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The Snowden Leaks and the Public


It is harder than you might think to destroy an Apple MacBook Pro according to British government standards. In a perfect world the officials who want to destroy such machines prefer them to be dropped into a kind of giant food mixer that reduces them to dust. Lacking such equipment, The Guardian purchased a power drill and angle grinder on July 20 this year and—under the watchful eyes of two state observers—ripped them into obsolescence.

Alan Rusbridger; drawing by James Ferguson

It was hot, dusty work in the basement of The Guardian that Saturday, a date that surely merits some sort of footnote in any history of how, in modern democracies, governments tangle with the press. The British state had decreed that there had been “enough” debate around the material leaked in late May by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. If The Guardian refused to hand back or destroy the documents, I, as editor of The Guardian, could expect either an injunction or a visit by the police—it was never quite spelled out which. The state, in any event, was threatening prior restraint of reporting and discussion by the press, no matter its public interest or importance. This was par for the course in eighteenth-century Britain, less so now.

In our discussions with government officials before July 20 we had tried to impress on them that, apart from being wrong in principle, this attempt at gagging a news organization was fruitless. There were, we told them, further copies of the Snowden material in other countries. We explained that The Guardian was collaborating with news organizations in America. Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who first dealt with Snowden, lived in Rio. The filmmaker Laura Poitras, who had also been in contact with the former NSA analyst, had more material in Berlin. What did they imagine they were achieving by smashing up a few hard drives in London?

The government men said they were “painfully aware” that other copies existed, but their instructions were to close down the Guardian operation in London by destroying the computers containing information from Snowden. At some level I suspect our interlocutors realized that the game had changed. The technology that so excites the spooks—that gives them an all-seeing eye into billions of lives—is also technology that is virtually impossible to control or contain. But old habits die hard—hence the appeal of using the courts to stop publication. Both the 1917 US Espionage Act and the 1911 British Official Secrets Act—each with roots in wartime sedition and spy fever—cast a long shadow.

America has its own difficulties with journalists and their sources. But it is, nevertheless, a kinder environment for anyone trying to inform the sort of public debate regarding security and privacy that, post-Snowden at least, everyone seems to agree is desirable. The main advantage in the US is that it is, I hope, unthinkable that the American government would try to prevent publication in advance. A written constitution, the First Amendment, and the Supreme Court judgment in the Pentagon Papers case in 1971 have all played their part in establishing protections that are lacking in the UK. Jill Abramson, executive editor of The New York Times, is not going to be buying drills and angle grinders anytime soon.

And so the reporting goes on, much of it edited out of New York, as before, by our US editor, Janine Gibson. What’s gradually being revealed is that in the last ten or so years the US and UK governments, working in close collaboration, have been seeking to put entire populations under some form of surveillance. The apparent aim is to be able to collect and store “all the signals all the time”—that means all digital life, including Internet searches and all the phone calls, texts, and e-mails we make and send each other.

Some of it is data, some of it is so-called metadata—information about who sent a communication to whom, from where to where, not about specific contents. But as Stewart Baker, the former general counsel of the NSA, said in a recent discussion in New York, these are tricky distinctions. “Metadata absolutely tells you everything about somebody’s life,” he said with admirable candor. “If you have enough metadata you don’t really need content…. [It’s] sort of embarrassing how predictable we are as human beings.”

We have begun to glimpse how it’s all being done. The NSA and its British counterpart, GCHQ (Government Communication Headquarters), work closely with Internet service providers and telecom companies to amass enormous quantities of data on us. Some of it is done through the front door—formal legal requests. Some of it is done “upstream” of tech companies and phone companies—i.e., intercepting signals in transit. The agencies have attached probes to transatlantic cables, enabling them to vacuum up data on millions of users on both sides of the Atlantic. By last year GCHQ was handling 600 million “telephone events” each day, had tapped more than two hundred fiber optic cables, and was able to process data from at least forty-six of them at a time.

We have also learned about how the agencies have spent vast sums of money on subverting the integrity of the Internet itself—weakening its overall security in ways that ought to concern every individual, public body, or company that uses it. A trapdoor that lets the NSA into your messages is, most cryptologists agree, quite exploitable by others. If you’re anxious about your bank details or medical records sitting online, you’re probably right to be.

If, say, the Chinese had behaved like this toward the Internet and toward social platforms used around the world, there would be barely contained fury in the West. Little wonder that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was not impressed by President Obama’s repeated assurances that “there is no spying on Americans.” That was, he pointed out, of little comfort to American entrepreneurs trying to build global businesses.

All this is a very long way from the origins of the modern intelligence agencies, many of which, like the official secrecy laws protecting them, are around a hundred years old. In the UK, it began with shoe leather—trying to catch German spies snooping around shipyards. Within a very short time spies were trying to tap into the new Marconi wireless signals. Contemporary papers show a profound ignorance among officials and parliamentarians about emerging technologies. The same is undoubtedly true today.

For most of the twentieth century our imagination of what spies did owed much to Ian Fleming, John le Carré, or Robert Ludlum. It was, for much of the time, a world of spy against spy. Insofar as any technology was involved it involved gadgetry—gyro rocket guns, fake fingerprints, stun gas cigarettes, or exploding toothpaste.

Our imagination can’t help being colored by George Orwell, who didn’t write spy novels but did conjure up a horribly unsettling vision of how all-seeing technologies could lead societies into very dark places. Much more recently, the German film The Lives of Others gave a nightmarish insight into what horrors the East German Stasi was able to inflict on civilians with the technologies available to it in the 1980s. Henry Porter’s 2009 novel The Dying Light was prescient in describing a world of UK surveillance that he had taken pains to investigate.

Edward Snowden, a twenty-nine-year-old NSA contractor living in Hawaii, had a more contemporary ringside seat on the reality of what intelligence agencies actually now do—and it has little in common with the world of 007 or George Smiley. He had access to millions of highly classified documents and briefings from both the NSA and GCHQ. What he saw evidently disturbed him deeply. “Even if you’re not doing anything wrong you’re being watched and recorded,” he told The Guardian when he unmasked himself as the leaker of the material in early June. In a video interview he said:

The storage capability of these systems increases every year consistently by orders of magnitude to where it’s getting to the point—you don’t have to have done anything wrong. You simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody, even by a wrong call. And then they can use this system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with. And attack you on that basis to sort of derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer.

He added, by way of explaining his own decision to blow the whistle, with all the foreseeable consequences for the rest of his life: “You realize that that’s the world you helped create and it’s gonna get worse with the next generation and the next generation who extend the capabilities of this sort of architecture of oppression.”

In Snowden’s view, the traditional forms of oversight—secret one-sided courts and closed congressional or parliamentary committees—are inadequate, not least because they have only partial information and poor technical understanding and are frequently misled. He may have had in mind such moments as when Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Congress in March that the NSA did not intentionally collect “any type of data at all” on millions of Americans. That turned out not to be true. Clapper later justified his response as the “least untruthful answer” he could give. Which Orwell would surely have regarded as a doubleplusgood answer.

Lacking confidence in the courts or Congress, Snowden approached the other people who, in any modern democracy, are there to uncover truth, host debates, and hold people to account—journalists. When Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers just over forty years ago he or his representatives went to The Washington Post and The New York Times. These days whistleblowers are spoiled for choice. They don’t, in fact, need to “go” anywhere: they can simply publish themselves. We can only speculate about Snowden’s thinking as he prepared to leak the biggest cache of top secret material ever seen to Greenwald, Poitras, and The Guardian. But he may have thought something like this:

• The material will be highly complex to outsiders. It will take a team of people thousands of hours to reveal the full texture of what I want the world to understand. Serious mainstream newspapers sometimes do that kind of thing quite well.

• But I want this to be handled by people who are passionately, obsessively interested in this subject. People who will realize its true significance, who grasp the legal and political background, and who can return repeatedly and forensically to the subject in depth and at length. That’s what bloggers and specialist documentary makers can do well.

• The material is so secret and revelatory that any single news organization will come under immense pressure, up to and including criminal, legal, and government threats, not to publish it, or even to hand it back. Newspapers have in the past caved in to pressure, or sat on confidential documents for months or even years. So I will ensure that more than one news organization gets to see it.

• Geographical spread. Given the likely legal threats and government pressure, the ideal scenario would be to have the documents in more than one country. A prominent “outsider” newspaper with a history of investigative journalism would be interesting.

Whatever his actual reasoning, we know that Snowden chose rather cleverly. He came, via Greenwald, to The Guardian, a news organization with a huge audience (now the third-largest English-language readership in the world) and a track record of taking on some formidable organizations and individuals. He shared other documents with The Washington Post’s Barton Gellman. And he also involved two journalists—Greenwald and Poitras—who not only lived outside America but came from a completely different kind of journalistic tradition.

Florian Schuh/dpa/Corbis
Glenn Greenwald speaking via video at a Whistleblower Award ceremony honoring Edward Snowden, Berlin, August 30, 2013

Who Will Guard the Guardians? December 5, 2013

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