Greenwald: NSA Stories Also Reveal Perilous State of Mainstream Journalism

Journalist Glenn Greenwald spoke via satellite over the weekend to an international audience gathered in Hamburg, Germany for the Chaos Computer Club meeting, an annual convention for the global hacker community.

In the nearly hour long keynote speech Greenwald confessed the importance of those committed to online freedom and the democratization of the internet. He spoke glowingly of his colleague and fellow journalist Laura Potrais—”without her, none of this would have happened”—and the whistleblower Edward Snowden who risked his life of freedom to reveal the scope of the surveillance network of the US National Security Agency.

“It is really hard to put into words what a profound effect his choice has had on me, and on Laura, and on the people with whom we’ve worked directly, and on people with whom we’ve indirectly worked, and then millions and millions of people around the world,” Greenwald said of Snowden. “The courage and the principled act of conscience that he displayed will shape and inspire me for the rest of my life, and will inspire and convince millions and millions of people to take all sorts of acts that they might not have taken because they’ve seen what good for the world can be done by even a single individual.”

He also took time to focus on the way the NSA revelations made possible by the leaked documents have helped expose the complacency of mainstream journalists too often willing to accept the government line as opposed to acting as an adversarial force against state and corporate power.

“It really is the central view of, certainly, American and British media stars,” declared Greenwald, “that when, especially people with medals on their chests, who are called generals, but also high-ranking officials in the government, make claims, that those claims are presumptively treated as true without evidence, and that it’s almost immoral to call them into question, or to question their veracity.”

Video of the speech:

Greenwald’s complete remarks, as transcribed at GitHub, follows:

Thank you everybody, for that warm welcome, and thank you as well to the Congress organizers for inviting me to speak.

My reaction, when I learned that I had been asked to deliver the keynote to this conference, was probably similar to the one some of you had, which was, “wait, what?”

[audience laughs]

And the reason is that my cryptographic and hacker skills are not exactly world-reknowned. You know, the story has been told many times of how I almost lost the biggest national security story in the last decade, at least because I found the installation of PGP to be insurmountably annoying and difficult.

[audience applauds]

There’s another story, that’s very similar, that illustrates the same point, that I actually don’t think has been told before, which is: prior to my going to Hong Kong, I spent many hours with both Laura Poitras and Edward Snowden, trying to get up to speed on the basics of security technology that I would need in order to report on this story. They tried to tutor me in all sorts of programs, and finally concluded that the only one, at least at that time, for that moment, that I could handle, was TrueCrypt.

They taught me the basics of TrueCrypt, and when I went to Hong Kong, before I would go to sleep, I would play around with TrueCrypt. I kind of taught myself a couple of functions that they hadn’t even taught me and really had this sort of confidence.

On the third or fourth day, I went over to meet both of them, and I was beaming with pride. I showed them all of the new things that I had taught myself how to do on TrueCrypt, and pronounced myself this Cryptographic Master. That I was really becoming advanced.

I looked at both of them, and I didn’t see any return pride coming my way. Actually, what I saw was them trying, really hard, to avoid rolling their eyes out of their heads at me, to one another.

I said, “Why are you reacting that way? Why isn’t that a great accomplishment?” They sort of let some moments go by. No one wanted to break it to me, until finally Snowden piped in and said, “TrueCrypt is really meant for your little kid brother to be able to master. It’s not all that impressive.”

[audience laughs]

I remember being very deflated, and kind of going back to the drawing board. Well, that was six months ago. In the interim, the importance of security technology and privacy technology has become really central to everything it is that I do. I really have learned an enormous amount, about both its importance and how it functions. And I’m far from the only one. I think one of the most significant outcomes of the last six months, but one of the most underdiscussed, is how many people now appreciate the importance of protecting the security of their communications.

If you go and look at my inbox from July, probably 3-5% of the emails I received were composed of PGP code. That percentage is definitely above 50% today, and probably well above 50%. When we talked about forming our new media company, we barely spent any time on the question. It was simply assumed that we were all going to use the most sophisticated encryption that was available to communicate with one another.

And I think, most encouragingly, whenever I’m contacted by anyone in journalism or activism, or any related fields, they either use encryption, or are embarrassed and ashamed that they don’t, and apologize for the fact that they don’t, and vow that they’re soon going to.

It’s a really remarkable sea-change, even from the middle of last year, when I would talk to some of the leading national security journalists, in the world, who were working on some of the most sensitive information, and virtually none of them knew what PGP or OTR or any other of the leading privacy technologies were, let alone how to use them. It’s really encouraging to see this technology spreading so pervasively.

I think that this underscores an extremely important point, one that gives me great cause for optimism. I’m often asked whether I think that the stories that we’ve been learning over the last six months, the reporting and the debates that have arisen will actually change anything and impose any real limits on the US surveillance state.

Typically, when people think the answer to that question is yes, the thing that they cite most commonly is probably the least significant, which is that there’s going to be some kind of debate, and our representatives in democratic government are going to respond to our debate, and they’re going to impose limits with legislative reform.

None of that is likely to happen. The US government and its allies are not going to voluntarily restrict their own surveillance powers in any meaningful way. In fact, the tactic of the US government that we see over and over, that we’ve seen historically, is to do the very opposite, which is that when they get caught doing something that brings them disrepute and causes scandal and concern, they’re very adept at pretending to reform themselves through symbolic gestures, while at the same time, doing very little other than placating citizen anger and often increasing their own powers that created the scandal in the first place.

We saw that in the mid-1970s, when there was serious concern and alarm in the United States, at least as much as there is now, if not more so, of the US government’s surveillance capabilities and abuse. What the US government did in response was that they said, “Well, we’re going to engage in all of these reforms, that will safeguard these powers. We’re going to create a special court that the government needs to go to to get permission before they can target people with surveillance.

That sounded great, but then they created the court in the most warped way possible. It’s a secret court, where only the government gets to show up, where only the most pro-national security judges are appointed. So this court gave the appearance of oversight, when in reality it’s the most grotesque rubber stamp that is known to the Western world. They almost never disapprove of anything. It simply created the appearance that there was judicial oversight.

They also said they were going to create Congressional committees. The intelligence committees that are going to have as their main function overseeing the intelligence committees, and making certain that they no longer abuse their power. What they did instead was immediately install the most servile loyalists of the intelligence committees as head of this “oversight committee”.

That’s been going on for decades, and today we have two of the most slavish, pro-NSA members of Congress as the heads of these committees who are really there to bolster and justify everything and anything the NSA does, rather than engage in real oversight. So, again, it’s designed to prettify the process while bringing about no real reform.

This process is now repeating itself. You see the President appoint a handful of his closest loyalists to this “independent White House panel” that pretended to issue a report that was very balanced and critical of the surveillance state, but in reality, introduced a variety of programs that, at the very best, would simply make these programs slightly more palatable from a public perspective, and in many cases, intensify the powers of the surveillance state, rather than reining them in in any meaningful way.

So the answer to whether we’re or not going to have meaningful reform definitely does not lie in the typical processes of democratic accountability that we’re all taught to respect. But they do lie elsewhere. It is possible that there will be courts that will impose some meaningful restrictions by finding that the programs are unconstitutional.

It’s much more possible that other countries around the world who are truly indignant about the breaches of their privacy security will band together and create alternatives, either in terms of infrastructure, or legal regimes that will prevent the United States from exercising hedgemony over the Internet or make the cost of doing so far too high. I think, even more promising is the fact that large private corporations, Internet companies and others will start finally paying a price for their collaboration with this spying regime.

We’ve seen that already, when they’ve been dragged into the light, and finally now are forced to account for what it is that they’re doing, and to realize that their economic interests are imperiled by the spying system, exercising their unparallelled power to demand that it be reined in. I think that all of those things are very possible as serious constraints on the surveillance state.

But I ultimately think that where the greatest hope lies is with the people in this room and the skills that all of you possess. The privacy technologies that have already been developed: the Tor Browser, PGP, OTR, and a variety of other products are making real inroads in preventing the US government and its allies from invading the sanctity of our communications.

None of them is perfect. None of them is invulnerable, but they all pose a serious obstacle to the US government’s ability to continue to destroy our privacy. And ultimately, the battle over Internet freedom, the question of whether or not the Internet will really be this tool of liberation and democratization and whether it’ll become the worst tool of human oppression in all of human history will be fought out, I think, primarily, on the technological battlefield.

The NSA and the US government certainly knows that. That’s why Keith Alexander gets dressed up in his little costumes, his dad jeans and his edgy black shirt and goes to hacker conferences.

[audience applauds]

And it’s why corporations in Silicon Valley, like Palantir Technologies, spend so much effort depicting themselves as these kind-of rebellious, pro-civil-libertarian factions, as they spend most of their time in secret working hand-in-hand with the intelligence community and the CIA to increase their capabilities, because they want to recruit particularly younger brainpower onto their side, the side of destroying privacy and putting the Internet to use for the world’s most powerful factions.

What the outcome of this conflict is, what the Internet ultimately becomes really is not answerable in any definitive way now. It depends so much on what it is that we, as human beings, do. One of the most pressing questions is whether people like the ones who are in this room, and the people who have the skills that you have, now and in the future, will succumb to those temptations, and go to work for the very entities that are attempting to destroy privacy around the world, or whether you will put your talents, skills and resources, to defending human beings from those invasions, and continuing to create effective technologies to protect our privacy. I am very optimistic, because that power does lie in your hands.

[audience applauds]

I want to talk about another cause for optimism that I have, which is that the pro-privacy alliance is a lot healthier and more vibrant. It’s a lot bigger and stronger than, I think, a lot of us, even who are in it, often appreciate and realize. Even more so, it is rapidly growing. And, I think, inexorably growing.

I know, for me, personally, every single thing that I have done, over the last six months, on this story, and all of the platforms I’ve been given, like this speech and the honors that I’ve received, and the accolades that I’ve been given, are ones that I share completely with two people who have been critically important to everything that I have done.

One of them is my unbelievably brave and incomparably brilliant collaborator, Laura Poitras.

[audience applauds]

You know, Laura doesn’t get a huge amount of attention, which is how she likes it, but she really does deserve every last recognition, honour and award because although it sounds cliche, it really is the case that without her, none of this would have happened.

We have talked every single day, virtually, over the last six months. We have made almost every decision, certainly every significant one, in complete partnership and collaboration. Being able to work with somebody who has that high level of understanding about Internet security, about strategies for protecting privacy, has been completely indispensable to the success of what we’ve been able to achieve.

And then, the second person who has been utterly indispensable and deserves every last accolade, and to share in every last award, is my [? 14:46] of sorts, Edward Snowden.

[audience applauds]

It is really hard to put into words what a profound effect his choice has had on me, and on Laura, and on the people with whom we’ve worked directly, and on people with whom we’ve indirectly worked, and then millions and millions of people around the world. The courage and the principled act of conscience that he displayed will shape and inspire me for the rest of my life, and will inspire and convince millions and millions of people to take all sorts of acts that they might not have taken because they’ve seen what good for the world can be done by even a single individual.

[audience applauds]

But I think that it’s so important to realize, and to me, this is the critical point, is that none of us, the three of us, did what we did in a vacuum. We were all inspired by people who have done similar things in the past. I’m absolutely certain that Edward Snowden was inspired in all sorts of ways by the heroism and self-sacrifice of Chelsea Manning.

[audience applauds and cheers]

And I’m quite certain that, in one way or another, she (Chelsea Manning) was inspired by the whole litany of whistleblowers and other people of conscience who came before her to blow the whistle on extreme levels of corruption, wrongdoing and illegality among the world’s most powerful factions. They in turn were inspired, I’m certain, by the person who is one of my greatest political heroes, Daniel Ellsberg, who did this forty years ago.