Glenn Greenwald: NSA documents on Middle East to be disclosed

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Glenn Greenwald speaks at the Sixth & I Synagogue May 14, 2014 in Washington, DC. Greenwald spoke about his new book "No Place to Hide" and about working with his subject Edward Snowden who leaked documents about United States surveillance and intelligence programs. (Photo: AFP-Brendan Smialowski)

Published Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Numerous documents focusing on partnerships and surveillance tactics between America’s National Security Agency and regional security apparatus’ in the Middle East, especially the Gulf region, will be released soon, according to the journalist leading the reporting on the explosive NSA leaks.

In his first exclusive interview with Arab media, Glenn Greenwald, the American journalist who first broke the NSA story in 2013 and has since won a Pulitzer prize for his fearless and consistent reporting on the revelations, told Al-Akhbar there are many more documents to come out from the region.

Greenwald is one of a select few in possession of all the documents and, while working closely with whistleblower Edward Snowden, continues to play a pivotal role in exposing the intrusive level of surveillance by the NSA and its partners across the globe.

The latest damning NSA revelations appear in his new book, “No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the US Surveillance State,” where Greenwald released new documents highlighting the scope of surveillance conducted by the NSA on foes and allies alike, including evidence of what the NSA designated as ‘approved SIGNIT partners’ such as Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates.

Now taking the time to speak from his home in Brazil, Greenwald gives his take on the agency’s role, the effect the leaks have had on changing attitudes and relations with the US, and what more can be expected from the documents in the future.

Al-Akhbar – Tells us about the NSA documents on the Middle East…

Glenn Greenwald – We did a pretty big story that unsurprisingly didn’t get as much attention as it deserved in the American media back in September [2013] in the Guardian on how the NSA turns over massive amounts of communications to the Israelis without bothering to minimize it, and there was a Memorandum of Understanding between the Israeli surveillance agency and the NSA that we published, detailing how close the relationship was, and also part of that story there were also documents saying that although the US gives huge amounts of aid to the Israelis the Israelis are actually one of the most aggressive eavesdroppers on the US government and America generally, and that they try to make the relationship completely one-sided on behalf of Israel, so there is that that we published.

AA – Why wasn’t it made a big deal in the US?

GG – Because anything that reflects poorly on Israel is systematically ignored by most of America’s media….It got some attention, it just didn’t get nearly the amount of attention it deserved – I think the NYT public editor, if I’m not mistaken, even criticized the NYT for not reporting and following up on it.

AA – Why haven’t you released more documents on the Middle East?

GG – It’s just time-constraints. For example, we’ve done a lot of reporting on Brazil, but we haven’t done a lot of reporting on Latin America. We’ve done a lot of reporting on Germany and France, but we haven’t done a lot of reporting on eastern Europe. The documents are so vast, and involve so many different topics that there is only so much we can report on. It takes time – you have to vet them, you have to understand them, so the one thing we’re doing is we’re now we’re expanding the partnerships that we have and creating a system that lets media organisations around the world actually work with the documents directly, and search for them, and report on them, so we’re definitely working on ways to get the documents reported on more quickly, more aggressively.

AA – Have you noticed from the documents the types of partnerships between the NSA and regional security agencies (in the Middle East)?

GG – The one thing I try not to do is talk in interviews or elsewhere about reporting we haven’t done yet, because it has to go through the reporting process for me to responsibly describe the documents, but yes, one of the things we want to work on are documents that detail NSA cooperation with some of the worst tyrants in the Gulf region, both to augment their own domestic surveillance capabilities and also for the NSA to share with those regimes information they get about those countries. This is definitely a big story that remains to be told that we want to work on now…. All I can say is there is a lot more reporting to do on that region of the world.

AA – From what you’ve disclosed already on NSA surveillance on places like Yemen, have you found the NSA has an effective impact on US action in those areas?

GG – One of the first stories that Jeremy Scahill and I reported for the Intercept was the NSA’s role in targeting people with lethal drone attacks through the use of sim cards and the like, and the ways in which that’s so unreliable, and virtually guarantees the death of civilians or kills they are not even certain who they are killing. Look, sometimes the NSA intercepts communication between people who, regardless of the ambiguity of the word ‘terrorism’, would be regarded as legitimate targets of the NSA, but the problem is the vast majority of what they do isn’t about that.

AA – What is it about?

GG – It’s about putting entire populations under surveillance, targeting people and companies for economic interests, just generally wanting to use surveillance as a means to exert hegemony and domination over the world. The more you know what people in the world are saying and doing, the more power you have over them.

AA – Have you seen evidence of this?

GG – There is already some reporting we’ve done about that – there’s reporting we’ve done where the NSA has targeted what they call ‘radicalizers’ – people who establish radical views, but who are not, says the document, actual terrorists or even associated with terrorist organisations, and some of the documents we’ve uncovered talk about monitoring their online activities to see if there are any sex-chats or visiting pornographic sites and using that as a means to destroy their reputation and discredit them. So that’s targeting people who the government believes have radical ideas and using the surveillance as a means to ruin their lives, which is what the surveillance scandals of the 1960s and 70s were about. There are other documents we’ve reported on where they collect the data on people who visit the Wikileaks website, or ways in which they try and harm the reputations of activists on behalf of Anonymous, but one of the big stories that’s left to be told, which is the one we’re working on most now, is reporting on who it is specifically that the NSA has targeted with the most evasive type of surveillance on US soil, and who these people are, and what are the reasons for it, and that is the story of targeting of dissidents, and activists, and advocates as retaliation for their political views.

AA – Is there actual movement on the ground now as a result of the publication of these documents, or is it just lip-service?

GG – There is a lot of movement, just in terms of public attitude. I think the most significant polling data I’ve seen is that every year since 9/11, Pew has asked Americans ‘do you find more threatening: the idea of foreign terrorism, or the government’s threats to your civil liberties?’, and every single year since 9/11 an overwhelming number of Americans have said ‘I fear terrorism more than I do the threat of the government infringing on my rights’, until 2013 when that completely reversed, obviously due to the Snowden disclosures. And you see politicians running in the Senate from both parties against the NSA, you see efforts to introduce bills to limit the NSA’s spying abilities, but the reality is that most of the changes are not going to come from the US government itself.

There will be symbolic gestures designed to pretend they’re doing it, but I think the limitations on the US ability to spy is going to come from a combination of other countries around the world standing together to introduce international regimes or build an infrastructure so the US doesn’t control the physical regime of the internet. Also, American tech companies who are really afraid of the perception of American communications are unsafe will cause them to lose huge numbers of future users, but mostly it will come from individuals around the world who will realize that their privacy is being compromised systematically and will start using basic encryption tools that really do keep the NSA out of their computers, and out of their internet usage, and out of their emails, and that will make it much much harder for the NSA to do what they want to do.

AA – You’ve spent a lot of time criticizing the weak oversight mechanisms in the US, so do you think any new legislation or attempts to introduce mechanisms for stronger oversight and transparency is merely a delaying tactic? (As seen this in the 60s – so what’s to say we’re not just going to end up back at this point of mass surveillance and lack of adequate oversight after five years?)

GG – Totally. I agree with the part of your question where you suggest that whatever legislative reforms that come from the American Congress and the US government will likely be more superficial and symbolic, than genuine and meaningful, and you’re right, even the reforms that came out of the huge scandals of the 1960s and 70s ended up being nothing more than just fig-leaves, saying there were reforms when there really weren’t. That’s why I don’t think meaningful change is going to come from the US government, it’s going to come from those outside pressure points that I identified.

AA – How much are these NSA revelations affecting relations between the US and their foreign allies?

GG – Countries like Germany and the US are huge countries – they have hundreds of millions of people, they have huge amounts of overlapping economic and military and trade interests, so the US and Germany are not going to become enemies and go to war over surveillance. But at the same time, the anger is very real in the higher folds of the German government, and I think the relationship has been damaged, not destroyed, but damaged. But what I think is that, of course, the Germans and the US are going to cooperate as allies when they see it in their joint interest to do so, but the Germans are off with the French and the Brazilians, and certain Asian countries, trying to figure out ways to build kind of a new internet that will not have to transit the United States, or to introduce legislation at the United Nations that will create a new international regime that will oversee the internet to prevent US hegemony. It’s also really important to think about attitudes of the population in a democracy – these things don’t change quickly, but I think the way people look at the US and a whole bunch of countries around the world that used to see it very positively, including the one I live in [Brazil], and Germany but others, will end up mattering with politicians they elect and policies that become acceptable and a general attitudinal shift that isn’t going to be completely visible over 10 months but will be apparent over time.

AA – Unlike a mass-dump a la Wikileaks, Snowden wanted the journalists and editors themselves to decide what should be published based on what is in the public’s interest. Are you comfortable putting that trust in other media organisations?

GG – We openly make the final choice – in the agreements I’ve had with other media organisations I reserve the right to approve the story, or veto it basically. But I haven’t done that much, because my view is that when it comes to figuring out what is in the public interest, in Norway for example, or Holland, or India, that journalists in those countries are going to have a much better sense than I am of what should be disclosed, and I benefit greatly from their insights, and that’s why we partner up with organisations in the regions we are reporting on because they know those regions better than we do.

AA – First Look Media and The Intercept – how effective has your campaign been?

GG – We’re not done yet, there is a lot of stuff still to do, so it’s hard to assess the impact and the outcome until it’s really over. I think right now we’re still in the middle of it. But when I was in Hong Kong meeting Snowden almost a year ago, Laura Poitras filmed a lot of what it was that we were talking about and what we were doing, and I had the opportunity to watch some of that footage when I was in Berlin a few weeks ago, and one of the things that was really most striking to me was that we had kind of expectations of what we hoped to achieve, even in our best case scenario, and the idea that 10 months later, this would still be a huge story that was generating interest all over the world, and reform efforts, and legislative movements, and just debate of all kind, was beyond even our wildest hopes, so yes, I absolutely think that the way we’ve done the story has been effective - it doesn’t mean it’s been perfect, and it doesn’t mean that we couldn’t have done more, but I definitely think that we’ve certainly achieved our goal.

- I definitely think public reaction is an important part of journalism, but at the same time you’re a journalist, not an entertainer so you have to consider other things as well, such as what kind of information needs to be out there to make the story complete, whether people are interested in it or not, and how to create the most accurate and complete picture of what it is you’re describing.

The interview has been edited for flow and length



anonymous#1, what have you got to hide?

Did Greenwald offer more of a response to this question ("Unlike a mass-dump a la Wikileaks, Snowden wanted the journalists and editors themselves to decide what should be published based on what is in the public’s interest. Are you comfortable putting that trust in other media organisations?") than is indicated here or did this piece contain the entirety of his response?

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