Wir „feiern“ aktuell ja quasi Geburtstag: Vor einem Jahr hat sich Edward Snowden als NSA-Whistleblower an die Öffentlichkeit gewagt sowie den Journalisten Laura Poitras und Glenn Greenwald die unzähligen Dokumente über die digitale Überwachungspraxis übergeben.
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Für alle, die schneller lesen als gucken: hier das englischsprachige Transkript.
Alright, Jung & Naiv, we’re back in Berlin, we’re back from our Europe trip, and I have a seemingly very naive guest. Can you introduce yourself?
I’m Glenn Greenwald and I’m a journalist and I’m currently writing for The Intercept.
And what else do you write? I heard you wrote a book, or something.
Yeah, yeah, I wrote a book about, you may have heard, I have a source who gave me some documents…
Who was that?
His name is Edward Snowden. And he gave me a bunch of documents, and so I wrote a book about the experience of reporting on the story about what the documents reveal, while putting the old stories into a broader context and reporting on some of the new ones, and then what the implications are, both in terms of the value of our privacy and the dangers of surveillance as well as what the media reaction has been and some of the consequences for me personally from doing the reporting.
So you’re not a journalist who does human interest stories?
Well, I mean there is actually a pretty substantial human interest story I think to surveillance, certainly Edward Snowden I think is a really interesting human story, but I don’t generally do for example celebrity profiles, if that’s what you’re asking.
Yeah, I’m thinking about trying to get into that, but I haven’t been able to yet.
So let’s talk about your book–what is your book called again?
It’s called No Place to Hide.
So who can’t we hide from?
Well the title actually comes from this Democratic Senator named Frank Church, who in the 1970s led a Senate investigation into what the NSA was–because the joke in Washington for many years was that NSA stood for ‘No Such Agency’. It wasn’t just that people in Congress didn’t know what it was doing it’s they literally didn’t know that these capabilities even existed. And so when he finished his investigation he gave an interview and he said that he was literally stunned by the capabilities that they had developed, that they could pull all forms of communication out of the air. And he said the reason it was so dangerous is that if it ever is turned around on the American people there’d be no way out of it, there would be no place to hide. And so that’s essentially what he warned about, is exactly what has happened, which is that this capability has been turned around on the American people and the rest of the world in a way that is the kind of ubiquitous surveillance that he was warning about.
Is surveillance bad?
Not all surveillance is bad, but when…
What’s your favorite kind of surveillance? What do you agree with?
I think that the US government should probably be reading the emails of Osama bin Laden, when he was alive, and his closest associates. I think it’s legitimate for states to spy on other states and engage in the standard, traditional kinds of surveillance, but I think the key has to be that it isn’t indiscriminate, mass, suspicionless surveillance, where hundreds of millions of people or entire populations are put under a spying microscope and instead there should be a process by which the US government or whichever government identifies the targets of surveillance, presents evidence to a court that the people they want to spy on have done something that warrant the surveillance and have a real court make a decision about whether that spying ought to be permissible.
So there are people who are spied on that didn’t do anything, that haven’t done anything?
There are probably close to a billion people, at least, who are being spied on, who have done nothing wrong. If you consider having lists of your communication activities–meaning who you’re calling, who’s calling you, who you’re emailing, who’s emailing you–collected and stored by the US government and other agencies and being able to be accessed at any time. On top of which, there are literally billions of telephone calls every month, billions, and email exchanges that the NSA is collecting on top of the metadata, which is another form of mass surveillance.
So why do I have to care about it? You say one-billion people, maybe we’re part of the five-billion people that are not surveilled…
Well, no, the reason that it’s only a billion is because of the number of people who use the Internet and who don’t use it, versus those who don’t use the Internet…
So basically anybody who uses the Internet is surveilled?
Well, the motto of the NSA is ‘collect it all.’ Not collect some or most of it, but ‘collect it all.’ And there’s actually one document that adds to that motto in a really helpful way, it’s: ‘Collect it all, snip it all, exploit it all, process it all, know it all…’
Sounds like my mom.
Yeah, I mean, interestingly there is an analogy to sort of how all authorities function–which is parental authorities, religious authorities, school authorities always want to know as much as possible about the people over whom they want to exercise authority. Because the more you know about them, the more you can control and manipulate them, and that really is the same dynamic.
So is this something new, though? There’s been god for 2000 years. He has all the same principles: Collect it all, watch all, exploit it all. Is there something new? Do we have a second god in the NSA?
Well, that’s the goal, right, this sort of omniscience. And with omniscience comes omnipotence, which is the idea that especially it isn’t just that the US government is knowing more and more about the people over whom they exercise their authority but, at the very same time, they are building an ever higher wall of secrecy behind which they can do pretty much everything without anyone knowing. And so it isn’t just the surveillance aspect of it, it’s this extreme information imbalance, whereby almost everything they do occurs in a classified climate, and everything we do is very transparent. And it’s actually supposed to be the other way around. I mean, if you think about what a kind of healthy, functioning democracy would look like, people who exercise public authority and public power…
Hence the name, right? Public, except in very rare cases, and private individuals, people who are not in public power, are supposed to have privacy–hence the name as well–except in the rarest of cases. And that’s how you have a healthy, functioning system. Because that way the people who are being ruled know what those in power are doing, but those in power don’t know what they’re doing. And that has been radically reversed, so that virtually everything…
Precisely, almost 180 degrees. And that is the recipe for tyranny. That’s just the standard model of tyranny, is that those in power know everything that their citizens are doing, but the citizens know nothing about what they’re doing.
So you say that would be a healthy way of a democracy, are we now an unhealthy democracy, or is it even a democracy?
Well, this is really the question that I think is raised by this story, more than just the surveillance and privacy issues, which is, whatever else you think about the NSA or Edward Snowden or surveillance, the idea of constructing this collect-it-all system that turned one of the most important human innovations in millennia, which is the Internet, into the greatest means of human coercion and control ever known–that’s an extremely significant thing to do. And the idea that huge populations, ostensibly living in a democracy, had no idea that it was being done–I don’t mean the details of the program, I mean the broad contours of what was taking place–really does raise the question of how democratic these societies in which we live are. If you can have an election, and to have nobody even breathing a word about any of this because no one knows it’s happening, how meaningful is this ritual where we go and select our leaders based on our outcome preferences? I think any healthy democracy requires a baseline of transparency, and we’re very far below that baseline.
So we’re not a democracy, the Western societies?
You know, I mean, it depends what you mean by democracy, which is one of those terms that is vague and susceptible to all kinds of disagreements. I mean, we do go to the polls every four years and the person who ends up moving into the government building is the person who gets the most votes, so there is something symbolically democratic about that.
It always seems like one of the two parties in your country.
Well, that’s because it is one of the two parties, that’s why it seems that way. There’s this fascinating document that–I don’t know if you’ve ever read it, but if you haven’t you should go read it.
No, you’re pretty well read…
I never read, I never read…
Well, you should make an exception in this case. It’s this 2008 CIA document that was written by analysts at the CIA. And what prompted it is that they were extremely concerned that there was this growing anti-war sentiment in Western Europe. I think the Dutch government, or one of the governments, I think it was the Dutch government, actually fell and was removed from office because of their support for the war in Afghanistan, and the population had grown angry about this. And the CIA was really petrified that this anti-war sentiment would grow and would force Western European leaders to withdraw from Afghanistan and the war on terror more broadly and leave the United States alone to fight it. And they said the best hope for putting a stop to the spread of anti-war sentiment would be the election of Barack Obama–this was the summer of 2008–because doing that would mean that the face of these wars was no longer this kind of swaggering, unilateralist cowboy that all of Western Europe hated, it would be this kind of kind, progressive, sophisticated, intellectual, much-gentler face that Western Europeans loved, and it would mean that would convert from anti-war opponents into pro-war activists. And it was really just a way of saying that who America elects is really just a brand that is designed to sell these policies to the world–the policies themselves are never going to change, just the packaging does. That’s how the CIA saw the 2008 election, and I think it was pretty prescient. That happened not just in Western Europe and not just with war policies, but in the United States with a wide range of policies as well where people just instantly converted.
Jeremy Scahill explained that the only difference between Obama and Bush at least foreigner-wise is Obama speaks English, he can talk in a more…
Well, I think he is a much better salesperson for these policies, right? I mean, you want the world to see the emperor as a magnanimous and benevolent figure, somebody who you can trust and like because then you feel more comfortable with imperial policies. And the problem with George Bush was that he had ceased to become an effective salesperson. And they needed a kind of renovation of America’s branding. And the most amazing fact to me is that every year the advertising industry gets together, kind of like the Academy Awards–it’s like the Academy Awards of the advertising industry–and they give awards to the best branding campaign, the best marketing campaign. And in 2008 they gave their top award for branding to the Obama campaign, that’s how adept and skillful that was. And they recognized it for what it was, even though Western Europeans thought the whole things was real, as did a lot of Americans.
So whose product is he? Like whose product is Barack Obama?
There are permanent factions in Washington that get their way regardless of the outcome of elections, and I know this sounds like a radical observation to some people…
Like lobby groups or something? Politicians?
Like Wall Street, like corporate factions, like the national security state, and the public and private factions that compose it. If you go back 60 years to Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address–you know, Dwight Eisenhower was a four-star general, he lead the US to victory in World War II, and then he became a Republican president for eight years. And on the last day, when he was leaving office, he got the opportunity to speak to the country for eight minutes and wanted to impart the most important lesson that he learned. And he warned of what we now know or think about as what he called the military-industrial complex. And said there’s this union of military agencies and private corporations…
Well, right, that was the precursor, but it was this kind of union, and he said it was becoming so powerful that it was actually becoming more powerful than even the most-powerful democratically elected official, which was the president. He was obviously speaking from experience in saying they pose a serious threat to democracy. And this was, you know, 50 years ago, and it has gotten radically worse since then. That was before the Vietnam War, before 9/11, before the height of the Cold War. So America has just dramatically expanded it beyond what it was even then. And that’s…it’s almost impossible for a President to challenge those factions, even if they were committed to doing so, and Obama never tried. And so it was never even a question about whether or not they would continue to reign supreme in his presidency, they have.
So why doesn’t he try? He’s a popular guy…
It’s very difficult to divine other people’s motives, right? Like, why doesn’t Obama do more against these policies? I mean, I think we all have a hard time divining our own motives, let alone other people’s. But at some point, you know, I know it’s really comforting, especially for people who supported Obama initially, to believe that deep in his heart he really finds these policies objectionable. And he wishes so much that he didn’t have to get forced into doing them, but there’s just nothing he can do. I mean, this is a very kind of self-satisfying explanation, it gives him I think way too much credit. He hasn’t been in office for five weeks or five months, he’s been in office five years and, you know, at some point you have to conclude that he supports these policies because he supports them.
But he says: ‘Well, I’m critical of them…’
Saying that he was critical of them was something that he needed to do to win the election and to gain power. And the idea that people say things they don’t really believe to gain power should not really surprise us, given that that’s more or less the history of politics since it began back in early post-caveman days. What happens is that when you’re out of power, it’s easy to criticize policies that vest power in people, because those people who have the power are people who you think are bad. But once you yourself then ascend to power, the idea that this power is bad doesn’t occur to you anymore, because you believe you’re such a good person that you can be trusted with that power, and that you can use it for good ends and, in fact, you begin to think that the more power you have the better, because you’re a good person. And the more powerful ‘good people’ like Barack Obama are, the better it is for the world.
People always say the most powerful man in the world is the US President. Is he really the most powerful person in the world?
It depends on what you mean by power. That’s a really hard question to answer. But…
In general, there are enormous amounts of constraints on what the president can do. I mean, John F. Kennedy you know sort of famously tried to change a few policies that had been sort of long-standing and that was the reason why people to this day theorize that he was killed. I don’t know if I believe that but you know you can debate that but I think the lesson there is real, which is that it isn’t that someone is the Commander in Chief and can just start wars or end wars or end policies or shift program spending priorities and not be pushed back against them. There are extremely powerful entities in the United States that severely limit and even dictate what he can and can’t do.
Is that dangerous or is that a good thing?
It can be both. It depends on…the idea is supposed to be that the President and everyone else has checks against him. So, you know, there’s supposed to be an adversarial media that has a check on him, he’s supposed to have a Congress that struggles for power, he’s supposed to have a court that imposes Constitutional limits. Those are good kinds of checks limiting what he can do; unfortunately, those have all failed.
Yeah, I know that’s breaking news on your show. But, yeah, they have. And then the ultimate check is supposed to be ordinary citizens being able to–through their voting and through their activism and through their other political rights guaranteed by the Constitution–limit what he can do as well. But, because of a whole variety of reasons like extreme income inequality and the sort of suffocating closeness of the two parties, that check has failed too. So one of the only checks on the President are what a very small, but powerful, sliver of people inside the United States–people who wield political and economic power–want him to do or not do. So I think in general it’s good that he has checks, but these specific checks are not particularly healthy.
So he’s not really an emperor. You mentioned the American empire. Is he the least powerful emperor in history?
Not every Roman emperor was omnipotent. They were all constrained by different factions to some degree. Political leaders have always been beholden to high economic interests, because political power needs economic backing in order to maintain its power. So, very few leaders in history have had absolute supremacy. An emperor is more just the symbolic head of an empire, the person the empire puts forth in the world as the leader. And sometimes they really are the leaders and sometimes they’re nominal symbols, and I think in Obama’s case he’s clearly more the latter than the former.
Does the empire still exist or is it almost collapsing?
It’s definitely a declining empire. I mean, if you look at what Osama bin Laden said that he hoped to achieve from the September 11th attacks, it was that the US would overreact to the extent that it would overextend itself and essentially cause itself to collapse on itself, and I think to a large degree that vision has been vindicated or fulfilled. I think that’s exactly what the US has done.
He’s like a Hannibal.
I think he was at least pretty prescient about how to harm the US strategically. You know, he knew he couldn’t defeat the US militarily, so he just kind of divert them into doing really self-destructive things. On top of that, the economic crisis of 2008 has put the United States on extremely dubious economic footing, where extreme social inequality is weakening all of the institutions that have always sort of driven America, causing almost inevitable social instability at some point in the near future and otherwise making America much, much weaker in the world.
If the empire is collapsing, why do they still have the biggest military budget? Why are they dominating land, air, sea, space, cyberspace? To me it doesn’t sound like a declining empire.
Declining doesn’t mean collapsed. It means in the process of becoming weaker. I think also that’s exactly what we were just talking about before, I mean, look who the people are who benefit from these policies. When you spend enormous amounts of money buying very advanced weapons technology or surveillance technology from large corporations there’s a certain sliver of the population, namely the ones we were just talking about that dictate government policy…
The military-industrial complex…
Right…that benefit greatly at the expense of everybody else. And so they have no interest in having those policies end. They have every interest in having them continue, even though they are so patently destructive when you look at the interest of the country itself, meaning the people of the country.
So do they have an interest that you and Edward made public what they’re doing? Do they care that it’s now known, the surveillance?
Sure, I think they do care. They care in part because it actually…one of the best pressure points is that American tech companies are now truly petrified that the exposed surveillance system is going to seriously harm their future economic prospects. Obviously Facebook and Google and Yahoo!, with very little exception, didn’t give a shit at all about the invasion of their users’ privacy, when they could do it without a cost, meaning when it was done completely in secret. But now that it’s been revealed, they’re extremely worried that German companies and Brazilian companies and Asian companies are going to be able to tell 10-year-olds and 8-year-olds and 16-year-olds, don’t give your data to Facebook and Google and other American companies because they’ll give it to the NSA, use our service instead. And I think these revelations have harmed Silicon Valley, they’ve harmed economic elites, and people are going to think twice and three times and four times about whether they should buy American technological products. It’s harmed important alliances and relationships that business uses around the world diplomatically through the US government, like Germany and Brazil, and it’s also sort of undermined faith of Americans and other people around the world in the American government and in its trustworthiness and in the role it plays in the world, so I think it has been fairly damaging to the interests of those tiny slivers of elites who usually get their way.
But this kind of makes me wonder why the German public or German media, lately at least, has shifted the blame from the United States government, the German government to, like, Google. Why are they attacking Google and not…
I don’t see them as mutually exclusive. Like sometimes people ask, you know, well, why are you spending all your time reporting on the NSA, what about all the tech companies? For one thing, as a journalist, if somebody gives you tens-of-thousands of top-secret documents that is the first-ever leak from the NSA, you’re just going to spend a lot of time reporting on the NSA, that’s just sort of the natural thing to do. But, you know, these documents have revealed a fair amount of close cooperation between these companies and the NSA that we have been able to report. But, you know, it is true that corporate surveillance and corporate spying is its own serious problem–the idea that these corporations maintain huge troves of data about us with very little accountability. But I think there is a big difference between having Google be able to collect the activities that you do through Google because they’re only collecting that, they’re not collecting emails that you send through Yahoo! or chats that you have on Facebook or calls that you do on Skype, versus having the United States government in a centralized way, in their words, ‘collect it all.’ I think the latter is much more threatening, even though they’re both extremely disturbing.
So how can we as Germans tell your empire maybe stop doing that?
Germany happens to be a pretty influential and powerful country in the world. The US needs Germany in all kinds of ways. And, even more important, if Germany creates coalitions and alliances with other countries, as they’ve been doing, for example, with Brazil, which is also an important country to the US in all sorts of ways, and becoming increasingly powerful, the cost to the United States of having and maintaining and growing this surveillance state can get so high that it’s no longer considered in their interest to do. You can also reconfigure the Internet physically so that so much infrastructure no longer has to transit US soil, which is a big reason why the US can maintain information dominance. You can also, governments can also work on technologies unlike the NSA, which works to destroy privacy, to strengthen privacy. Governments could devote money to creating better encryption technologies to prevent other agencies from invading the communications of their citizens and their companies.
But if I look at the last year, all that happened, seemingly, is that our ‘Grand Coalition’ wants to do what the NSA does. They want the BND to do what the NSA does…
There’s a clear recognition, even on the parts of governments, that allowing the US government ongoing hegemony over the Internet is not in their interest. I think there’s an emotional component to it because a lot of these leaders feel as though they’ve personally been invaded–which I think is a good thing, it makes them empathize more with the people who, just ordinary people, who are under a surveillance microscope, that they’re not exempt. But I also do think that they don’t just think that if they replicate the surveillance capabilities that that will solve the problem, because the US is so far ahead right now of what any other country is capable of doing and is devoting so many more resources. I mean, there are 80,000 people working at the NSA in both a public and a private capacity. No other country is even close to devoting those levels of resources to surveillance and won’t do that for a long time. So I think that the combination of technological pressure, other governments banding together and, most importantly of all, individuals starting to take matters into their own hands and building brick walls around their communication in the form of encryption, can put a serious dent in what the NSA is capable of doing.
What needs to happen to someone like Angela Merkel that she finally says, ‘Fuck it. This partnership is over…’?
The kind of people who ascend to that level of political power are people who have given up that kind of passion and vibrancy in their soul that would make them do that a long time ago.
So they have no soul…
They don’t act on principle. If they have a soul it’s, like, kind of very decrepit and barely hanging on. Its, like, kind of like when your car is on empty and your gas tank, it’s just sort of sputtering along. You’re not completely out of gas, but you know, for all intents and purposes you’re just in a very diminished state of ability. They make so many compromises along the way to ascend that ladder of political power that I think their soul, to the extent that it existed, had been suffocated. So I think it’s just a very pragmatic calculation. The US and Germany have all all kinds of important relationships beyond surveillance that Germany probably isn’t willing to blow up, on principle.
Is Angela Merkel maybe afraid of what the NSA or Secret Service has on her?
I think, in the back of her mind, that has to be the case. I think one of the reasons in Brazil that this story resonated so much is because once there was a revelation about the president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, being personally targeted in her email communications, the Brazilian government became genuinely indignant as opposed to pretending to be angry, which is what they were when they thought it was just hundreds of millions of ordinary Brazilians.
Right, as long as it wasn’t us. And one of the reasons for that is that is because there’s a lot of speculation that she’s gay and it’s sort of like an open secret, and the sense of invasiveness that comes from knowing that you’re personally being targeted…I mean, I know for myself, you know, from the beginning of the story I’ve been assuming abstractly that I’m probably the target of surveillance, but once the British government filed papers and the lawsuit by my partner alleging that his detention at Heathrow was illegal and it confirmed that they really were reading our emails and listening to our telephone phone calls–some combination of him and me and The Guardian–the visceral invasion that you feel, even though you probably assume that you’re actually already being surveilled, is very intense and very visceral it’s very real and I think that’s what a lot of these leaders have experienced, even if though they might have known in the abstract and that has actually shaped the reaction in a pretty positive way.
And what about Obama himself, maybe the NSA has collected some information about a young Senator before he became President…
Right, and I mean that’s all possible, and you know when you asked before, ‘Why does surveillance matter?’ I think this is exactly the reason is that when we have a world in which it’s not necessarily the case but possibly the case that we can be watched at any moment, the level of the amount of choices that we have as human beings diminishes greatly. It automatically creates a climate of fear, where we feel like we’re being watched and judged and monitored and there’s all kinds of social science that I talk about in the book and all sorts of experiments and other things where what that means is that you tend to be much more conformist in your behavior, much more, sort of, you comply a lot more with societal dictates about how you’re supposed to behave. It really destroys a huge part of human freedom, but what it also does, is it makes people very petrified that in those moments when they do deviate from what society thinks is normal or right that that information can be used against them. And if you read, you know, ‘1984,’ which is sort of the cliché of an ultimate surveillance state, there’s a passage in there that explicitly says that the monitors that are placed in homes are not necessarily surveilling every citizen at every moment. In fact, to the citizens it’s possible that they’re never being surveilled, what matters is the capability that this system has to watch them at any time, which means they have to always assume that they’re being watched and then act accordingly. And that really is the danger of surveillance on sort of a collective level, but also even for powerful politicians who might be worried that some of their incriminating information has been collected and could be used against them.
But what does this surveillance do? I mean, now we know that we’re being surveilled on a digital level almost totally. I mean, I remember, my parents they’re from East Germany, they grew up with the Stasi, back then they didn’t have a choice–do we want the Stasi or not?–it was a totalitarian system. Do we now still have a choice to not have this effect on society or is it too late?
No, I mean, if I thought it was too late I probably wouldn’t have spent the last year of my life working on it. I mean I do that because–and I think Edward Snowden wouldn’t have come forward–I mean, once people have the knowledge that other human beings are doing certain things that they don’t like there’s always the capability to prevent that from happening. And as I said before, for me, the thing that makes me most optimistic about the possibility to put an end to surveillance is that the surveillance state is a technological attack, and like all technological attacks, it can be defended against through technological means. And there are already serious encryption programs that are available and that exist and that I use and lots of other people use that the NSA genuinely cannot penetrate…
Like PGP email or the Tor browser, which is fundamentally solid, or certain encrypted chat programs like OTR and Pigeon. None of which is completely perfect, but which give a very, very high degree of assurance that you can communicate privately. And what’s going to happen is as people become more acutely aware of their privacy being violated and as companies start to create better products that are more user friendly, encryption will become the default means by which we all communicate. And once that starts to happen that will put a very serious obstacle in the way of the NSA and the GCHQ and other agencies to monitor everything that we’re doing.
So is encryption the only way out of this mess?
I don’t think it’s the only way, I mean, like I said before, I think that there are lots of pressure points. I think other countries can think about how to create alternative infrastructure that undermines the US ability to do this. I think that tech companies have become serious–not because they care at all about privacy, of course they don’t–but because they care about their own self-interest to demand that there be some limits. So I think there’s multiple pressure points being applied to what the NSA is doing and that can in a cumulative sense become effective.
So what I was wondering…
Do we just have a few more minutes? Is that…
Yeah, we do, we have, like, 10 at least, another 10 minutes…
So go ahead…
No, you go ahead…
What I was wondering, they’ve been collecting all this data, all this metadata and all that, what are they actually doing with it? I mean, they can’t analyze everything, right? Are they storing it for later, just in case, or something?
There’s already reporting that demonstrates that they use this system for just classic abuse cases, abusive purposes. So there’s a document that we published a few months ago in which they have identified six what they call ‘radicalizers’ (meaning people who express ideas that the government considers radical) who, the document says…
Don’t you have a free speech? Isn’t that what free speech is about, tolerating and accepting…
Theoretically, yeah, that’s supposed to be what it’s about so, but, the US government has identified these people that are radicals and have collected their most intimate sexual chats that they have online, um, the logs of the pornographic websites that they’ve visited. And the document explicitly talks about how that information can be released in order to destroy the reputation of these individuals and undermine and discredit their ability to proselytize this message. There’s GCHQ documents monitoring the visits of people to Wikileaks’ website to monitor who it is who goes to read those documents or ways to target ‘hacktivists,’ people who are associated with Anonymous, using fake blog posts claiming to be victims of these individuals by just lying and making things up about what they did, or ‘honey traps’ to lure people into compromising positions using what appear on the Internet to be attractive women who will make them do things that can undermine their reputation. So it is exactly the kind of sort of abuse that we’ve already reported that led to a scandalous surveillance controversies of the past and there’s a lot more reporting that we’re working on about that, about how they use this surveillance.
So I mean, my mom, back to my mom and grandma, they still don’t care about all this. How can I make them care?
There’s always going to be a portion of the population that is indifferent to political abuses. I mean, if you go and look at the worst tyrannies in the world not every single Egyptian was out on the street marching in favor of democracy and trying to remove Mubarak from office. There’s always a bargain that you as an individual can make with even the most abusive forms of power, there’s always a bargain that people who abuse their power offer, which is: If you pose no threat to us and don’t challenge us in any way, you just go about your lives, pay no attention to what we’re doing, don’t express any views about it, don’t work against us in any way, we will leave you alone. And there are huge numbers of people who will accept that bargain and will say, not just I don’t care about surveillance, but if tomorrow there were some military coup in Germany, or in some other country, and some obvious dictator emerged and said, I’m declaring myself president for life, there would be huge numbers of people who would say, that doesn’t really bother me, I think the stability that we’re going to have is going to be a good thing. You can’t insist that every single person be engaged in these kinds of political controversies, and that if large numbers of people don’t want to be that’s proof that somehow the story isn’t taking hold. That’s just the nature of how human beings are willing to bargain away their liberties, and there’s probably nothing to do about that, because what’s’ being offered is something very valuable, which is security. We will protect you and leave you alone as long as you submit and acquiesce to what we’re doing. And there will always be lots of people who want to accept that bargain.
So you said the government is glad when people don’t care. Shouldn’t the government want that even more people don’t care about things? Is it good for power that even less and less people care about everyday politics?
That’s why, you know, the idea of politics is just to sort of numb people to what is taking place. If you look at the public discussion of politics it bears almost no relationship to what people in power are actually doing. They don’t want there to be in any interest in or knowledge about or discussion of the things that they’re actually doing. They want to make politics as sort of trivial and petty and removed from what matters most to people, because they want people sitting on their couch watching things that have nothing to do with what they’re doing. That’s in their interest and they work very hard to make that happen.
I heard you’re pretty good Constitution-wise. Aren’t you a Constitutional lawyer or something?
Yeah, yeah, that’s true.
Wasn’t Obama that, too?
He was, he was. That’s something he and I share.
So what’s the difference between you and Obama? Besides being him in power and you having journalistic power.
Well, that’s a pretty significant difference. I think power is actually quite corrupting. That’s not my observation, that’s something that’s been known by sociologists and political theorists and psychologists for many centuries…
So he’s like a Sith Lord now, you know, Star Wars…?
If you look at Obama’s memoirs that he wrote before he became President…
I don’t read…
Yeah, I know, so that’s why I’m going to summarize them for you. I’ve learned that during this interview that that’s necessary.
He is very clear about the fact that the key kind of tactic that he has always used to advance himself in life has been to always avoid alarming people who wield power, alarming institutional authorities. Part of that is, as he put it, the idea of growing up African-American in a society that has the history of racial injustices that the US does that he described it as kind of no quick movements, the idea that you should never be kind of alarming or too aggressive in undermining institutional authority and I think that along the way that morphed into what actually matters is accommodating institutional authority, that’s how you advance yourself, and that’s certainly become his principal tactic in order to empower himself and I’m sure he justifies it to himself by saying that those are necessary compromises in order to then do the good things that he wants to do, but what actually ends up happening is it becomes its own end, it becomes a justification in itself and power becomes the end in itself, and once you go down that path I think you lose all the things that originally animated you to want to seek those things out in the first place, and I think that’s, more than anything, what has happened to him. And I don’t think that’s a recent development, I think that it happened a long time ago.
What’s your principal tactic?
I think that one of the things I’m very intent on doing is no matter how much visibility this story gets, no matter how much temptation there is to enter these formerly impenetrable clubs that I just remain as much of an outsider as possible and that I continue to make sure that my work is about subverting and undermining institutional authority and not sort of ending up even indirectly supporting it in exchange for its lavishing rewards on me. I mean that’s a typical formula that’s used for co-option and I think it’s one that I think you have to very aggressively guard against in order to stay true to your principles.
There are always two people who don’t get into the club. Those who are not allowed to get into the club of the insiders and those who don’t want to get in…
Who are offered it and don’t…and I hope to remain very firmly in that second group.
Well, because I began writing about politics because I thought that these institutions were fundamentally corrupted and I still think they’re fundamentally corrupted and I’d much rather be standing outside of them throwing rocks at them than being inside being comfortably ensconced in one of their really lovely lounge chairs. And the temptation to be invited in and the rewards that go with it are very serious, they’re very potent, that’s why they can be really corrupting. And, once you do that, you lose everything that originally drove you to want to do this work in the first place, and you may get material benefits from it and greater comfort but you lose everything else that’s much more significant and much more important. If I ever reached a point that I actually thought I had made that trade-off, the weight that would rest on my conscience would be so much worse than anything that could happen that no amount of benefit or reward is worth that.
So let’s say, The New York Times needs a new Editor-in-Chief. What if The New York Times comes to you and says, you wanna be our boss? Would you take that opportunity?
The reality is, as we just saw, the Editor-in-Chief of The New York Times is not actually the boss. The boss of The New York Times is the Sulzberger family which owns The New York Times. And the Editor-in-Chief has to serve the journalistic agenda and journalistic preferences of that family, or else she will be fired. As the last Editor-in-Chief just was. And so, for me, the question always is, in whatever you’re being offered, can you maintain the same sense of autonomy and independence that you’ve always demanded in the past, is that really a genuine guarantee? And, if it’s not, then no job or no opportunity is worth accepting because sacrificing that even a little bit puts you then on that road where now you believe that that trade-off has become a rational one to make and that’s what turns you into Angela Merkel or Barack Obama.
So the Editor-in-Chief of The New York Times has to write what the owner of The New York Times likes?
Not has to write, specifically, she doesn’t get daily memos, but she has to manage the institution in the way that serves his interests and accommodates his preferences.
So, in the end, I already introduced you to the idea of Krautreporter, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, it’s maybe the German version of The Intercept, maybe without a billionaire, we tried to get the money via crowdfunding.
But just to be clear, if a billionaire magically emerged, and said I’m very enamored by this model you created and I would like to fund you and guarantee your independence, you would accept that funding, right?
If he accepted that he has as much to say as the guy who gave us 10-euros.
Right, right precisely. You would then accept that funding?
Ok, just checking.
What do you think of reader-funded journalism, is that a good thing or do you find this dangerous as well?
No, I love reader-funded journalism and, in fact, the way I was able to make a living for the first three years or four years in writing about politics when I had nothing but my own blog and then moved my blog to Salon at the very beginning was through reader-funded journalism, through people who believed the journalism I was doing was unique and valuable and should be supported, and once a year I had a sort of fund-raising week and was able to sustain myself. I think the reason why it was so sort of encouraging and positive is because what it means is that you’re accountable to nobody other than your readers. Which is a good thing to be.
That can have its own dangers, too, in the sense that you then start feeling like you have to feed your readers what they want and avoid ever doing or saying anything that they don’t agree with and, I mean, the strings that come with funding apply just as much to being funding by a large corporation or a billionaire as they do to just crowdsourcing. Because you have to continue to remain popular with the crowd if you want that funding to continue and that can be its own corrupting force and, just as you have to insist upon your independence from large corporations that fund you, so too do you have to insist upon your integrity and intellectual honesty, even though crowds are funding you, you have to be willing to alienate them when the situation calls for it. But, in general, I think crowdfunding is a really great model, the problem with it is that, and this is one of the things that I learned over the last year, is that if you want to do really sustained, profound investigative journalism that checks the most powerful corporate and political institutions, you need not just the money that lets you kind of make a living, you need very serious resources to be able to be on par with those institutions against whom you’re trying to work. You need editors and fact-checkers and other reporters and technologists…
We have those…
…and technologies and travel budgets…
We don’t have those…
You know, so, and often times you need lawyers. I mean, one of the problems with American media is that because so many of these institutions are struggling financially they are terrified of ending up in lawsuits with big corporations or ending up being prosecuted or otherwise in legal battles with the state and so that makes their reporting very risk-averse, because they don’t ever want to…they constantly have lawyers hovering over the journalists to keep their institutions out of any legal battles, which produces a serious climate of fear. So, the legal fees alone from the reporting I’ve done in the last year, I don’t know exactly what the amount is, but it definitely exceeds, it’s definitely in the millions of dollars. And had I been by myself or with a couple of people that would have posed a really serious problem. Same with having to secure these technologies or hire outside experts or being able to travel or have people travel to me. And so one of the reasons that shaped, one of the factors that shaped my decision to sort of create our own news organization but find a way to fund it in a meaningful way was my experience over the last year, and the recognition that if you want to be fearless in the journalism you’re doing you need not only those resources but you need to know that you have somebody behind you or money behind you that can protect you in the event that you have those fights. You don’t want to in the back of your mind be afraid of engaging those fights because of the knowledge that you can’t afford it.
So we’d better get two billionaires.
Yeah, I would recommend that.
What do you think of the structure of a newsroom? Like don’t have a boss that tells us, ok, like maybe you can pursue this story or this story. It’s more like a horizontal model. Jeremy Scahill talked about your model, it’s kind of similar. Why is this kind of journalistic model maybe a good thing, or maybe the model of the future?
I mean, one of the things that has happened to journalism that is a really destructive force is that it has become corporatized. What happened, meaning large corporations own the largest media outlets and then impose a corporate ethos on those media outlets. And a corporate ethos tends to be, there’s a very rigid hierarchy where one person reports to another who reports to another who reports to another and to make sure the structure is accountable to the person at the top to make sure the whole institution works in accordance with their agenda. And what that means is that journalists are now just corporate employees, and corporate employees are trained to avoid controversy, they’re trained to avoid alienating powerful people, they’re trained not to question but to sort of serve authority and it has drained journalism of all of its passion and vibrancy, because journalists are constantly told, you can’t have your own, individual voice, you can’t be animated and passionate, you can’t really be a human being, you’ve gotta confine yourself to this model of how we think about the world and what we can say and can’t say, and I think it’s made journalism not only weak and impotent but actually boring. That’s why so many people are turning to alternative sources. So this kind of horizontal model that tells journalists you’re going to work with other people, because that makes the journalism better, if you have somebody saying, you don’t quite have this fact yet, and I just fact-checked this and you’re wrong about this. You want to have collaborators, people that you work with. But what you don’t want is to have a kind of model of how you think and speak about the world imposed from the top on you. It drains journalism of all of its vibrancy and passion. And I think this horizontal model is a crucial attribute of this new media, the thing that makes it interesting and dynamic and powerful.
So we’re saying online journalism is broken. You’re saying it’s just boring.
I think what’s boring is sort of the old media model. These large corporate entities that own media outlets. You know, I do think some new media is boring too because a lot of new media is really nothing more than just copying what old media does but just doing it online. There’s nothing innovative about it, there’s nothing passionate about it, it really isn’t all that interesting. I think what makes journalism ultimately interesting is maximizing the parts of human beings that are interesting. And I think a lot of media outlets are trying to suffocate and kill those parts. And to me that’s one of the critical distinctions.
Thank you very much, Glenn. I don’t know if you noticed we’re at the Holocaust monument in front of your homeland.
Two extremely inspiring buildings, the Holocaust monument and the American consulate in Berlin.
How was that?
It was just, I had a very hard time concentrating with all the inspiration swirling around me.
That was the purpose.
Well, you succeeded.
Thank you very much. Bye bye.
Bye bye. Excellent. Thank you very much, I enjoyed that.