Arms Races in Transparency and Secrecy

Heated debates continue over the right balance between privacy and security. The Journal of International Affairs talked to Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who broke the story on Edward Snowden, about government surveillance and disclosures of government secrets. Greenwald discusses WikiLeaks, Russia and the U.S. presidential election, and the impact leaks have on international relations.

Editor's note:

This article appeared in The Cyber Issue in Winter 2016.

Glenn Greenwald
March 23, 2017

Did the Russian government try to influence the U.S. presidential election?

It is possible. The history of both the United States and Russia, both subsequent and prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, is one filled with examples of each government trying to interfere in the political affairs of other countries, including one another.

I just think that there has been very little evidence presented to support that accusation. That is not to say that I doubt it or that I would be shocked if it were true. It is just that there are lots of assertions continually that, for example, the Russians are behind the hacks of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). There may be some evidence that somebody who is actually Russian, a Russian citizen or in Russia physically, had some role in that.

But whether that means that the Russian government is actually involved in any way—let alone a broader plot to influence the outcome of the election—is extremely speculative at best.

Is it possible that WikiLeaks has been instrumentalized by Russia?

I am really even more unconvinced by this claim. First of all, that assumes that WikiLeaks got the emails of the DNC from the Russian government or a group controlled by the Russian government, and there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that is the case. That is a complete speculation.

As for the timing, in order to make any claims for the timing we would need to know when WikiLeaks got these materials. As somebody who has worked on several leaks involving large amounts of documents, it can take a really long time to process them and to get them ready for publication. It is possible WikiLeaks got these materials months ago and it is possible they got them just a few days before the convention. It is really hard to say.

News organizations are constantly trying to release their big stories so as to connect to an event that will bring more attention to the revelations. So the fact that WikiLeaks was able to publish these materials before a natural news event, which was the DNC, does not in any way immediately suggest that it is some kind of a Russian or WikiLeaks plot to interfere in the election.

WikiLeaks published a lot of private information, including social security and credit card numbers. Does this hurt WikiLeaks’s cause?

Definitely! We have had a long debate with WikiLeaks over the past several years about the obligations that one should undertake and fulfill when releasing large amounts of information to the public. Early on in its project, WikiLeaks believed in redactions and in protecting innocent people from information that might harm them. If you look at the big releases that catapulted them to the global stage, such as the release of the Iraq and Afghanistan war documents or the State Department cables, they engaged in all kinds of extensive efforts to withhold information.

And somewhere along the line they became convinced, I guess, that no redactions of any kind are justified and all information should be put out to the public. In fact, they were critical of how we, the journalists who had handled the Snowden archive, did that reporting because they were arguing that we were unjustified in withholding information, which we did both on behest of our source and because we believed it was a responsible thing to do.

So yes, I think that—if nothing else than a tactical issue—it is a mistake to let critics seize on information that has no value for anybody in order to discredit and distract from the transparency project. On a moral and ethical level there are very serious problems if you just dump information thoughtlessly and indiscriminately without regards of the impact it might have on the people if they did nothing wrong.

Do you think WikiLeaks was manipulated by Russia?

I have hard time taking seriously the view that the revelations WikiLeaks made about the DNC and Hillary Clinton were some kind of a sophisticated plot to help Donald Trump win the election.

I know WikiLeaks very well. If you are somebody who gets a hold of some documents that they can authenticate and would generate public interest, they will publish it no matter who you are, or whether or not they know who you are (let alone know your motives). As a journalist, if somebody has sent me the entire database of DNC emails, of course I would go through those and find the ones that I thought were in the public interest and publish and report on them. This is true regardless if it were the Russians, the Chinese, the Koreans, or random mischievous child hackers who obtained them.

As a journalist, your question is, “Is this material in the public interest?” I think that is very much what WikiLeaks thinks. I do not think they think, “Oh, is this from Russia, is this from a U.S. faction, and does this mean that we should or should not publish them?” They are transparency advocates and they will publish whatever they get their hands on.

Has publishing diplomatic cables or surveillance details influenced international relations?

The things that the world’s most powerful people are doing ought to be public and known, except in very rare cases when there could be true danger from transparency. Although the U.S. government officials and their allies like to cast these disclosures as threatening national security—far more often than not, the disclosures are actually threatening their own reputation or their sense of embarrassment.

I know from the Snowden revelations that when you report on how the U.S. government is spying on other countries, including allied governments—whether it be Germany or Brazil or lots of other places throughout Europe—there is a lot of public outcry, there is a lot of anger, there is a lot of embarrassment.

But the reality is that governments know that other governments are not always truthful with them, and are acting for their own interest and not for the interest of that country. I do not think it comes as much of a surprise to the governments. But the populations see it with clearer eyes, and they start pressuring their own governments to do something about it.

In Brazil, we reported on different ways that the United States was spying on the Brazilian population, the Brazilian president, and Brazilian companies. The Brazilian president at the time, Dilma Rousseff, had to cancel a state dinner that was long planned (she was going to be the first Brazilian president to visit the White House in forty years) not because she herself was so personally outraged by what she learned, but because she had to show the country that she was going to stand up to the United States. The same thing happened in a lot of other places.

So, yes, it does affect international relations, largely because governments feel pressured by their own population to protect their country from the things that these revelations exposed. But the much bigger impact was the fact that people in democracies are able to be informed, rather than misled, about what is being done in their name. That has a much bigger value.

These revelations are usually made about Western governments, and almost none about authoritarian regimes. Is freedom of information activism only possible in democracies?

I would disagree with the premise of this question. If you look at the WikiLeaks revelations, they have released a huge number of documents about the regime in Syria and they have released documents about the Russian government. It’s not as many as they have released about the United States, but this is partly just because you can only publish what you get.

And in the West there have been a lot of leaks that have come from Western agencies, and not very much from non-Western countries. Maybe that is because they keep their information more securely or maybe that is because this ethos of mass transparency has not quite spread to those places.

But I have zero doubt that if tomorrow somebody sent me or WikiLeaks a bunch of FSB files or files about Chinese or Iranian spying, that we and they would publish it just as aggressively as we did before.

Have governments learned their lesson? Is the window of opportunity for accessing and disclosing these kind of documents closing?

I think that there is actually a war going on between people who believe in greater transparency and people who believe in maintaining the regime of secrecy. You see this war very similarly played out in the realm of privacy, where people who believe in privacy are building technologies to make it more difficult for governments and other people to spy, and the governments are turning it into an arms race, developing technologies that enable them to overcome those defenses. You see the same thing playing out in the realm of secrecy and transparency.

The problem is that given the way that information is now maintained (with massive amounts of data stored digitally) it is almost impossible to use a technological solution to prevent this information from being disclosed. It is too quick, it is too easy, it is too simple to download huge amounts of information without detection, as Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden and a lot of other people have proven.

So I think the goal instead is to try and bring as much bullying and as much force as possible. There is a debate now about whether Snowden should be able to come back to the United States with some kind of a pardon or clemency. But they would never allow him to do that because their goal is to just frighten people by saying, “We are going to use our war powers, we are going to declare cyberspace a war zone, and we are going to destroy the lives of anybody who brings transparency.”

That is the goal—to create the climate of fear—where people who might think they would want to be the next Snowden or Manning look at what has happened to them and say, “I do not think it is worth doing.”