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US Government Surveillance Program Examined

Aired June 10, 2013 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

The bombshell disclosure that a young American defense contractor leaked classified information about the National Security Agency has ignited a new battle over privacy and freedom versus national security here in the United States and around the world now as well.

The leaker, 29-year-old Edward Snowden, held a relatively low-level position in a company that holds billions of dollars in secret contracts with the U.S. government. And he said he had broad access to top secret information.


EDWARD SNOWDEN, GOVERNMENT CONTRACTOR: Any analyst at any time can target anyone, any selector, anywhere. Where those communications will be picked up depends on the range of a censor networks and the authorities that that analyst is empowered with. Not all analysts have the ability to target everything.

But I, sitting at 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 email.


AMANPOUR: He says he blew the whistle because the government has too much access and too little oversight. But President Obama insists the program is fully legal and constitutional.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We've got congressional oversight and judicial oversight. And if people can't trust not only the executive branch but also don't trust Congress and don't trust federal judges to make sure that we're abiding by the Constitution and due process and rule of law, then we're going to have some problems here.


AMANPOUR: And leading members of Congress say that Snowden's revelations have seriously endangered the American people and the government has begun a criminal investigation.

Tonight, I asked whether indeed Snowden and the reporter he leaked to have put this country at risk.

Joining me from Hong Kong, Glenn Greenwald, who is the reporter who first broke the story and finally revealed that Snowden was his source. He revealed that at Snowden's own insistence.

Greenwald is a lawyer and a journalist who's written extensively on what he calls the surveillance state here in America.


AMANPOUR: Glenn Greenwald, welcome to the program.


AMANPOUR: So it's been a torrent of incredible information over the last several days.

Can we expect any more in this same vein?

GREENWALD: Definitely. We are working on stories right at this moment that we think are very valuable for the public to know, that don't in any way harm national security but that shine a light on this extremely secretive though momentous agency.

AMANPOUR: I know you're going to write about it.

Can you give us a little preview of what the general parameters of the next revelations will be?

GREENWALD: I'm not going to give you a preview in any meaningful sense. What I would say is that there are extremely invasive spying programs that the public still does not know about, that the NSA regularly engages in, or other capabilities that they're developing, that, to the extent we can shine light on them and bring transparency to them consistent with national security, we fully intend to do so, and to do so as quickly as we can.

AMANPOUR: Tell me about Ed Snowden. Tell me why he came to you, knowing presumably that he could be prosecuted. And apparently the Justice Department has started a criminal complaint against him.

Why would he do it and how did he do it?

GREENWALD: It's a great question. He -- not only was it the case that he could be prosecuted, he knew when he did it that he almost certainly would be, given the Obama administration's unprecedented record of prosecuting whistleblowers in the United States.

And I spent a long time trying to understand his motives, because what he could have done with the access to these top secret documents is he could have sold them to a foreign intelligence service and been rich for the rest of his life.

He could have passed them to adversaries of the United States if he wanted to damage the United States. He didn't do either of those things.

Instead he reached the conclusion that what was going on with inside this really secretive agency was very threatening and menacing to privacy rights, to Internet freedom, to basic political liberty, not only in the United States, but around the world.

And he felt like it was his duty as a human being to disclose it.

But what I do know is that he completely understood that there was not just a hypothetical possibility, but a very real probability that he could end up right back in the hands of the United States and be prosecuted and imprisoned for the next several decades, if not for the rest of his life.

AMANPOUR: And despite the First Amendment, despite the U.S. freedom of the press, do you feel that you could be swept up in any kind of criminal procedure?

And have you been, I don't know, contacted by the FBI or any such thing, since your revelations?

GREENWALD: I haven't. And nor, to my knowledge, has the newspaper for which I write, "The Guardian."

But at the same time, it is somewhat coincidental, but it is, nonetheless, interesting that we began publishing these stories shortly after a controversy arose in which not only did the Obama administration read through the emails of AP reporters, but filed a formal document in court, accusing FOX News' James Rosen of being a co-conspirator in a felony for essentially having a relationship with this source, something investigative journalists do all the time.

And although the attorney general, Eric Holder, was forced to come out and say, of course we would never prosecute journalists for doing this, they did the same thing with the WikiLeaks grand jury, where they adopted this theory that if you -- if you work too much with your source, that you become a co-conspirator in the source's felonies, really inching up very close to the line of criminalizing investigative journalism.

So I would be irrational to look at that behavior and think it wasn't a possibility. But I also know that as American citizen, right in the First Amendment, it guarantees me the right of freedom of the press, which is the right to report on what your government is doing in secret and to inform your fellow citizens about it. And I intend to take the Constitution at its word and continue to do my job as a journalist.

AMANPOUR: So now to the substance of it. And you've -- obviously you're heard all the criticisms and complaints regarding your divulging of all of this, from the Obama administration and from members of Congress. And they've been saying, look, we've got to figure out how to balance national security with people's right to privacy.

You started talking to me about, you know, revelations being consistent with national security.

Did that come into your thinking? And do you feel that by revealing these procedures that you could tip off, you know, foreigners who want to do your country harm?

GREENWALD: I think that suggestion, the latter one that you just referenced, that has emanated from national security officials inside the Obama administration, that we have somehow tipped off people who want to do the United States harm, the people that the government calls terrorists, I think that suggestion is so ludicrous that it's actually an insult to the intelligence of the people at whom it's directed.

Every single terrorist in the world who deserves that name has been completely aware for many years that the United States wants to read their emails and listen in on their telephone conversation and otherwise surveil their communication. Any terrorist who's unaware that the government wants to do that is a terrorist incapable of writing his own name, let alone detonating a bomb successfully on American soil.

AMANPOUR: Does it, though, affect your calculation?

Or do you have a comment to make on the fact that they say that they stopped the terrorist Najibullah Zazi from blowing up the subways in New York precisely by using this kind of information that they found using this system that you've divulged?

I mean, are you willing to agree that sometimes it actually does work and there are terrorists who may be stupid enough to put their plans out on telephone and in other such ways?

GREENWALD: Here's why I reject that.

When "The New York Times," back in 2005, exposed the fact that the Bush administration was spying on Americans without the warrants required by law, the Bush administration made that same claim. This program has worked; we have detected all sorts of terrorists.

And the reason that never made any sense is because nobody is suggesting that the government shouldn't be eavesdropping on people.

The question is whether they should be eavesdropping on people with warrants or without warrants.

So if the government has some indication that somebody really is involved in a terrorist organization or involving in -- involved in any way in plotting against the United States, all they need do is go to the FISA court or go to any court, present evidence of this and then get a warrant to eavesdrop on their conversations.

The same is true for this bulk phone record. If you want -- if you think metadata, which is what they're collecting, the numbers you call, the numbers who call you, the duration of the call, where you are when you make the call, if they think that information is valuable, they should be collecting that information only on the people about whom there's reason to believe there's actually evidence that they've engaged in wrongdoing, not about every American, regardless of who they are.

That's the nature of the Constitution, that there shall be no searches and seizures unless there are probable cause warrants to believe they've done something wrong.

AMANPOUR: I want to ask you again about Ed Snowden, because in the interview that you did with him, that, you know, for "The Guardian," in which he revealed himself and his motives, and he talked about certain things, he basically said that he could even wiretap the president, that he had access to full rosters of everyone who works at the NSA, who's undercover for the CIA.

Is he credible?

And how many people like him, do you think, have that kind of access?

I mean, to say that they could wiretap the president is pretty out there.

GREENWALD: Well, listen, what he's saying is very, very basic. And anyone in the NSA or who has studied the NSA will tell you that it's absolutely and unquestionably true.

And the reason for that is that the NSA essentially is a ubiquitous surveillance system. It sucks up all telephone calls and emails being sent in the United States.

Just three years ago, "The Washington Post" reported that every single day -- this is what it said in "The Washington Post" in 2010 -- every single day the NSA collects and stores 1.7 billion emails and telephone calls made by, in between and among American citizens. They suck up everything.

So if you are -- that doesn't mean they go and read everything. It doesn't mean they're reviewing everything. It means that they're storing it.

So if you are someone who has access to an NSA facility -- and the NSA has 20,000 employees plus another 40,000 or 50,000 like Snowden, who work for private contractors, who have clearance to access these systems, if you're somebody cleared with the kinds of authority that he had -- and he was a high school dropout, not very high-level -- who can access these systems, you can spy on anybody that you want. AMANPOUR: I want to play you this little bit of a snippet of an interview from Senator Feinstein regarding this. And I want to get your reaction afterwards.


SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIF.: . the program is essentially walled off within the NSA. There are limited numbers of people who have access to it. The only thing taken, as has been correctly expressed, is not content of a conversation, but the information that is generally on your telephone bill, which has been held not to be private personal property by the Supreme Court.


AMANPOUR: So two things there: one, the content that she's talking about or the data that she's talking about, she says is being deemed to be not private.

And the other thing, the "walled-off" nature of this.

I mean, you're basically saying that she's wrong.

GREENWALD: Well, first of all, let's look at that first part of what she said, the idea that all this information is what's on your telephone bill. This is not true.

Not only does it have the documents that they're collecting, not only does it have every phone number that has called you and every number that you've called and the duration of the call, both internationally and locally, it has information about the kind of telephone that you use, what power your mobile phone is being conducted through so that it is possible to trace your physical location at all points along the way in this call.

What this is called is metadata and every surveillance expert practically now -- and it's quoted in "The New York Times" and "The New Yorker" this week -- says that is actually more invasive to have metadata collection than even to listen to the content of your calls, because of the picture that the government is able to build and understand about what it is that you do and who -- and you are, and who you are.

So in this digital age, that metadata only gets more and more revealing. So this innocuous description that Senator Feinstein gave of, oh, it's just the things on your telephone bill, even if that were true, that's invasive enough.

Why should the government know every person we're calling, every person calling us? But it's actually much more than that.

As for it being walled off, all I would say is that I just sat and looked through, over the last week, all sorts of top secret documents that were accessible to a low -- relatively low-level, outside contractor who was tasked to the NSA through Booz Allen and the Dell Corporation.

So you just make your own assessment about whether or not the NSA's systems, all this data they're collecting, seems secure when there are tens of thousands of people with unfettered access to this system.


AMANPOUR: So is this kind of sweeping surveillance happening in other democracies around the world? I'll ask Glenn Greenwald when we come back.

But before we take a break, what do the numbers tell us about judicial oversight of America's foreign surveillance system? From 1979 to 2012, the special court that is charged with watching the nation's watchdogs received almost 34,000 surveillance applications from the U.S. government.

According to the Justice Department, only 11 of those applications were rejected.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program.

The controversy over domestic surveillance is spreading beyond the United States. Britain's "Guardian" newspaper, which first broke the story, says that U.K. intelligence has used access to American data to circumvent their own legal process.

But the British foreign secretary, William Hague, today took to Parliament categorically denying that intelligence services did that and insisting that they uphold U.K. law at all times.

I asked Glenn Greenwald, who broke the story, as we've said, whether U.S.-style surveillance is happening elsewhere in the world.


GREENWALD: There is extensive cooperation on the part of the U.S. government and many of its allied governments around the world, not necessarily with PRISM, which does seem to be primarily, if not exclusively, a domestic program, but with regard to most of or at least a vast bulk of their spying capabilities.

They have a name for their closest allies in these spying activities called Two Eyes (ph), which includes four other allies, which is the U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand. And then they have a lesser level of partners called Three Eyes (ph) or three third-party, which includes about a dozen and a half other governments that cooperate extensively with the NSA.

That is one of the points that I think is important, is that the NSA is not only building a surveillance net around the United States, although it is doing that, this is a global surveillance system that is being led by the NSA but it has the cooperation of governments around the world.

The ability to surveil your own citizens is an incredibly significant and menacing power. It is one of the first powers that every single tyranny obtains for itself.

When you have the ability to know everything that citizens are doing and saying and how they're behaving and what they're doing with one another, you have the ability to really shield yourself from any real kind of accountability. And that's one of the things that makes this worldwide surveillance system that's being more or less secretly built so dangerous and so deserving of real debate.

AMANPOUR: After all of this, are you as amazed as I am that, with all of this dragnet, somehow the Boston Marathon bombers got through, that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who had plenty of indicators that he may be up to no good on the Internet and elsewhere, got through this dragnet?

GREENWALD: I mean, it's a great question, you know. And there are all kinds of other horrible crimes that have taken place in the United States over the last years, massacres and mass shootings, where there were all sorts of signs that the person was criminally disturbed and unstable and storing guns and the like that the NSA also didn't collect.

There's a member of Congress who's really quite brilliant, named Rush Holt, who was a physicist before he entered the Congress, who has been making the point for many years that, as the more the NSA collects about all of us, the more information they collect about innocent Americans, the less able they are to actually prevent terrorist attacks because, at some point, it becomes not just diminishing returns, but counterproductive.

They have so much information that they don't even know what they have anymore. And they can't put it together.

Remember that the 9/11 Commission made clear that the United States government had in its possession enough evidence to have alerted it to the existence of the 9/11 attack and simply never, in its words, "connected the dots."

The problem was never that they weren't collecting enough information. The problem is that they just don't know what they have.

And the more they become obsessed with sweeping up billions of conversational data points every day, and expanding that surveillance net, the less able they're going to be to achieve what the ostensible purpose of this program is, which is to stop things like the Boston Marathon killing, which they utterly failed to do.


AMANPOUR: And I'll have a final word with Glenn Greenwald after a break on a more personal note.

But first, we're going to look at the legal implications of Edward Snowden's decision to disclose NSA secrets.

Jeffrey Toobin is CNN's senior legal analyst, friend of our program.

Thank you for being with me.

Snowden, we know, the government has already said there is a criminal investigation into what he's done.

What do you think is going to happen to him and by virtue of a connection, what do you think is going to happen to Glenn Greenwald?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I think Snowden will definitely be prosecuted. Now there is a separate question about whether he can be brought back to the United States. That is going to be the subject of a difficult diplomatic dance among Hong Kong, the People's Republic of China and the United States.

But there is no question that he disclosed classified information in violations of law that he knew he was bound by. And he's going to be prosecuted.

As for Glenn Greenwald, I don't think he's going to have anything to worry about. The government has engaged in searches; they have put things in affidavits about journalists being prosecuted. But they haven't prosecuted any journalists.

Now I see no sign that they're going to start doing it now.

AMANPOUR: And to the bigger picture, obviously the president and Congress and everybody who's defending this constitutional legal, there is no view that it's illegal. It might be -- it might not (inaudible) --


AMANPOUR: -- oversight.

But how does somebody like Edward Snowden, 29-year old, deliver a statement that, with the right email, he could, you know, tap into the President of the United States?

TOOBIN: Well, that's --

AMANPOUR: Not to mention access of all of this?

TOOBIN: What one of the many shocking aspects of this is that not only is he a low-level employee, Snowden was, but he didn't even work for the federal government. He worked for a contractor, Booz Allen. It just shows the breadth of how big these surveillance programs are.

Among the questions that are, I think, Congress and the president are going to have to resolve about this is how many people have access to this?

And I think Glenn Greenwald made a good point, is that is there some point where you have so much information that you can't identify what really matters out of it? And the -- we may be approaching that point.

AMANPOUR: And then so what does happen? I mean, we were discussing and, you know, with proper oversight, proper transparency, there probably wouldn't be so much anxiety about this.

Is that possible or the very nature of this program will never have transparency and oversight?

TOOBIN: There will not be transparency and oversight for anything this big. You know, people are, I would say, upset; they're surprised. They're intrigued by the Snowden story. I don't see a groundswell of opposition to it. You don't see bipartisan majorities in Congress saying this has to stop.

This is how America has acclimated after 9/11, that we are used to a very big surveillance state. And there really isn't a substantial lobby in this country against it.

AMANPOUR: Jeffrey Toobin, thank you very much, as always, for your insight.

And after we take a quick break, the personal side to Glenn Greenwald's fascinating story.



AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, imagine a world where an American journalist breaks the biggest American story of the year but cannot live in America.

Glenn Greenwald may have a heck of a story, but his own personal saga is equality fascinating. He's a gay man who moved to Brazil so that he could be with his spouse because the U.S. government doesn't recognize same-sex couples when it comes to applying for residency visas here.


AMANPOUR: You've written about yourself and about political, you know, realities and relationships with your country and your government.

You said, "I do think political posture is driven by your personality, your relationship with authority, how comfortable you are in your life."

You said, "When you grow up gay, you're not part of the system; it forces you to evaluate, is it me or is the system bad?"

I'm fascinated by how that -- how that plays in your work.

GREENWALD: Yes, I mean, I was more giving a personal description there rather than some opining in some general way that applies to other people.

And what I was really saying is I think that when you go through your life completely comfortable, without very many challenges or difficulties, I think it's much more -- it's much easier and much more likely that you're simply going to embrace orthodoxies and pieties and conventions, because the system that has been created has rewarded you with all sorts of comfort and privileges.

I think when you grow up in -- with any kind of real challenge that forces you to evaluate your relationship to these conventions and the things that you're taught and how it makes you feel alienated or actually does, in some way, reject you or give you serious impediments, that you start to question what that system is.

Is it really valid in the way that it's rejecting me? Or is it the system itself that is corrupted?

And I think that lends itself to a much more critical eye that you end up casting upon things that you're taught are indisputably true. And that's the reason why, I think, that personality does play a role in how you relate to authority, how you question it, how you question conventional conceptions that, in general, that society accepts as true. I think it's played a role for me, certainly.


AMANPOUR: Such interesting insight.

And Glenn and his Brazilian spouse, like other gay couples who we've featured on this program are no doubt waiting to see if the U.S. Supreme Court will uphold or strike down the Defense of Marriage Act. A ruling on that is expected this month.

That's it for tonight's program. Meantime, you can always contact us on our website, Thanks for watching and goodbye from New York.