Glenn Greenwald: Is the U.S. Exaggerating the Terror Threat to Embassies to Silence Critics of NSA Domestic Surveillance?
The Obama administration has announced it will keep 19 diplomatic posts in North Africa and the Middle East closed for up to a week, due to fears of a possible militant threat. On Sunday, Senator Saxby Chambliss, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the decision to close the embassies was based on information collected by the National Security Agency. "If we did not have these programs, we simply would not be able to listen in on the bad guys," Chambliss said, in a direct reference to increasing debate over widespread spying of all Americans revealed by Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian. "Nobody has ever questioned or disputed that the U.S. government, like all governments around the world, ought to be eavesdropping and monitoring the conversations of people who pose an actual threat to the United States in terms of plotting terrorist attacks," Greenwald says. Pointing to the recent revelations by leaker Edward Snowden that he has reported on, Greenwald explains, "Here we are in the midst of one of the most intense debates and sustained debates that we’ve had in a very long time in this country over the dangers of excess surveillance, and suddenly, an administration that has spent two years claiming that it has decimated al-Qaeda decides that there is this massive threat that involves the closing of embassies and consulates around the world. ... The controversy is over the fact that they are sweeping up billions and billions of emails and telephone calls every single day from people around the world and in the United States who have absolutely nothing to do with terrorism." Greenwald also discusses the NSA’s XKeyscore Internet tracking program, Reuters’ report on the Drug Enforcement Agency spying on Americans, and the conviction of Army whistleblower Bradley Manning.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org,The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. I want to go back to Senator Saxby Chambliss, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, to get Glenn Greenwald’s response. During an appearance on MSNBC’s Meet the Press, he said the NSA surveillance programs had uncovered information about the threats that prompted the U.S. to close 19 embassies in North Africa and Middle East.
SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS: These programs are controversial. We understand that. They’re very sensitive. But they’re also very important, because they are what lead us to have the—or allow us to have the ability to gather this chatter that I referred to. If we did not have these programs, then we simply wouldn’t be able to listen in on the bad guys. And I will say that it’s the 702 program that has allowed us to pick up on this chatter. That’s the program that allows us to listen overseas, not on domestic soil, but overseas.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Senator Chambliss. Glenn Greenwald, your response?
GLENN GREENWALD: You know, it’s so ludicrous. For eight straight years, literally, Democrats, every time there was a terrorist alert or a terrorist advisory issued by the United States government in the middle of a debate over one of the Bush-Cheney civil liberties abuses, would accuse the United States government and the national security state of exaggerating terrorism threats, of manipulating advisories, of hyping the dangers of al-Qaeda, in order to distract attention away from their abuses and to scare the population into submitting to whatever it is they wanted to do. And so, here we are in the midst of, you know, one of the most intense debates and sustained debates that we’ve had in a very long time in this country over the dangers of excess surveillance, and suddenly an administration that has spent two years claiming that it has decimated al-Qaeda decides that there is this massive threat that involves the closing of embassies and consulates throughout the world. And within literally an amount of hours, the likes of Saxby Chambliss and Lindsey Graham join with the White House and Democrats in Congress—who, remember, are the leading defenders of the NSA at this point—to exploit that terrorist threat and to insist that it shows that the NSA and these programs are necessary.
What that has to do with the ongoing controversy about the NSA is completely mystifying. Nobody has ever questioned or disputed that the U.S. government, like all governments around the world, ought to be eavesdropping and monitoring the conversations of people who pose an actual threat to the United States in terms of plotting terrorist attacks. The controversy is over the fact that they are sweeping up billions and billions of emails and telephone calls every single day from people around the world and in the United States who have absolutely nothing to do with terrorism. And, if anything, the only thing that that controversy—the warning has to do with the current controversy is that the argument that a lot of analysts have made, very persuasively, is that when you have an agency that collects everything, it actually becomes harder, not easier, to detect actual terrorist plots and to find the actual terrorists. And if this agency really were devoted, if these surveillance programs were really devoted to finding terrorism, they would be much more directed and discriminating. But they’re not. They’re indiscriminate and limitless, and that’s one of the problems.
AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Greenwald, you appeared on ABC’s This Week on Sunday. After speaking with you, the host, Martha Raddatz, asked House Intelligence Committee member Democratic Representative Dutch Ruppersberger to respond to your claim that members of Congress have had difficulty getting details of NSA programs. Let’s go to his response.
REP. DUTCH RUPPERSBERGER: Since this incident occurred with Snowden, we’ve had three different hearings for members of our Democratic caucus and of the Republican caucus, where General Alexander has come with his deputy, Chris Inglis, to ask any questions that people have as it relates to this information. And we will continue to do that, because what we’re trying to do now is to get the American public to know more about what’s going on, that NSA is following the law, and that we have checks and balances. We have the courts. We have both the Senate and House Intelligence Committee. We have Justice Department. We have checks and balances here to make sure that NSA does not violate the law in what they’re doing. And, you know, since these two programs have come into effect, especially the metadata, there has not been one incident of any member of the NSA breaking any law whatsoever. But we can do better. I have to educate my caucus more, the Democratic caucus. And we’re trying to declassify as much as we can.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Democratic Congressmember Dutch Ruppersberger. Glenn Greenwald, your response?
GLENN GREENWALD: I hope Dutch Ruppersberger takes a much more prominent role in the political debate, because he’s basically the embodiment of the rotted soul that has become the Democratic Party. Not only does his district encompass Fort Meade, which is the headquarters of the NSA, which explains in part why he is this stalwart, steadfast NSA loyalist, but he is almost drowning in cash from the defense and intelligence industries. He’s the second leading recipient in the entire United States House of Representatives of money from those industries. And he then gets placed on the very committee that the Church Committee created in the mid-1970s to exercise oversight over the agency and the community that basically ensures that his coffers are stuffed full of cash. So of course he becomes the leading spokesperson for that agency and then goes around defending it and saying they’ve done nothing wrong and they’re vital and indispensable to our national security. That’s the leading Democrat on that committee.
But the thing that he was asked about, in terms of members of Congress being blocked from information, basic information, isn’t my claim. Members of Congress came to me with his grievance and asked me to write about it. And they gave me correspondence between themselves and the Intelligence Committee. And what they were asking for was not very sensitive information; they were asking for the most basic things, things they read about in media accounts, such as the ruling by theFISA court in 2011 that much of what the NSA has been doing, spying on Americans domestically, is a violation of the Constitution and the law. There really is, Amy, an 85-page, 86-page ruling issued by the FISA court that says the government has been systematically breaking the law and violating the Fourth Amendment in how it spies on us. And not only can we not see that ruling, because it remains a secret at the insistence of the Obama administration, even our elected representatives in Congress, who we’re told are exercising robust oversight, are blocked from seeing it. And that’s the correspondence that we published that was given to me by various House members. So, yeah, they do get meetings with General Alexander where they get to raise their hand and ask questions, and General Alexander says, "We’re violating—we’re not violating the law, and we are strictly adhering to what our guidelines are." He can say whatever he wants. They want to get the actual documents. That’s how you exercise oversight. And they’re being denied it, about the most basic information about both the NSA and the FISA court.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you something, the former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel, who was the one who got the Pentagon Papers put into the congressional record, then had them published by Beacon Press, the whole thousands of pages, he said that the senators who have been really sounding the alarms, people like Senator Udall, Senator Wyden, of course, the ones who have been warning Americans in sort of cryptic ways, saying, "You’ve got to find out about this," could actually go much further now that so much has been released by you and even the Obama administration.
GLENN GREENWALD: Right. Well, there was a—there was an article in Foreign Policy magazine over the weekend the Yale Law professor, Bruce Ackerman, that makes the same point. Remember, United States senators have full constitutional immunity against prosecution for anything that they say on the floor of the Senate. And Daniel Ellsberg, when he was trying to get people to read the Pentagon Papers, actually wanted to get Mike Gravel and other senators to go to the floor of the Senate and read the Pentagon Papers, because they would have been immune from prosecution.
You know, as much as I like the fact that Ron Wyden and Mark Udall have been sounding the alarms for a couple of years, winking and hinting at Americans that they would be shocked to learn all the things that the Obama administration is doing in secret, they didn’t have the courage to tell us what those things were that they thought we should know. It took Mr. Snowden to come forward, who doesn’t have immunity, and tell us. And interestingly, the very first interview I ever did on ABCabout this case, I was followed by Senator Udall, and they asked Senator Udall about Edward Snowden. And the first thing he said was, "I deplore his leaks." So, you know, Mark Udall didn’t have the courage to do what Edward Snowden did. He tried to get the country to know there was something going on that we should know but didn’t come forward and say, even though he had this protection.
But I think Senator Gravel and Bruce Ackerman are absolutely right: There are all sorts of ways that if Ron Wyden and Mark Udall and others really believe, as they’re saying, that there are serious abuses going on in the NSA, they could let us know, and could do so with total protection, not—unlike me, who’s reporting it and being threatened with imprisonment, or Mr. Snowden, who’s been charged for letting us know. They could actually exercise their constitutional prerogatives as a senator and tell us what they think that we ought to know. And they ought to do a lot more of that.
AMY GOODMAN: How are you being threatened, Glenn?
GLENN GREENWALD: Well, I mean, I’ve, you know, had various politicians and various journalists advocate that I’m violating the law, that I ought to be arrested. There’s been all sorts of debates about—you know, with graphics on the screen of CNN and ABC and other places for months: "Should Glenn Greenwald be prosecuted?" Obviously there are theories that the Obama administration has embraced that make investigative journalism a crime. So I’m not saying that I’m being formally threatened, but I’ve certainly been threatened openly by people who exercise a great deal of influence in Washington and who seem to be channeling what at least some of official Washington thinks. That’s what I’m referring to.
AMY GOODMAN: Glenn, you were supposed to testify last week before Congress. That hearing was canceled because President Obama was meeting with Democrats. But instead, you released a major piece. And I want to talk about that in a second, but will you be testifying before Congress again? And would you come into the United States to testify? Last week it was going to be by Skype.
GLENN GREENWALD: So, the hearing has—I don’t know if it’s been finalized, but I believe it’s been rescheduled for September the 17th or 18th. They definitely intend to reschedule that hearing that was canceled when President Obama suddenly developed a newfound interest in speaking with House Democrats, whom he’s traditionally ignored, which caused the cancellation of that hearing. So, I believe that it is being rescheduled. Whether I would come and physically appear or appear remotely by video depends on a number of factors, including my schedule, the reporting that I’m doing at the time, as well as the—the legal advices that I get from my lawyers. So, we’ll see whether or not that hearing takes place with me remotely there or physically there, but I absolutely intend to testify.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, that hearing last week was canceled, but minutes before the Senate hearing took place on that same day, you revealed details about a secret NSA program called XKeyscore that’s allowed analysts to search, with no prior authorization, through vast databases containing emails, online chats and the browsing histories of millions of people. One of the top-secret documents you obtained described how the XKeyscore program, quote, "searches within bodies of emails, webpages and documents, including the 'To, From, CC, BCC lines' and the 'Contact Us' pages on websites." Another slide shows how the XKeyscore program allows an analyst to learn the IP addresses of every person who visits any website the analyst specifies. Can you lay out what it is you revealed last week?
GLENN GREENWALD: Well, the best description of that program that we revealed comes from theNSA, which says that it essentially allows an analyst to search and then to acquire nearly everything that a user does on the Internet. It’s intended to be a comprehensive program. And within the database of XKeyscore is every month, 30—every 30 days, 40 billion Internet records that are put into this database on top of what’s already there, and what any analyst sitting at his or her terminal with access to this program can do is what you just described, which is—they don’t even need to know your email address. So, if they do, they can find all your emails and read them. They can see what search terms you’ve entered in Google, what Internet websites you’ve visited, what Microsoft Word documents you’ve sent, what Google Earth images you’ve surveyed—essentially, as the NSAsays, everything that you can do on the Internet.
But the real issue is, is that Mr. Snowden, in his first interview with us, made the claim, which turned out to be one of the more controversial and high-impact claims, that any—that as an analyst sitting at his desk, he could wiretap the Internet activity of anyone, including the president. And he was attacked as being a liar by the GOP chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, and others for having said that. And this is—the XKeyscore program essentially allows a person to do exactly that.
There are legal constraints on what an analyst can do when targeting a U.S. person. They need to go to the rubber-stamping FISA court first before they target a U.S. person. But even within the XKeyscore database, there are all sorts of communications that Americans have, both with foreign nationals, which does not require a warrant in order for an analyst to intercept and read, or even U.S. persons-to-persons. They try, they say, to filter out domestic communications. But as The New York Times’ Jim Risen said on a CNN segment that I did with him last week, it’s technologically impossible to filter out all of it. Much of even purely domestic communication ends up being put into these databases.
And the key issue with it, Amy is that when you sit at your terminal as an NSA analyst, and you want to go and search, you don’t need anybody’s approval. Nobody looks over your shoulder to see what you’re doing. You don’t need to justify it to anybody. You just enter what’s called justification, three or four words about why you’re doing it, and it then processes it. No court needs to approve it. No supervisor approves it. There’s post-search supervisory auditing, which is extremely random and scattered and not very rigorous. But there’s no pre-search approval requirements, which means an analyst can invade all of this incredibly sensitive online activity anytime they decide to do so.
AMY GOODMAN: Glenn, I also wanted to ask you about a new story you just tweeted about that was published today by Reuters. The article begins, quote, "A secretive U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration unit is funneling information from intelligence intercepts, wiretaps, informants and a massive database of telephone records to authorities across the nation to help them launch criminal investigations of Americans.
“Although these cases rarely involve national security issues, documents reviewed by Reuters show that law enforcement agents have been directed to conceal how such investigations truly begin—not only from defense lawyers but also sometimes from prosecutors and judges. ...
"The unit of the DEA that distributes the information is called the Special Operations Division, orSOD."
Glenn Greenwald, can you talk more about this?
GLENN GREENWALD: So this should be a huge scandal for the following reason. The essence of the Constitution is that the government cannot obtain evidence or information about you unless it has probable cause to believe that you’ve engaged in a crime and then goes to a court and gets a warrant. And only then is that evidence usable in a prosecution against you. What this secret agency is doing, according to Reuters, it is circumventing that process by gathering all kinds of information without any court supervision, without any oversight at all, using surveillance technologies and other forms of domestic spying. And then, when it gets this information that it believes it can be used in a criminal prosecution, it knows that that information can’t be used in a criminal prosecution because it’s been acquired outside of the legal and constitutional process, so they cover up how they really got it, and they pretend—they make it seem as though they really got it through legal and normal means, by then going back and retracing the investigation, once they already have it, and re-acquiring it so that it looks to defense counsel and even to judges and prosecutors like it really was done in the constitutionally permissible way. So they’re prosecuting people and putting people in prison for using evidence that they’ve acquired illegally, which they’re then covering up and lying about and deceiving courts into believing was actually acquired constitutionally. It’s a full-frontal assault on the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments and on the integrity of the judicial process, because they’re deceiving everyone involved in criminal prosecutions about how this information has been obtained.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Glenn, since we have last spoken, Bradley Manning has been convicted, not of the most serious crime, aiding the enemy, but on about 20 other counts, a number of them involving espionage. You have written extensively about Bradley Manning. Edward Snowden—and then the whole Edward Snowden story exploded. And to show Edward Snowden understood how seriously he would be treated, you know, it was in the midst—he came out in the midst of, you know, the lead-up to the court-martial and the court-martial itself. Can you comment on Bradley Manning’s convictions?
GLENN GREENWALD: Bradley Manning is a national hero, who deserves all kinds of medals and national gratitude, not criminal prosecution, let alone decades in prison. He exposed serious war crimes, all kinds of deceit and—on the part of not only the United States government, but governments around the world. Even Bill Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times, a vociferous critic of WikiLeaks, credits the publication of those diplomatic cables with exposing corruption about tyrannies in the Arab world, including in Tunisia, that helped spark the Arab Spring, one of the greatest democratic revolutions of the last several centuries. And clearly his intent was to spark exactly the kind of reform that he was hoping to see in the wake of, for example, publication of the video showing the Apache helicopter killing of journalists and unarmed civilians and rescuers in Baghdad.
And what this Bradley Manning trial really is about is about creating and bolstering this climate of fear in the United States where would-be whistleblowers are afraid to come forward and blow the whistle on what they learn is being done by their government that is corrupt and illegal and deceitful, to basically enable the government license to break the law by—in scaring and intimidating whistleblowers and journalists from reporting on it. And one of the things that has made Mr. Snowden’s behavior so powerful, and the reason it has scared the United States government so much, is because it shows that people are willing to defy that climate of fear. And he’s in Russia and has sought asylum elsewhere precisely because the U.S., as Daniel Ellsberg said, is no longer a safe place for whistleblowers. But the case of Bradley Manning is a huge national disgrace. But I think it will be beneficial, in a tragic way, in showing what the true character of the United States is with regard to transparency and accountability.
AMY GOODMAN: Bradley Manning’s mother expressed support for her son in her first interview since his arrest more than three years ago. Susan Manning lives in Wales and suffers from health problems that makes travel to the U.S. difficult. Speaking to the British Daily Mail, she addressed Bradley directly, saying, quote, "Never give up hope, son. I know I may never see you again but I know you will be free one day. I pray it is soon. I love you, Bradley and I always will." Glenn, as we wrap up this discussion, when you released the video of Edward Snowden and you went to Hong Kong and you released story after story about his revelations—and I want to ask if you’re going to be releasing more—did you ever expect it would come to this point several months later, two months later?
GLENN GREENWALD: You know, honestly, I didn’t. When—I mean, I’ve been writing about surveillance issues for a long time. And for a lot of different reasons, sometimes it’s difficult to make these stories resonate, even when you’re writing about very severe abuses. I mean, remember, in 2005, The New York Times revealed that the Bush administration was spying on Americans in exactly the way that the law makes a felony, and not only were there no prosecutions from that, but the Democrats and the Republicans in Congress joined together, with very little public backlash, and essentially passed two bills in 2007 and 2008 that legalized that criminal eavesdropping program. And so, the concern, from the very first moment that I talked to Mr. Snowden—I remember really well the first conversation I had with him, and he was very clear about the fact that he had no fear about anything in terms of what he wanted to do, except for one, and that one fear he said that he had was that he would essentially sacrifice his liberty and his life and unravel his entire existence in order to make these disclosures and that these disclosures would be met by apathy and indifference on the part of the American public, the U.S. media and the political class. And so, from the beginning, our discussions were always about how to make sure that that didn’t happen, that people understood the true seriousness and the magnitude of what it was that was being revealed.
And I have to say, I mean, two months later, to watch, you know, essentially this extraordinary and unprecedented coalition of conservatives and liberals and tea party and centrists join together in the Congress and defy the White House and the leadership for serious reform in a real way, to see huge shifts in public opinion, to see the national security state for the first time really on its heels, to see numerous countries around the world defying the United States, to see a worldwide debate in multiple countries around the globe over what the United States is doing, to see huge amounts of public support for what Mr. Snowden has done in ways that I think will be consciousness-shifting on lots of levels, has not only been really gratifying, but, yeah, honestly, it has been surprising. And I haven’t fully been able to stop and think about, you know, and analyze all the reasons why it has resonated this way, but clearly there was something kind of in the ether that was ready for this sort of political controversy. And I think that you do see enormous amounts of impact in the way that people are thinking and mobilizing, not just about surveillance, but about the role of the government and secrecy and the United States in general.
AMY GOODMAN: And will you be releasing more information?
GLENN GREENWALD: Yeah, there’s a lot more stories that I’m working on right this very minute.
AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Greenwald, I want to thank you for being with us and spending this time, columnist on civil liberties and U.S. national security issues for The Guardian, former constitutional lawyer. Glenn Greenwald first published Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA surveillance programs and continues to write extensively on the topic. His most recent article, we’ll link to, "Members of Congress Denied Access to Basic Information About NSA."
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’ll talk about the inauguration of a new president in Iran, what it means for the United States. Stay with us.