Glenn Greenwald is a lawyer who has lost all interest in making legal arguments. The reason for his indifference should terrify anyone who believes that the law, and not arbitrary decision-making by government officials, should govern a nation. Asked whether NSA mass surveillance is legal under any conceivable interpretation of United States law, Greenwald told ReasonTV:
"I think it's important to understand, when we talk about what's legal, is the extent to which our institutions that determine legality have been completely co-opted, either by the other branches of government, or just by the post 9/11 fearmongering and hysteria that have subsumed federal judges as much as they have everybody else – if not more so."
Greenwald's experience in uncovering our national secrets – from deep within our security apparatus to the FISA courts – has taught him that sometimes the law doesn't matter. When the government is determined to act outside of its constitutional restraints, justifications will be made, legal memoranda will be written, in order that the outcome will be determined by a contest of institutional power.
Reason TV traveled to McGill University in Montréal to present Glenn Greenwald with Reason Foundation's 2014 Lanny Friedlander Prize. The prize honors media entrepreneurs who expand human freedom by increasing our ability to express ourselves, engage in debate, and generate new ways of understanding the power of "free minds and free markets."
In this case, Greenwald has earned the honors for standing up for some of the bedrock principles that have been neglected in an age of national security and mass surveillance. Since breaking the story of NSA abuses, he has championed whistleblowers, and schooled establishment journalists in the meaning of the first amendment. He also won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Today he's a subject of Citizenfour, an Academy Award nominated documentary film about Edward Snowden.
Greenwald has not only broken the biggest news story in a generation, he's following it up by co-founding The Intercept, a new magazine that aims to shake up American journalism.
Video runs about 42 minutes.
1:20—ACCOUNTABILITY. Will anyone be held responsible for the mass violation of Internet privacy?
5:49—LEGALITY. Is blanket NSA surveillance legal under any possible interpretation of the law?
8:59—THE INTERCEPT. What's Greenwald's new publication all about?
11:18—JOURNALISM. Objective vs. subjective; the democratizing power of the Internet; should journalism be backed by billionaires?
22:19—INSIDERS vs. OUTSIDERS. How the establishment uses shame to maintain the status quo.
27:30—ADVERSARIAL JOURNALISM. The virtues of excessive criticism.
31:08—TYRANNY. The changing views of government in light of NSA surveillance.
33:27—POLITICAL REACTION. Hypocrisy on the Left, mixed reaction on the Right.
36:03—POLITICAL ACTION. Is politics the best means for reform?
38:12—REASON MEDIA AWARDS. Reaction to winning the 2014 Lanny Friedlander Prize.
40:16—THE LIBERTARIAN/PROGRESSIVE COALITION. The new political paradigm.
Glenn Greenwald: I think one of the most crucial parts of journalism is to constantly poke and prod at convention and orthodoxy, and to challenge assumptions that people are just implicitly accepting. Not just even if it makes people uncomfortable, but especially then.
reason: Glenn Greenwald, it is a pleasure to talk to you.
Greenwald: Great to talk to you and thank you so much to Reason for this award, I'm really honored to receive it.
reason: So let's get right into it. I loved your book No Place to Hide. It reads in many ways like an All of the President's Men for the 21st century, with sort of you and Laura Poitras playing the role of Woodward and Bernstein. Where they differ is what really interests me. Even though it's a timeless tale, at the end of All of the President's Men you have a president who resigns, you have people who go to jail, you have some measure of accountability. That's the end game and I don't quite know if we're at the end game with this scenario. But do you see that ever happening? Do you see some measure of accountability? Or today have things changed to such a degree that the government just acts with impunity?
Greenwald: I do. Even in Watergate, that took a relatively long time from the original disclosures to the point where Washington, the political class, took it seriously enough so that there was accountability. In fact, if you look at the first year and a half and two years of Watergate reporting, overwhelmingly the polling broke down on partisan lines, where Republicans were rather dismissive of the seriousness of what was being reporting and Democrats were trying to exploit it for political gain. It was only once it reached a tipping point and prominent Republicans came out and said this is really wrong. And then the battle for the tapes, it all sort of unfolded the way we now remember it. But it took a good while. The nature of politically powerful people is that they have a lot of defenses and a lot of strength—by definition—and you don't deflate them or bring them down or hold them accountable easily. It's always a battle.
But I do think there have been some very significant changes as a result of [my] reporting. There hasn't been a lot of legislation passed. In fact, there's been none, at least yet, that has restricted what the NSA could do. But I never thought that the place to look for restrictions on the power of the U.S. government would be the U.S. government itself, because human beings generally don't walk around thinking about ways to restrict their own power. I think the much more significant changes are the changes in consciousness that people have—not just about surveillance, but about privacy, the role of government, their relationship to it, the dangers of exercising power in the dark—and the role of journalism as well. I think there are all kinds of ways that surveillance is now being curbed, from other governments acting in coalition to impede U.S. hegemony over the Internet to technology companies like Facebook, Yahoo, and Google knowing that, unless they make a real commitment to protecting their users' privacy, they're going to lose a generation of users to other countries' companies. The most important of all is the awareness of individuals about the need to protect their own privacy by using things like encryption and other tools of anonymity. I think these things are a really important form of change and accountability that will come from the reporting.
reason: Is time also a factor? Because I know you do mention this in the book, initially there's a fear of surveillance, there's a shock. And then over time, you get used to the cameras being on you—and I know this just as a photojournalist: in the beginning you put a camera on someone, and they're nervous, they're worried about their appearance, and after an hour it's like, oh, it's not even there anymore. Does that dilute the urgency in any way?
Greenwald: I think there is definitely an extent to which you can normalize almost every form of abusive behavior on the part of the state. You can pretty much accustom a population to almost anything. There are studies that show that at the end of the Stasi, when the wall and East Germany fell—and even once East Germans became integrated into the West or at least into reunified Germany—that, behaviorally, it took a long time for East Germans to change from the population under this repressive, tyrannical microscope of surveillance to one that was free. Because they had become acculturated to simply accepting the world with those kinds of limitations. But I also think that there is an instinctive drive that human beings have for privacy, for having a place where we can go and think and communicate and act without the judgmental eyes of other people being cast upon us. Because we understand reflexively how important that is to be able to dissent and explore who we are. So I don't ever see a time when people will be satisfied with having no privacy in the digital age.
reason: I do want to talk about whether the NSA blanket surveillance now is legally permissible under any possible interpretation of the law, in your opinion.
Greenwald: I think what's important to understand when we talk about what's legal is the extent to which our institutions that determine legality have been completely co-opted, either by the other branches of government or just by the kind of post-9/11 fear mongering hysteria that has subsumed federal judges as much as they have everybody else—if not more so. Take the PATRIOT Act, for example. Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act is the provision that the Justice Department cited to convince the FISA court to allow the NSA to collect all telephone records from Verizon and Sprint and every other major carrier. The metadata of every person with whom every other American is communicating. The legal provision that was cited was section 215 of the PATRIOT Act. If you go back and look at the debate that took place over the PATRIOT Act—and there was a debate over the PATRIOT Act, even in the wake of 9/11—there were lots of people standing up and saying, this is really alarming, this is going to vest extremist surveillance power in the government. Nobody thought—neither the proponents of the PATRIOT Act who wrote it, like Jim Sensenbrenner, who were devoted to extremist power in the wake of 9/11, nor the critics of the PATRIOT Act, who were motivated to depict as extreme a picture of the legislation as they could—nobody remotely dreamed that that law could ever be cited to justify mass indiscriminate surveillance on Americans. All it did was lower the standards so that you no longer needed probable cause, but a much lower level of proof of reasonable suspicion to target somebody for surveillance. Yet a FISA court ended up accepting this rendition of the PATRIOT Act in secret that nobody thinks that it plausibly permits. That's really become the problem—the law almost is irrelevant and it gets twisted and distorted, by the very institutions that are supposed to safeguard [it], to justify almost anything the government wants to do.
reason: It sounds like a very similar situation to how torture and water boarding were permitted, right?
Greenwald: Right. I mean, the law in its most idealized form is this consistent, objective, concrete, identifiable set of rules and principles that constrict people's behavior. But in reality, the law, like everything else, is an instrument that those who wield the greatest power can use to maximize their power and to shield themselves from challenge and protection. You're exactly right—nobody thought water boarding and these other techniques were anything but illegal, criminal torture. In fact, the U.S. government has prosecuted people for using them exactly on that theory. But legal memos got written. Courts have, if not accepted them, accepted the fact that their existence justified the decisions. So they just become legal by sort of fiat power. That's why, although I began writing about politics as a journalist, I focused a lot on legal questions. I almost never focus on them now because they're really not relevant to the struggle for power or popular opinion.
reason: I'd like to talk a little bit about The Intercept and the future, because I'm fascinated with where that is going. Can you explain what The Intercept is, first of all, and what is it going to provide to the public that isn't already out there in this diverse world of media in which we live?
Greenwald: It's a little difficult to describe what The Intercept is because it's still very much a work in progress. What it is, technically, is a digital magazine that was co-founded by myself, Jeremy Scahill, and Laura Poitras. It's funded by First Look Media, which is headed by Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay. The idea behind it when we began was that there's been fundamental flaws in American journalism that we wanted to set out—I wouldn't say "to rectify," because that's too much of an ambitious aspiration—but to at least start to work to produce other models. There are two central flaws I think we wanted to rectify. One was the fact that most well-funded institutional media outlets have become, for a variety of reasons, far too close to and deferential to those who wield the greatest political and economic power, as opposed to adversarial to it—and therefore have kind of gutted the purpose of journalism, which is to serve as a check on those who wield power and not as an uncritical servant or amplifier of their message. And then the second flaw that we wanted to rectify was the lack of vibrancy and independence in how journalists are allowed to report and opine and talk about the world. There's kind of become this very soul draining, soulless voice that journalists are expected to adopt. It's one of contrived neutrality or objectivity that prevents them from really having any passion or spirit behind their journalism. We really wanted to reanimate the idea of what journalism was supposed to be, which is not this cloistered profession that follows all these archaic, unwritten rules that really just kind of neuters it, but instead was about crusading for some kind of outcome or against a particular injustice. That means letting journalists be free to pursue their own voice and not trying to homogenize them or neuter them.
reason: I followed your debate with Bill Keller. I thought that was terrific, by the way. You're both on the opposite sides of that coin. But what I didn't gather entirely from that is the idea of the future of journalism. Is it objective, old, or not so old as you pointed out, but sort of the established, standard, objective news, or intensely subjective and more adversarial? Is there room for both?
Greenwald: There are a couple new media outlets that are making really ambitious claims about reinventing journalism and whatever the image is that they want to do. And we tried really hard to avoid that. We're not trying to reinvent journalism. We don't think we have the model of how journalism should be practiced. We have a model of journalism that we think has been woefully lacking. If there are media outlets that want to do different things, I think there's definitely other ways to do journalism that can contribute value. But I do think the prevailing model is actually quite destructive, in part because it is fraudulent: this idea that The New York Times or The Washington Post talks about the world and reports on the world without biases or subjectivity or opinions. As human beings, I just think we perceive the world through a subjective prism. We're not capable of the kind of objectivity to which these media outlets claim. I think it's much more honest to simply be candid about the subjective assumptions that you're embracing, rather than to pretend that you're something that you're not. But more to the point, I think that that kind of pseudo-objective journalism neuters it. It means that you can't really ever be perceived as taking a strong position because that somehow compromises your objectivity. It means that you're basically toothless, that you no longer have the ability to check those who are in power or to call out their lies when they're lying or to be aggressive in telling the truth. I think that's a big part of why journalism has been failing.
reason: Is that really at heart the promise of new media today? That it can engage in different ways of looking at things and with a multitude of different voices?
Greenwald: Yeah, diversity of voices is probably the most important part of how the Internet has affected journalism, because it really is true—it's an amazingly rapid and fundamental change in how information and news gets delivered to people. I mean, just ten years ago, if you wanted to find a large platform where you could reach large numbers of people, you pretty much had to go to work for one of these large institutions and subject yourself to all of their really constrictive rules for how journalism is supposed to be done. Now, you can just start a blog on the Internet. If you offer something unique, you'll find a big readership and you're free of all these constraints. You don't even need to start a blog. If you look at how the Israeli war on Gaza was perceived, which was, I think, much different around the world than prior Israeli incursions into Gaza were perceived, the primary reason that happened is because everybody in Gaza is essentially a journalist, because they all have cell phones with video capabilities and Internet access. So they can upload things to Twitter. It really has democratized the number of people and the kinds of voices who are shaping how we perceive the world. I think that's all for the good.
reason: And it gives you a leg up a little bit, because when you were struggling to get the very first dispatches of the Snowden story out, you had the option of saying, Well, if they keep delaying, if they keep postponing, I can set up my own website and publish it that way. Can you talk a little bit about how that actually gave you a little bit of an advantage you wouldn't have otherwise had? Before you would've been completely reliant on the mainstream.
Greenwald: Definitely. Just imagine pre-Internet, for example. If you go and talk to Daniel Ellsburg about the challenges he faced when he wanted to disseminate the Pentagon Papers, the first challenge that he faced was simply a logistical one of, how do you make a Xerox copy of 7,000 top secret pages without detection? Do you go into the drug store or the library with a stack of dimes and start copying the Pentagon Papers? But then, more so, there were very few media outlets capable of publishing it and disseminating it in any way that would make an impact. There was a small handful of them. Most of them were afraid and had all kinds of restrictions and The New York Times finally undertook the fight. But if they hadn't, he might've been prevented from having [the revelations] heard in any meaningful way. The Internet has completely obliterated that monopoly that these small number of large corporations, media companies, have on our discourse. You're actually right, this is the first story I really did with The Guardian where I had to work directly with their editors, because my arrangement with every publication where I had written—both my own blog and Salon and prior to that The Guardian—is I would write what I wanted to write. I uploaded it directly to the Internet. No editor reviews it, let alone changes it. But obviously with a story of this magnitude, with the legal liability and the journalistic challenges, I had to work with The Guardian. There was no basis of trust because we hadn't worked together on any kind of a story, and so any sign at all that they weren't going to be as aggressive as I wanted to be in publishing this did make me start considering other alternatives. The fact that I did have other alternatives, that I could've just published it all on my own site, and made as big of an impact, or at least certainly close to it, gave me a lot of leverage to be able to negotiate with them and reach an agreement about how the reporting should be done.
reason: That was an amazing part of the story, where literally we're talking about minutes before this self-imposed deadline you gave The Guardian.
Greenwald: I mean, a big part of it was we had just seen this 29-year-old kid, who grew up in a totally ordinary way, with no background of power or position or prestige, undertake this extraordinarily brave act, knowing that he was sacrificing his life to do it. So, I wanted to make sure that the reporting that was done on the materials he had furnished was done with the same ethos of boldness and fearlessness and courage. I was worried that The Guardian institutionally would be resistant to that. And ultimately they weren't. That courage not only was contagious and infused me and Laura and the other people with whom we were directly working, The Guardian as well, but I think a big part of it was the fact that you no longer need these big institutions and they know that, so they become much more flexible in what they're willing to do.
reason: Say The Intercept were to become very successful. What is to prevent it from falling into that trap and becoming the same old establishment publication that you criticize, say, The Washington Post for being at many times? To break big stories and to keep a blog, you're going to have to hire risk averse lawyers, you're going to have to have a hierarchy of editors and people who take orders from other people and who are responsible for different parts of the operation. Isn't that just part of having a news operation?
Greenwald: The danger is definitely there. But because this kind of journalistic ethos is not just something that we have on our checklist of things we hope to achieve but is central to everything that all of us at The Intercept believe in at our core, structuring our organization to avoid those dangers has been by far the first and overarching priority. So when we went to hire lawyers, we purposely went and hired lawyers who would be risk seeking and not risk averse. And that was one of the kind of core mandates of what we were doing, was that unlike media outlets that are suffering financially and therefore tell their lawyers [to] make sure to keep them out of expensive litigation that we cannot afford with governments and corporations, we've told our lawyers we want to seek out litigation when someone's threatening our journalistic freedom—to be able to litigate in defense of it, and fight for it. That's one of the advantages of being extremely well-funded. Or, hierarchically in how we structure ourselves, we don't want to impose, in this top-down way, editors who are now the bosses of journalists, who these journalists have to kind of get around or convince to allow them to publish. The journalists went and hired the editors with whom they're working and they work very collaboratively. There is no strict hierarchical or rigid sequence where nothing can get published unless an editor says, Yes, you can publish this. That danger does exist. But we're trying to construct everything so that it's infused with this spirit of fearless and independent journalism, so that we don't become The Washington Post.
reason: Culture goes a long way. I mean institutional culture.
reason: At Reason I feel like there's a similar kind of culture, actually. There's a general tone but each one of us is given a tremendous amount of leeway to shape stories the way we want.
Greenwald: Right. And there are writers at Reason who I think agree with each other a lot but also disagree with each other quite a lot. There are writers who have very distinctive voices, but there seems to be this kind of spirit that you want people who are idiosyncratic and independent and have strong voices. I do think that's an important part of keeping journalism not just relevant but interesting.
reason: The funding, too, the economic side of journalism is really changing and what's interesting is you're not following the old models. They are, in a way, following you, right? I mean, if you look at The Washington Post, which you talk about a lot in the book, they're actually following The Intercept model now, right? A billionaire comes over and takes over the joint and starts hiring unusual, different voices that were never part of the mainstream before and giving them a bigger platform than ever before.
Greenwald: Yeah. I mean, I'm not one who thinks that finding billionaires is the only model to save journalism and it's not necessarily a very desirable one. Because there are dangers to having one person with huge economic power being the primary, if not sole, owner and funder of a news organization. The temptation to influence it is always going to be very potent. And even if it's not overt, it can be a chilling effect with the people at these institutions—they know what the funder and owner want and believe and kind of just subconsciously avoid doing things that might alienate him. And so the only reason we were willing to do it is because we became very convinced that the particular billionaire who happens to be funding our news organization (a) is really committed to the idea of journalistic independence. He could have bought The Washington Post if he had wanted to, but purposely didn't because he didn't want to inherit one of these legacy media outlets. He wanted to do something different. And (b) he's also extremely well aware that the minute he tried to interfere in any remote way in what we were doing would be the very minute that all of us would leave and the whole thing would just not exist anymore. There are hazards to that model as well, but all of these models for sustaining journalism in a meaningful way are imperfect and you just have to try and minimize the flaws and maximize the value.
reason: I'd like to go to this question, which I really think is such a key aspect of your book: In some ways the story of Snowden is really just a springboard for some larger philosophical issues that you really get into, about who gets to be considered an insider in the establishment, and who's an outsider.
Greenwald: I think that this dynamic is, I wouldn't necessarily say universal, because that's probably too great of a claim, but it's extremely common across cultures and eras. The idea that orthodoxies are maintained by imposing punishment for those who defy them. I think it's always the case, or most often the case, that the path of least resistance is to embrace and act in accordance with societal convention, and there are generally punishments for deviating from that convention. So a big part of it is just simply that normal human dynamic, that people who wield power have an interest in having the status quo, or the prevailing order, maintained. One important way of doing that is to ensure that there are penalties for those who challenge it. And I do think that one important penalty that gets imposed on those who challenge it is the idea of societal scorn or shame. You'll be depicted in the terms that you described: as crazy or unstable. You can find Soviet or Chinese dissidents who were put into mental hospitals rather than prisons, on the grounds that they were crazy for challenging the prevailing order. Scientists like Galileo and Copernicus, and Socrates in philosophy, were regarded similarly. So I think there is a very important component of it there, and I think one of the reasons why journalists who are very amply rewarded become some such reliable servants of power is because they too have an interest in preserving the status quo. But this concept of craziness is remarkable. There is actually a fantastic article written in 2010 in Newsweek by Conor Friedersdorf. I forget exactly the context but either Rand Paul or Ron Paul, I believe it was Rand Paul, had made a few statements and got vilified for being crazy, or the "the craziest person in Washington." Conor wrote an article saying, You can think some of those views are crazy, and they certainly don't have very much support, so they're probably, by definition, on the fringe. But it's important to remember that even the most popular opinions, or the things that are done by those who seem like they are the guardians of convention, can also be really crazy. Like the idea of being able to target an American citizen for execution by drone without due process. That is actually a really radical, and one could say crazy, idea. And if it were being proposed by some fringe ideologue, rather than being done by a popular American president, it would be regarded as self-evidently crazy. And this is a term that gets applied to any dissidents, to any people who express fringe views. It's just a way of delegitimizing views that challenge convention and orthodoxy, without having to do the work to engage them.
reason: And yet, at the same time, you make the point that it is absolutely crucial that journalists be outsiders.
Greenwald: Well, I'll give you an example. We were talking about this a little earlier, before we began the discussion. We're in Montreal right now—last night I was in Toronto and I gave a speech to an audience of several hundred people who were largely supportive and sympathetic of the work that I have done. And yet there was a discussion, as part of this event, where I was asked about a recent attack that is being called a terrorist attack in Canada. I made some points about the role that Canada had played in potentially provoking these kinds of attacks—the causal relationship between Canadian foreign policy, on the one hand, and the desire of Muslims to bring violence to Canada, on the other. And I could tell it made the audience extremely uncomfortable, notwithstanding the fact that they largely support what I was doing and probably agreed with me on most things. I mentioned that I had intended to write about it that day but didn't have time, but I was going to write about it for sure the next day, which is today. Someone afterwards, a journalist who works in Canada who I have worked with, came up to me and said, "You know, you should really think twice about whether you want to write that, because you could tell how uncomfortable it made even your supporters. And it's probably going to cause you a lot of grief if you do it, so you might want to think twice about doing it." And I said, "Well, that's actually all the more reason to do it." Right? That's my role. My role, as a journalist, is not to give comfort. I'm not a therapist, or a nurse, or a pastor. I think one of the most crucial parts of journalism is to constantly poke and prod at convention and orthodoxy, and to challenge assumptions that people are just implicitly accepting. Not just even if it makes people uncomfortable, but especially then. I think you need, always, to have every kind of human belief being challenged and scrutinized and put under a microscope. I think that's an important part of what journalism is about.
reason: It is, but do you romanticize that aspect of the journalistic viewpoint a little bit? I mean, for example, yes, you've come under fire from a lot of journalists, and people [have called] for your imprisonment in some cases. But isn't that just part of what you're actually promoting, which is adversarial journalism? Some people are going to look at you in a really negative light. They're going to ask you the same kind of hard questions that you would ask of the NSA, for example.
Greenwald: Absolutely. And I think that journalists tend to be really thin-skinned. Especially in the Internet age, where it's really the first time journalists had to be confronted with criticism. Ten years ago if you wrote a column for The New York Times, if you were Maureen Dowd or Tom Friedman, the only criticisms you ever heard were people who wrote letters to the editor and got published, and none of them ever cared at all about that. Now everywhere they go Tom Friedman and Maureen Dowd hear constant criticism, and sometimes the criticism is vicious, and it's vitriolic, and it's personal, and unproductive, and whatever. But I think that world, where people who have a platform and any kind of influence over public discourse—I would rather have those people, and I would include myself in that, subjected to excessive criticism and attack than insufficient criticism and attack.
reason: Well, I hope you read that Matt Taibbi famous [review of] The World Is Flat.
Greenwald: Yeah, sure, of course…
reason: That must have gotten to him, right?
Greenwald: There's no question that Tom Friedman is well aware of that essay.
reason: So you actually document by name—you don't shy away from this, and you don't with hardly anything out there—but you document a very long list of establishment journalists who have called for your arrest in many cases. And some of them actually apologized to you, like Andrew Ross Sorkin did [and] David Gregory has afterwards. I know they apologized, but do they ever explain what prompted that accusation? It's a very strange thing to say: "You should go to prison…I'm sorry I said that." Do they explain what prompts that?
Greenwald: Andrew Ross Sorkin did apologize; he apologized both on Twitter and then on air. I don't recall exactly what he said, but I think the essence of it was that he had just kind of gotten so caught up in the emotions of watching this person that he thinks had committed treason, or serious crimes—Edward Snowden—essentially get away with it, by being able to remain outside the grasp of the U.S., and that, to the extent that I had any kind of a role in that, he felt that I should have to pay a price for that as well. Even that view, although more mild than the view that I should be in prison, is itself really questionable. Because he is a journalist at The New York Times, which has a history of defending leakers and sources and actually going to court, all the way up to the Supreme Court, to win the right to publish huge amounts of top secret material when the government was trying to prevent them from doing so. So the fact that there is this prominent New York Times columnist who views what Edward Snowden did, not as an act of courage, or at the very least enabling journalism, but as an act of treason and criminality I think underscores how closely identified these journalists now are with those who wield power. The government looks at Edward Snowden, understandably, as a criminal and as an enemy, and therefore these journalists who see the world through the prism of the government do as well.
reason: So a lot of the revelations that you came across from Snowden, they have in many ways proven to be more outrageous than even the most creative of conspiracy theorists could have ever imagined. You even write about how shocked you were personally. I'm wondering, did that have an impact on how, or even whether, you view our government, in general, as a force for good? Did it make you more skeptical about it?
Greenwald: Definitely. I don't see how it can not do that. I've been writing about the dangers of state surveillance, U.S. surveillance, for a lot of years. And we've gotten little snippets of the magnitude of this surveillance, just how unaccountable and out of control it is. But to see the sheer breadth of it—the fact that their explicit institutional ambition is to collect all communications on the Internet, literally all—is something that is difficult to explain in terms of how you react. It does feel like you're confronted with this almost caricature of tyranny, which is a hard word to use when you're talking about your own government, because we are so inculcated to think that tyranny is something that happens elsewhere, in bad countries. But to watch the U.S. government, in its own documents, not just trying but coming very close to converting the Internet into a realm of unlimited, indiscriminate surveillance—which is another way of saying eliminating privacy in the digital age—is really stunning. But I think the more jarring part of it is how secretive it all was. You watch your government, that claims to be a democracy, and claims to be accountable to its citizenry through the ballot box, engaging in this indescribably consequential behavior, and purposefully keeping not just the details but the broad strokes of what they're doing completely secret from the people who are supposed to be deciding whether they want their government to be doing that. It's a real subversion of not just privacy but of democracy itself. And yeah, to watch it in action, essentially, with definitive proof of what they are doing, definitely heightened my skepticism over the reliability of the U.S. government's claims, the role they play in the world, and its motives as well.
reason: Have you been surprised, or disappointed in any way, with the weak reaction against the NSA by a lot of the people on the left?
Greenwald: No, I haven't been surprised. In part because there were so many other policies that progressives, or liberals, or Democrats—whatever you want to describe them as being—pretended not just to oppose but to vehemently condemn and be offended by, when they were done by George Bush and when Barack Obama was condemning them. And then they just stood by quietly, meekly acquiescing if not outright endorsing Obama once he was in power [and] embracing these same theories, and in some cases even expanding them. So this kind of radical, grotesque form of progressive hypocrisy was something that I had become extremely accustomed to, had written about, and had just expected as a fact of life. At the same time, the reaction to the NSA reporting on the conservative side was actually quite mixed. It is true that there were a lot of conservatives who were consistent, meaning they defended eavesdropping in the Bush regime and they defended it when done under Obama, and were hostile to the reporting. But a huge amount of the support for Edward Snowden and the reporting that we were doing came from the right, as well as the left. In part a lot of that was just as hypocritical as the hypocrisy on the left, because a lot of those conservatives were perfectly fine with the NSA scandal under George Bush, and suddenly got worried about individual privacy when a Democrat was in control. But a lot of it was this kind of small government, pro-individual privacy strain on the right that was offended by the idea of this level of government spying. It was really interesting because it didn't break down at all along partisan or ideological lines. In fact, if you look at the first NSA vote to defund the bulk metadata program, the two sponsors were John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Justin Amash (R-Mich.). You can't find more disparate members of Congress than those two, and the people that lined up behind them to do that were across the range of the political spectrum. Ultimately, the big breakdown was along demographic lines, where young people tend to support Snowden and to be really offended and alarmed by this kind of surveillance, while older people were more tolerant of it. But the behavior of Democrats was completely predictable. They pretended to be hideously bothered by a much smaller-scale amount of eavesdropping, revealed under George Bush, and then completely supportive of what was done under President Obama.
reason: Maybe you can help me clarify. I just want to quote you to you for a second: "I think the only means of true political change will come from people working outside of that two-party electoral system to undermine it, and to subvert it, and to weaken it, and to destroy it, not to try to work within it to change it." I'm curious how far you take this, because I know in other contexts you've actually written endorsing certain candidates who were either against NSA spying or in some cases against the war on drugs, even.
Greenwald: Right. So I don't think it's an absolute proposition that no value can ever come from working within the political system. There is value that I had in my own work from having Russ Feingold in the Senate, because he could call hearings on things nobody else would call hearings on. That could force some transparency. There are people who introduce debates that nobody else would introduce, like when Jim Webb introduced the idea of prison reform and drug policy reform—a really courageous thing to do that very few other members of Congress would have done. So it isn't that I don't think there is any value from working within the political process. And you're right, I've endorsed candidates, I've raised money for them, I've done it as recently as the last election cycle. But what I'm really critiquing there is the fact that the two primary parties, despite all these claims of a lack of bipartisanship and these claims that they can't get along, are in fact in accord on far more than they disagree on. And what they're in accord on isn't political or ideological perspectives, it's the fact that they serve the interests of those who control and fund the political system. The same prevailing, permanent factions in Washington end up reigning supreme, regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats win elections. Sometimes they exercise their power in the private sector and other times they exercise it in the public sector—which have become almost merged—but the same interests end up being served. So you can spend all your time and energy working to affect the outcome of political elections, so the Democrats [or] the Republicans are going to get empowered, but ultimately most of the weighty questions don't really end up being changed—some do, but most don't—by depending on that process.
reason: So as this year's winner of the Lanny Friedlander prize, can you just tell us a little bit about what winning that prize means to you?
Greenwald: I'm thrilled to win the award for a couple of reasons. One is, almost instantly, from the beginning of the time I started writing about politics, it was clear to me that there are people on the opposite sides of the political spectrum who are encouraged to view each other as implacable enemies [but] who actually have far more in common with one another than they do, often, with the people who they think they are on the same side as. So this coalition of people [was] conceived as a coalition of liberals and libertarians, but I think my views of that have become more complicated—about what this coalition is and who's involved in it. I try really hard never to be pigeonhole-able, ideologically or otherwise, because I want to make sure I can work with people with whom I'm in agreement on a whole wider range of issues. And I've done things in the past with reason and have had a lot of agreement with the policies and editorial positions of reason, so I'm thrilled to get recognition for that reason. But also, I think that the much more relevant split, politically, is no longer left vs. right, or Democrat vs. Republican, but has really become insider vs. outsider. And again, you saw this I think most prominently in the last year with that NSA vote I mentioned earlier, where the people who saved the NSA program of bulk metadata [collection] was the White House, Nancy Pelosi, and John Boehner—this kind of unholy trinity of establishment insiders—who whipped all their establishment members of Congress in defense of the NSA. And you had the kind of Tea Party outsiders with the outsiders on the left joining together to try to defund it. This coalition has actually become more apparent in lots of different areas, including drug policy and penal reform and intervention and war questions. And so any kind of award that's based on encouraging or trying to recognize people who are trying to work outside these establishment institutions, and work against them, is one I'm really happy to receive.
reason: Do you have specific areas of overlap between the left and libertarian coalitions here? I mean, NSA spying, obviously—things like that? The war on drugs I mentioned earlier you've discussed.
Greenwald: Absolutely. I mean, the question of intervention and war has become, I think, a hugely divisive issue on the right. There are all kinds of conservatives—whether Ted Cruz or Rand Paul—who are questioning the kind of Reagan-esque or John McCain pro-intervention posture, in almost every single case, and often find common ground on the left. But even on economic questions—when it came time to try to audit the Fed, a long time cause of Ron Paul, he found a really important ally in Alan Grayson (D-Fla.). It was only because they were able to then tap into liberals and libertarians that they were able to get a bill passed. Even if you look at the two outside agitation movements of the last five years, which were Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party movement, perceived as polar opposite, they were both actually born out of anger over the bailout. So I think objections to crony capitalism and the kind of inherent corruption of how the public and private sectors are interacting are also commonalities among the left and the right, and those are some extremely significant issues. You can [add] social issues to that as well, whether it be choice or marriage equality, where you find advocates of those positions on both the right and the left. So I think there is a lot more common ground than people typically recognize.