution.
There’s an argument that was put forth by an earlier journalist, I.F. Stone: “All governments are run by liars and nothing they say should be believed.” In my experience, this is absolutely a fact.
Now Glenn Greenwald, if we think about him as an archetype, really represents the purest form of that. I would argue that despite the failings of any journalist in one way or another, if they have that independence of perspective, they have the greatest capacity for reporting that a journalist can attain. Ultimately, no matter how brilliant you are, no matter how charismatic you are, no matter how perfect or absolute your sourcing is, or your access, if you simply take the claims of institutions that have the most privilege that they must protect, at face value, and you’re willing to sort of repeat them, all of those other things that are working in your favor in the final calculus amount to nothing because you’re missing the fundamentals.
There was the broader question of what it’s like working with these journalists and going through that process. There is the argument that I was naïve. In fact, that’s one of the most common criticisms about me today—that I am too naïve, that I have too much faith in the government, that I have too much faith in the press. I don’t see that as a weakness. I am naïve, but I think that idealism is critical to achieving change, ultimately not of policy, but of culture, right? Because we can change this or that law, we can change this or that policy or program, but at the end of the day, it’s the values of the people in these institutions that are producing these policies or programs. It’s the values of the people who are sitting at the desk with the blank page in Microsoft Office, or whatever journalists are using now.
Bell: I hope they’re not using Microsoft Office, but you never know.
Snowden: They have the blank page …
Bell: They have the blank page, exactly.
Snowden: In their content management system, or whatever. How is that individual going to approach this collection of facts in the next week, in the next month, in the next year, in the next decade? What will the professor in the journalism school say in their lecture that will impart these values, again, sort of memetically into the next cohort of reporters? If we do not win on that, we have lost comprehensively. More fundamentally, people say, why did you trust the press, given their failures? Given the fact that I was, in fact, quite famous for criticizing the press.
Bell: If they had done their job, you would be at home now.
Snowden: Yeah, I would still be living quite comfortably in Hawaii.
Bell: Which is not so bad, when you put it that way.
Snowden: People ask how could you do this, why would you do this? How could you trust a journalist that you knew had no training at all in operational security to keep your identity safe because if they screw up, you’re going to jail. The answer was that that was actually what I was expecting. I never expected to make it out of Hawaii. I was going to try my best, but my ultimate goal was simply to get this information back in the hands of the public. I felt that the only way that could be done meaningfully was through the press. If we can’t have faith in the press, if we can’t sort of take that leap of faith and either be served well by them, or underserved and have the press fail, we’ve already lost. You cannot have an open society without open communication. Ultimately, the test of open communication is a free press. If they can’t look for information, if they can’t contest the government’s control of information, and ultimately print information—not just about government, but also about corporate interests, that has a deleterious impact on the preferences of power, on the prerogatives of power. You may have something, but I would argue it’s not the traditional American democracy that I believed in.
So the idea here was that I could take these risks because I already expected to bear the costs. I expected the end of the road was a cliff. This is actually illustrated quite well in Citizenfour because it shows that there was absolutely no plan at all for the day after.
The planning to get to the point of working with the journalists, of transmitting this information, of explaining, contextualizing—it was obsessively detailed, because it had to be. Beyond that, the risks were my own. They weren’t for the journalists. They could do everything else. That was by design as well, because if the journalists had done anything shady—for example, if I had stayed in place at the NSA as a source and they had asked me for this document, and that document, it could have undermined the independence, the credibility of the process, and actually brought risks upon them that could have led to new constraints upon journalism.
Bell: So nothing you experienced in the room with the team, or what happened after, made you question or reevaluate journalism?
Snowden: I didn’t say that. Actually working more closely with the journalists has radically reshaped my understanding of journalism, and that continues through to today. I think you would agree that anybody who’s worked in the news industry, either directly or even peripherally, has seen journalists—or, more directly, editors—who are terrified, who hold back a story, who don’t want to publish a detail, who want to wait for the lawyers, who are concerned with liability.
You also have journalists who go out on their own and they publish details which actually are damaging, directly to personal safety. There were details published by at least one of the journalists that were discussing communication methods that I was still actively using, that previously had been secret. But the journalists didn’t even forewarn me, so suddenly I had to change all of my methods on the fly. Which worked out OK because I had the capabilities to do that, but dangerous.
Bell: When did that happen?
Snowden: This was at the height of public interest, basically. The idea here is that a journalist ultimately, and particularly a certain class of journalist, they don’t owe any allegiance to their source, right? They don’t write the story in line with what the sources desires, they don’t go about their publication schedule to benefit, or to detriment, in theory, the source at all. There are strong arguments that that’s the way it should be: public knowledge of the truth is more important than the risks that knowledge creates for a few. But at the same time, when a journalist is reporting on something like a classified program implicating one of the government’s sources, you see an incredibly high standard of care applied to make sure they can’t be blamed if something goes wrong down the road after publication. The journalists will go, well we’ll hold back this detail from that story reporting on classified documents, because if we name this government official it might expose them to some harm, or it might get this program shut down, or even if it might cause them to have to rearrange the deck chairs in the operations in some far away country.
That’s just being careful, right? But ask yourself—should journalists be just as careful when the one facing the blowback of a particular detail is their own source? In my experience, the answer does not seem to be as obvious as you might expect.
Bell: Do you foresee a world where someone won’t have to be a whistleblower in order to reveal the kinds of documents that you revealed? What kinds of internal mechanisms would that require on behalf of the government? What would that look like in the future?
Snowden: That’s a really interesting philosophical question. It doesn’t come down to technical mechanisms, that comes down to culture. We’ve seen in the EU a number of reports from parliamentary bodies, from the Council of Europe, that said we need to protect whistleblowers, in particular national security whistleblowers. In the national context no country really wants to pass a law that allows individuals rightly, or wrongly, to embarrass the government. But can we provide an international framework for this? One would argue, particularly when espionage laws are being used to prosecute people, they already exist. That’s why espionage, for example, is considered a political offense, because it’s just a political crime, as they say. That’s a fairly weak defense, or fairly weak justification, for not reforming whistleblower laws. Particularly when, throughout Western Europe they’re going, yeah, we like this guy, he did a good thing. But if he shows up on the doorstep we’re going to ship him back immediately, regardless of whether it’s unlawful, just because the US is going to retaliate against us. It’s extraordinary that the top members of German government have said this on the record—that it’s realpolitik; it’s about power, rather than principle.
Now how we can fix this? I think a lot of it comes down to culture, and we need a press that’s more willing and actually eager to criticize government than they are today. Even though we’ve got a number of good institutions that do that, or that want to do that, it needs a uniform culture. The only counterargument the government has made against national security whistleblowing, and many other things that embarrassed them in the past, is that well, it could cause some risk, we could go dark, they could have blood on their hands.
Why do they have different ground rules in the context of national security journalism?
We see that not just in the United States, but in France, Germany, the UK, in every Western country, and of course, in every more authoritarian country by comparison they are embracing the idea of state secrets, of classifications, or saying, you can’t know this, you can’t know that.
We call ourselves private citizens, and we refer to elected representatives as public officials, because we’re supposed to know everything about them and their activities. At the same time, they’re supposed to know nothing about us, because they wield all the power, and we hold all of the vulnerability. Yet increasingly, that’s becoming inverted, where they are the private officials, and we are the public citizens. We’re increasingly monitored and tracked and reported, quantified and known and influenced, at the same time that they’re getting themselves off and becoming less reachable and also less accountable.
Bell: But Ed, when you talk about this in those terms, you make it sound as though you see this as a progression. Certainly there was a sharp increase, as you demonstrated, in overreach of oversight post-9/11. Is it a continuum?
It felt from the outside as though America, post-9/11, for understandable reasons, it was almost like a sort of national psychosis. If you grew up in Europe, there were regular terrorist acts in almost every country after the Second World War, though not on the same scale, until there was a brief, five-year period of respite, weirdly running up to about 2001. Then the nature of the terrorism changed. To some extent, that narrative is predictable. You talk about it as an ever increasing problem. With the Freedom Act in 2015, the press identified this as a significant moment where the temperature had changed. You don’t sound like you really think that. You sound as though you think that this public/private secrecy, spying, is an increasing continuum. So how does that change? Particularly in the current political climate where post-Paris and other terrorist attacks we’ve already seen arguments for breaking encryption.
Snowden: I don’t think they are actually contradictory views to hold. I think what we’re talking about are the natural inclinations of power and vice, what we can do to restrain it, to maintain a free society. So when we think about where things have gone in the USA Freedom Act, and when we look back at the 1970s, it was even worse in terms of the level of comfort that the government had that it could engage in abuses and get away with them. One of the most important legacies of 2013 is not anything that was necessarily published, but it was the impact of the publication on the culture of government. It was a confirmation coming quite quickly in the wake of the WikiLeaks stories, which were equally important in this regard. That said, secrecy will not hold forever. If you authorize a policy that is clearly contrary to law, you will eventually have to explain that.
The question is, can you keep it under wraps long enough to get out of the administration, and hopefully for it to be out of the egregious sort of thing where you’ll lose an election as a result. We see the delta between the periods of time that successive administrations can keep a secret is actually diminishing—the secrets are becoming public at an accelerated pace. This is a beneficial thing. This is the same in the context of terrorism.
There is an interesting idea—when you were saying it’s sort of weird that the US has what you described as a collective psychosis in the wake of 9/11 given that European countries have been facing terrorist attacks routinely. The US had actually been facing the same thing, and actually one would argue, experienced similarly high-impact attacks, for example, the Oklahoma City bombing, where a Federal building was destroyed by a single individual or one actor.
Bell: What do you think about the relationship between governments asking Facebook and other communications platforms to help fight ISIS?
Snowden: Should we basically deputize companies to become the policy enforcers of the world? When you put it in that context suddenly it becomes clear that this is not really a good idea, particularly because terrorism does not have a strong definition that’s internationally recognized. If Facebook says, we will take down any post from anybody who the government says is a terrorist, as long as it comes from this government, suddenly they have to do that for the other government. The Chinese allegations of who is and who is not a terrorist are going to look radically different than what the FBI’s are going to be. But if the companies try to be selective about them, say, well, we’re only going to do this for one government, they immediately lose access to the markets of the other ones. So that doesn’t work, and that’s not a position companies want to be in.
However, even if they could do this, there are already policies in place for them to do that. If Facebook gets a notification that says this is a terrorist thing, they take it down. It’s not like this is a particularly difficult or burdensome review when it comes to violence.
The distinction is the government is trying to say, now we want them to start cracking down on radical speech. Should private companies be who we as society are reliant upon to bound the limits of public conversations? And this goes beyond borders now. I think that’s an extraordinarily dangerous precedent to be embracing, and, in turn, irresponsible for American leaders to be championing.
The real solutions here are much more likely to be in terms of entirely new institutions that bound the way law enforcement works, moving us away from the point of military conflict, secret conflict, and into simply public policing.
There’s no reason why we could not have an international counter-terrorism force that actually has universal jurisdiction. I mean universal in terms of fact, as opposed to actual law.
Edward Snowden is a former intelligence officer who served the CIA, NSA, and DIA for nearly a decade as a subject matter expert on technology and cybersecurity. In 2013, he revealed the scope of NSA surveillance globally by providing classified NSA documents to journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, Barton Gellman, and Ewen MacAskill. He has been exiled in Russia since July 2013.
Emily Bell is Director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, and Humanitas Visiting Professor in Media 2015-16 at the The Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Cambridge.