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Glenn Greenwald: The Explosive Day We Revealed Edward Snowden's Identity to the World

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist tells the story of those fateful days in Hong Kong.

On Thursday, June 6, 2013, our fifth day in Hong Kong, I went to  Edward Snowden's hotel room and he immediately said he had news that was "a bit alarming." An internet-connected security device at the home he shared with his longtime girlfriend in Hawaii had detected that two people from the  NSA — a human-resources person and an NSA "police officer"— had come to their house searching for him.

Snowden was almost certain this meant that the NSA had identified him as the likely source of the leaks, but I was skeptical. "If they thought you did this, they'd send hordes of FBI agents with a search warrant and probably SWAT teams, not a single NSA officer and a human-resources person." I figured this was just an automatic and routine inquiry, triggered when an NSA employee goes absent for a few weeks without explanation. But Snowden suggested that perhaps they were being purposely low-key to avoid drawing media attention or setting off an effort to suppress evidence.

Whatever the news meant, it underscored the need for Laura Poitras, the filmmaker who was collaborating with me on the story, and I to quickly prepare our article and video unveiling Snowden as the source of the disclosures. We were determined that the world would first hear about Snowden, his actions and his motives, from Snowden himself, not through a demonization campaign spread by the US government while he was in hiding or in custody and unable to speak for himself.

Our plan was to publish two more articles on the NSA files in the Guardian and then release a long piece on Snowden himself, accompanied by a  videotaped interview, and a printed  Q&A with him.

Poitras had spent the previous 48 hours editing the footage from my first interview with Snowden, but she said it was too detailed, lengthy and fragmented to use. She wanted to film a new interview right away; one that was more concise and focused, and wrote a list of 20 or so specific questions for me to ask him. I added several of my own as Poitras set up her camera and directed us where to sit.

"Um, my name is Ed Snowden," the film begins. "I'm 29 years old. I work for Booz Allen Hamilton as an infrastructure analyst for NSA in Hawaii."

Snowden went on to provide crisp, rational responses to each question: Why had he decided to disclose these documents? Why was this important enough for him to sacrifice his freedom? What were the most significant revelations? Was there anything criminal or illegal shown in these documents? What did he expect would happen to him?

As he gave examples of illegal and invasive surveillance, he became animated and passionate. But only when I asked him whether he expected repercussions did he show distress, fearing that the government would target his family and girlfriend for retaliation. He would avoid contact with them to reduce the risk, he said, but he knew he could not fully protect them.

"That's the one thing that keeps me up at night, what will happen to them," he said as his eyes welled up, the first and only time I saw that happen.

The relatively lighter mood we had managed to keep up over the prior few days now turned to palpable anxiety: we were less than 24 hours away from revealing Snowden's identity, which we knew would change everything, for him most of all. The three of us had lived through a short but exceptionally intense and gratifying experience. One of us, Snowden, was soon to be removed from the group, likely to go to prison for a long time, a fact that had depressingly lurked in the air from the outset, at least for me. Only Snowden had seemed unbothered by this. Now, a giddy gallows humor crept into our dealings.

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