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The Snowden Files

Interview: Rob Mudge
March 10, 2014

In his book 'The Snowden Files', Guardian journalist Luke Harding describes how the world came to learn about the reach of secret services. Harding spoke to DW about his personal experience of the NSA/GCHQ scandal.

A projection of a text on the face of a woman in Berlin (REUTERS/Pawel Kopczynski)
Image: Reuters

DW: We've heard a lot about Edward Snowden's motives. Are you convinced that he is convinced that it is really the libertarian streak in him that is the overriding factor in all of this?

Luke Harding: I think there's no doubt that Snowden is someone of the political right, that he's essentially a conservative from a libertarian tradition. There's a paper trail that shows that he donated to Ron Paul, who's the most famous libertarian in America at the moment. His postings, when he was posting as a young man, also make clear that some of his views are what liberal Europeans might consider a bit obnoxious. He is against gun control, he is against affirmative action, he doesn't believe in social security, and so on. (Distorted sound.) That's not your phone, is it?

That's not me. There's somebody else listening in then.

(both laugh)

Let's carry on anyway. So he is more or less from the political right. This morning I was reading that fascinating new testimony from Snowden to the European Parliament, which has just been published by Claude Moraes (Labour MEP, rapporteur of EP's mass surveillance inquiry - the ed.). His argument basically is that the spying programs, what he calls "suspicionless surveillance", are both wrong - because of privacy aspects - and also ineffective. That's his key point. He sells himself as a patriot who believes in the necessity of spying. He says he loves his country but believes spying should be against targeted, proven individuals. It's interesting, it's complicated, but he's basically a right-wing patriot.

Journalist and author Luke Harding
Luke Harding, Guardian journalist and author of the book 'The Snowden Files'Image: picture-alliance/dpa

You mentioned that he has got that support from the right-wing element in the US - but not only from them. In fact, over there, he has had support from all walks of political life. If he were a UK citizen, do you think we would see similar kinds of encouragement or support?

I think not. It's been fascinating watching the debate unfold in the United States. You're right - there's been this coming together of two rather unlikely groups, the civil liberty democrats, people on the left, and sort of classic libertarian Republicans, shading into Tea Party. It's a really interesting political space. I'm in the US at the moment. The political culture here is one of ritualistic partisanship. On Snowden, opinion is split, but not along conventional lines. You get a majority of young people who are pro-Snowden, and the Tea Party activists are pro-Snowden, which is an unusual kind-of coming together. In Britain, it's a totally different story. For the first five or six months after we first started publishing these stories, there was a kind of silence. It was like throwing stones into a lake. They didn't skim, they just sank. There was not much public resonance. Most of the newspapers ignored the story. The political class was either hostile or silent. I think over the last few months, the situation has changed. Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband and others have finally begun to intervene on the subject. It has been a fairly depressing and sometimes lonely experience writing about this material.

Book cover The Snowden Files by Luke Harding
The book will be released in Germany in April.

In all of this, the Guardian has been pretty much left in the cold - not only by the government, but also by the UK media landscape. Do you feel bitter about that? And what does this actually say about the freedom of press when the government can exert such pressure on the media to tow their line?

Several things are going on. Firstly, the political silence is not difficult to explain because both the Labour - the previous government - and the present conservative-led coalition have been responsible for signing off on these deeply intrusive secret programs, where basically everyone's data is being collected up. That was being done without any kind of public acknowledgement or consent using a legal framework that was drafted in the Stone Age, back in 2000 when Facebook was merely a glimmer in Mark Zuckerberg's head.

Another thing is - something I write about in the book - how the British government, behind closed doors, pressured the Guardian. They were deeply unhappy that we had this material, and they wanted us to return it. David Cameron said to Jeremy Heywood, his most senior official, to basically browbeat Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian's editor-in-chief. The government's approach was completely cack-handed because Rusbridger explained that the Snowden material existed in many different jurisdictions. Some of it was in Brazil with Glenn Greenwald, some of it in Berlin with Laura Poitras and in the States. The government wasn't in listening mode. This whole campaign of pressure and intimidation - being forced to symbolically smash up our own laptops - I described it in my book as half-Stasi and half-pantomime. I think that's right. On the one hand, it was quite comedic: two middle-aged British spies watching us take sledgehammers to Macbook Pros and taking photos on their iPhones. But on the other hand, for anyone who cares about freedom of speech and the right of newspapers to investigate stories that are embarrassing to government, it was a depressing moment.

Britain: A newspaper defies the intelligence service

The one point you made that resonated with me was when you said there was a feeling in the UK that we are subjects, not citizens.

This is something I pondered and wrestled with when I was writing the book and also why I set so much (of the book) in Germany. I know Germany very well - I spent four years there as a correspondent in Berlin. Germans intuitively get privacy. They don't need to be schooled or tutored about how important it is because of their historical experience. The memories of Stasi are real. There's a whole generation that is still alive that grew up with that. Yet in Britain we seem completely complacent about our rights. I think it's a mixture. I think it can be explained to a mixture of reasons: I do think James Bond and that whole kind of cultural trope of pretty spies who are jumping out of airplanes and helicopters and saving the queen - that is something. But it's also just to do with the fact that, apart from some domestic terrorism and Northern Ireland, we've had centuries of stability. This has made us a little bit dozy when it comes to things like privacy.

You've mentioned Germany. Germany and Chancellor Angela Merkel have been one of the prime targets in the whole spying operations. With the notable exception of Christian Ströbele, calls to grant Snowden asylum here have been muted, if not lacking. Do you think Germany should take the plunge at the risk of alienating the US and allow Snowden to take refuge here at some point?

I think Germany would be a perfect destination for Snowden. I think his situation in Moscow is tricky and unenviable. Ironically, given its history, East Berlin has become this kind of hub, this magnet for media workers fleeing trouble. Jake Appelbaum was in East Berlin, I met him there, Laura Poitras is editing her Snowden film from Berlin. There's a great kind of flourishing plural media in Germany, and interesting conversation. I think Berlin would be the perfect place for Snowden. But realistically, even though of course Merkel was outraged by the fact that she was bugged for a decade and probably Gerhard Schröder before that, she is a supreme pragmatist, and offering Snowden asylum would cause major damage to the transatlantic partnership. That's a bill that she or no other senior German politician would be prepared to pay.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel holds a BlackBerry Z10 smartphone featuring high security Secusite software, used for governmental communication (Photo: REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch/Files)
'Merkel was outraged that her phone was tapped, but she won't offer Snowden asylum', Harding believes.Image: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch

There's another interesting point here, which is: How complicit are EU spies with the NSA? If you read Snowden's latest entry to the European Parliament, he says they're very complicit, actually, and that they're pressured by the NSA to bulk collect their citizens' data - and that they do. So there's an element of hypocrisy running through all of this.

What do you think will happen to Snowden once his asylum expires in Russia?

I suspect that his asylum will be renewed. First of all, he has nowhere else to go. And secondly, it's clear that he's a propaganda asset for the Kremlin, which is not to say that he's a Russian spy. He isn't. But clearly he's a way that Vladimir Putin can embarrass the West and can make points about double-standards at a time when, following the invasion of Ukraine, we're increasingly in a new cold war scenario. And Snowden is a useful chess piece in this game.

Luke Harding's book 'The Snowden Files' will be made available in Germany in April by the publishing house Weltkiosk.

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