I would be remiss before I began if I didn’t acknowledge an extremely prestigious award that we at The Guardian received yesterday for the journalism that we’ve been doing in publishing the NSA stories. A lot of journalists and editors and the like have debates about what the most prestigious journalism award is—Is it a Polk Award? Or a Peabody? Or a Pulitzer? Those are definitely all prestigious awards, but I actually think the one we got yesterday is a significant level above them all. And I am very humbled and honored to have received this award.
The US Army announced yesterday that it was blocking access at all Army facilities across the world to the Guardian website in response to the NSA stories. And apparently the soldiers in the Army are old enough and mature enough to risk their lives to fight in wars but not mature enough to read news articles that the rest of the world is reading. But the reason I say that that’s flattering and I mean it. That is very flattering—is because I’ve long looked at journalism through this prism that defines the two polar opposites of what I consider journalism to be.
One of those polar opposites has long been defined for me by this speech that the great war correspondent David Halberstam gave in 2005 to students of Columbia Journalism School and he was asked by the speech organizers to speak about his proudest moment in his journalism career. And what he said was his proudest moment in his journalism career was when he was stationed in Vietnam in 1963 and 1964 as a very young war reporter he would go out into the field and see what was actually happening. So when he went to the press conferences of the US generals that afternoon and they made all sorts of claims he knew that they were lies and instead of disseminating those lies as truths he was standing up at these press conferences in the middle of Vietnam and war zone and very aggressively challenging these generals and saying to their face that he knew what they were saying was false to the point where those generals went to the editors of the New York Times and demanded that he be removed from his position of covering the war. That was his proudest moment in journalism, when he so angered the government officials that he was covering.
That episode stands in stark contrast to what I consider to be the other polar opposite, which was this interview Bill Keller gave, who was the executive of the New York Times throughout the Bush Administration, in which he was talking about the newspaper’s publication of some of the materials that they received from WikiLeaks. He was giving a BBC interview and he was very eager to distinguish between what the New York Times did and from what WikiLeaks does, which makes sense on one level since I don’t recall WikiLeaks ever publishing a bunch of false articles that led the nation to the war. That wasn’t actually what Bill Keller was referring to.
Bill Keller was trying to say that the New York Times is radically different than what WikiLeaks does because unlike WikiLeaks, which simply publishes whatever it wants, the New York Times under Bill Keller went to the Obama administration ahead of time and said these are the things that we think we ought to publish, do you think we should? And if the US government said you shouldn’t publish this and you shouldn’t publish that and you shouldn’t publish this other thing because to do so will endanger national security Bill Keller proudly said the New York Times didn’t publish it. He was beaming like a third grader who just got a gold star from his teacher. He said in this BBC interview the Obama administration has continuously said we have been very responsible in how we published.
The reason to me that seems like polar opposites is because David Halberstam viewed the measurement of good journalism as defined by how much you anger the people in power that you’re covering whereas Bill Keller defines good journalism—and I think most modern establishment journalists define it this way as well—by how much you please the people in power that you’re covering. And for me if you are pleasing the people in power with the things that you are disclosing, you may be very good at your job but your job is not journalism.
So, I’m going to print out this article that talked about what the Army did and I am going to have it laminated and framed and hung very prominently on my office wall very proudly.
The last thing I want to say before I begin with the substance is I just want to take a moment to acknowledge the brave patriotic men and women of the National Security Agency because they spend a great deal of time watching over me, making sure I am okay. And I do really appreciate it. You know, they’re a little shy. They don’t like to be seen. If you turn the lights on and shine the lights at them, they sort of scamper under the kitchen cabinets. [INAUDIBLE] I think I speak for everyone when I say I feel them here in my heart. And look they’re people. They have feelings so at the beginning of almost every conversation I do insist that whoever I am speaking with say hello to them, even though I am quite certain that this is not the first Socialism Conference that they’ve attended…
…It was many months ago that I was first contacted by Edward Snowden. He contacted by email. He was anonymous. I had no idea who he was. He didn’t say much. He simply said he had what he thought would be some documents I would be interested in looking at, which turned out to be the world’s largest understatement of the decade.
But he didn’t tell me much about himself and several months went by because we talked about creating an encryption system and other things and it wasn’t really until he was in Hong Kong with the documents that we really began to have substantive conversations about who he was and what he was doing and what kind of documents he had. And I spent many hours with him talking online when he was in Hong Kong but I didn’t know his name. I didn’t know anything biographical about him – his age, where even he worked. And he was trying to get me to come to Hong Kong to speak with him and before I would do that—fly halfway across the world—I wanted some assurance that it was really worthwhile, that there was substance behind what he was saying.
So he sent me a little appetizer, sort of like if you have a dog you kind of put the biscuit in front of the dog’s nose to get to where you want it go. That’s what he was doing to lure me to Hong Kong. These documents even though it was just a little sampling were the most extraordinary things I had ever seen. I remember after I had read the first two pages literally being dizzy, dizzy with ecstasy and elation, over what it is that he had.
And like most of us do when we’re interacting with someone exclusively online, I began to form a mental impression of who he was. I was pretty certain that he was older, even like in his sixties. That he was probably like a senior bureaucrat within one of these national security state agencies, kind of grizzled and nearing the end of his career. And the reason I thought that is he had obviously such penetrating access to such top secret documents. He also had incredibly sophisticated and well thought-through insight into the nature of the national security apparatus and his own relationship to it that I thought must mean he had been thinking about these things and interacting with them for decades. But the real reason I thought he was that age—sixties, nearing retirement, nearing even the end of his life—was because he was very emphatic from the beginning when I first began talking to him that he absolutely knew what he was doing would essentially unravel and probably destroy his life. That the chances he would probably end up in prison for the rest of his lfie, if not worse, were very high, probably close to inevitable. Or, at the the very least he would be on the run from the world’s most powerful state for the rest of his life. I just didn’t consciously think about it, but I think I tacitly assumed that anybody who was willing to make a sacrifice in their life that extreme was probably somebody who had just endured so much and was near the end of their life anyway that they had worked up the bravery to do that.
When I got to Hong Kong and I met him for the first time, I was more disoriented and just completely confused than I think I had ever been in my life. Not only wasn’t he sixty-five, he was twenty-nine, but he looked much younger. And so, when we went back to his hotel room and began questioning him—it was Laura Poitras, the filmmaker, and I, who went back to his hotel room—what I really wanted to understand more than anything else was what it is that led him to make this extraordinary choice in part because I didn’t want to be part of an event that would destroy somebody’s life if they weren’t completely open-eyed and rational about the decision they were making, but also in part because I really wanted to understand, just for my own sense of curiosity, what would lead somebody with their entire live in front of him, who had a perfectly desirable life living with his long-time girlfriend in Hawaii with career stability, a reasonable well-paying job—What would lead somebody to throw all that away and become an instant fugitive and somebody who would probably spend the rest of their life in a cage.
The more I spoke with him about it, the more I understood, and the more overwhelmed I became and the more of a formative experience it had for me and will have for the rest of my life because what he told me over and over in different ways—and it was so pure and passionate that I never doubted its authenticity for a moment—is that there is more to life than material comfort or career stability or trying to simply prolong your life as long possible. What he continuously told me is he judged his life not by the things he thought about himself but by the actions he took in pursuit of those beliefs.
When I asked him how he got himself to the point where he was willing to take the risk that he knew he was taking, he told me that he for a long time had been looking for a leader, somebody who would come and fix these problems. And then one day he realized there’s no point in waiting for a leader, that leadership is about going first and setting and example for others. What he ultimately said was he simply didn’t want to live in a world where the United States government was permitted to engage in these extraordinary invasions, to build a system that had as its goal the destruction of all individual privacy, that he didn’t want to live in a world like that and that he could not in good conscience stand by and allow that to happen knowing that he had the power to help stop it.
The thing that was most striking to me about this was I was with him for eleven straight days. I was with him when he was unknown because we hadn’t yet divulged who his identity was and I watched him watch the debates unfold on CNN and NBC and MSNBC and every other channel around the world that he had really hoped to provoke with the actions he had taken. And I also watched him once he had been revealed that he had become the most wanted man in the world, that official Washington was calling him a traitor, was calling for his head. What was truly staggering and continues to be staggering to me was there was never an iota, never any remorse or regret or fear in any way. This was an individual completely at peace with the choice that he had made because the choice that he made was so incredibly powerful.
I was incredibly inspired myself by being in proximity to somebody to somebody who had reached a state of such tranquility because they were so convicted that what they had done was right and his courage and that passion infected me to the point where I had vowed that no matter what I did in my life with this story and beyond that I would devote myself to doing justice to the incredible act of self-sacrifice that Edward Snowden had made.
And that energy I watched then infected everyone at The Guardian, which is a very large media organization, and I’m the last person that would ever praise any media organization, even one I work for—probably especially one that I work for. Yet I’ve watched over the last four weeks, the editors of The Guardian, the top editors that have run The Guardian and have for many years—engage in incredibly intrepid and fearless journalism as they have day after day dismissed the fearmongering and threats of the US government by saying we’re going to continue to publish whatever it is that we think should be published in the public good.
If you talk to Edward Snowden and you ask him as I did what it is that inspired him, he talks about other individuals who engaged in similarly courageous behavior like Bradley Manning or the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire and spawned one of the greatest democratic revolutions of the last four or five centuries.
What I actually started to realize about all this is two things. Number one, courage is contagious. If you take a courageous step as an individual, you will literally change the world because you will affect all sorts of people in your immediate vicinity, who will then affect others and then affect others. You should never doubt your ability to change the world. The other thing that I realized is it doesn’t matter who you are as an individual or how formidable or powerful the institutions that you want to challenge are. Mr. Snowden is a high school dropout. His parents work for the federal government. He grew up in a lower middle class environment in a military community in Virginia. He ended up enlisting in the United States Army because he thought the Iraq War at first was noble. He then did the same with the NSA and the CIA because he thought those institutions were noble. He’s a person who has zero privilege, zero power, zero position and zero prestige and yet he by himself has literally changed the world and therefore [INAUDIBLE].
One of the things I realized I early on that not only he but any of us who were involved in reporting these stories were going to be attacked and demonized in the way that Jeremy was just referencing. You see all sorts of attacks on him that are completely absurd and contrary to the facts. You hear claims from these sudden armchair psychologists that he’s narcissistic. I don’t even think they know what that means, but it’s just become the script that they all read from. That’s somebody who could have sold these documents to intelligence services for millions of dollars and spent the rest of his life secretly enriched beyond his wildest dreams and did none of that. He instead stepped forward and made himself a target for the good of all of us.
Or they try and impugn his motives and say he’s just a fame monger or a fame whore is the phrase of choice at the moment. I have spent the last three weeks being harassed by telephone by the most ridiculous media stars in the United States who are completely desperate to interview Edward Snowden and put him on their show every day. He could have been one of the most famous people in the world. He is far more a recluse than a fame whore. He has refused every one of those interviews because his real motive in doing what he did is exactly what he said, which is not to make himself famous, but to make the people of the United States and the world of what is being done to them by the United States government in secret.
The reason why it’s always so common for people like Edward Snowden to be demonized, the reason it’s so important to attribute psychological illness—the way they did with Bradley Manning, the way they try to do with all whistleblowers, the way they tried to do with Daniel Ellsberg—is because they precisely know what I said, which is that courage is contagious. And that he will set an example for other people to similarly come forward and blow the whistle on the corrupt and illegal and deceitful things that they’re doing in the dark. They need to make a negative example so that doesn’t happen and that’s the reason why people like Edward Snowden are so demonized and attacked and it’s why it’s up to all of us to defend him and hold him up as the noble example that he is so he [does get proper recognition].
That was the eye-opening effect that all of this has had on me personally and I am sure that I probably haven’t even thought through all the implications and I will continue to do so as the months go by. But I do know that this experience will form me and shape me and millions of people from around the world in all sorts of ways.
So, I just want to spend a little bit of time talking about the substance of the revelations and what it is that we know about the US surveillance state. And I’m somebody that has written about the surveillance state for years now. That was actually the topic of the speech that I gave to this conference last year and I keep trying to work through today how it is that I feel having watched all of these documents be revealed and have all of these secrets spilled that prove that this surveillance state really is as menacing and ubiquitous as many of us have long been saying and I keep coming back to this scene, this sort of iconic scene in the Woody Allen film, Annie Hall, where Woody Allen is waiting in a movie theater line and he sort of has this fantasy that we all wish would happen but ever does. There’s this pompous pontificating pseudo-intellect standing behind him in line who’s bombastically talking about the media theories of Marshall McLuhan and Woody Allen turns around and says you don’t know what you’re talking about. You’ve got Marshall McCluhan all wrong and this pseudo-intellect says, no, you don’t know what you’re talking about. And Woody Allen says well I just happen to have Marshall McCluhan nearby and he goes behind this tree and pulls him out. And Marshall McCluhan says I’m Marshall McCluhan and he turns around to the guy and says you don’t know what you’re talking about. Woody Allen is absolutely right about my theories and he’s vindicated in the best possible way.
The reason why I feel a little bit like that is I’ve been engaged in so many debates over the last several years. I’ve written endlessly about the fact that the goal of the US surveillance state—the National Security Agency and the entire national security apparatus on which it’s based—is to make sure that there is no such thing as actual human privacy, not just in the United States but in the world. And I have repeatedly been told that this is absurd hyperbole, that this is conspiratorial thinking, that the NSA is constrained by all of these wonderful frameworks, and I feel a little bit like being able to say well you know what I just happen to have a huge stack of top secret NSA documents right here.
These issues involving surveillance and the surveillance system that they’re building are complex. They’re legally complex. They’re technologically complex. It is difficult to simplify them in a way that is digestible for the news cycle so I just want to spend a little bit of time talking about not just the stories but just some of the facts that have been revealed already by us—and it’s a small fraction of what is coming—but I think the picture already is quite clear.
Two days ago, we published a document by one small part of the National Security Agency called the Secret Source Operations, one of the most secretive units of the NSA. And there was an internal document in this SSO unit dated December 12, 2012, so the end of last year. What this document did was it was celebrating a milestone the way other people celebrate their birthdays. What said it was congratulations to us, this unit of the SSO. We have just collected our one trillionth piece of email, internet metadata. That’s one trillion with a “t.” What that means is every single day they are collecting hundreds of millions of our email records and the email records around the world to find out who is emailing us, to whom we are sending emails, what our IP address is when we’re sending and opening the emails when we read them, which means what our physical location is, and then being able to piece together what our network is—who our associations are, what our life patterns are, what it is that we do on the internet, what our interests are, what animates us—a whole variety of information that they are sucking up and vacuuming, not about individuals who they think are guilty of terrorism but about human beings indiscriminately.
Another document that I probably shouldn’t share since it’s not published but I am going to share it with you anyway—and this one’s coming soon but you’re getting a little preview—It talks about how a brand new technology enables the National Security Agency to redirect into its repositories one billion cell phone calls every single day, one billion cell phone calls every single day.
What we are really talking about here is a globalized system that prevents any form of electronic communication from taking place without its being stored and monitored by the National Security Agency. It doesn’t mean they’re listening to every call. It means they’re storing every call and have the capability to listen to them at any time and it does mean that they’re collecting millions upon millions upon millions of our phone and email records. It is a globalized system designed to destroy all privacy and what’s incredibly menacing about it is it is all taking place in the dark, with no accountability and virtually no safeguards and the purpose of our story and the purpose of Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing is not singularly or unilaterally to destroy those systems. The purpose is to say that if you the United States government and the governments around the world want to create a globalized surveillance system in which we no longer have any privacy in our individual lives or on the internet you at least ought to have us know about it, have you do it in the sunlight so that we can decide democratically whether that’s the kind of system and the kind of world which we want to live.
So the last point I want to make is that one of the things I set out to do and I think that Mr. Snowden set out to do and that I know the people at The Guardian set out to do was not simply to publish some stories about the NSA. It was to really shake up the foundations of the corrupted and rotted roots of America’s political and media culture. And the reason I say that is that there is an economist Dean Baker, who yesterday on Twitter wrote that he thinks the stories that we’re doing are shining as much light on the corruption of American journalism as they are on the corruption of the National Security Agency.
I think that is true for several different reasons. Number one is if you look at the “debate” over—the charming, very endearing debate over whether or not I should be arrested, prosecuted and then imprisoned under Espionage Act statutes for doing journalism—What you find is that debate is being led by other people who are TV actors who play the role of journalists on TV. They’re ones who are actually leading the debate and the reason they are doing that is they purport to be adversaries of political power or watchdogs of political power but what they really are servants to political power. They’re appendages to political power.
What you find is they always lead the way in attacking whoever challenges the political system in Washington because that is the system in which they are a part. That is the system that props them up and gives them oxygen and provides them with all of their privilege, wealth and access. And I think their true role, which is not to serve as adversaries of people in government power or protect what they’re doing but to protect and shield what they are doing and amplify their message, has become more vividly exposed in the last four weeks than it has in quite a long time.
The thing that really amazes me is if you look at how whistleblowers are treated, whether it be Bradley Manning or WikiLeaks or Thomas Drake of the NSA or Edward Snowden—I can understand why Americans in general, just ordinary Americans, have ambivalence about those whistleblowers. Some people think security is more important or secrecy is something that should be decided by democratically elected representatives, not whistleblowers. That I all get, but what I don’t understand and can never believe is anybody who at any point thought of themselves as somebody who had a journalistic ethos would look at people who are shining on the world’s most powerful factions and do anything but applaud them and express gratitude for them since that’s supposed to be the function that they, the journalists, themselves are serving. And yet what you find is the exact opposite.
What you really find is if you look at who hates Bradley Manning or who has expressed the most contempt about WikiLeaks or who has led the chorus in demonizing Edward Snowden, it is those very people in the media who pretend to want transparency because transparency against political power is exactly what they don’t want because those are their masters and the stronger they stay and the stronger that system stays, the more rewarded they will be.
What is really amazing, most of all, about it, is while they purport to hate leaks they themselves are the most prolific users of leaks. I was on “Meet the Press” last week—the first time I ever ventured into the belly of the imperial beast—It got a lot of attention because David Gregory all but called for my prosecution during the interview and there were a lot of reasons why that was pretty amazing but one of the extraordinary things about it was that ninety-seconds or so before he actually called for my prosecution because I committed the crime of doing journalism, of showing the public what the government is doing in the dark he and I had an argument about a FISA court opinion that had been issued in 2011 that found many of the things that the National Security Agency was doing to be unconstitutional and illegal. And I had described this opinion based on the documents I have in my possession that talks about them. And he objected and he said, oh no, the way you’ve described this opinion is not accurate. I’ve had government officials tell me that what’s actually in this opinion was not the finding that the government did anything wrong or unconstitutional or illegal. Perish the thought. This was nothing more than the government going to the court saying can we please have permission to do this spying that we would like to do in the future but haven’t yet done and the court said no you’re allowed to do this and this and this but not this and this and this and then the government went and obeyed the court.
Now, David Gregory’s claims about what that court opinion were were completely false, as I well know because I’ve actually seen documents talking about them as opposed to having government officials whisper in my ear what it says. What was really amazing about it was ninety seconds later he was calling for my prosecution for having disclosed classified information and yet he ninety seconds earlier had just gotten done saying that somebody in the government had come to him and described this top secret court document, which he then discussed to the public and the world by telling me what he thought it said.
The same exact thing happened on CNN when Barbara Starr, who is the Pentagon spokeswoman who works for CNN as the Pentagon reporter—She went on the air and said government officials have informed me that the revelations from Edward Snowden published in The Guardian have helped the terrorists by enabling to evade our systems and change the way they communicate. It is—It’s hilarious, because apparently there are terrorists in the world who don’t know and haven’t heard that the US government is trying to eavesdrop on their telephone calls and read their emails. These same terrorists are going to be sophisticated enough to detonate very powerful bombs on US soil but leave that aside—What Barbara Starr did is she had government officials come and leak classified information to her, which she then went on the air and spilled to the world things that the intelligence agency learned the terrorists were doing and yet nobody called for Barbara Starr’s prosecution or dug into her past. And nobody did that to David Gregory including David Gregory because what they do in their minds is the only kind of leaks that are bad are leaks that the government doesn’t want disclosed to the public.
The only crime that you commit is when you do reporting that the government doesn’t want you to do, when you expose things to your readers and to your viewers that embarrass political officials. The only thing that is journalism is to them is when they carry forward the message that has been implanted in their brains by the political officials whom they serve and I think this behavior highlights the true purpose of establishment journalism more powerfully than anything I or anything else have ever written.
Very last point I want to make, the last thing I want to leave you with, the thing that I am trying to get myself to be to left with as the thing that is defining how I look at everything from this point forward, is that one of the things that has been most disturbing over the past three to four years has been this climate of fear that has emerged in exactly the circles that are supposed to challenge the government. It has emerged among investigative journalists, including the ones at the most protected outlets like The New York Times and others. The real investigative journalists who are at these outlets who do real reporting are petrified of the US government now. Their sources are beyond petrified. The investigative journalist Jane Mayer, who did so much excellent work uncovering the torture regime in the Bush years, has said that the Obama war on whistleblowing and journalism that Jeremy described, brought investigative journalism in the United States to a “standstill.”
If you talk to anybody in journalism or in the government, they are petrified of even moving. It has been impossible to get anyone inside the government to call us back with regard to any story because people are so scared that if anything on their phone record shows that they’ve called more or called The Guardian they will be held in extreme suspicion as leakers.
And it’s not just journalists but also dissident groups that have been infiltrated and Muslim communities that have monitored in all sorts of ways. There’s a climate of fear in exactly those factions that are most intended to put a check on those in power and that has been by design. And one of the things I set out to do as one of my principal priorities in how I’ve done this story and how I’ve gone about that is to show that you actually don’t need to be afraid. You can stand up to the United States government and be defiant when they deserve it and exercise your constitutional rights without them.
That is the message that I hope more than anything is conveyed on a visceral level. The revelations that we learn about the NSA is important. Things that we learn about journalism is important. But, ultimately, the thing that matters most is that the rights that we know we have as human beings are rights that we ought to exercise and that nobody can take away from us and the only way those rights can ever be taken away is if we give in to the fear that is being deliberately imposed. So that I hope is the message of Edward Snowden and the message of the reporting we’re doing, which is you not only shouldn’t be afraid but do not be afraid.
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