Hard News by Russell Brown

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Interview: Glenn Greenwald

I was offered an interview with Glenn Greenwald yesterday in the wake of his appearance at the Moment of Truth event. What follows is the transcript of that interview. It covers both the specifics of what he reported at the event and more general questions about state intelligence agencies and the practice of doing the kind of journalism he does.

Why do you think the GCSB needed the law change to do its own surveillance when it had the potential deniability of letting the NSA do the job?

I think there are definitely advantages from the signals intelligence perspective of being able to tap directly into the principal cable through which all New Zealanders' communications transit with the rest of the world and to be able to collect it in a much more efficient manner.

I think there was pressure placed on the GCSB by the NSA to engage in that kind of mass metadata collection, as part of its obligation to the Five Eyes programme. So there's been mass surveillance of New Zealanders, but that would have been a much more potent and effective way to do it.

It has already been revealed that the NSA has funded GCHQ facilities in Britain. Do you think the same is true here?

We're definitely working on reporting about the money that changes hands between GCSB and NSA. I think the reporting will reveal that it goes both ways. The GCSB purchases rather expensive equipment and other capabilities from the NSA and the NSA also funds various activities here in New Zealand.

The Prime Minister has given a less-than-unequivocal denial today when asked if the NSA has staff working here. Do you think it's true?

Mr Snowden was unequivocal about that fact The X-Keyscore map we published last year with The Guardian clearly indicates that there's a major collection site here in New Zealand. The statements from the Prime Minister, as you indicated, are far from emphatic in denying that that was the case and I think it would be shocking if suddenly out of nowhere, after a year and a half of very reliable and credible statements, Mr Snowden made claims that just turned out to be false. So I think the evidence is pretty compelling.

What did you make of the documents that John Key released yesterday to pre-empt your report? Was he deliberately confusing Cortex with Speargun?

Yes. This is clearly the strategy of the Prime Minister at this point, which is to take what is always a complicated issue -- electronic surveillance -- and make it so difficult and so confusing to the public that they just throw up their hands and dismiss it all as bickering that they can't resolve, and move on to other issues.

And it's really the media's job to point out exactly what is being done and not being done. He made definitive commitments since the weekend that he would release documents, declassify material, showing that he looked at this proposal and then intervened and stopped it before it was implemented, in order to negate the claims that I was making. These documents do nothing of the kind.

There is nothing about the Prime Minister intervening and stopping the programme, and the programme that these documents are describing, which is Cortex, is radically different than the NSA documents that we published that are described in the NSA materials. They're not even really related.

In that light, what should journalists here be asking about? What documents should they be seeking?

To me, these are the two most important questions that if I could sit John Key down in a room I would be asking him. Number one is: even if you believe what he says, which was that this was simply a proposal and not anything that ended up being implemented, at the time that it was being proposed -- and he said it was built over many months, it was developed as a detailed policy -- mass surveillance aimed at New Zealanders, of the kind described in the NSA documents, would have been illegal. Against the law. Why was his agency, the agency over which he exercises supervision, planning a policy of mass surveillance that under New Zealand law was completely illegal?

And the second thing that I think is really important to ask is that in order to get New Zealanders to agree to pass that new internet spying law that he was so intent on having enacted last year, he repeatedly insisted that this law did not really provide any additional surveillance authority, that it would not have allowed mass metadata collection.

And yet the documents between the GCSB and the NSA are completely clear that the GCSB was telling the NSA that they had to await enactment of that law before they could complete this programme. Meaning they understood that the law would vest them with exactly the power that Prime Minister Key vehemently told the public the law would not vest. How can he possibly reconcile what they were telling the NSA about this law and what they were telling the public about it?

You referred last night to potentially working with New Zealand journalists. Does that mean Nicky Hager?

I've spoken with several New Zealand journalists about working in different capacities to do further reporting on the GCSB.

Do you have further documents relevant to our situation? Especially documents that aren't slides?

There are definitely a lot more documents to do reporting on with respect to the GCSB, including ones that I think are significant. I discussed what some of those were, including the list of countries on which the GCSB spies, either on its own initiative or at the behest of the NSA.

There are definitely, as I indicated, documents about the money that changes hands between the two agencies and for what purposes. And there are other documents as well that I think are going to be important.

This story has taken months. The early reporting of the Snowden documents was done very, very quickly -- do you regret that at all?

Different stories take different amounts of time to report because of the complexity involved. The very first story that we reported was a stand-alone top-secret court order compelling a leading American telco to turn over all metadata to the NSA every single day. That was a relatively easy story to report, because the court order was so clear about what it was. Other stories just take more time, because they're more complicated, because they take more investigation, you have to piece the pieces together. And I wanted to make really sure that if I came to New Zealand and did reporting on the GCSB and made claims about misleading statements by the Prime Minister, that my journalism was unimpeachable. And that just takes time.

So where do you think the story goes from here?

You know, there's been a lot of speculation about the impact on the election and I never in a million years thought that this reporting would sway the election. I never gave that any thought at all. I wanted to make sure that New Zealanders had this information to go to the polls, because I would have felt like I'd failed in my obligation, but that wasn't at all my goal.

Because I knew that this was a longer-term story, that putting this information into the public would force the Key government to answer a whole variety of important questions that up until now they haven't really been asked.

That it would give the New Zealand media all kinds of information to work with -- because the New Zealand media has been pretty interested in surveillance questions for at least 12 to 18 months, and I knew that it would stimulate debate, probably lead to investigations and make New Zealanders much more aware and much more cautious about what the GCSB is doing and the extent to which they're being told the truth. So I think it's going to lead to more public debate, more media inquiry and, I hope, more formal investigation.

And apart from anything else, it's not as if these activities have only taken place under governments of the right.

That's a really important point. The GCSB is a long-standing agency, it's a lot like the NSA. The NSA has grown more or less steadily regardless of whether there's a Democratic or Republican administration, and of course currently in the United States there is a Democratic President who is perceived as more on the left than the right, and yet the NSA has grown dramatically over the last six years. These agencies really do exist outside the democratic process. They are in a sense their own autonomous beasts and election outcomes really don't determine the extent to which they continue to grow, unfortunately. That's part of the problem.

So what drives that growth?

I think that one of the things that has happened is that military structures in general have insulated themselves from the political process. And the kinds of claims that are made to justify their growth, whether putting people in fear of terrorism or other kinds of threats, are very powerful tools. No politician wants to be seen as making the country less safe, or to be vulnerable to claims that they stood in the way of the security of citizens. And these agencies are very good at manipulating public discourse to make sure that they're continually fed greater authority and greater budgetary support -- and just generally allowed to operate without much interference from political officials.

There is a document that we published maybe four or five months ago. It was an interview that was done internally at the NSA with the official in charge of foreign partnerships. And they asked him, why is it that for example in Europe, where you have wildly disparate swings in the election outcomes, from the right to the left, it doesn't really affect the partnerships that we have with these countries' intelligence agencies?

And he said, that's because virtually nobody in the political process, anyone outside of the military structure, even knows these partnerships exist.

You had the Green Party leader here in New Zealand say in an interview that I watched that he was on the committee that oversees the GCSB and yet he learned far more about what the agency does by reading our stories than he did in briefings. They really have insulated themselves from the political process and have a lot of tools to ensure that they continue to grow and their power is never questioned.

Moving on to Edward Snowden, What does the future hold for him? Do you think there's a prospect of him being able to leave Russia?

I hope so. Even if he got to the point where he were able to leave legally because another country offered him some kind of protection, there would still be the question of whether it was really safe for him to do so. Probably Russia is one of the safest places for him to be, just physically. He does have asylum or residency rights for another three years, so for the foreseeable future my guess is he'll be there. It's not ideal. He didn't choose that country, he was forced to remain there by the United States government. But as we saw last night, he's able to very constructively participate in the debate that he helped to trigger about surveillance and that's a very important thing.

What about your own safety? What are the implications of working in a situation where I guess you assume that you are being surveilled?

Definitely. I have pretty compelling, conclusive evidence that I have been surveilled. My partner is in litigation with the UK government, claiming that his detention at Heathrow airport under their terrorism law was illegal. And in the course of that litigation, British authorities filed documents saying why they chose to detain him -- and in doing so they cited a whole variety of communications that he had, that I had, that The Guardian had, that others with whom we worked had, making it clear that we were surveilled and monitored.

There was almost a full year when we were being told privately and public by the US government that if we went back to the US we might be arrested because of the journalism that we were doing. But there are journalists all around the world who face all kinds of risks in this sphere, and much, much worse. I feel relatively protected at this point by the visibility of the story.

Obviously this kind of work in general requires a free and robust press, and this is a difficult time for the news media. You've found a way through, via the patronage of Pierre Omidyar. Is that a model? How do we get through?

I think it is a model. I don't think it is at all the model. There are big benefits to having one person with lots of resources fund you -- you don’t have to answer to lots of people or worry about financial imperatives and making profits. You can just focus on serious, sustained journalism and know that you're being supported. But the important point is find somebody who is genuinely committed to not interfering in the journalism that you're doing. And that's not easy to find.

There are other models, such as tapping into the voluntary support of readers, who are hungry for the kind of journalism they think is valuable. I do think that there is always a place and will always be a financial model that will sustain the kind of journalism that people are really eager to have.

A final question: you dissociated yourself from Kim Dotcom's Warner email at the press conference last night. Did you go so far as to veto it being presented on the night?

No, I wouldn't say I vetoed it. I didn't really have the power to veto what he wanted to do or say. But we did talk about the fact that in the scheme of what we might talk about, that the time would probably be used a lot more constructively to focus on the questions of mass surveillance and the truthfulness of the Prime Minister, and the trade agreement that Mr Amsterdam spent quite some time talking about, as opposed to the particulars of Mr Dotcom's case. That it would probably be a better use of the time of the event. I think we came to a consensus about it and I felt very comfortable with that.

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