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Spilling the NSA’s Secrets: Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger on the Inside Story of Snowden Leaks

Interview with Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of The Guardian, the British newspaper that first reported on Snowdenu2019s leaked documents.

Three-and-a-half months after National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden came public on the the U.S. government’s massive spying operations at home and abroad, we spend the hour with Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of The Guardian, the British newspaper that first reported on Snowden’s leaked documents. The Guardian has continued releasing a series of exposés based on Snowden’s leaks coloring in the details on how the NSA has managed to collect telephone records in bulk and information on nearly everything a user does on the Internet. The articles have ignited widespread debate about security agencies’ covert activities, digital data protection and the nature of investigative journalism. The newspaper has been directly targeted as a result — over the summer the British government forced the paper to destroy computer hard drives containing copies of Snowden’s secret files, and later detained David Miranda, the partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald. Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian for nearly two decades, joins us to tell the inside story of The Guardian’s publication of the NSA leaks and the crackdown it has faced from its own government as a result.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

Juan González: Today, in a Democracy Now! special, we spend the hour with Alan Rusbridger, Editor in Chief with the Guardian Newspaper. Three and a half months ago, on June 5th, The Guardian revealed the National Security Agency is collecting collecting the telephone records of millions of customers of Verizon under a secret court order. The following day, the paper revealed the existence of a secret program called PRISM that gave the NSA direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other U.S. internet giants. Four days later, The Guardian revealed the source behind the leaks was a National Security Agency contractor named Edward Snowden.

Edward Snowden: Any analyst at any time can target anyone at any select or anywhere. Where those communications will be picked up depends on the range of the sensor networks and the authorities that that analyst is empowered with. Not all analysts have the power to target everything. But, I sitting behind my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone, from you, or your accountant, to a federal judge, to even the president, if I had a personal e-mail.

Amy Goodman: Since early June, The Guardian has continued to publish a remarkable series of exposés based on Edward Snowden’s leaks, coloring in the details on how the NSA has managed to collect nearly everything a user does on the internet. The articles have ignited an international debate about the NSA’s activities, digital data protection and the nature of investigative journalism, and the paper has been directly targeted as a result.

Juan González: in August, David Miranda, partner of Guardian reporter, Glenn Greenwald, was detained and questioned at Heathrow Airport under Schedule 7 of Britain’s Terrorism Act. Miranda was detained for nine hours and only released after British authorities seized his mobile phone, laptop, cell phone and USB thumb drives. Soon after Miranda’s detention, The Guardian revealed the British government threatened legal action against the newspaper unless it destroyed computer computer drives containing copies of Edward Snowden’s classified documents or handed them to British authorities.

Amy Goodman: Well, for more we are joined, now, by The Guardian Editor in Chief, Alan Rusbridger. He’s been editor of the newspaper since 1995. Alan Rusbridger, welcome to Democracy Now!.

Alan Rusbridger: I’m very happy to be here.

Amy Goodman: Did you have trouble coming into the United States?

Alan Rusbridger: No, I sort — came through very easily.

Amy Goodman: How about the rest of your staff?

Alan Rusbridger: There have been moments when they have been fairly comprehensively frisked, either leaving or coming in. Glenn Greenwald, who’s been doing most of the reporting, is not risking moving around at the moment, which is probably sensible.

Amy Goodman: Do you think he would be arrested if he came back to the U.S., Glenn, as an American citizen?

Alan Rusbridger: I hope he wouldn’t be. One of the things that I’ve tried to make a point of, is that we’ve moved our reporting to America because I think America’s rules around press freedom, First Amendment, and so forth should protect this kind of reporting. So, I very much hope, with the eyes of the world on America, that somebody who has done the reporting that has got this matter into public debate, wouldn’t be punished for it, or criminalized.

Juan González: Could you take us back to the beginning of this worldwide exposé that you’ve been in the forefront of, your paper has been? How the story first came to you and your decision to begin to print it so soon after you received the initial information?

Alan Rusbridger: Well, I think it’s quite an interesting story about the old world and the new world, so there’s the fourth estate newspapers, there’s the fifth estate bloggers, and this is a union of the two. We hired Glenn Greenwald, who is a blogger, and who has written knowledgeably, and, some people might, say obsessively about the subject over the last few years. In Hawaii, a 29-year-old NSA analyst was clearly reading Greenwald and was so troubled by what he was doing in his work that he wanted to find somebody knowledgeable to give this material to. So, he came to Glenn, Glenn, by now, was working for The Guardian, and that is how it all kicked off.

Amy Goodman: Talk about how exactly that happened. You have Edward Snowden who flies to Hong Kong, and then take it from there, with your columnist Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, the filmmaker, also another of your reporters who went to Hong Kong to meet Edward Snowden.

Alan Rusbridger: Yeah, there was about two weeks when they were all essentially closeted in the same hotel room. It was a rather unreal period for anyone who has watched a Hollywood movie about these kinds of things; agents on the run, stashes of secrets. But, they worked together and it was important for me that there was a Guardian reporter, a conventional reporter, in the room along with Glenn and Laura.

Amy Goodman: That was Ewen MacAskill?

Alan Rusbridger: That was Ewen MacAskill, who is a Scottish reporter who’s been on the The Guardian for years and years and years. Very experienced, not easily impressed reporter. Between them, they started to go through this stash of material that Greenwald had — that, that Snowden had with him. And we obviously had to establish Snowden was who he said he was and that the material was what he said it was. At the end of about two weeks, we started to publish material based on it.

Juan González: And did the decision about what to publish first, and given the fact that it has been string of continuing revelations that have come out and — how, how was that decided on?

Alan Rusbridger: Well, to begin with, we needed some help from Snowden to point us to what he thought was important. This is not a world that is easily — these are not documents in which the stories sit up and show themselves. This is a complex world. A lot is written in acronyms, if not in actually code, and so we had to be guided to, initially, to some of the stories that Snowden felt were most newsworthy. And it was important for him, I think, that the world had some sense of what he was trying to say before he outed himself, and so, we started doing stories about this intersection between Silicon Valley, telecom companies, and the intelligence agencies. What is, I think, something new, is putting entire populations under a form of surveillance. So, that is what we did in that first week before Snowden came out and revealed himself to be the whistleblower.

Amy Goodman: Edward Snowden, himself, had signed up for Special Forces in the United States., broke both of his legs in a training accident and then left. How did you confirm his credibility on all of this, who he was?

Alan Rusbridger: Well, they all spoke to him for a long time, and that is where having my Scottish Presbyterian reporter in the room was important for me. I wanted him to make — to form a judgment about character. I mean, we obviously did all the tests of who he was, and that all stacked up. He obviously was who he said he was.

Amy Goodman: Worked for Booz Allen, was a subcontractor for the NSA.

Alan Rusbridger: All that, yeah, and had worked for the CIA. And Ewin, just talking to him for hours, I mean, he rang me up and said I think he is exactly who he says he is. He is not somebody who is in this for the personal publicity. He is rather shy. He’s not going to develop a big media profile. He has got these documents and he is giving them to a news organization hoping that after this first week we will use our judgment about what we consider significant.

Juan González: And I know that you had numerous conversations with, certainly with British intelligence, subsequently, but before the first articles came out, was there any contact with American intelligence or British intelligence on your parts warned them of what was coming?

Alan Rusbridger: Well, the first four stories were all NSA rather than GCHQ and they were edited out of New York, and we were in touch with the agencies via the White House, and we warned them of what we were going to publish, and we had sometimes helpful dialogue, sometimes robust dialogue about what we were going to do, but it was important for me that we gave them the chance to respond and to make plain any concerns that they had about any particular thing.

Juan González: And was there any particular effort on their part to dissuade you from publication?

Alan Rusbridger: Yeah, they were, they were, they told us why they though we shouldn’t publish some things. There were one or two things that were helpful, because we didn’t want to go into this behaving irresponsibly or to puts agent at danger or operations. So, I think it was important to have those conversations.

Amy Goodman: Edward Snowden also made that a requirement, isn’t that true? That people not be exposed.

Alan Rusbridger: Yes, yes, no, he said, look, you will have to form your own judgment, but I would like you to behave responsibly, and as you say not expose agents or ongoing sensitive operations, for instance, in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Amy Goodman: We’re talking with Alan Rusbridger, go to break and we’ll be back with him for the hour. He is the Editor in Chief of The Guardian for almost two decades, also author of a new book on playing the piano and his work at The Guardian, it’s called, “Play it Again: An Amateur Against the Impossible.”

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