Meet the odd couple who nettle the NSA from a dog- and monkey-filled jungle retreat*


Please read journalist Peter Maass’s spellbinding account of how reporter/polemicist Glenn Greenwald and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras collaborated in bringing to light NSA leaker Edward J. Snowden’s disclosures about massive illegal spying by the US Government.

Seriously, if you read nothing else this week, do read this richly detailed, 10,000-word account of how Snowden made contact with Poitras, how Poitras roped Greenwald into the project, and how they communicate privately when all three are targeted by the most sophisticated electronic spying in the world.

It reads alternately like a novel, a spy thriller, a quirky travelog, and most importantly, like detailed expose of the American security apparatus run amok. I am not by inclination paranoid, but this article convinced me I need to learn how to encrypt electronic communications. There’s even a Q&A Maass conducted with Snowdon over multiply encrypted links to his Moscow hideout.

Greenwald lives and works in a house surrounded by tropical foliage in a remote area of Rio de Janeiro. He shares the home with his Brazilian partner and their 10 dogs and one cat, and the place has the feel of a low-key fraternity that has been dropped down in the jungle. The kitchen clock is off by hours, but no one notices; dishes tend to pile up in the sink; the living room contains a table and a couch and a large TV, an Xbox console and a box of poker chips and not much else. The refrigerator is not always filled with fresh vegetables. A family of monkeys occasionally raids the banana trees in the backyard and engages in shrieking battles with the dogs.

Greenwald does most of his work on a shaded porch, usually dressed in a T-shirt, surfer shorts and flip-flops. Over the four days I spent there, he was in perpetual motion, speaking on the phone in Portuguese and English, rushing out the door to be interviewed in the city below, answering calls and e-mails from people seeking information about Snowden, tweeting to his 225,000 followers (and conducting intense arguments with a number of them), then sitting down to write more N.S.A. articles for The Guardian, all while pleading with his dogs to stay quiet. During one especially fever-pitched moment, he hollered, “Shut up, everyone,” but they didn’t seem to care.

Amid the chaos, Poitras, an intense-looking woman of 49, sat in a spare bedroom or at the table in the living room, working in concentrated silence in front of her multiple computers. Once in a while she would walk over to the porch to talk with Greenwald about the article he was working on, or he would sometimes stop what he was doing to look at the latest version of a new video she was editing about Snowden. They would talk intensely — Greenwald far louder and more rapid-fire than Poitras — and occasionally break out laughing at some shared joke or absurd memory. The Snowden story, they both said, was a battle they were waging together, a fight against powers of surveillance that they both believe are a threat to fundamental American liberties.

It’s a wonderful piece of reporting about a courageous pair of reporters picking up the slack left by the supine mainstream news giants.

If Maass’s 10,000 words don’t exhausted you, please also check out a much shorter piece, The NSA Is Commandeering the Internet on The Atlantic’s website. Security expert Bruce Schneier (he coined the phrase, “security theatre”) pleads with executives of giant technology company’s to fight back against US government spying.

Most of the largest Internet companies provide information to the NSA, betraying their users. Some, as we’ve learned, fight and lose. Others cooperate, either out of patriotism or because they believe it’s easier that way.

I have one message to the executives of those companies: fight.

Lastly, The Takeaway podcast has a good interview with Maass about his piece.

[*Yes, I know, Greenwald and Poitras are not a couple in the usual sense, and only Greenwald resides in Rio. Poitras, a Massachusetts native, lives in New York City when she is not in precautionary exile, as she is now. In this 2012 Salon story, Greenwald details the harassment Poitras faces in her home country.]

Jobs and LSD

Salon’s Glenn Greenwald points out that last week’s flood of Steve Jobs hagiographies mostly tiptoed around one inconvenient facet of the Great Man: he took LSD. He not only took it, he regarded having taken it as one of the two or three most important things he had done in his life. Greenwald:

Unlike many people who have enjoyed success, Jobs is not saying that he was able to succeed despite his illegal drug use; he’s saying his success is in part — in substantial part — because of those illegal drugs (he added that Bill Gates would “be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once”).

An excellent Time magazine piece by Maia Szalavitz delves into the connection between Jobs’s use of psychedelics and his creative genius:

As attested by the nearly spiritual devotion so many consumers have to Jobs’ creations, the former Apple chief (and indeed many other top technology pioneers) appeared to have found enduring inspiration in LSD. Research shows that the psychedelic experience is, in fact, long lasting: a new study published last week found that people who took magic mushrooms (psilocybin) had long-term personality changes, becoming more open, more curious, more intellectually engaged and more creative. These personality shifts persisted more than a year after taking the drugs….

Greenwald connects the ironic dots:

America’s harsh prohibitionist drug policies are grounded in the premise that the prohibited substances have little or no redeeming value and cannot be used without life-destroying consequences.  Yet the evidence of its falsity is undeniable. Here is one of the most admired men in America, its greatest contemporary industrialist, hailing one of the most scorned of these substances as integral to his success and intellectual and personal growth.

Under Stephen Harper, Canada is falling into step behind America’s punitive approach to drug use: mandatory prison sentences for smaller and smaller amounts of the least harmful substances, and relentless campaigns against harm-reduction strategies like safe injection sites. The Conservatives are quick to condemn the nanny state whenever environmental or consumer regulation is proposed, but eager to bring the full force of state power down on anyone whose personal choices happen to offend their arbitrary moral standards. Even personal choices one of their business heros regards as one of the most important and beneficial he ever made.

Dishing it out, and out with The Dish

Andrew Sullivan, who writes the Daily Dish blog on The Atlantic‘s website, is one of these rare commentators who’s fun to read when you agree with him, more so when you don’t. If he weren’t the sole member of the selection committee, he’d be a perennial shoo-in for his own Yglesias Award, which honors partisans willing to criticize their own side when warranted.

In that spirit, I’ll register my disappointment at Sullivan’s recently announced decision to decamp for Tina Brown’s Daily Beast, which itself recently merged with the faded Newsweek.

sullivan-150CI’m a Dish addict, but following Sullivan to the Beast will be a tough slog. Tina Brown’s circus master tenure at the New Yorker tenure left a queasiness in my gut that bromides cannot erase. With the New York Times and The Guardian, The Atlantic is among a tiny handful of mainstream publications to embrace the internets with grace and wit. Andrew’s soon-to-be-former colleagues are too gentlemanly to say so, but that ought to have earned some loyalty. (Am I alone in reading a Zen subtext into their sparing au revoirs?)

Glenn Greenwald-125Coverage of the impending Dish-Beast nuptials in other media was notable for its lack of attention to the terms of the deal. When AOL bought Huffpo, the coverage was all about price. Not so when Brown and Colvin bought the Dish. (Andrew did not respond to an email asking about the financial details.)

But… onward and upward, as the pre-1992 New Yorker might have said. Who should fill the Dish space at I nominate Glenn Greenwald. Though superficially poles apart, he and Andrew share many qualities that make for great reading. Both are fearless, prolific, stubborn, indefatigable, diligent, whip-smart, and occasionally intemperate. Both read voluminously, with steely eyes for detail. Both harbor abiding respect for America’s battered democratic values. The Atlantic rightly prides itself on being a big tent operation, and Glenn would expand the canvas into welcome, and hitherto neglected, territory. Then again, maybe Greenwald feels some loyalty to, which has hosted him for years.

What’s happened to the United States of America?

For all its foreign policy lapses, the United States has long stood as a beacon of individual freedom. The US Constitution and Bill of Rights constrain government action against individuals to a degree unimagined elsewhere in the world. Even the most criticized parts of the Bill of Rights, like the Second Amendment guarantee of the right ro bear arms, are, in William O. Douglas’s felicitous phrase, “designed to take the government off the backs of people.”

It is commonplace to observe that the September 11 attacks undermined those constraints.

In the run-up to Christmas, Glenn Greenwald, Salon’s tenacious legal affairs reporter, produced a series of stunning posts about the US military’s inhumane treatment of Pfc. Bradley Manning, the soldier accused of passing a massive diplomatic cable trove to Wikileaks currently detained  in solitary confinement in a two-meter by three-meter cell.

ManningSince his arrest in May, Manning has been a model detainee, without any episodes of violence or disciplinary problems. He nonetheless was declared from the start to be a “Maximum Custody Detainee,” the highest and most repressive level of military detention, which then became the basis for the series of inhumane measures imposed on him.

From the beginning of his detention, Manning has been held in intensive solitary confinement. For 23 out of 24 hours every day — for seven straight months and counting — he sits completely alone in his cell. Even inside his cell, his activities are heavily restricted; he’s barred even from exercising and is under constant surveillance to enforce those restrictions. For reasons that appear completely punitive, he’s being denied many of the most basic attributes of civilized imprisonment, including even a pillow or sheets for his bed (he is not and never has been on suicide watch). For the one hour per day when he is freed from this isolation, he is barred from accessing any news or current events programs. Lt. Villiard protested that the conditions are not “like jail movies where someone gets thrown into the hole,” but confirmed that he is in solitary confinement, entirely alone in his cell except for the one hour per day he is taken out.

Remember, Manning hasn’t been convicted of anything. He is merely in pre-trial detention. A blog post by Lt. Col. David Coombs, Manning’s lawyer, fleshes out the picture:

Under the rules for the confinement facility, he is not allowed to sleep at anytime between 5:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. If he attempts to sleep during those hours, he will be made to sit up or stand by the guards….
PFC Manning is held in his cell for approximately 23 hours a day.
The guards are required to check on PFC Manning every five minutes by asking him if he is okay. PFC Manning is required to respond in some affirmative manner. At night, if the guards cannot see PFC Manning clearly, because he has a blanket over his head or is curled up towards the wall, they will wake him in order to ensure he is okay.
He is not allowed to have a pillow or sheets. However, he is given access to two blankets and has recently been given a new mattress that has a built-in pillow.
He is prevented from exercising in his cell. If he attempts to do push-ups, sit-ups, or any other form of exercise he will be forced to stop.
He does receive one hour of “exercise” outside of his cell daily. He is taken to an empty room and only allowed to walk. PFC Manning normally just walks figure eights in the room for the entire hour. If he indicates that he no long feels like walking, he is immediately returned to his cell.
When PFC Manning goes to sleep, he is required to strip down to his boxer shorts and surrender his clothing to the guards. His clothing is returned to him the next morning.

Under the rules for the confinement facility, he is not allowed to sleep at anytime between 5:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. If he attempts to sleep during those hours, he will be made to sit up or stand by the guards….

PFC Manning is held in his cell for approximately 23 hours a day.

The guards are required to check on PFC Manning every five minutes by asking him if he is okay. PFC Manning is required to respond in some affirmative manner. At night, if the guards cannot see PFC Manning clearly, because he has a blanket over his head or is curled up towards the wall, they will wake him in order to ensure he is okay.

He is not allowed to have a pillow or sheets. However, he is given access to two blankets and has recently been given a new mattress that has a built-in pillow.

He is prevented from exercising in his cell. If he attempts to do push-ups, sit-ups, or any other form of exercise he will be forced to stop.

He does receive one hour of “exercise” outside of his cell daily. He is taken to an empty room and only allowed to walk. PFC Manning normally just walks figure eights in the room for the entire hour. If he indicates that he no long feels like walking, he is immediately returned to his cell.

When PFC Manning goes to sleep, he is required to strip down to his boxer shorts and surrender his clothing to the guards. His clothing is returned to him the next morning.

The New York Times picked up the story this morning, albeit in a blog post, not in the paper itself. The UN’s top torture official is now  said to be investigating Manning’s case.

Find Greenwald’s initial post on Manning’s treatment here. A later post theorizes that the military is trying to break Manning down to obtain evidence of collusion with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Despite florid rhetoric directed against Assange (including repeated nonsensical demands he be charged with treason, a crime of which no non-citizen can be guilty), there is no credible basis for a charge against him.

Fidel, Israel, and Iran

Do not miss Jeffrey Goldberg’s continuing posts about his surprise command audience with Fidel Castro last week. First instalment here; second here.

fidel and goldberg-300Goldberg is a perplexing figure, a former member of the IDF, quick to call anti-semitism against anyone who balks at his lockstep advocacy of troubling Israeli policies. He caused a stir recently with an Atlantic cover story speculating about an impending Israeli nuclear strike against Iran. Many regarded the article as thinly disguised tub-thumping for such an attack (see here and here), while others demurred. In the end, the Atlantic held an extensive, online print debate about the issue — which may turn out to be the most important of the decade.

Turns out Castro was reading, and two weeks ago, Goldberg got a phone call from Jorge Bolanos, head of the US State Department’s Cuban Interest Section.

“I have a message for you from Fidel,” Bolanos said. “He has read your Atlantic article about Iran and Israel. He invites you to Havana on Sunday to discuss the article.”

Goldberg and Castro, who is clearly worried about the prospect of war in the Middle East, chatted for three days, and while he might not be my choice for an interlocutor, he was Fidel’s, and the results are fascinating.

WaPo unmasks a hidden, top-secret America

The blogosphere is agog at a Washington Post series that uncovers the astonishing, bloated, secret, and likely ineffective national security apparatus that has grown up in the United States following 9/11. Two crack WaPo reporters, Dana Priest and William M. Arkin, spent two years tracking down the story, an increasingly rare example of what the dead-tree media can do when it taps its traditional strengths. Here’s the opening sentence:

The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.

Some highlights:

— Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on Top Secret programs related to counter-terrorism, homeland security, and intelligence at over 10,000 locations across the country. Over 850,000 Americans have Top Secret clearances.

— Redundancy and overlap are major problems and a symptom of the ongoing lack of coordination between agencies.

— In the Washington area alone, 33 building complexes for Top Secret work are under construction or have been built since September 2001.

Andrew Sullivan rounds up blogger reaction. Money quote to Glenn Greenwald:

We chirp endlessly about the Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, the Democrats and Republicans, but this is the Real U.S. Government:  functioning in total darkness, beyond elections and parties, so secret, vast and powerful that it evades the control or knowledge of any one person or even any organization.

Flowingdata highlights the infographic:


Click the image (or here) to activate the graphic and explore that the Post calls, “an alternative geography of the United States, a Top Secret America hidden from public view and lacking in thorough oversight.” [Note: the graphic was sluggish this morning, presumably owing to heavy traffic.]

After nine years of unprecedented spending and growth, the result is that the system put in place to keep the United States safe is so massive that its effectiveness is impossible to determine…

Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications….

The NSA sorts a fraction of those into 70 separate databases. The same problem bedevils every other intelligence agency, none of which have enough analysts and translators for all this work.

9/11 happened not because intelligence agencies hadn’t detected elements the plot, but because inter-agency secrecy meant no one could put the pieces together. A core finding of the WaPo investigation is that this inability to connect the dots is worse than ever. They detail how various agencies collected ample evidence about alleged Ft. Hood shooter Nidal Hassan and attempted Christmas Day bomber Umar Abdulmutallab, but didn’t recognize its significance.

PBS even has a “making of” video:

No evidence, but we’ll keep you locked up anyway

Salon’s Glenn Greenwald notes the lead paragraph in a New York Times story Saturday:

WASHINGTON — The 48 Guantánamo Bay detainees whom the Obama administration has decided to keep holding without trial include several for whom there is no evidence of involvement in any specific terrorist plot, according to a report disclosed Friday.

The report itself concludes that “for many detainees at Guantanamo, prosecution is not feasible in either federal court or a military commission.”  Greenwald comments:

They can’t even be prosecuted in the due-process-abridging military commissions we invented out of whole cloth for those who can’t be convicted in a real court.  In other words:  of course we’ll provide a fair tribunal for proving your guilt — as long as we’re certain we can convict you — otherwise, we’ll just imprison you indefinitely without charges. All this even though 72% of Guantanamo detainees have been found to be wrongfully held since the Supreme Court compelled habeas hearings in 2008.  And then there are the numerous Yemeni prisoners who have been cleared for release but who will be kept in a cage anyway because we arbitrarily decreed that we’re not going to release even innocent prisoners back to Yemen.

The whole post is worth a read, as Greenwald nearly always is.

War crime – followup

The appalling Wikileaks video showing a US helicopter gunship mowing down a group of Iraqis, including two Reuters journalists, two children, and a pair of Good Samaritans whose only offense was to come to the aid of a badly injured man, continues to provoke reaction. Reader Cliff White writes:

You can’t help wondering after watching that terrible video if killing has just become a game to those soldiers in the helicopter.  It’s both terribly disturbing and dismaying to listen to their casual banter as they go about their “work”.   Even when they learn that children have been injured it’s no big deal, it’s someone else’s fault.  I’d like to see videos like this publicly displayed every time war fever is on the rise in  the country. The reality is that this kind of behaviour is not the exception in war, it is frequently the norm…. Given the situation in Iraq at the time the video was shot was it standard military practice to kill anyone carrying a weapon and anyone else who happen to be in their vicinity?

Two things are important here: While the behavior of the soldiers was shocking, it’s probably not unusual. As Cliff says, when we make the decision to go to war, we need to understand that this is exactly what we are deciding to do. Second, ultimate responsibility for this travesty lies beyond the helicopter, with the generals in the war rooms.

I have been shocked at the breadth of efforts to dismiss the video as somehow not reflecting reality, or evidence that liberals don’t support “our boys.” You expect this from right wing organs like the National Standard, where blogger Bill Roggio posted an error-riddled screed against Wikileaks, later nicely debunked by’s Glenn Greenwald, who has been a one-man truth squad on the story. Among other things, Roggio and the New York Times chided Wikileaks for editing the tape, accusing them of redacting critical context. Wikileaks did edit the tape, but it simultaneously released the 39-minute original, completely unedited.


Greenwald’s coverage pointed me to a blogger called Jotman, who has relentlessly cataloged CNN’s cowardly coverage of the video (here, here, and here.) CNN won’t even show its viewers the most incriminating parts of the video. In a gesture reminiscent of Elvis Presley’s maiden appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, only far more sinister, Blitzer and Co. black out part of the screen when the shooting starts—all out of deference to the families of the victims, of course.

George Packer, a long time apologist for the war, pooh-poohs the video in, of all places, his New Yorker blog. The main thrust is that less worldly wise civilians fail to consider the context, fog of war, recent firefight, violent history of the neighborhood, blah, blah, blah, before condemning the soldiers’ actions. The blog is worth read both as an example of sophistry, and for the acuity of the New Yorker readers’ rebuttals.

The most apt response to this line of rationalization comes in a pair of unnamed readers’ comments to James Fallows’s blog yesterday.

First a question: If these loose rules of engagement were in common use in 2007, how do we explain the behavior of the victims? They were aware of the helicopter. Why didn’t they recognize their danger? [Ie, if it was commonplace for gunships to be shooting people with as little immediate provocation as we see, why did they dare expose themselves?]

Next, an observation: Door gunner-ship is not randomly assigned. It may well be that 99% (or 99.9%) of U.S. troops would not have allowed this tragedy to occur, but that simple fact quite possibly disqualified all those individuals from being in that position. (And I note this as a direct result of my Army tour in Viet Nam.) The same, of course, applies to Granger and gang at Abu Ghraib. It is possible to indict the individuals involved and their commanders and ‘the system’ without involving American troops categorically.

And a conclusion: Until one can say one would apply precisely the same reasoning and the same judgment without knowing the nationality of the miscreants, one flounders.


You might — MIGHT — justify the initial attack on the group on the ground, but the American soldiers were itching to fire on the two men whose only crime was that they were trying to come to the aid of a wounded man. Those men in the van clearly did not have any weapons, and posed no threat to anyone. But the American soldiers were almost pleading with their command to be given permission to kill them. If you are going to excuse this by putting it into “context,” then you can excuse almost any behavior.

War crime – reaction

Some reaction to yesterday’s Wikileak disclosure of horrific footage from an American helicopter gunship mowing down unarmed* civilians, as crewmen gloated over the killings.

James Fallows:

I can’t pretend to know the full truth or circumstances of this. But at face value it is the most damaging documentation of abuse since the Abu Ghraib prison-torture photos. As you watch, imagine the reaction in the US if the people on the ground had been Americans and the people on the machine guns had been Iraqi, Russian, Chinese, or any other nationality. As with Abu Ghraib, and again assuming this is what it seems to be, the temptation will be to blame the operations-level people who were, in this case, chuckling as they mowed people down. That’s not where the real responsibility lies.

Huffington Post’s Dan Froomkin:

Reporters working for WikiLeaks determined that the driver of the van [that arrived on the scene after the initial carnage and tried to rescue an injured man, only to be destroyed by the gunship] was a Good Samaritan on his way to take his small children to a tutoring session. He was killed and his two children were badly injured.

A New York Times dispatch from Mosul, Iraq, reports that the family of 22-year-old Reuters photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen, who was killed in the incident, burst into tears as they watched the video.

“At last the truth has been revealed, and I’m satisfied God revealed the truth,” said Noor Eldeen, the father of the photographer… “If such an incident took place in America, even if an animal were killed like this, what would they do?”’s Glenn Greenwald notes that the Pentagon was forced to admit Sunday that its initial whitewash of a similar war crime in Paktia Province, Afghanistan, February 12 was false.

[A]fter surrounding a home where a celebration of a new birth was taking place, [US soldiers] shot dead two male civilians (government officials) who exited the house in order to inquire why they had been surrounded, and then shot and killed three female relatives (a pregnant mother of ten, a pregnant mother of six, and a teenager).

WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange on MSNBC:

In this case, we really have unique material that shows how modern aerial warfare is done… [It] shows the debasement and moral corruption of soldiers as a result of war. It seems like they are playing video games with people’s lives.

Assange and Greenwald joined Iraq expert and surge architect Brett McGurck and Lt. Col Anthony Shaffer on MSNBC’s Dylan Ratigan show to discuss the incident. I have embedded the conversation below, but the video does not show up on some browsers. You can link to it here.

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* Several sources say at least one person in the video appears to have a rifle dangling off his shoulder. I didn’t notice it. However, the people from the passing van who happened on the scene and attempted to remove the man injured in the first assault man were the clearly unarmed.

Anonymity in news stories

A mea culpa in yesterday’s Washington Post, criticizing the use of anonymous sources in a story widely regarded as a puff piece on Obama lieutenant Rahm Emanuel, sparked these comments from’s excellent Glenn Greenwald:

In very limited circumstances, anonymity is valuable and justified (e.g., when someone is risking something substantial to expose concealed wrongdoing of serious public interest).  But promiscuous, unjustified anonymity — which pervades the establishment press — is the linchpin of most bad, credibility-destroying reporting.  It enables government officials and others to lie to the public with impunity or manipulate them with propaganda, using eager reporters as both their megaphone and shield.  It is the weapon of choice for reporters eager to serve as loyal message-carriers and royal court gossip columnists.  It preserves and bolsters the culture of secrecy that dominates Washington — exactly the opposite of what a real journalist, by definition, would seek to accomplish (though most modern journalists seem to prefer anonymity, as it makes them appear and feel special and part of the secret halls of power, and allows them to curry favor with powerful officials as their favored loyal message-carrier).  In sum, petty or otherwise unjustified uses of anonymity are the hallmark of the power-worshiping, dishonest, unreliable reporter (which is why its most indiscriminate practitioner is Politico).   As Izzy Stone put it about the Vietnam War:  “The process of brain-washing the public starts with off-the-record briefings for newspapermen. . . .”