Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations are the biggest journalistic event in the past decade, and certainly the most important US leak since the Pentagon Papers. They have exposed practices that have been judged to be government privacy boards to be illegal, and by courts as an affront to the Constitution. And they have demonstrated that large amounts of state surveillance in the post 9/11 era have nothing to do with terrorism.
They also represent proof that the assertions of whistle-blowers such as ex-NSA operative William Binney were far from baseless, and have prompted a long-overdue debate on the scale and legitimacy of domestic spying in the United States and Europe.
In other words, the leaks have been momentous and profoundly important, confirming and exceeding the fears of many, in addition to highlighting a need for careful reflection and reform. While the Internet is full of material that explores the multifarious issues raised by the exposures and their political consequences, I recently took the opportunity to speak to Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who has been most central to bringing the stories to into the light of day, in order to ask him some questions on different, but not unrelated, matters.
I wanted to know, among other things, about his experiences in working with the British media. With so many important NSA-related subjects to discuss, it may seem wasteful to have explored this topic. But I felt compelled to do so, having watched the wrenching spectacle of the UK’s anaemic response to the Snowden revelations, and was curious to hear his reflections on the health of my homeland’s fourth estate.
After a brief discussion on the shortcomings of Windows 8 (in particular, its incredibly irritating tendency to switch between programmes you are using at the flick of a cursor) I asked Greenwald about possible beef with an outlet that had carried some of my work on its website – The Independent newspaper, based in London. Without thinking properly, I clumsily asked if he “had an issue” with Chris Blackhurst, a former Editor [now Group Content Editor for The Independent and London Evening Standard.]
“Oh right, that editor who said it would be outrageous of me to ever question anything the government says?” he replied, referring to a laboured piece authored by the same on the revelations Greenwald had helped to uncover.
Yes, I explained.
“Oh no, of course, I don’t hold that against everybody who is associated with The Independent at all,” he reassured me, without dignifying my initial question. I mentioned the notorious Emma Brockes interview with Noam Chomsky at the Guardian, whom he until recently had written for, which was rightly reprobated by all but the most ideologically committed.
“I’ve learned a lot about the British press in the last year and a half,” Greewnald mentioned in response.
Picking up on this, I asked the journalist what his lasting impression was. “Well, I mean, the whole sector of the press that views itself as liberal, kind of like a left/liberal/ progressive camp is actually incredibly cliquish and authoritarian. They completely capitulate to this really ugly groupthink,” Greenwald replied.
“They ride in packs and love to invoke left-liberal principles in order to justify whatever it is the state is doing. I mean they are incredibly authoritarian in this ugly way, which you usually don’t associate with people who identify themselves as on the left or whatever. It’s this Tony Blair kind of thing.”
It sounded like the experience of working with the UK-based Guardian had been a baptism of fire. I suggested that British pusillanimity, of the kind he had just decried, may be a learned behaviour, reflecting culturally instilled patterns of obeisance to power that become normalised in the workplace and ritually defended on a false intellectual basis. I also mention the effect of Britain’s scandalous libel laws – and the fact that the UK’s two left-leaning dailies are making a loss every year (compared with the repulsive Daily Mail, who turn a profit printing poison.)
“There’s this complete fear that infuses the British media,” Greenwald responded, hitting the nail on the head without much thought. “I think a part of it is financial, for the reasons you said. It’s so easy to be sued, and there’s no free press protection. But there’s very much this sense of erring on the side of extreme caution, and then it’s dressed up as journalistic ethics or whatever, because nobody likes to think of themselves, especially journalists, as being driven by fear.”
I ask Greenwald how his experiences in England compared with working with American media. His reply was extremely interesting:
“I actually noticed, the first month I was there [at the Guardian,] I wrote this article on a documentary that had been produced by a CNN reporter that I know, Amber Lyon, that was highly critical of the regime in Bahrain, right as the Arab spring was unfolding. Her documentary never ended up getting [broadcast] on CNN. It aired once on CNN domestic, but it wouldn’t air on CNN International, even though it won an award and it was this hard-hitting documentary about the oppressive tactics of the regime. I did all this investigation, [after] she came to me about this, and I found out all this stuff about how CNN International were courting all these contracts with the regime in Bahrain at the same time they were covering [the unrest there], and how [Manama] would buy 30 minutes of air time on CNN, with the CNN logo on it and it would produce state propaganda, and I wrote this long piece [about this].
“The Guardian’s lawyers first tried to kill it. Then they insisted that I separate it into two pieces, because if you put into the same piece that they suppressed the documentary, and they had these contrasts, it implies – God forbid! – that the contracts were the reason [the film was] suppressed, and you couldn’t do that because you’d get sued. So one had to be a commentary piece about the contracts, and the other had to be about the documentary, and even that took weeks. In the US that would never have given anyone any thought.”
With the Guardian in mind, I bring up the subject of WikiLeaks. An initially private falling out between the two organizations had occurred in the midst of the cablegate exposures, culminating in a very public disagreement about the handling of sensitive WikiLeaks material in a book produced by the newspaper. Having worked for the Guardian, how did he view the publication’s handling of this situation, I asked.
“I think the way that the Guardian let itself descend into this really bitter, angry, personal feud with Julian Assange was not very becoming. Especially since they benefitted so much from their partnership with WikiLeaks. To then turn themselves into sort of the leading enemy of WikiLeaks and Assange due to purely personalised animosity I thought was unprofessional,” Greenwald said.
Did this attitude extend all the way up to the editor, I interjected, adding hasty apologies for pursuing such a sensitive subject. “Oh yeah, I think that Alan Rusbridger has been pretty open about his animus toward Julian,” he replied.
And then, sensing the limits of my will, I asked him about the NSA.