Glenn Greenwald: NSA Believes It Should Be Able To Monitor All Communication

May 11, 2014
Originally published on May 14, 2014 9:12 am

Glenn Greenwald, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who helped to break stories about mass surveillance in the United States, is making more revelations in a new book coming out Tuesday.

In an interview with NPR's Morning Edition, Greenwald says one of the more "shocking" things he's found is that the National Security Agency physically intercepted shipments of computer hardware, like routers, switches and servers, to outfit them with surveillance equipment.

Once they were done, they repackaged the hardware with "factory sealing" and sent it on its way to unsuspecting companies.

Greenwald says that for years, the United States has been warning global companies about buying Chinese products because they could be outfitted with surveillance hardware. This revelation, Greenwald says, exposes "an extreme form of gross hypocrisy" on the part of the U.S. government.

Of course, all of this reporting is rooted in a massive cache of classified documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Greenwald, along with reporters from The Guardian and The Washington Post, have used those documents to provide details on the NSA's use of mass surveillance. The reporting has led to congressional hearings, sweeping reports and an effort from President Obama to rein in some of the NSA's ability to collect metadata on the phone calls of all Americans.

Greenwald says no one disputes that the NSA should be trying to intercept communications sent by al-Qaida and its affiliates, but that the system has grown too powerful.

The problem, he tells Steve Inskeep, is that "a system has been built without our knowledge that has incredible dangers embedded within and very few controls."

One example Greenwald writes about in his book, No Place to Hide, is about the NSA trying to make sure it could tap into conversations that were originating from airplanes.

Greenwald says there was no particular security reason the NSA wanted to do this.

"It's just simply the fact that they do not think anybody should be able to communicate anywhere on the Earth without they being able to invade it," Greenwald says.

During the wide-ranging conversation, Steve asks him if he expects anything to change because of his reporting. Back in 2005, The New York Times, for example, reported on the government's collection of Americans' phone records without a court order. Congress reacted by making that type of intelligence-gathering legal.

Greenwald says he doesn't expect Congress to reform the NSA. But this is different, he says. Back in 2005, the story was national. Today, the story is about the U.S. domination of the Internet, which makes it a global issue.

When you have friendly countries like Germany, France and Brazil and big companies like Facebook protesting mass surveillance, things might just change, Greenwald says.

Much more of Greenwald's conversation with Steve will be on Monday's Morning Edition. Click here for your local NPR member station. We'll add the as-aired version of the interview later this morning.

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More documents become public this week on the operations of the National Security Agency. They will be published tomorrow in a book by Glenn Greenwald. He's one of the journalists who received classified material from contractor Edward Snowden. Greenwald calls his book "No Place to Hide."

GLENN GREENWALD: You know, nobody disputes that the NSA can be and should be trying to read the emails of Osama bin Laden and his collaborators. But the surveillance has gone so far beyond that, that motives which are difficult to discern I think are less important than the mere fact that this system has been built without our knowledge that has incredible dangers embedded within it, and very few controls.

INSKEEP: In his book, Greenwald tells a story on himself, when he started getting cryptic emails from a mysterious source he repeatedly failed to follow up. The source turned out to be Edward Snowden. Greenwald nearly ignored him. An intermediary finally told Greenwald he needed to pay attention, and he's been mining the documents ever since.

One newly published item says the NSA intercepted equipment - like Internet routers - on its way to customers. The agency installed hardware to monitor communications pouring through. Snowden's acts and his flight to Hong Kong, then Russia, were hugely controversial, but U.S. officials have now conceded the need for change, and that raises a practical question we put to Greenwald: what kind of intelligence agencies we should have in a dangerous world.

So, let's talk about what kind of reform you would consider meaningful, and I don't mean tweaking the rules in some way, which is what seems to be discussed now. But suppose you had an opportunity to get in a room with people and talk about U.S. intelligence agency or intelligence community that went after genuine bad guys - because you've acknowledged there are such people - while protecting people's privacy. What powers would you give that agency, and where would you draw the line as to what powers to deny it?

GREENWALD: I think a great starting point for that question is what always used to happen prior to 9/11, which is that the premise of the eavesdropping regime was that the U.S. government had all sorts of legitimate interests to eavesdrop on foreigners, as well as Americans, but that history has proven that that power will be abused unless they first go to a court and get specific permission to target a particular individual because they've been able to present evidence that that person is somebody doing something that merits scrutiny.

That system of individualized warrants and of specific judicial permission was enough for us to defend ourselves against the Soviet Union and of all its various appendages, against terrorist groups. That, to me, is really the fundamental question, is should we have a government that is monitoring and collecting and storing information about not individuals where there's evidence to believe they're engaged in wrongdoing, but entire populations who are guilty of nothing, and essentially suspicion-less surveillance. And that, to me, is the key line.

And if we return to that regime where the government can only read our emails or listen to our phone calls if they convince a court that we're doing something wrong that warrants surveillance, that would go to a very long way, I think, toward balancing the need for security with the need for privacy.

INSKEEP: Well, let me make sure I understand clearly what you're talking about, because when you say going back to the Cold War system - under the Cold War system, it's true that an American citizen or a U.S. person, as it's called, could not be surveilled upon with a warrant from a special court, at least in the latter part of the Cold War. But the rest of the world was essentially fair game. Are you saying that those rules would then be acceptable going forward for the United States, as far as you're concerned?

GREENWALD: Well, I mean, even under the FISA regime, the old FISA regime and during the Cold War, if the U.S. government wanted to target a foreign target, they did need a warrant, actually, if that person was then going to talk to an American citizen. But you're right that they were fair game. But the difference was that back then, the capabilities were such that it was very limited surveillance that was permitted. What has changed now is the capability is so much greater, because all of our communications are centralized on the Internet and much more easily invaded. And so I do think we need much tighter restrictions on the ability of the U.S. government even to target foreign nationals, and should have to convince a court probably with a lesser standard than for Americans that there's a legitimate foreign surveillance or foreign intelligence rationale that is justifying the surveillance.

INSKEEP: Help me figure that out a little more, because now you're saying not exactly constitutional protections for a German citizen or an Egyptian citizen, but something like that, the Fourth Amendment protection against search and seizure. You want something like that to apply to everyone in the world?

GREENWALD: I don't think as a constitutional protection, because foreign nationals on foreign soil don't actually have the protections of the Constitution...


GREENWALD: the Supreme Court has ruled. I think it's a prudential consideration. I mean, we have policies, for example, that restrict how the U.S. government can kill foreign nationals, even though they don't have the rights of due process. I think that we ought to have a regime in place that limits the extent to which they can spy on foreign nationals. In fact, you know, even under the law now, theoretically, there are limits on even how they can spy on foreign nationals.

They're not supposed to be able to just spy on whoever they want, as long as they're a foreign citizen. They're supposed to confine themselves to people who are agents of a foreign power or a terrorist organization, or otherwise where there's legitimate foreign intelligence value to be obtained through the surveillance. They just don't have any oversight to enforce those standards. So, I'm not really proposing the existence of limitations where none now exist. I'm simply proposing that if we have those limitations, that they be taken seriously by forcing the NSA to go to an outside independent body and justify the surveillance.

INSKEEP: When we have spoken with U.S. intelligence agencies, they have struggled to find any terrorist plot that they've really disrupted using these massive surveillance programs. They struggled to find the value of the mass surveillance programs and document anything particularly worthwhile that they've done with them. Let me ask you the opposite question, though: are you able to document anyone who has been actively harmed by the National Security Agency, someone whose life was destroyed, for example, by information getting into the hands of that agency?

GREENWALD: Well, yeah. I mean, there's information, there's documents in the book that talk about how they have collected the online sexual activities of people that they consider radical, who they say are not terrorists, not involved in terrorist organizations or plots, simply disseminating messages they think are radical and plotting how to use that information to disclose it and to publicly destroy their reputation. There is still reporting that we're doing about individual people who have been targeted and emails that have been read. You know, I think that if you look at what happened in the '60s and '70s with the COINTELPRO abuses and the like, it wasn't so much that they were gathering information and then destroying people's lives. It was that by monitoring people in such a systematic way, they were chilling core political liberties. And that, I think, is the same kind of harm that we're seeing today.

INSKEEP: So, you document that they are gathering a lot of information that would make a lot of people feel uncomfortable. Did the NSA act on that information and actually go after people?

GREENWALD: We don't have the evidence in what Mr. Snowden provided us about whether they followed through on these plans that they were creating in the documents to use online activities to blackmail people or ruin their reputations, or otherwise coerce and threaten them. But there's still a lot more reporting that we're doing on that exact question of what has the NSA been doing with the information they've been gathering, who have they been targeting and for what reasons.

INSKEEP: Is that where your reporting is going next?

GREENWALD: Absolutely, yes.

INSKEEP: Glenn Greenwald, thanks very much.

GREENWALD: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.


INSKEEP: He is, of course, a journalist who received documents from Edward Snowden, and his new book is "No Place to Hide." This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.