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Home » The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man by Luke Harding at TEDxAthens (Transcript)

The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man by Luke Harding at TEDxAthens (Transcript)

Luke Harding

Here is the full transcript of British journalist Luke Harding’s TEDx Talk on The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man at TEDxAthens conference.

(Video) Edward Snowden: The NSA specifically targets the communications of everyone. It ingests them by default.

Barack Obama: The U.S. is not spying on ordinary people, who don’t threaten our national security.

Edward Snowden: I’m just another guy, who sits there day to day in the office watching what’s happening, and goes, this is something that’s not our place to decide, the public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong. It’s entirely appropriate for a program to exist, to look at foreign data.

Alan Rusbridger: What Snowden is trying to draw attention to is the degree to which we are on a road to total surveillance.

Andrew Parker: The work we do is addressing directly threats to this country, to our way of life, to this country and to people who live here.

Edward Snowden: You can’t come forward against the world’s most powerful intelligence agencies and be completely free from risk, because they are such powerful adversaries that no one can meaningfully oppose them. If they want to get you, they’ll get you in time.

News anchor: ….that it was the Prime Minister who instructed Britain’s most senior civil servant to tell The Guardian newspaper to destroy a computer, which held files from the whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Alan Rusbridger: We were faced effectively with an ultimatum from the British Government that if we didn’t hand back the material or destroy it, they would move to law. I didn’t think that we had Snowden’s consent to hand the material back and I didn’t want to help the UK authorities know what he’d given us.

Female reporter: The paper which had other copies of the Snowden files overseas, agreed to take an angle grinder to the computer, while the intelligence agents watched. I think the plain fact is that what has happened, has damaged national security and in many ways, The Guardian themselves admitted that when they agreed, when asked politely by my national security adviser and cabinet secretary, to destroy the files they had, they went ahead and destroyed those files.

Reporter: In America, the White House spokesman was asked, “Would Obama ever do such a thing?”

Josh Earnest: It’s very difficult to imagine a scenario in which that would be appropriate.

Man: I love this country, do you love this country? How do you answer that question?

Alan Rusbridger: We live in a democracy and most of the people working on this story are British people who have families in this country, who love this country. I am slightly surprised to be asked the question. But yes, we are patriots and one of the things we are patriotic about is the nature of the democracy, the nature of free press and the fact that one can in this country discuss and report these things.

Edward Snowden: I think that the public is owed an explanation of the motivations behind the people who made these disclosures that are outside of the democratic model. When you are subverting the power of government that’s a fundamentally dangerous thing to democracy.

Barack Obama: In this directive, I have taken the unprecedented step of extending certain protections that we have to the American people to people overseas, which will limit the duration that we can hold personal information while also restricting the use of this information.

Edward Snowden: I don’t want to live in a world where everything that I say, everything I do, everyone I talk to, every expression of creativity or love or friendship is recorded.Video concludes]


Luke Harding – British Journalist

Hello, it’s terrific to be here in Athens. I can’t believe that Theo stole my T-shirt, but, anyway… It’s great to be here, my name is Luke Harding. I’m a journalist from The Guardian and I’m one of the reporters who worked on the incredible Edward Snowden story.

And I think if I were standing here in front of you two years ago, or I’d sort of try to sell this as book idea to my literary agent and I’d said, “There’s a 29 year-old American, he lives in Hawaii, he works for the National Security Agency, the world’s most secret spying organization. Oh, his girlfriend is a pole dancer, he’s stolen hundreds of thousands of top secret documents and fled to Hong Kong where he’s given them to journalists.”

I think my literary agent would have said, “Luke, that is just so ridiculous. That would never ever happen.” But actually that’s precisely what did happen.

In 2012, Edward Snowden then completely obscure, now of course world famous, decided he was going to blow the whistle. He was becoming increasingly disillusioned with American spying, and he felt that in the years after 9/11, the enormously powerful American security state had stopped spying on the bad guys, on terrorists, on Al-Qaeda, and has started spying on everybody, on you, on American citizens, on Europeans and so on. And so he came up with this incredible plan basically to share secret information. He decided he’d leak it to journalists. The problem was, he was in Hawaii; he didn’t know any journalists. But he liked Glenn Greenwald, who blogs on civil liberties and was a columnist in The Guardian.

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.

Then he added, and this is the killer line, “You should feel flattered the PM thinks you are important.” So that was the British Government’s response to this sensational story. We continued publishing, I was in a kind of secret bunker. What we tried to do was what Snowden had told us to do, which was to publish stories about the mass surveillance of civilians, of high public importance. Not about operational matters, terrorism, Afghanistan, Iraq and so on.

But this brought us into a deep conflict with the British Government. And eventually we were told unless you smash your computers up, we will close you down. And two middle-age spies from GCHQ, that’s the British equivalent of the NSA, came to The Guardian on a quiet Saturday morning, and we symbolically agreed to destroy our hard drives, which you saw there. It was a surreal episode, they told us to buy drills and face masks. They produced something which looked like a small microwave oven called degausser, which destroys magnetic data.

We said, “We’re not going to use your degausser, we don’t trust you.” And they said, “Yes, you will. It costs 30 000 pounds.” And we said, “OK, we’ll use your degausser.” So we smashed the stuff up and that was the end of the Snowden files.

I think, I write in my book I describe it as part Stassi, part pantomime. But I think for people who care about press freedom, it was very chilling. The extraordinary thing was that the two spies had spent two weeks staking out our building and they left with presents from Hamleys, the London toy store for their children, back to the provinces, where the spy agencies headquartered. I subsequently talked to one of the spies, Ian, about this. And he said he wasn’t so upset about the book, but he was upset about the implication that he was provincial. Provincialism being the worst kind of offense.

So what we know thanks to Snowden is a terrific amount, I mean I think Snowden has done us an enormous service. I think he’s a major historical figure. I think we all owe him a debt. I don’t know how many people have one of these; I guess everyone has one of these, right? The genius of Snowden was that he actually turned over documents, he didn’t merely assert. So now we know the iPhone is the most superlative spying device. The NSA boasts in its internal paper that people who have iPhones are zombies. So you are all zombies.

The NSA can remotely turn on your microphone. It’s actually happened to me. If they do that, then your battery goes down very quickly. It goes from full to zero in about 25 minutes. They collect your web searches, your text messages, your emails and also your geolocation data.

In other words, there’s a complete record of where you’ve been. If you go to your privacy settings, you can find out, it’s all being collected. So we’ve had an enormous debate over the last year. On the one hand, politically, not a huge amount has changed, there have been some minor reforms from the Obama Administration, I would say the British Government is still in denial. The Germans are furious, because Angela Merkel, whom we saw dressed as a Nazi earlier on, her phone was bugged by the NSA for 10 years.

For very understandable historical reasons, the Germans absolutely understand how important privacy is. But not much concrete political change, but I think we as citizens, at least we now can have a proper, meaningful debate with our governments, about the boundaries between privacy and national security. I’d be interested to know, for example, whether the NSA spied on the Greek Prime Minister or previous Greek Prime Ministers. Almost certainly the answer is yes. I’d be interested also to know how much the Greek government still collaborates with the NSA and is sharing your data with America.

But my message with this lovely audience is twofold: I’d say despite all of the Snowden revelations, stay cheerful, love each other. I ‘d suggest don’t be too scared. It’s also good to take steps to safeguard our data. Snowden’s great advice was if you have an iPhone, to put it in the fridge. I’ve also discovered a cocktail shaker is very good. I don’t know if it you have cocktail shakers here in Athens, but put it in the cocktail shaker, it works as a Faraday cage. And I’d say use encryption if you can. Encryption works and is terrific.

And just one final story. One of the reasons I care so much about the whole idea of privacy is that I spent 4 years in Russia, working for The Guardian as the Moscow Bureau Chief. And there I was hacked by the KGB. I had unpromising young men in black leather jackets following me around. Whenever I made a joke about Vladimir Putin on the telephone, someone was listening and the line will go “grgrgr.” Like this I had people breaking into my flat.

Really, it was kind of a badly written KGB drama. I’ve had experience of demonstrative Russian spying, but I’ve also had experience of American spying as well. After I saw Glenn Greenwald in Rio last year for my book, all sorts of weird stuff happens to everyone who met Glenn Greenwald. And I was writing my manuscript back in the English countryside. And I wrote something very disparaging about the NSA, very rude about the NSA. And I watched my computer as my paragraph was remotely deleted from right to left, kind of like that. And I just thought “What the f !” This went on for five or six times.

Over period of two months, to the point where I’d actually leave notes for my mystery editor saying, “Look, I’m really not very happy that you’re doing this. Please don’t delete stuff.” And if it had been Hollywood, I would have got a mysterious disembodied reply, but I didn’t get a reply. But very unusual, all writers expect people to criticize their books after they published. To be criticized when you are still writing, is something very new.

So I’d say thank you very much. I think privacy is a fundamental human right. I think Edward Snowden is a great person. He’s in a difficult situation in Moscow and I think we are in his debt. I think we should thank Edward Snowden.

Thank you.

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