When on December 16, 2013, a federal judge in Washington, DC, described the National Security Agency (NSA) mass surveillance programme as “likely unconstitutional”, journalist Glenn Greenwald called the ruling “pure vindication” for Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who blew the whistle on activities that he considered un-American back in June 2013. The ruling was a measure of the impact of a debate that, in a matter of months, has led many to question how far governments should be allowed to infringe upon the privacy of individuals in the name of keeping us safe.
For this special edition of Listening Post we look at how the media has been at the centre of the Snowden story from the beginning. Initially, many in the mainstream media focused more on the character of the messenger than the material he brought to light. Later, certain sectors of the press and political life, especially in the UK, began accusing the journalists involved in the reporting of the leaks, of putting national security at risk.
But these reactions did not prevent a drip feed of stories around the world, orchestrated largely by Glenn Greenwald and the Guardian, but also through the Washington Post and international outlets such as Le Monde and Der Spiegel. Our starting point is Greenwald’s home in Rio de Janeiro, launchpad for the story that has struck deep into the heart of the surveillance state.
Talking us through this story are three journalists who know the story better than most: James Bamford, author of The Shadow Factory, who has been described by the New Yorker as “the NSA’s chief chronicler”; William Arkin, who has been tracking the expansion of the security state in his Top Secret America project; and Holger Stark, a senior correspondent for Der Spiegel, who has collaborated with Greenwald on stories with international implications. Media lawyer, Lynn Oberlander and Amie Stepanovich from the Electronic Privacy Information Center give us further insight.
The second half of the programme is dedicated to an interview with one of the leading defenders of government surveillance, former NSA general counsel, Stewart Baker. To him, Glenn Greenwald is an “ideologue” who is using Snowden’s leaks to cause “maximum possible damage to the US”.
Where the Snowden story takes us from now is anyone’s guess. What is certain is that the biggest media story of 2013 is showing no sign of letting up in 2014. Stay tuned.
Edward Snowden: traitor or hero?