Bill Moyers & Glenn Greenwald on the High Cost of Government Secrecy

Human Rights

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BILL MOYERS: Welcome. In the aftermath of the Boston bombings and the massive manhunt which led to the death of one suspect and the arrest of another, both of them Muslims, there have been calls for increased surveillance and scrutiny of the public at large and Muslims in particular.

On Fox News the other day, New York congressman Peter King said: “If you know a threat is coming from a certain community, that's where you have to look." Proceed with caution here, Mr. King. And first take a look at that “Council on Foreign Relations” analysis of an FBI study showing that from 1980 to 2001, around two-thirds of domestic terrorism was carried out by American extremists who were not Muslims. That number actually skyrocketed to 95 percent in the years immediately after 9/11. And the magazine “Mother Jones” found that of the 62 mass shootings in America since 1982 – mass killings defined as four deaths or more – 44 of the killers were white males.

My guest, the journalist and columnist Glenn Greenwald, was flying here from his home in Brazil as events in Boston were unfolding. The investigation once again raised issues of civil liberties in the fight against terrorists. So, we reached out to Glenn Greenwald, who, as a former constitutional and civil rights litigator, keeps his critical and contrarian eye on potential conflicts between national security and individual liberty.

Among his best-selling books: How Would a Patriot Act?And most recently: With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful. Currently, Glenn Greenwald writes regularly for The Guardian. You can read him on their website. Welcome, Glenn. It's good to see you again.

GLENN GREENWALD: Great to be back.

BILL MOYERS: Was it right, in your opinion, for the suspect in Boston to be charged as a criminal rather than an enemy combatant?

GLENN GREENWALD: Absolutely. There were very few people who even took seriously the idea that he ought to be charged as an enemy combatant for many reasons, including the fact that he's an American citizen on US soil. And if there's one thing we're taught to think about our country, it's that the government can't punish people or put them in cages or threaten them with death without charging them with a crime, giving them a trial with a jury of their peers, and then convicting them beyond a reasonable doubt.

But the broader question is, should we change or radically alter or dismantle our standard protocols of justice in the name of terrorism. That's been the debate we've been having since the September 11th attack. And I'm firmly in the camp that we need not and should not do that. And therefore he should be treated like any other criminal.

BILL MOYERS: If it turns out that he and his brother had some significant contact with a radical organization back in their home country, would that change anything in your mind?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, I think that the most important thing that we need to start asking and if that were the case, this question would become even more urgent, is why is it that there seem to be so many people from so many different parts of the world willing to risk their lives or their liberty in order to bring violence to the United States, including to random Americans whom they don't know. There has to be something very compelling that drives somebody to do that. And this was the question that was asked in the wake of the 9/11 attack in the form of the sort of iconic question, "Why do they hate us?" And the government needed to answer that question because people were quite rightly asking. And the answer that was fed to them was, "Well, they hate us for our freedom."

And I think ten years, 11 years later, people are very cynical about that answer and realize that's not really the reason. Because what you see is that people from parts of the world that weren't part of 9/11 are now starting to attack the United States as well.

And when they're heard, which is rare, but sometimes they are, about what their motive was, invariably, they cite the fact that they have become so enraged by what Americans are doing to Muslims around the world, to their countries in terms of bombing them, imprisoning them without charges, drone attacking them, interfering in their governments, propping up their dictators that they feel that they have not only the right but the duty to attack America back. And so I think the discourse then ought to really be focused on what is driving this war. How is it that we can do something that will, instead of perpetuating it further and exacerbate it further, start to think about how to undermine and dilute the sentiments that continue to fuel it, you know, 12 years after the 9/11 attacks.

BILL MOYERS: You wrote the other day of America's “invisible victims.” And they are?

GLENN GREENWALD: The invisible victims are the women and children and innocent men who the United States continues to kill in places like tribal regions in Pakistan, in Yemen, in Somalia, in Afghanistan, at times in the Philippines. Places throughout the Muslim world where the United States sends flying robots.

We never hear about who those people are. And you can contrast it with the few instances in which the United States is attacked, we learn the names of the victims, we know their lives, we hear from how their family members are grieving, we never hear any of that in terms of the children, the women, and innocent men whom we kill.

In the Muslim world and it's sort of an "out of sight, out of mind" dynamic whereby not hearing about them, we never think about them. And by not thinking about them, we forget that they exist. And that's when somebody attacks the United States, it leads to this bewilderment, like, "Well, what have we ever done to anybody that would make them want to attack us?"

BILL MOYERS: I think you were traveling when the Boston siege was unfolding. Is that right? When did you--


BILL MOYERS: When did you actually find out that it was happening?

GLENN GREENWALD: What happened was, I was flying overnight to the United States on Thursday night, which is when the shootout took place between the two brothers and the police, in which the older one was killed.

And then Friday morning when I got off the plane at JFK, was really the start of when people woke up and heard that there was this intense manhunt for the younger brother. And because I was traveling, I was generally in public places for the next several days in airports, hotels, restaurants. And what I saw was everybody glued to the television in order to observe and engage with a very political event, which was this manhunt.

And the reason that struck me was because there are very few events that really engage most people in the United States on a political level. Maybe there's one or two events like that every few years, maybe a national presidential election. But this was one of them.

BILL MOYERS: Why do you call it a political event?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, it was political because it was infused with all kinds of political messages about Muslims, about radicalism, about what the proper role of the police and the military are in the United States. There were instantly these calls for greater surveillance, there was a lockdown of Boston in a very extraordinary act on a major American city, would be completely locked down. What you could see in how people were observing, what it was that they were watching, was their political impressions about the world, about their government, about political debates being formed, based on the very few incidents that they really pay attention to.

And I think that's the reason why incidents like this are incredibly significant in an enduring way, because it shapes how people who don't pay much attention to politics regularly really think about the world.

BILL MOYERS: And you think viewers, were evaluating this manhunt that was playing out in front of them through a political lens?

GLENN GREENWALD: Absolutely. I mean, it's inherently the case. Because when somebody does something, like detonates two bombs, one of which is placed behind an eight-year-old child, which it kills, and then tears off the limbs of dozens of other people, none of whom are known to the perpetrators, the question naturally arises, why would any human being engage in that behavior? And generally, when the person is a white Christian or a white American, there's an attempt instantly to assure everybody that it's simply kind of a one-off. That it doesn't have a political content, that the person is mentally ill, that they're a lone actor, that they just snap, is usually the jargon, to assure everybody that there's no political conclusions that ought to be drawn. When the person though is Muslim, everything reverses. So there's no consideration to the possibility that they were mentally ill, that they simply snapped, that they were being driven by political considerations of alienation or frustration about things in their lives.

Instead, there's an assumption that this bolsters the idea that we face this grave and potentially even existential threat from radical Muslims against whom we've been fighting this decade-long war. And it really bolsters the premises of that war by ratcheting up the fear levels and by reaffirming the political convictions in which it's grounded.

BILL MOYERS: But you agree that terrorism is a threat and has to be dealt with. Not only in trying to understand what provokes it, but in trying to prevent it.

GLENN GREENWALD: Sure, it's the responsibility of the U.S. government to prevent its citizens from being killed and attacked in the way that they were attacked in Boston. Unfortunately, the answers that are typically offered to that question, of how can the government protect us, usually end up not only not protecting us, but making the threat worse.

So that's the problem, as I see it. Is that the more we react by saying, "Well, we now need to go bomb further with drones, we need to infiltrate and surveil more, we need to put Muslims under more of a microscope and be more aggressive in how we attack them when we think they're a threat," I think the worse this problem becomes. I think that's the problem, is that the policies justified in the name of stopping terrorism have actually done more to exacerbate that threat and to render us unsafe than any other single cause.

BILL MOYERS: That raises the really deep question, the serious question, of how do we thrive as an open society and become the country that we wanted to become, when we are faced with the knowledge that these attacks can come when and where we don't expect them.

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, this is the problem, is that the reality is, is that if you have an open society, then you can't prevent attacks like this. You can build enormous structures of security to prevent people from going on airplanes with bombs or guns, but then what do you do about trains or crowded malls or Times Square?

And I think then that really underscores the choice that we have, which is number one, we can do what we've been doing, which is become a more closed society, authorize the government to read our emails, listen in our telephone calls put people in prison without charges, enact laws that make it easier for the government to do those sorts of things.

Or we can try and understand why it is that people want to come here and do that? And so the question then becomes, why are people wanting to attack United States this way, but not dozens and dozens and dozens of countries around the world. And I think we need to get to the bottom of that question in order to figure out how to stop these attacks, is to undermine the motive.

BILL MOYERS: Here in New York City this week, a lot of officials, including the police commissioner, have been saying-- praising surveillance cameras that were so helpful in Boston and saying, "We need far more of those," and are asking for them. Are we moving into an era where the government is going to know more and more about each and every one of us?

GLENN GREENWALD: We are close to that already. There is a Washington Post series in 2010 calledTop Secret America, three-part series by Dana Priest and William Arkin. And one of the facts that reported was that the National Security Agency, every day, collects and stores 1.7 billion, that's with a B, billion, emails, telephone calls, and other form of electronic communications by and between American citizens.

And what's amazing is, is that if you look at the case in Boston, the surveillance state, this massive apparatus of monitoring and storing information about us that we've constructed over the last decade that's extremely expensive and invasive really didn't do much. It didn't detect the attack before it started. The attempted Times Square attack in 2010 wasn't stopped because of eavesdropping or government surveillance but because a hot dog vendor noticed something amiss with the bomb that had been left.

So again, the surveillance state doesn't really do much in terms of giving us lots of security. But what it does do, is it destroys the notion of privacy, which is the area in which human creativity and dissent and challenges to orthodoxy all reside. The way things are supposed to work is we're supposed to know everything that the government does with rare exception, that's why they're called the public sector.

And they're supposed to know almost nothing about us, which is why we're private individuals, unless there's evidence that we've committed a crime. This has been completely reversed, so that we know almost nothing about what the government does.

It operates behind this impenetrable wall of secrecy, while they know everything about what it is we're doing, with whom we're speaking and communicating, what we're reading. And this imbalance, this reversal of transparency and secrecy and the way things are supposed to work, has really altered the relationship between the citizenry and the government in very profound ways.

BILL MOYERS: Is it conceivable to you that-- that giving up our privacy and even much of our liberty becomes a way of life in exchange, a trade for security? Tom Brokaw suggested as much the other day. Here he is.

TOM BROKAW on NBC News: Everyone has to understand tonight however that beginning tomorrow morning, early, there are going to be much tougher security considerations all across the country. However exhausted we may be by them, we're going to have to learn to live with them and get along and go forward and not let them bring us to our knees. You'll remember last summer how unhappy we were with all the security at the Democratic and Republican convention. Now I don't think that we could raise those complaints after what happened today in Boston.

GLENN GREENWALD: I mean, I think that is, first of all, it's extraordinary that journalists lead the way in encouraging people to accept greater government intrusion into their lives. The media, journalists, are supposed to be adversarial to the government, not encouraging people to submit to greater government authority.

But I think the broader point is that it's that false dichotomy, that the more the government learns about us, the safer we'll be. In part because what history shows is that when governments are able to surveil people in the dark, generally the greatest outcome is that they abuse that power and it becomes tyrannical. If you talk to anybody who came from Eastern Europe, they'll tell you that the reason we left is because society's become deadened and soulless, when citizens have no privacy. And it's a difficult concept to understand, why privacy is so crucial, but people understand it instinctively. They put locks on their bedroom doors, not for security, but for privacy.

They put passwords on their email accounts, because people know that only when you can engage in behavior without being watched is that where you can explore, where you can experiment, where you can engage in creative thinking, in creative behavior. A society that loses that privacy is a society that becomes truly conformist. And I think that's the real danger.

BILL MOYERS: That's what happens to people in power, as you know. Henry Kissinger may have been joking back in 1975 when off the record, although it was later transcribed, he said, "The illegal we can do immediately, the unconstitutional takes a little longer."

GLENN GREENWALD: Secrecy is the linchpin of abuse of government power. If people are able to operate in the dark, it is not likely or probable, but inevitable that they will abuse their power. It's just human nature. And that's been understood for as long as politics has existed. That transparency is really the only guarantee that we have for checking those who exercise power.

And that's the reason why the government has progressively destroyed one institution after the next designed to bring transparency, whether it's the media that they turned into the supine creatures or the Congress that does more to empower government secrecy than any other, or the courts that have been incredibly subservient towards sources of government secrecy. One of the only avenues we have left for learning what people in power do are whistleblowers. People who essentially step out and risk their individual liberty, and that's why there's such a war being waged against them.

BILL MOYERS: A war being waged against whistleblowers?

GLENN GREENWALD: There have been more prosecutions of whistleblowers under the Espionage Act, which is a 1917 statute under world-- enacted in World War I, designed to enable Woodrow Wilson to punish people who were opposed to the United States involvement in that war. More prosecution of whistleblowers under that statute, under the Obama administration, than all previous administrations combined.

Just in the last four years, double the number, in fact. You've had people who have exposed government deceit and waste and corruption and illegality being systematically prosecuted as criminals in very harsh ways, threatened with decades in prison, being prosecuted as spies, essentially, under espionage statute. Whereas the people on whom they blew the whistle, the actual bad actors in the government, have been shielded and protected.

And what this is designed to do is to send a message as every investigative journalist in the United States will tell you, including ones who work for the most established of newspapers. To send a message to would-be sources and whistleblowers, who want to advise the public about government wrongdoing, that they better think twice because they will be severely punished if they do so.

BILL MOYERS: One of our best journalists, Jonathan Landay of McClatchy has turned up evidence from government documents, that President Obama and his senior aides have not been telling the truth when they claimed to have only deployed drones against known senior leaders of Al Qaeda and their allies. The headline above your column on Jonathan's reporting referred to the Obama administration's “drone lies.” Tough language.

GLENN GREENWALD: McClatchy article included language that the Obama administration at senior levels had misled the country and was deceitful because what these documents showed was that often times, they were? targeting very low level people whose role in these militias were unknown. They had targeted as a favor to the Pakistani government various individuals who posed no threat to the United States, but who Pakistan thought had become extremists. And worst of all the United States government has adopted what are called "signature strikes" which is where even by their own admission, they don't even know the identity of the people they're targeting. And they simply extinguish their lives without knowing who they are. But then justify it to the public by saying, "We're only targeting senior Al Qaeda leaders." And these leaked documents revealed how false those claims were. And again, it underscores how only leaks and whistleblowing, which the Obama administration is trying to criminalize harshly is the way that we learn about what the government does.

BILL MOYERS: You are a lawyer as well as a journalist and an essayist. What's the distinction between death by drones in a tribal area in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and what the bombers did in Boston, in your mind?

GLENN GREENWALD: I don't think there is much difference. You could certainly say that one difference, and this is what people would typically say to defend what the United States does and to distinguish it, is that we are not deliberately killing civilians while the people in Boston did. And I'm not sure how true that is. There certainly are cases where the United States has very recklessly killed civilians.

But even the drone program itself, in its normal operating state, consists of a very high level of possibility that innocent people will be killed in places where there hasn't been a declared war, that aren't on a battlefield. In people's homes, in their work places, where they congregate in their villages.

And so at some point, when a government engages in behavior year, after year, after year, after year, that continues to kill innocent people in a very foreseeable way, and continues to do that, in my mind that reaches a level of recklessness that is very similar to intentional killing.

BILL MOYERS: You are contrarian on this, because there's a reputable poll which shows that 65 percent of the American people support drones.

GLENN GREENWALD: Right, I mean, this is what we were going back to a little bit earlier, which is that people have been inculcated to believe those falsehoods that the Obama administration has been propagating about drones, that they only target high-level terrorists.

And when you combine that assumption, that false assumption with the invisibility of the victims, so that Americans never have to think about the human cost, both to the people we're killing and ultimately to themselves from the security threat that it produces, it's very easy to have a warped understanding of the cost of benefits it's deliberately inducing people to view these drone attacks in a much more favorable way than reality would suggest.

BILL MOYERS: So what's playing out here? Is it human nature, media, politics, propaganda, as you say, fear, all of the above?

GLENN GREENWALD: I think it's all of the above. I mean, there have been all kinds of political theorists, statesmen, leaders, philosophers throughout history who have talked about the dangers that come from allowing a government to ratchet up fear levels by continuously focusing on external threats and enemies.

That this is the greatest menace to liberty domestically. I think what ultimately happens, the worst part of it, is that when you continuously induce people to support militarism and aggression and violence by demonizing a foreign other, what you really do is you degrade the population. You transform how it is that they think, the kind of people that they are, the things that they come to expect from life.

You really make it a much more savage and bloodthirsty populace that will then support things that in the absence of that sustained propaganda, they would find horrific. And I think you see lots of examples of that in American discourse.

BILL MOYERS: Do you see long-range implications from what happened in Boston?

GLENN GREENWALD: Absolutely. I mean, one of the most amazing things to me over the last few years was in the aftermath of our killing of Osama bin Laden, there was all kinds of chanting and marching and celebratory dancing taking place in the street, which was striking to me because, even if you believe that the killing of Osama bin Laden was justifiable, any time you're killing somebody and dumping their corpse into the ocean, that should be a cause of somber reflection, even if you believe it was necessary.

And I think you saw much the same thing in Boston. Again, the chanting and the sense of collective self-esteem and the reverence for military and political and police institutions, I think is very disturbing and will really endure.

BILL MOYERS: But Glenn, couldn't it have been just relief? Relief that they had found the other guy? That they didn't have to go to bed that night wondering if another bomb would go off?

GLENN GREENWALD: Sure. I think that relief is a natural reaction, just like I think that relief from the killing of Osama bin Laden is natural. He had been this sort of hovering menace for so long. But the way in which this was all done, both in Boston and then the killing of Osama bin Laden, is something that is a very extreme form of government behavior and of police force and of military power. But ultimately, what I really think more than anything else, and this is, I think, what the most profound point is from all of this, is--I remember the night that Osama bin Laden was killed and President Obama went on television and said, "This shows again that any time America sets its mind to something, our greatness allows us to achieve it.”

And the reason why that was so striking to me was because it used to be the case that as a country, what gave us our sense of nationalistic pride was going to the moon, or discovering new cures for diseases, or investing technologies that elevated the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world.

And I think that the way in which Americans now relate to their government, that the way in which they get nationalistic pride is through the assertion of this massive, military or police force, and very few other things produce that kind of pride, I think shows a lot about our value system and what the government is failing to do. And that's the way in which this culture becomes coarsened.

BILL MOYERS: Glenn Greenwald, it's been good to see you again and I wish you a safe trip home.

GLENN GREENWALD: Thank you for having me.

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