The first time Edward Snowden wanted to leak information to Glenn Greenwald it didn't go so well -- Greenwald was stymied by the security requirements Snowden demanded before communicating sensitive information online. Brooke talks with journalist Peter Maass about the documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras and how Snowden ended up securely communicating with her.
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It's partly because of this New York Times Op-Doc, that is documentary, that you’re hearing now posted exactly a year ago that Edward Snowden leaked his story about massive NSA data collection to Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald and his mostly silent partner, filmmaker Laura Poitras. It’s a film she made of the NSA veteran, turned whistleblower, William Binney.
WILLIAM BINNEY: After 9/11, they took one of the programs I had done or the backend part of it and started to use it to spy on everybody in this country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Glenn Greenwald calls Poitras “Completely ubiquitous, yet invisible” in the reporting of the Snowden leaks. It was her clear opposition to government surveillance and her encryption know-how that led Snowden to trust her. Because of reporting in Iraq, Poitras was subject to regular detentions and intensive airport searches. So to protect her sources, she began to wipe her computers and cell phones clean and encrypt her data. In this weekend's New York Times Magazine, reporter Peter Maass says that Poitras actually wasn't Edward Snowden's first choice.
PETER MAASS: Well, first he reached out to Glenn Greenwald, and he sent Glenn a link to an instruction manual of how to do encryption. And Glenn kind of blew that off. And then he sent Glenn a link to a video on how to do encryption, and Glenn also blew that off.
And I talked to Glenn about that, and Glenn said, yeah, you know, this stuff, it’s just confusing, it’s difficult. I didn’t have the time for it. He just got tired of harassing me, and so then he went to Laura and he sends an email anonymously to Laura, saying, I need to communicate with you with encryption, can I have your public encryption key? And she leads a very encrypted life. So she sent her public encryption key to Snowden, and then he got back to her with an encrypted email, saying, okay, now we need to step it up yet another level or two. Once he had really secure communication set up with her, he said, “This is what I know, and I can prove it.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So all that before actually sharing any information. How long before he shared his name?
PETER MAASS: She did not know his name, age, gender, or even where he worked, until very late in the game. And she was, in fact, very cautious. She knew when she got this first email, if, indeed, what this person was telling her was true, that this was amazing and that her life was - would change, but she did not know a) whether it was true – it could be a crackpot – or b) whether it was, for example, a government agent trying to entrap her. So either path that she went was incredibly perilous.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think that the way that Poitras handled Snowden’s security ought to be the new standard for how journalists should handle any source that puts him or herself at risk? And do you think it's even really possible?
PETER MAASS: What Poitras did is, indeed, the standard that journalists must aspire to because if you want to protect your sources, you have to provide them secure means to do so, which also means that the sources have to be able to participate. And that encryption only works if both parties are encrypting.
Now, for other journalists, it might not be necessary to kind of reach these very high levels. I’m not just talking about plain vanilla encryption but having air-gapped computers when you view the documents, etc., etc., but it's necessary.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Air-gapped computers are computers that are not connected to the Internet.
PETER MAASS: Exactly. So one of the extra measures that Laura took was to transfer the information, the sensitive information to a computer that was air gapped. It wasn’t simply not connected to the Internet; it had never been connected to the Internet. So there was no possibility, or extremely remote possibility that somebody had put some malware on it in order to read what was on it. And that’s the computer on which she would read and work on the documents that she was given.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When Greenwald and Poitras started publishing Snowden's story, many people wondered why Snowden had gone to them, rather than to more established figures in national security reporting. And you say part of the reason was that he believed that they wouldn't hold the story. The New York Times held its warrantless wiretapping story for a year, and that actually gave him the willies. Does the direction that Snowden ultimately took have implications for the rest of journalism?
PETER MAASS: What this means is that there is a new role for journalists who are not part of the established major media. And yes, Laura’s won a MacArthur Genius Award, she’s won a Peabody Award. She was nominated for an Academy award. But she is not part of any major institution. And, as far as Glenn's concerned, yes, he has the Guardian but, again, that's not the same clout as the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal orthe Washington Post. Sources actually may prefer to go to them, not despite the fact that they’re outside these major institutions, but because they're outside these major institutions.
What Snowden said is that it was because they had been very vocal and straightforward about their views on the surveillance state, and because they could not be controlled by a major media organization that he went to them, because he wanted to be sure that if he took the risk that he was going to take, I mean, risking his life to give them this information, that they would publish it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Peter, thank you very much.
PETER MAASS: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Peter Maass is an investigative reporter who is working on a book now about surveillance and privacy for Alfred Knopf.