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Excerpt: "'The stuff I saw really began to disturb me. I could watch drones in real time as they surveilled the people they might kill,' Snowden told Greenwald about his time as a National Security Agency contractor."

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. (photo: Guardian UK)
NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. (photo: Guardian UK)

How the US Drone War Pushed Snowden to Leak Docs

By Amy Goodman, Democracy Now!

14 May 14

n his new book, "No Place to Hide," journalist Glenn Greenwald provides new details on Edward Snowden’s personal story and his motivation to expose the U.S. surveillance state. "The stuff I saw really began to disturb me. I could watch drones in real time as they surveilled the people they might kill," Snowden told Greenwald about his time as a National Security Agency contractor. "You could watch entire villages and see what everyone was doing. I watched NSA tracking people’s Internet activities as they typed. I became aware of just how invasive U.S. surveillance capabilities had become. I realized the true breadth of this system. And almost nobody knew it was happening."

Greenwald joins us in studio to describe the inside story of the man behind the NSA leaks. "The fact that this individual with no power was knowingly risking everything in his life for a political cause, and really ended up changing the world, I think is a remarkable lesson for everybody," Greenwald says. "It’s certainly something that’s inspired me and has shaped how I think about things — and probably will for the rest of my life."


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our conversation with the investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, whose new book, just out today, is titled No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State. This is a clip of Edward Snowden during his recent TED Talk, when he was asked by Chris Anderson about the risks he took in exposing the NSA’s surveillance programs.

CHRIS ANDERSON: Most people would find the situation you’re in right now in Russia pretty terrifying. You obviously—you know, you heard what happened—what the treatment that Bradley Manning got, Chelsea Manning as now is. And there was a story in BuzzFeed saying that there are people in the intelligence community who want you dead. How—how are you coping with this? Are you—how are you coping with the fear?

EDWARD SNOWDEN: You know, it’s—it’s no mystery that there are governments out there that want to see me dead. I’ve made clear again and again and again that I go to sleep every morning thinking about what can I do for the American people. I don’t want to harm my government. I want to help my government. But the fact that they are willing to completely ignore due process, they’re willing to declare guilt without ever seeing a trial, these are things that we need to work against as a society and say, "Hey, this is not appropriate."

AMY GOODMAN: Now, let’s be clear: That’s Edward Snowden giving a TED Talk, not in person, because he has political asylum in Russia right now, very concerned that if he came to the United States—well, as you say in your book, Edward Snowden was inconceivably calm in Hong Kong and felt profoundly at peace with what he had done. You write, "He once joked, 'I call the bottom bunk at Gitmo.'" Talk about who Edward Snowden was and is. What is his background? You reveal things in this book that most people haven’t talked about before.

GLENN GREENWALD: Yeah, I mean, to me, this is, you know, from my own personal experience, probably the most stunning part of the story, is—and it’s what I spent a long time in Hong Kong trying to figure out and investigate, through asking him questions and then thinking about, as well—and I still think about it—which is: What would lead a seemingly ordinary 29-year-old, with his entire life ahead of him, someone very well adjusted, by all appearances, with a good job and a very good income and a great career and a girlfriend who he loves and a family who’s supportive, to give up his entire life to literally risk decades, if not the rest of his life, in prison, not to enrich himself or to extract vengeance on somebody, but in pursuit of a political ideal, to confront an injustice that he believes is taking place? What actually takes place in someone’s mind and in their spirit and in their soul that leads them to engage in such an obviously self-sacrificing act? I mean, that’s a really hard, but important question to think about. And what really struck me most about him was that he grew up as a son of, essentially, family—a family that worked for the federal government. His father was in the Coast Guard for 30 years. I think you could describe him as lower middle class. He grew up in a very kind of ordinary home. He actually didn’t even finish high school, because he never was fulfilled by high school, despite how obviously intelligent he is. But he’s somebody who is just very ordinary. I mean, he didn’t have family wealth or family connections or any prestige or position or power.

AMY GOODMAN: And he grew up where?

GLENN GREENWALD: He grew up in Virginia, essentially. And he was born in North Carolina and then grew up in Virginia. And, you know, he was somebody who was instilled with the sort of traditional conceptions of patriotism, as well. I mean, after he didn’t finish high school, the first thing he did was enlist in the U.S. Army, because he wanted to go fight in the Iraq War, which he thought was a noble endeavor. He had believed the propaganda that the war was about liberating the Iraqi people. And he got to basic training and was disillusioned when, he said, the officers training them were talking a lot about killing Arabs and very little about liberating anybody. But even then, he devoted himself to working at NSA and CIA and—

AMY GOODMAN: But wait, in this—

GLENN GREENWALD: —working for the U.S. government.

AMY GOODMAN: In this training, he broke his legs.

GLENN GREENWALD: He broke both of his legs, which is the reason why he ended up not going to the Iraq War. He very easily could have. But even back then, you know, it’s interesting. You can look at that, in one sense, as well—he had this incredible journey where he did this amazing reversal, because he was so patriotic, in that traditional sense of how it’s conceived of, that he was ready to go fight in the Iraq War, and then, 10 years later, he becomes this major whistleblower. To me, they’re really the same kind of act. They grow out of the same sort of way of thinking about the world. And that is that he was willing to sacrifice his own life in 2003 to enlist to go fight in the Iraq War, because he felt it was his moral duty to help people who were being oppressed, and 10 years later, that’s essentially the same thing that he did: He sacrificed his liberty and his life in order to help people who he thought were being oppressed. It really comes out of the same moral code. And the fact that this individual with no power was knowingly risking everything in his life for a political cause, and really ended up changing the world, I think is a remarkable lesson for everybody. It’s certainly something that’s certainly inspired me and has shaped how I think about things, and probably will for the rest of my life.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, so he worked for—well, he was—he went into the military. And then, talk about how he ends up being an NSA contractor, how he ends up working for Booz Allen Hamilton.

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, there’s this fascinating dilemma in the American national security state, which is that they’ve built this enormous apparatus. And in order to have it function, you need huge numbers of people. And, unfortunately for the NSA, the only kinds of people who are really capable of thriving in this environment, which requires, you know, very advanced and detailed knowledge of how the Internet works, are people who have grown up in the Internet culture, who tend to be quite young and often very anti-authoritarian. And so, they’re essentially recruiting from people who are kind of inclined to become hackers, rather than officials in the national security state apparatus. And they try and recruit these people and convert them to think the way they need them to think. And obviously it’s not always successful, which is why you’ve had this kind of series of whistleblowers, often very young, these people who end up being quite rebellious.

But, you know, Snowden was sort of poorly adjusted. I mean, he hadn’t found his place in the world as a young man. I mean, he didn’t finish high school, which was a disappointment to his parents and to himself. And right away in this environment, he thrived, because he has an incredible facility with programming and cryptography and the Internet, and so he was promoted very rapidly. His skills were very quickly recognized. And he—even though he had no high school degree, he went from working as a security guard at the NSA, which was his first job, at a—literally, an NSA building, some random building at the University of Maryland—to being vested with increasing levels of responsibility and access.

AMY GOODMAN: Wait, wait, wait. You said at an NSA building at the University of Maryland.

GLENN GREENWALD: Yeah, there’s a covert facility at the University of Maryland that looks, to all appearances, on purpose, to be a University of Maryland office or—

AMY GOODMAN: In College Park?

GLENN GREENWALD: In College Park—that in fact is covertly an NSA facility. And it has the cooperation of administration officials, which are obviously government employees, because it’s a public school. And that was the first facility at which he worked.

AMY GOODMAN: Can students freely go in and out?

GLENN GREENWALD: I don’t know the details. I just know that it’s a secure building, which is why he was hired as a security guard to work there.

AMY GOODMAN: So Edward Snowden was there as a guard.

GLENN GREENWALD: Yeah, literally a security guard wearing a uniform and a little makeshift badge. I don’t think he had a gun, but he had, you know, the rest of the kind of indicia of being a security guard.

AMY GOODMAN: How does he end up working at Dell?

GLENN GREENWALD: He, you know, advanced through the national security state. He actually got clearance. And once you get security clearance, it means that there’s all kinds of job openings available for you. He spent three years working directly for the CIA in Geneva, became disillusioned with the CIA, and then decided to shift to the NSA. And because so much of our national security state is now privatized and outsourced, what it means to go work for the NSA usually means that you’re going to work for some huge corporation, like Booz Allen or Dell, General Dynamics, all sorts of other corporations that have contracts with the NSA. And so, he ended up at Dell working actually for the CIA. By this point, he had pretty much—

AMY GOODMAN: But how does that work? Dell is a private corporation, most people think, so how, if you’re working at Dell, are you working for the CIA?

GLENN GREENWALD: I mean, this is—you know, it’s the same way that if you want to go fight in the war in Iraq or Afghanistan, or go be part of the drone program in Yemen or Somalia, you can go and work for the U.S. government and be a government employee, but the more—the easier and certainly the more lucrative way is to go to work for Blackwater or for corporations that have contracts. And this is a vital point of the story, is that so much of what we consider to be the U.S. government and military and intelligence functions are now in the hands of the private sector. The private sector does most of the work. I think it’s something like 75 percent of the $75-billion-a-year NSA budget is actually money that goes directly into the coffers of private corporations. And we hear all this stuff about how everything is so well controlled, there’s transparency, there’s oversight. None of these mechanisms and controls apply to the private sector that really is running the vast bulk of the national security state, which is why Edward Snowden, despite being a private employee of a private corporation, had access to all these vast NSA systems, because there’s no division anymore between what we think of as the public realm, which is the government, and the private corporations that own it and that run it.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Glenn Greenwald, talk about why Edward Snowden leaves Dell, what he feels he can’t do there, and ends up at Booz Allen.

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, it was really, I think, at Dell when he first decided that he was willing to kind of cross this line and become a whistleblower. He had thought about it back in Geneva, when he was at the CIA, and for a variety of reasons, including his belief that the election of Obama would result in the curbing of some of these abuses, he thought it wouldn’t be necessary to do. And then, once he saw that Obama was actually not just continuing, but in some cases escalating a lot of these policies, he said he kind of realized that leadership is about acting as an example to others, rather than waiting for others to act. And so, he pretty much committed mentally while at Dell to becoming a whistleblower, and so he started thinking about what documents do I need to tell the story that need to be told. And he was able to access a lot of them there. He had accessed some of them previously at NSA positions and then decided there were some documents that he could access only by getting this particular job at Booz Allen that was part of a facility where these documents existed in Hawaii. And so he purposely sought out that job to kind of complete the picture that he thought the world should see.

AMY GOODMAN: And why was this so important to him? What was he coming to realize working at Dell with the CIA?

GLENN GREENWALD: One of the things that he told me was like a turning point for him was he had an NSA job in Japan, where—and this was the job right before Dell—that he said he was able to watch the real-time surveillance being fed by drones, in which you could see an entire village in a place where America is not at war, like Yemen or Somalia or Pakistan. And you could see literally little dots of people and what they were doing, and then you would have intelligence about who they were and who they were calling and this vast picture that was able to be created of them by not even physically being in the country. And the invasiveness and the extent of that surveillance, he said, was something even he, working inside this community, had no idea even existed. And—

AMY GOODMAN: He was watching a village before it was struck by a drone?

GLENN GREENWALD: Right. I mean, these were surveillance drones, typically. And so, it wasn’t even necessarily that the drones were killing people, though a lot of times they did. That was the reason for putting these villages under surveillance, was to decide who to kill. But he could watch just how much the U.S. government covertly could put entire populations under a microscope. And the fact that this had been done without any democratic debate or without his fellow citizens knowing about it was extremely alarming to him. And the more he came to see just how ubiquitous this system of suspicionless surveillance was, the more compelled he felt not to keep it a secret.

AMY GOODMAN: And not only the drone surveillance, but watching people type every letter—explain what that was.

GLENN GREENWALD: There is a certain kind of what the NSA calls "malware," which is essentially a virus that enters your computer. And there’s all kinds of ways they can get that virus onto your computer. They can induce you to click on a link by sending it to your email, that once you click on it will inject that virus into your system. They can send you a file that, once you open, by calling it "urgent banking notice," you open—or "tax notice," you open the file, and the opening of that file injects this virus. Or they can physically access your computer and put it in that way. And once that virus is there, they, as they call it, own your computer, which means that they can literally see every keystroke that you enter. And one of the documents we published said that they had done this to 50,000 machines. The New York Times thereafter reported that it was 100,000. And then we, just about a month and a half ago, at The Intercept reported that it was millions of machines they’re preparing to do this to. And so, he would be able to watch the outcome of this malware, where people, without any idea that their machines had been infected, were having every keystroke that they entered, every Google search, every website they clicked on, every email they sent or opened or read, every chat in which they engaged, read by an analyst thousands of miles away. And he found that deeply disturbing.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to that place in the videotape that you first posted at The Guardian, that Laura filmed, where he talks about the kind of typing that he could see.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: Any analyst at any time can target anyone, any selector anywhere. Where those communications will be picked up depends on the range of the sensor networks and the authorities that that analyst is empowered with. Not all analysts have the ability to target everything. But I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant to a federal judge, to even the president, if I had a personal email.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Edward Snowden. A federal judge or the president of the United States—and this, of course, is what the Obama administration at first completely denied.

GLENN GREENWALD: Right. And the Obama administration—and I say this really advisably—was knowingly lying to the public when they denied the truth of what he had said. And, you know, this was in the very first week, and that was explosive claim, and the NSA had no idea what evidence we had, so they could—they thought they could lie with impunity. And then we ultimately published documents, and I publish on purpose a lot more in the book, that demonstrate exactly what analysts are capable of doing. And what they’re capable of doing is exactly what Edward Snowden said, which is—the phrase that describes what the NSA is attempting to do and is close to doing is their own phrase, which is "collect it all." They want to collect and store the entire Internet, literally every email, every chat, every Google search, every website that you click on.

And they then have the capability, using programs that all of these NSA analysts can access and use, including Edward Snowden, even though he was a private corporation employee, to literally, in a simple form that’s extremely easy to use—you just enter the email address that you want to read emails from, you click on a drop-down menu of, quote, "justification"—this person’s a terrorist, this person is an agent of a foreign power—and then the database returns to your desk all of the emails from the selector, the email address, that you’ve just asked for. It is literally that easy. There’s no supervisor who has to approve it. There’s very little auditing that takes place even after the fact. When they do discover what looks like an unjustified search, they just kind of concoct a reason to cover it all up that it’s being done. And what he said an NSA analyst can do, which is eavesdrop and read the communications of any person, including even the president, is exactly what the system has been constructed to enable.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m going to interrupt for a minute, because you talked about him working at Dell, you talked about him working as a security guard and, of course, at Booz Allen. What about at the Defense Intelligence Agency? In fact, he was teaching others.

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, it was fascinating. You know, you can know that the media is unbelievably unreliable in all sorts of ways when, you know, you’re just watching them kind of from a distance. But when you’re in the middle of a story, you realize the extreme extent to which that’s true. And almost instantly, the entire U.S. media decided to depict him as this kind of idiot and knave, this low-level IT guy who just kind of stumbled into these documents. And I knew from the beginning that the reality was exactly the opposite. He was a very highly trained cyber-operative who had been not only trained in the highest levels of cyber-attack and cyberdefense; he was trained as a hacker to invade other countries’ systems and to protect the United States. But he advanced to the level where he was training other operatives in how to protect information, but also how to steal it from other places.

AMY GOODMAN: He’s training government operatives.

GLENN GREENWALD: Government operatives inside the United States national security state about how to do these sorts of things. And so he was a very sophisticated operative who had been trained, essentially, how to steal information. And there was an irony there that he was now being charged for espionage, when it’s really the NSA that’s doing the espionage, stealing all the time. And they had trained him to steal from other governments, but not from their own. And so, right away it was clear that he was going to be the number one most wanted fugitive in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: And just to be clear, all of that is to say that the government knew exactly who he was once he revealed himself.

GLENN GREENWALD: Sure. I mean, they—I mean, once—I believe that they did not know, prior to that article being published, who the source of this—these documents were. It took them a while to get up to speed and just up and running and to realize the magnitude of it. So I think he did reveal himself to the government. I don’t think they knew by then who he was. But, of course, once he then identified himself, they knew exactly who he was, what his capabilities were and what they had trained him in.

AMY GOODMAN: This is President Obama speaking on Charlie Rose last June. This was weeks after Edward Snowden had revealed some of what he knew.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What I can say unequivocally is that if you are a U.S. person, the NSA cannot listen to your telephone calls, and the NSA cannot target your emails.

CHARLIE ROSE: And have not.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And have not. They cannot and have not, by law and by rule, and—unless they—and usually it wouldn’t be "they," it would be the FBI—go to a court and obtain a warrant and seek probable cause, the same way it’s always been, the same way, when we were growing up and were watching movies, you know, you want to go set up a wiretap, you’ve got to go to a judge, show probable cause.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s President Obama in June, weeks after the first revelations came out. Glenn Greenwald?

GLENN GREENWALD: You know, it’s—of all the statements that have been made by the government that have been false, I think that one is the most deliberately and starkly false. There was a scandal in 2005 that The New York Times revealed and won the Pulitzer Prize for, which was that the Bush administration was eavesdropping on the telephone calls of Americans without obtaining warrants from the court. And in 2008, the Congress, a bipartisan Congress, supported by President Obama, then Senator Obama, enacted a new law, the 2008 FISA Amendments Act, the purpose of which was to legalize the essence of that Bush program. And what the law said was that the NSA has the power to listen in on the telephone conversations of Americans or read their emails without a warrant—without a warrant—whenever they are speaking to a foreign national. So, all the time, the NSA listens to the telephone calls of Americans or reads their emails without going and getting a warrant, completely contrary to what President Obama said.

And then, the other aspect of it, as well, is that the FISA court is a well-known joke. It was created in the mid-1970s after the Church Committee uncovered decades of surveillance abuses, and the government had to find a way to placate American anger. And what they said was, "Oh, don’t worry. We’re going to create this court that from now on the government has to go to to get permission." And they created the court to be the ultimate rubber-stamping court. It meets in secret. Only the government is allowed to appear. And so, as a result, by design, this court almost never rejects any request for surveillance. So, even to the extent what President Obama said was truthful, in the limited sense that it was, it’s extremely misleading, because there’s very little oversight on the system. your social media marketing partner
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