Report on Glenn Greenwald Talk

by Steve Geller

On Wednesday night, June 18, 2014, Claire and I went to hear journalist Glenn Greenwald talk about the Snowden revelations, NSA surveillance in general, and about his book “No Place to Hide.”

This was at the Nourse theater on Hayes Street in San Francisco. The sold-out audience included white-haired Daniel Ellsberg, of Pentagon Papers fame, sitting in the front row.

Greenwald was an excellent speaker. He said that San Francisco is the start of a multi-city book tour. He grinned, saying that we should appreciate having him fresh today, instead of all worn-out at the end of his tour.

I’m reading the book, which begins with the story of how he came by the NSA documents, went to meet Edward Snowden in Hong Kong and wrote the exposé in the Guardian. In his talk, Greenwald made many good points. Here is a sampling:

Leakers are Crazy

Whistle-blowers and other leakers of secrets are almost always portrayed in the press as insane or with dark ulterior motives. The reason why government operatives broke into the office of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist was to find ways of labelling him as insane.

This kind of treatment was common practice in Stalin’s Russia. There has even been a move right here in the US to label dissidents as insane.

Dissenters within a society are usually the source of creativity, of change to the status quo.

But for spillers of secrets, the press pundits tend to follow the government line; they can’t believe that anyone would make such revelations, actually motivated by the conviction that they were doing the right thing.

But this is how Snowden, Manning, Ellsberg and others always describe their motivation.

In the book, Snowden is quoted thus:

The true measurement of a person's worth isn't what they say they believe in, but what they do in defense of those beliefs. If you're not acting on your beliefs, then they probably aren't real.

Leakers are Spies

Snowden was also portrayed as a spy for China, then, when he became trapped in Russia, as a spy for Russia. Greenwald noted that neither China nor Russia treated Snowden like one of their own; both made efforts to get rid of him.

Leakers are Egotists

Another tactic was to label Snowden as a egotistical publicity-seeker. Greenwald noted that after Snowden identified himself as the source for the NSA documents, he deliberately became inaccessible, refusing interviews. Other than at his original meeting with Greenwald, Snowden has given only one interview. This is hardly like a publicity seeker. (Evening anchor for NBC News Brian Williams recently traveled to Moscow in order to conduct a joint interview with Snowden and Greenwald).

Greenwald suggested that whistle-blowers are not the ones who need their psyche examined, but rather the pundits in the press and government leaker-demonizers. It’s clear that questioning the sanity or motives of people like Snowden serves the propaganda purpose if discrediting the source, making people become repelled by the leaker. Lurid tales of the sex life of Julian Assange draw attention away from the legitimate issues raised by his revelations.

Surveillance Not Bad for Good People

One remark Greenwald hears frequently is “surveillance doesn’t bother me; I’m not doing anything wrong.” In a 2009 interview with CNBC's Maria Bartiromo, Google's Eric Schmidt said "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place." Greenwald noted that when the technology news site CNET published Schmidt's personal details, including his salary, campaign donations and his address, Schmidt gave orders that Google employees should not talk to CNET reporters. (These personal details are all public information available via a Google search)

The point is that privacy is a right, covered by Amendment IV of the US Constitution. Seeking privacy does not have to imply illegal activities. Trade secrets and medical history are private. So is anything that might bring on the ignorant judgment of busybodies.

Greenwald said he once challenged one of these “nothing to hide” people. He said: “Here’s my email address. Please send me a list of all your passwords, so I can look over what you are doing on-line.” So-far, he says there have been no takers on this offer.

It All Started with 9/11

Of course the original motivation for an over-active NSA was the 9/11 attack. Collecting everyone’s communications is supposed to protect us from terrorists and other attackers. It is notable that NSA surveillance did not detect the on-line activities of people who did recent mass shootings.

The NSA was supposed to restrict its surveillance to foreign countries, or communications in and out of the US, but the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978) courts have given NSA wide latitude to go after anything they think might be “relevant.”

The top of one of the NSA documents proudly displays the NSA motto: “Collect It All.” In a slide presented in 2011 at a meeting of the intelligence agencies of 5 countries, the NSA described its “collection posture” as “Collect it All,” “Process it All,” “Exploit it All,” “Partner it All,” “Sniff it All” and, ultimately, “Know it All.”

Several people have suggested that this policy results in too much data, far more than even the huge NSA can meaningfully analyze. I suppose some clever filtering algorithms might be used to guide analysts to a more intense study of certain parts of the data.

Prospects for Change

So will the NSA spying be curtailed? Greenwald was dubious. He thinks the Obama administration will produce some cosmetic legislation, but the spying will go on.

He thinks that angry foreign countries and US citizens who have had their privacy ignored will eventually force some action.

Government Harassment

I've finished the book. I read the part about how his fellow journalists tried discredit Greenwald and accuse him of criminal action. The Guardian was compelled to destroy hard disks on which Snowden files had been recorded; this was useless at the time it was done because so many copies had been made for so many people. Snowden was careful to store his files on easily concealed USB thumb drives, not on his laptop hard drives. Greenwald's partner was detained when passing through Britain. There was some effort within the US government to make Greenwald just as guilty as Snowden.

More on NSA Surveillance

Berkeley Gray Panthers recently had a speaker from the ACLU -- who summarized the NSA surveillance issue. Here is a report.