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Rights + Justice

Why Edward Snowden Chose Glenn Greenwald

Former Guardian journalist reveals how he netted the news story of a decade.

Crawford Kilian 30 May

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Almost exactly one year ago, in May 2013, Glenn Greenwald was getting his first thumb-drive tutorials on encrypting his own email. For a blogger and journalist who'd spent years protesting the U.S. government's violations of personal privacy, he was remarkably naive about his own privacy. Now he was being pitched into the middle of the shadow world he'd barely glimpsed before.

Greenwald, his associate Laura Poitras, and others were about to reveal one of the biggest news stories of the new century -- all because of the social responses to a technology developed in the 20th century's Cold War.

Internet communications developed out of a 1960s project to preserve correspondence even after nuclear weapons had destroyed major American cities. With the emergence of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s, millions of ordinary people suddenly had the means to communicate -- once they could find one another.

That happened first in the Usenet groups, where like-minded people gravitated to share opinions and ideas on everything from aquariums to black helicopters over the American Midwest. These were the early online "communities of interest," which I studied closely as a college instructor trying to learn how to teach over the web.

A community of practice is limited to people with comparable qualifications, like a university or a professional association. The higher the qualifications, the more respect you get in such a community.

A community of interest, however, is open to everyone. Respect goes to those with something useful to say, not to those with the most honorary degrees. Teenagers with technical skills enjoy more credibility and respect than older people without them. Everyone is eager to learn more, and almost anyone can be the nucleus of such a community: build a blog and traffic will come.

Most such communities are not utopias. In a medium without a margin, countless marginal people pour in to say what's on their minds. Much of it is nonsense. And while communities of interest are supposed to be "interactive," many members are silent lurkers -- rather like the National Security Agency.

Breaking the rules of online writing

In my own exploration of the blogosphere over a decade ago, I soon ran across Glenn Greenwald. In some ways he seemed to break the rules of writing online: he wrote long blog posts composed of long sentences in long paragraphs. His blocks of text did not welcome, but I read them anyway. So did thousands of others.

Greenwald, writing in the early aftermath of 9/11 and the run-up to Iraq, was articulating what many of us felt: the attack had become a pretext for ditching the U.S. Constitution and democracy itself. The mainstream media were going along with George W. Bush and against their own proclaimed principles of a free, adversarial press.

In the process of blogging, Greenwald helped form a community of interest, just as opposing communities formed to support Bush and his policies. In forming his community, Greenwald eventually drew the attention of a young man who'd been mostly hanging out in techie communities: Edward Snowden.

Snowden had risen fast and far in those communities. He hadn't bothered to graduate from high school (he was a clear case of what educators call the "severely gifted," too bright and self-propelled for routine schooling). After a brief stint in the army (ending in a training accident), he had developed his computer skills to an extraordinary degree and become a network specialist for the CIA, the NSA, and the corporations who take on jobs for those agencies.

What he learned on those jobs alarmed him: the U.S. was spying not only on its enemies but its friends -- and even, illegally, its own people. But he was too smart to blow the whistle out of mere emotion and shallow idealism. He'd seen what happened to earlier whistleblowers, and how their revelations had been diluted by personal attacks on them.

In his new book, Greenwald shows us how Snowden picked him as the journalist to trust -- because of the community of interest Greenwald had helped create and sustain. Greenwald enjoys telling stories about himself: He repeatedly failed to follow up on Snowden's early contacts, when Snowden was trying to get Greenwald to learn basic encryption techniques. Not until documentary-maker Laura Poitras talked some sense into him did Greenwald qualify himself to get the story of the decade.

'Put your phone in the freezer'

The most fun part of the book is like John Le Carré with lots of tradecraft but no sad ending: en route to Hong Kong to check out Snowden on behalf of the Guardian newspaper, Greenwald and Poitras giggle wildly about what's on the thumb drives Snowden has provided. Then they explore a hotel in search of a source they assume is a middle-aged senior spy.

Instead they find a geeky, bespectacled young man toting a Rubik's Cube who orders them to yank the batteries out of their phones. Failing that, they should stash their phones in the minibar freezer. Otherwise, their phones might be used by the NSA to eavesdrop.

Greenwald vividly describes long interrogations that convinced him and his colleagues that Snowden was the real thing. What's more, Snowden had thought this out in far more detail than Greenwald had. Then came bursts of frantic work as Greenwald cranked out news stories based on a tiny fraction of what Snowden provided. And with the breaking of the story on June 5 and the first interview with Snowden himself, the reports begin to sweep around the world like tsunamis.

Ironically, the book suffers a letdown when Greenwald actually shows us the NSA files. The phrase "banality of evil" comes to mind: the NSA may know you phoned out for pizza last Thursday, but it doesn't know how to create a good Power Point slide or write a readable email. Despite their incendiary content, Greenwald's examples are stylistically a little boring. This is the kind of evidence that a prosecuting attorney knows how to exploit in the courtroom, but it's less effective on the page.

Greenwald and the book both revive when he gets past the documents and into the issues of privacy and freedom of speech. He is effective on both, arguing persuasively that for all their online prowess, the NSA, CIA and FBI could have stopped 9/11 simply by sharing information. He goes on to assert that after 9/11, the agencies used terrorism as an all-purpose pretext to gain even more access to communications.

"The government was in possession of the necessary intelligence but had failed to understand or act on it. The solution that it then embarked on -- to collect everything, en masse -- has done nothing to fix that failure. Over and over, from multiple corners, the invocation of the terrorism threat to justify surveillance was exposed as a sham," he writes.

A phoney threat of terrorism

When he gets into the American media and their response to Snowden's revelations, Greenwald leaves few journalists standing. And few newspapers: the New York Times and Washington Post, though they ran stories on some of Snowden's material, are mere agents of the government of the day, he writes, publishing leaks only when the government authorizes them. Greenwald cites Times public editor Dean Baquet killing a story in 2006 about collaboration between AT&T and the NSA; Baquet was recently promoted to executive editor, the Times's top job.

Yet many journalists also support Greenwald and Snowden, and many papers ran the Guardian's coverage. The issue of the government spying on its own people has received what Snowden hoped it would -- a serious and continuing debate. Since the leaks, eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar has bankrolled Greenwald to the tune of $250 million, creating First Look Media to support aggressive, adversarial investigative journalism.

Greenwald himself, having left The Guardian, is now writing for First Look's new blog The Intercept. Snowden-based stories continue to emerge, keeping the narrative alive.

No Place to Hide ends on an upbeat note. Greenwald is highly optimistic that the NSA and other spy agencies will eventually be forced to give up some of their powers to invade people's lives. I hope he's right. If nothing else, his readers will shrug off Washington's charges against Chinese online spies. If everyone's doing it (and Greenwald notes how Canada's top spy agency, CSEC, conducts industrial espionage against Brazil), why get so upset?

It remains to be seen whether an online community of interest, even one including an eBay billionaire, can really exert leverage on our present system. After all, by a striking coincidence eBay just got its 145 million users' passwords hacked.

The fight is far from over. The U.S. government and its spy agencies form a community of interest as well, and a powerful one. Its lurkers will continue to listen in on all the other communities, at least until they're forced to cease and desist. If they are, we'll owe it to Ed Snowden and Glenn Greenwald.  [Tyee]

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