Glenn Greenwald says the reaction to the Snowden leaks has been 'wildly better' than he expected

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is "The World." London's Guardian newspaper at the end of 2013 that they'd only published one percent of Edward Snowden's leak classified NSA documents, so you know there's a lot more to come. Just today, the Washington Post published an article based on yet another one of Snowden's revelations, and just a couple of days ago the New York Times published an editorial calling for for clemency for Snowden. I spoke about that today with Glenn Greenwald. He was one of two Guardian journalists who first received Snowden's trove of leaked NSA docs seven months ago. Greenwald is now an investigative journalist for First Look Media and lives in Rio de Janeiro. I asked him if the Times editorial surprised him.

Glenn Greenwald: It did surprise me. The New York Times has been somewhat supportive of Edward Snowden, but not very enthusiastically, which is somewhat surprising given that they publish numerous articles now based on the documents that he provided to the Guardian, which in turn provided them to the Times. This was not only an enthusiastic endorsement of what Edward Snowden but a very well constructed and thoughtful argument about why it is that he shouldn't face criminal charges.

Werman: What does it mean to you that this editorial came from the New York Times, the newspaper of historic record, so it says, and is it a vindication for you?

Greenwald: It's definitely significant. The New York Times, for whatever flaws it has, and there are many, still is far and away the most influential and important newspaper in the United States when it comes to shaping public discourse and particularly the views of political and media leaks. They also tend to define mainstream thought, so when the New York Times editorial takes a position, it's very difficult to dismiss that position as fringe or radical or extremist or anything like that, so it really brought the idea that not only does Snowden deserve clemency, but that he's really a heroic whistleblower who has done a great service for his country, as the Times said, into mainstream thought in a way that's very hard to demonize, and sure I think it is a vindication, especially for Mr. Snowden but also for the work that we've been doing as journalists with him when an institution like the New York Times recognizes how beneficial it has been for everyone to learn of these things.

Werman: What has your life been like since you sat down last year to speak with Edward Snowden in Hong Kong?

Greenwald: The best word for it would be intense. It's been intense on a lot of different levels, obviously when you're in the middle of a major media storm, when you suddenly have in your possession tens of thousands of top secret documents, from the most secretive agency of the world's most powerful government, then obviously there's a lot of pressure and significant and difficult choices that you have to make. You get attacked in lots of different ways. Your journalism is scrutinized and your personal life is intensified. All of those things have happened and it's created a lot of pressure, but at the same time when you go into journalism, the thing you hope to be able to do is to work on a story like this one, so it has been very invigorating and fulfilling, especially given how much work I have done over the years on surveillance.

Werman: For you, where did those political values come from - if you have to dig way, way back, was there a formative moment?

Greenwald: I think that we all have experiences throughout adolescence, when we're discovering who we are, that shape not just our personal values but also our political values. I've talked before about growing up gay in the 1980's when there was a great deal of hostility towards gay people, especially in the suburbs. It creates a reaction in you; there's different people who react in different ways, and one of the ways I reacted was to question the entitlement of institutions and people purporting to have authority to issue these kind of decrees, and rather than blindly accepting these decrees, I sought to examine them and their entitlement to make them and it's led me to be more of a critical person and more skeptical of the pronouncements of institutions that aren't accompanied by very clear evidence.

Werman: How would you describe your own legal situation at the moment? What would happen if you came to the U.S. right now?

Greenwald: It's unclear, and I don't think anyone knows the answer to that. We've had lots of lawyers look at the situation, all of whom say that there's some non-trivial risk, that given the history of the Obama Administration when it comes to secrecy and journalism and whistleblowers, that if I tried to return to the United States, I could be charged or prosecuted or at the very least served with a subpoena. Obviously my partner, when he was working in conjunction with myself and my fellow journalist Laura Poitras -

Werman: Right, that's David Rivera, who was detained at Heathrow Airport.

Greenwald: Right. He was detained for close to eleven hours under terrorism law that is designed to investigate terrorism. When the UK had to defend what it did, they said that "We think the potential publication of these documents is a form of terrorism," essentially equating journalism to terrorism. So you see the US and UK governments both reacting in rather extreme ways to what is currently the largest national security leak in American history, so there's no sure bet when it comes to trying to figure out what they'll do next.

Werman: Living there in Rio, in Brazil, do you feel like you're in a sort of exile?

Greenwald: Yes. I definitely intend fully to come back to the United States. I refuse to let myself be exiled for the crime of committing journalism. I want to make sure that I have a better idea of what the options, risks and probabilities are before I do that. I've lived in Brazil for eight years, so it's not unusual to be here, but it's unusual for me to feel like I can't safely return to my own country, but that's the nature of doing this sort of journalism. If you do journalism that angers and is adversarial to people with a great deal of power, they're going to do things back to you. That's the nature of having power, so none of this really surprises me. I had a good idea that a lot of this would be happening when I decided to do what I did, and I definitely consider it a price worth paying.

Werman: How often do you speak with Edward Snowden?

Greenwald: Quite regularly.

Werman: Do you talk about these issues? Such as what's at stake if you both go back to the United States? It's pretty clear for Snowden.

Greenwald: Sure. When we were in Hong Kong, the three of us - myself, Laura Poitras and Edward Snowden - we talked about what we all thought were going to be the likely consequences for each of us, in terms of what it is that we were doing. We assumed that he was going to end up in U.S. custody sooner rather than later, and probably facing charges that could put him into a prison cell for the next several decades. Laura and I also talked about how, as journalists, we were likely to be targeted in all sorts of ways as well. As it has played out, we've continued to talk about those things, but actually, I think the prevailing sentiment among the three of us is that things have gone wildly better than we ever anticipated that it would. Not just in terms of the intense debate and interest level that has been provoked around the world and has been sustained for more than six months, but having a federal court rule that the program we exposed is against the law and unconstitutional, having huge swaths of the American public change how they view issues of privacy and civil liberty vs. the threat of terrorism, all sorts of elite institutions coming to the realization that the NSA is a rogue and is an out of control and dangerous institution - that's generally more what we spend our time talking about. The risks were something that we knew were always there.

Werman: Journalist Glenn Greenwald speaking with us from Rio de Janeiro. Thanks very much for your time.

Greenwald: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.