Note: This article is part 1 of a two-part piece.
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Good evening. It's June 6. Welcome to a special episode of System Update, our live nightly show that airs every Monday through Friday at 7 p.m. Eastern, exclusively here on Rumble, the free speech alternative to YouTube.
We are very excited to present a special episode of System Update. Exactly 10 years ago today, on June 6, 2013, we began publishing what became known as the Snowden reporting, based on the largest leak of top-secret documents in the history of the U.S. security state. The reporting that ensued over the next several months and even over the next several years –revealing the mass indiscriminate system of surveillance secretly imposed by the NSA and its so-called “Five Eyes” spying alliance in the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – became one of the most consequential stories in the history of modern journalism and whistleblowing.
The reporting we did won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. The documentary, directed by my journalistic colleague, Laura Poitras, showed our work with Snowden in real-time, in Hong Kong, and won the 2015 Academy Award for Best Documentary, which – with Snowden trapped by the U.S. government in Russia – we accepted it at the side of Snowden's then-fiancée – and now his wife and mother of their two toddlers, Linsey Mills.
The reporting led to legislative reforms in multiple countries, including – at least, to some extent – here, in the United States. Legislation to impose real curbs on the NSA was co-sponsored by Republican Congressman, Justin Amash, and Democratic Congressman, John Conyers, both of Michigan, and was poised to pass in 2013, and it would be the first time ever since 9/11 that state powers would be rolled back instead of expanded, until the Obama White House and Nancy Pelosi intervened and were just enough NO votes to defeat it, leading to the headline in Foreign Policy in 2013 that read “How Nancy Pelosi Saved the NSA's Surveillance Program.”
The consequences of this reporting endured for years and found expression in multiple sectors. It generated appellate court rulings that the NSA domestic surveillance programs would Snowden enable us to reveal were both unconstitutional and illegal – direct frontal assaults on the constitutional right to privacy of all Americans. It caused diplomatic breaches between countries threats to prosecute us for doing this journalism and calls for our arrest from various corporate media figures, and it left Snowden facing multiple felony charges under the Espionage Act of 1917 and his being stranded, for nine years and counting now, in a country he never chose to be in. In other words, as so often happens in the U.S., the only person to pay any price for the crimes that were committed here was the person whose heroism enabled those crimes to be uncovered.
Tonight, 10 years later, after I first published that article in The Guardian, we will speak to the two people who, along with me, were most responsible for enabling this journalism to happen. Our source for this story, the remarkably heroic Edward Snowden, who knowingly risked his liberty and his life to inform his fellow citizens how the U.S. security state had degraded the Internet from what it was always heralded to be – the greatest tool of liberation and empowerment ever created – into what has become: the greatest tool of coercion, monitoring, censorship, and population control ever known. We'll also speak to Laura Poitras, whose reporting on this story was a key part of the Pulitzer the story won and whose film, “Citizenfour”, forever memorialized the courage and integrity that drove Snowden's whistleblowing, as well as the resulting threats, conflicts, and attempts to reform.
I'm very proud to present this discussion with both Snowden and Poitras.
Tonight, we explore what motivated our original decisions about how to bring this material to the public's attention, the risk and challenges that we faced, the benefits produced by the reporting, and the ongoing fight against the U.S. surveillance state and for the right of individuals to use the Internet with privacy normally.
This being Tuesday night, we would have our aftershow here on Locals, which is interactive in nature but because of the length of this interview, we will be back on Thursday with that. To gain access to our interactive after-shows and the transcripts of the show we provide, simply join our Locals community, which helps promote and support the journalism we do here. As a reminder System Update is also available in the podcast version. You can simply follow us on Spotify, Apple, and all other major podcasting platforms.
For now, welcome to a new episode of System Update, a special episode of System Update, starting right now.
Just to provide a little history before we show you this interview, 10 years ago today, I published at The Guardian, the very first article from the Snowden Archive. That story revealed as the first three paragraphs of the article put it:
The NSA is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon, one of America's largest telecom providers, under a top-secret order issued in April. The order, a copy of which has been obtained by The Guardian, requires Verizon, on an ongoing daily basis, to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its system, both within the U.S. and between the U.S. and other countries. The document shows for the first time that under the Obama administration, the communication records of millions of U.S. citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk, regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing. (The Guardian. June 6, 2013)
That would be the first story of what would be hundreds of reports that came from the archive Snowden provided to us – a vast, gigantic collection of hundreds of thousands, if not more, of top-secret documents from an agency so secretive, the NSA, that for years the joke in Washington was that NSA stood for “No Such Agency”.
That first article was quickly followed – the next day, in fact – by our revelation of the so-called PRISM program, under which the leading Big Tech companies were turning over massive amounts of user data to the NSA without so much as a warrant.
No leak of any kind had previously emerged from the NSA, let alone a fully composed of its most sensitive secrets taken from right under their noses by someone who had worked inside both the CIA and then the NSA as a contractor. Edward Snowden, who, after enlisting to serve in the U.S. Army during the Iraq war – believing, as a young man, in the mythologies he had heard about that war and the U.S. security state in general – joined both the CIA and the NSA.
At the time of its publication of this first week of articles, I was in Hong Kong, along with Laura Poitras and Guardian reporter Ewen McAskill. Hong Kong was the city Snowden had chosen to go to once he had finished his job of collecting the NSA documents he wanted to leak, and once he had made that final, point-of-no-return decision to provide those documents to us. As he explains in the interview we're about to show you, Snowden had chosen Hong Kong part because it offered protections from the CIA and other U.S. security state agencies that would let us get these documents or report them before we could be stopped – unlike most places in the world, the CIA has a great deal of difficulty operating in Hong Kong. But he also chose the city because Hong Kong representatives noted the values that drove his whistleblowing: a city fighting for its freedom, for its right to dissent and protest against centralized repression and tyranny.
Knowing that we were going to meet a source who had already proven to us that he was in possession of many of the most sensitive documents from the most secretive agency of the world's most powerful government, Laura and I arrived in Hong Kong on Sunday night, June 3, 2013. We went the next morning to the hotel that Snowden had indicated, a spot where he told us to wait for him to appear and said that we would know him because he would be carrying a Rubik's Cube. We had no idea what he looked like, how old he was, or anything else about him other than the fact that he worked at the NSA and clearly had access to some of the most sensitive secrets inside the U.S. Government. He provided us with two separate times to meet, and on the second time, a young man – he was only 29 at the time – appeared, carrying a Rubik's Cube. We greeted him and followed him up to his hotel room on the tenth floor. As soon as we entered, Laura a filmmaker whose 2004 film about the insurgency in the Iraq War had landed her on a U.S. Government watch list but was also nominated for a Best Documentary Academy Award – took out her camera gear and began filming everything we did together. That footage would serve as the remarkable anchor of her documentary "Citizenfour."
Almost immediately after we began our reporting and especially when – at his insistence – we revealed the identity of Edward Snowden and published a video interview with him, in which he explained his rationale for coming forward, that resonated around the world, the Obama administration – both publicly and privately – began to become very threatening – not only to Snowden but also to us as the journalists involved in the story.
Obama's senior national security official, James Clapper, began referring to us in public, the journalists, as “Snowden's accomplices,” a deliberately and carefully chosen word to indicate that we could be subject to criminal prosecution. What was particularly ironic about Clapper taking the lead in making these threats was that it was his blatant lying to the U.S. Senate only three months earlier, in which he falsely denied that the NSA was doing exactly what the NSA was doing, namely spying indiscriminately on millions of Americans, that led Snowden to finally make the decision with finality to show his fellow Americans the truth about the surveillance system their government had imposed on them in the dark. Here's James Clapper before the Senate three months earlier.
(Video. March 2013)
Rep. Wyden: So, what I wanted to see is if you could give me a yes or no answer to the question, does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?
James Clapper: No, sir.
Rep. Wyden: It does not.
James Clapper: Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently, perhaps, collect, but not – Not wittingly.
Rep. Wyden: All right.
As the reporting would show, it is hard to overstate what a blatant lie that was. Clapper was never punished. He served until the end of his term as Obama's senior national security official until getting hired by CNN to help report the news.
As usual, the U.S. security state's chief servant in all of this – including their attempt to criminalize our journalism – was the corporate media. Shortly after we began the reporting, I appeared on “Meet the Press,” then hosted by David Gregory. And despite never having broken a story in his life to this day, he immediately began insisting that I was not really a journalist and therefore should perhaps share a prison cell with Edward Snowden.
(Video. “Meet the Press”. June 2013)
David Gregory: You are a polemicist here. You have a point of view. You are a columnist. You're also a lawyer. You do not dispute that Edward Snowden has broken the law, do you?
Glenn Greenwald: No, I think he is very clear about the fact that he did it because his conscience compelled him to do so, just like Daniel Ellsberg did 50 years ago when he released the Pentagon Papers and also admits that he broke the law. I think the question, though, is: How can he be charged with espionage? He didn't work for a foreign government. He could have sold this information for millions of dollars and enriched himself. He didn't do any of that either. He stepped forward and, as we want people to do in a democracy, as a government official learned of wrongdoing, and exposed it so we can have a democratic debate about the spying system. Do we really want to put people like that in prison for life when all they're doing is telling us as citizens what our political officials are doing in the dark?
David Gregory: Final question before for you, but I'd like you to hang around. I just want to get Pete Williams in here as well. To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current movements, why shouldn't you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?
Glenn Greenwald: I think it's pretty extraordinary that anybody who would call themselves a journalist would publicly muse about whether or not other journalists should be charged with felonies. The assumption in your question, David, is completely without evidence – the idea that I've aided and abetted him in any way. The scandal that arose in Washington before our stories began was about the fact that the Obama administration is trying to criminalize investigative journalism by going through the emails and phone records of AP reporters, accusing a Fox News journalist of the theory that you just embraced, being a coconspirator in felonies for working with sources. If you want to embrace that theory, it means that every investigative journalist in the United States who works with their sources, and who receives classified information, is a criminal. And it's precisely those theories and precisely that climate that has become so menacing in the United States is why The New Yorker's Jane Mayer said investigative reporting has come to a standstill, her word, as a result of the theories that you just referenced.
David Gregory: Well, the question of who's a journalist may be up to a debate with regard to what you're doing. And of course, anybody who's watching this understands I was asking a question. That question has been raised by lawmakers as well. I'm not embracing anything but obviously, I take your point. If you want to just stay put, if you would, for just a moment. I want to bring in Pete Williams. I appreciate you being with us.
That was far from an isolated case. In fact, the very next day, The New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin went on his CNBC show and suggested the same thing. Watch.
(Video. June 24, 2013)
Sorkin: Let's talk about some of the headlines, the big one this morning. There is heavy security this morning at Moscow's airport today. National Security Agency leaker, Edward Snowden – Yep, he's there. There is speculation he is planning to fly to Havana en route to Ecuador. The government of Ecuador has confirmed it is considering an asylum application for Snowden. He faces American espionage charges now after he admitted to revealing classified documents.
And I got to say, this is… I feel like A) we’ve screwed this up to even let him get to Russia; B) clearly, the Chinese hate us, even letting him out of the country. I mean, that says something. Russia hated us and we knew that beforehand. But that's sort of right. And now, I don't know. And then my second piece of this, I told you this in the green room, I would arrest him and now I'd almost arrest Glenn Greenwald, who is the journalist who seems to be out there. He wants to help him get to Ecuador or whatever. I mean, it's almost like a whole… and, then, WikiLeaks…
Sorkin ended up apologizing for that. That mentality was very much the prevailing ethos in establishment Washington at the time – that this leak was the most harmful one ever. And it was, but not to the security of the American people, but to those who had implemented this illegal and unconstitutional spying system to impose surveillance on all Americans. Their view was all those responsible for the revelations of those crimes, but not the crimes themselves must pay.
In 2021, three Yahoo News journalists, including Michael Isikoff, reported that agents of the CIA had plotted to assassinate Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. As part of that reporting, they also revealed that officials during the Obama administration had aggressively explored how to criminalize Assange, Poitras, and myself.
Indeed, as the ongoing imprisonment of Julian Assange demonstrates, there is a free press in the United States – only for those journalists who serve the United States, the U.S. security state and the establishment in power, not for those who subvert it, undermine and expose it.
The Snowden story and its reporting is typically remembered for what it revealed about privacy surveillance and, for sure, that was a big part of the story. But it was also about the role of transparency, journalism, and democracy. The reporting revealed, above all else, that the U.S. government – completely in the dark and with no democratic debate, indeed, unbeknownst to many members of Congress – converted the Internet into a pervasive system of indiscriminate mass surveillance, aimed en masse at the American people, exactly what the Constitution was designed to prevent.