'The Paragraph Began to Self-Delete': Did NSA Hack Snowden Biographer's Computer?
Is the National Security Agency breaking into computers and tampering with unpublished manuscripts? Award-winning Guardian journalist Luke Harding says paragraphs of his writing mysteriously disappeared when he was working on his latest book, "The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man." "I wrote that Snowden’s revelations had damaged U.S. tech companies and their bottom line. Something odd happened," wrote Harding in The Guardian. "The paragraph I had just written began to self-delete. The cursor moved rapidly from the left, gobbling text. I watched my words vanish." Harding joins us to talk about the computer monitoring and other times he believes he was being tracked.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
Amy Goodman: We turn now to the latest on the growing surveillance state.
Edward Snowden: [Recently, we learned that our governments], working in concert, have created a system of worldwide mass surveillance, watching everything we do. Great Britain’s George Orwell warned us of the danger of this kind of information. The types of collection in the book — microphones and video cameras, TVs that watch us — are nothing compared to what we have available today. We have sensors in our pockets that track us everywhere we go. Think about what this means for the privacy of the average person. A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves, an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought. And that’s a problem, because privacy matters.
AG: Those are the words of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, speaking in December.
We turn now to the remarkable story of British journalist Luke Harding, who says he became the target of surveillance himself while reporting on Edward Snowden. Harding recently published "The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man." On Friday, he revealed that while he was writing the book on his computer, paragraphs of the book would begin to self-delete. He repeatedly saw the cursor move rapidly from the left, gobbling text. And that wasn’t the only time he felt he was being monitored. Luke Harding joins us now via Democracy Now! video stream from The Guardian newsroom in London.
Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Luke. Tell us what happened.
Luke Harding: Well, before I do that, I think you have to understand the context, which is that the first few months of last year after Snowden’s leaks, both the U.S. and the British governments were scrambling to find out what he’d taken, how much he’d taken, why he’d taken it, and were really kind of clueless. And so, I think in that context it’s hardly surprising that the small number of journalists who were working on this material, including me, would have been targeted.
What happened was that I was writing my book. I was about halfway through. I had been to see Glenn Greenwald in Rio, in Brazil, to interview him, which was a kind of curious experience because Glenn is clearly very heavily surveilled by, I think, all sorts of people. Back at my home in the English countryside, I was writing kind of rather disparagingly, rather critically, about the NSA and its — the damage these revelations had done to Silicon Valley. And I was sitting back, working offline, I have to say, and, as you say, the text began rapidly deleting. And I thought, "Oh, my goodness! What is going on here?" This happened four or five times over a period of a month, to the point where I was actually, almost kind of jokingly, leaving little notes every morning to this kind of mysterious reader. And then, at one point, one of my colleagues mentioned this in a newspaper interview in Germany, and it suddenly stopped. So, I wrote this piece not because this was an especially sinister experience, but merely to kind of lay out the facts in what was another curious episode in an already quite surreal tale.
AG: Luke, you describe in your most recent piece about an American who approached you when you were in Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil.
LH: Well, that’s right. I mean, again, I said this — you know, I mean, it was quite funny, in a way. Essentially, what happened was that I met Glenn at a hotel by the seafront, and we had to shift locations several times because it was clear that there were various people who were trying to eavesdrop on our conversation, and we ended up in the business suite where we could actually physically lock the door behind ourselves. Subsequently, at my hotel, the Marriott, the next day, I was kind of accosted in the lobby by someone who looked as if they were straight out of CIA central casting, with a kind of military haircut and neatly ironed khaki shorts. And basically, he wanted to become my friend. He wanted to take me sightseeing. And it was a curious incident. I mean, you know, I say in my piece that he may have been a tourist, because of course there’s an innocent explanation for all of these things. But having talked to Glenn, one of the things he taught me was that the CIA in Rio especially was very aggressive. Glenn’s own computer had been stolen from the home where he shared with David Miranda just a few weeks previously. And it’s clear that there was a lot of U.S. intelligence activity going on there.
AG: Remind us, Luke Harding, about the day the GCHQ came to call on The Guardian.
LH: Yeah, it was really, I think, one of the bizarrest episodes in the history of journalism. Essentially, the British government was extremely unhappy about our ongoing publication, from June the 5th onwards, of Snowden’s files, of the prison revelations, of Verizon and so on. And we came under increasing pressure, private pressure, backdoor pressure, from David Cameron, the British prime minister, who sent his most senior official, a guy called Sir Jeremy Heywood, to come and see us and basically say, "We can do this nicely, or we can go to law." In other words, he wanted this material back, and if we didn’t give it back, we were going to be injuncted. In other words, police would seize our computers and kind of shut down our reporting operation. And we explained that this was pointless, because Glenn had this stuff in Brazil; Laura Poitras, the filmmaker, had Snowden material in Berlin; The Washington Post similarly.
But the British government wasn’t listening, and this culminated in a hot Saturday morning last summer with three of my colleagues being forced to smash up our computers in the underground car park, four floors down from where I’m talking to you, watched by two spies from the British spy agency, GCHQ, who took photos on their iPhones to record the event, brought along a special machine called a degausser, which looks like a microwave oven. So we had to post the pieces of our bashed-up MacBooks into this degausser, which demagnetized them. And then these spies, who are based in the English countryside in a small provincial town called Cheltenham, they don’t get to London very often, the big city, and they left carrying bags of shopping, presents for their families. It really was a bizarre thing and, I think, for anyone who cares about press freedom, a pretty chilling thing, too.
AG: While you were doing the work, while The Guardian was, and Glenn Greenwald was working for The Guardian, putting out the original pieces based on what Edward Snowden released from the National Security Agency, you write about how you were a part of this small team holed up in a room at The Guardian. Describe the security you had, and even your computers not being linked to the Internet.
LH: Yeah, it’s actually one floor up from here, so the computer smashing happened three floors down. The secret bunker is upstairs. And we knew that this was a serious — you know, the material that Snowden had entrusted to us, that this was a very serious undertaking. And we had a clear mission from him, which was to not publish anything which would damage legitimate intelligence operations, but to reveal mass surveillance, which we now all know about. And so, there were seven or eight of us, never any more than that, working in the room. We had security guards, around the clock, 24 hours, making sure that nobody who shouldn’t have been there was there. We left all electronics out. And we had four laptops and a PC, which had never been connected to the Internet, which were brand new, air-gapped at all times. We papered over the windows so nobody could see in from outside. And we — actually, to be honest, we were also kind of working against the clock. There was a sense that we needed to get as many stories out as we could, and in a responsible way, because we didn’t know when the British government would fall on us. And one other quite nice detail, cleaners were banned. Nobody was inside that room. So, very quickly, you know, I write in my book, it sort of resembled a kind of student dormitory with pizza wrappers, dirty coffee cups. So it was a pretty insalubrious working environment.
AG: Has the GCHQ, the Government Communications Headquarters, the equivalent of the NSA, and the NSA changed their practices in any way in this eight months since all of this information has begun to come out?
LH: Well, you would think the answer to that question, Amy, would be yes, but in reality the answer is no. And I find it very depressing. I mean, it’s been fascinating. You know, I’ve been to the U.S. several times researching the book, and there’s clearly a very lively debate, a polarized debate, going on. But what’s happening politically is very interesting. In Britain, for certainly the first four or five months, the entire political establishment was asleep, and it’s only really woken up, I’d say, in the last few months. And the message from David Cameron, the prime minister, has been, really, "Move along, nothing to see here." But I think, inevitably, one of the things you know when you look at these documents is that GCHQ and the NSA work so closely together. This becomes very clear. They’re practically one entity. So I think the reforms or "reforms" that Obama announced in January, on January 17th, will inevitably affect the work of GCHQ, as well.
AG: And what do you think of President Obama’s so-called "reforms"?
LH: Well, I mean, I think reform is rather a grand word. It seems to me they’re more face-saving tweaks, actually. I mean, the big takeaway is that the NSA will no longer listen to Angela Merkel’s cellphone or that of other "friendly" leaders. But I’ve just been in Europe doing various literary events there, and people are scratching their heads wondering whether their prime ministers, you know, are sufficiently friendly to — whether that means they will be bugged or not. They simply don’t know. And on the big thing, which is of course the collection of American metadata, telephony data, you know, tell me if I’m wrong, but that’s carrying on. OK, it may be administered by some new entity, but those programs, which Ed Snowden very bravely exposed, are still continuing.
AG: And we just have 30 seconds. Google, Microsoft, have they changed their ways of operating at all as a result of all that has come out, and the other big companies?
LH: Well, I mean, I haven’t — I haven’t noticed major changes. I have noticed absolute panic and a really massive kind of PR campaign to try and assure everybody, from us — senior Google executives recently visited The Guardian — to the whole world, that they are not kind of complicit in this spying, and have been coerced into collaborating. But I still think there are some kind of big questions about how deep their involvement in all of this is.
AG: Luke Harding, I want to thank you for being with us, award-winning foreign correspondent with The Guardian. His new book, just out, "The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man." He also recently wrote a piece in The Guardian called "Writing The Snowden Files: 'The Paragraph Began to Self-Delete.'"