In autumn of 2012, he sent a very cryptic email to Glenn Greenwald saying, “I’m a senior member of the intelligence community, I may have something of interest.” And I interviewed Glenn for my book in Rio de Janeiro and Glenn is one of these people who is perennially busy. He lives in the tropical rain forest, he and his partner have got about 12 stray dogs. You talk to him, he’s on the phone, he’s got four chat windows open, he’s got a kind of mutts jumping on his head. And he saw the email.
He didn’t really do anything about it. And then Snowden tried again a couple of weeks later. He made an encryption video, a kind of tutorial for dummies for Glenn Greenwald to try to reach through to him. Showed him how to download encryption software, said that you need a very good password whenever you are doing anything digital. And Snowden came up with a suggestion, which was and I kid you not, “Margaret Thatcher is 100% sexy.” I don’t know if Greece can remember Margaret Thatcher, but I assure you that it’s not true. But, anyway, Margaret Thatcher is 100% sexy.
And incredibly Glenn didn’t do it. So Snowden, who was basically trying to leak more intelligence material than anyone in history, must have been deeply frustrated and he tried a different track, which was to reach out Laura Poitras, who was a documentary filmmaker based in Berlin, whom he trusted and they had a very ginger correspondence, because Laura was worried she was being entrapped. Showden called himself Citizenfour and they swapped information.
He basically explained that he felt American spying was unconstitutional that it was illegal and wanted to meet and to do something about it. Basically events of the beginning of last year went into fast forward by the spring of last year, Snowden was ready to do this leak and told Laura he would meet her. And Laura flew to the US with Glenn and a third member, a wonderful colleague of mine, called Ewen MacAskill. He’s a Scottish reporter on The Guardian. I don’t know if you watch Star Trek in Greece, but he sounds like Scotty, the original Scotsman from Star Trek. He says kind of “aye” rather than “yes.” But he is also a brilliant reporter.
And the three of them flew to Hong Kong. They met with Snowden at The Mira Hotel, initially Glenn and Laura. What was astonishing about this meeting — it’s the beginning of my book — is that they had no idea who Snowden was, they only had his name. They hadn’t searched his name in Google, because that was too dangerous. They just had a rendezvous point, which was a kind of plastic crocodile in a kind of shopping strip next to the hotel.
And so, they see this figure holding a Rubik’s cube, it was a part of a kind of protocol, he comes shambling towards them and they expected a sort of CIA guy in his 60s with a blue blazer, gold glasses, dandruff, like off of on the Born conspiracy. Instead they get this kind of student who Glenn said he looked barely old enough to shave. That was Edward Snowden.
They went upstairs and they began talking. It quickly became clear that Snowden was indeed not just a source, but probably the greatest journalistic source ever. And Ewen MacAskill also interviewed Snowden. We collaborated together on this book and we, journalists involved in this story, we did a sort of spycraft as well but very badly, sub-Hollywood spycraft. So you would have been told that if Snowden was genuine, he should tap out on his text phone, “the Guinness is good”, and if he was fake, “the Guinness is bad.”
So the greatest leak in history, the switch was flicked when Ewen on the Tuesday night on this extraordinary Hong Kong week typed out, “The Guinness is good.” And that was it. Then we started publishing a series of stories in London, and in New York about the fact that Americans’ phone records were all being secretly collected. About the PRISM program, which then no one had heard of. But essentially the NSA was hacking into the servers of Yahoo!, Google, of all the digital platforms we use all the time.
And it was a kind of roller coaster. I was part of the team in London that was dealing with this. And pretty quickly we came into conflict with the British authorities. You saw on the video, David Cameron, who is not a great Prime Minister. He went to Eaton. For those of you who don’t know it, it is the most privileged, expensive private school in the UK. And he’s someone who is used to getting his own way. He was basically fed up that we were publishing this material.
Two weeks on, after we started publishing, he pointed the most senior civil servant in the British Government, a guy called Sir Jeremy Heywood. And I think he sort of said, “Sir Jeremy, deal with these rotters from the Guardian, deal with them.” And so, Sir Jeremy came to our offices in London in King’s Cross, and basically threatened us with legal action. He said that unless we stop publishing stories, we had to return this material, we would be held up before a judge and possibly even closed down.
We explained, Alan Rusbriger, my editor, that this was pointless because this material already existed in Berlin with Laura Poitras, in Rio, with the New York Times, and so on. Sir Jeremy said, this is the authentic voice of aristocratic Britain, he essentially said that the Prime Minister thinks “The Guardian is a lot more important than some American blogger.” Some American blogger being Glenn Greenwald, the most famous journalist on the planet.