rabble.ca in conversation with Glenn Greenwald

| October 29, 2014
Photo: rabble.ca

Glenn Greenwald gave a lecture in Ottawa on Saturday night. The event was held in a week where two soldiers were killed in separate incidents in different parts of the country.

Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent was killed in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que. by Martin Couture-Rouleau. In a separate incident, a Cpl. Nathan Cirrillo was shot on Parliament Hill by Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, who then entered Parliament Hill Centre Block firing more shots. He was shot dead by the Sergeant-at-arms and RCMP.

Following the first incident, Greenwald wrote After 13 years of war, Canada is shocked that a 'terrorist' attacked its soldiers which proved controversial for many.

Greenwald is a Pulitizer-prize winning American journalist, lawyer, and author, who is best known for his extensive reporting on the Edward Snowden NSA documents. His reporting exposed how spy agencies like Canada’s CSEC and the U.S. NSA are conducting invasive surveillance of law-abiding citizens on a massive scale. Greenwald has worked with the CBC to reveal how CSEC monitored thousands of innocent Canadian air travellersspied on Brazil’s mining ministry, and facilitated a large U.S. spying operation on Canadian soil.

You can watch Glenn Greenwald's speech in Ottawa here.

rabble.ca's Amira Elghawaby interviewed Glenn Greenwald before his address in Ottawa.

What do you anticipate will specifically change in Canada as a result of last week's shooting in Ottawa? 

It's a little bit difficult to predict with certainty but if you judge by how these events have played out in similar circumstances in other countries, it would be extremely surprising if at least some of the legislation demanded by the Prime Minister didn't end up getting enacted. In part because politicians want to show the public that they are taking seriously the threat that manifested. The way politicians show the public that they're taking threats seriously is by giving themselves greater power and promising to use those powers to protect them further.

This has been the pattern, certainly in the United States for 13 years, but also in lots of western democracies. Australia just seized on the threat of ISIS to enact even worse legislation than what is pending so far in Canada. So I would be very surprised if no legislation ended up being passed because I think political leaders across the spectrum, more or less, will be afraid of looking like they're indifferent or weak on this threat if they oppose everything. 

Given that - what do you think Canadians need to be made aware of in order to build public support for a consensus that some other response might be possible?

Well, first of all, I think it's important to think about how we react to threats in general. For one thing, before we start being afraid of certain threats we assess the probabilities. So most people are aware that it's possible that if you get on an airplane, the airplane is going to crash and kill you. But most people get on planes anyway, and get on them without fear because they understand the probability is so low. So I think the first critical fact for people to think about when it comes to terrorism is that if you're a Canadian citizen, even after the events of this week, you have a greater chance of dying by slipping in a bathtub and crashing your skull on the cement or getting struck by lightening than you do dying in a terrorist attack. It's still an extremely remote threat.

We walk onto airplanes even though we're aware of the possibility of the airplane might crash and kill us because we not only walk on the plane but we do so without much fear because we're aware that the probability of the plane that the plane will crash is extremely low. We assess not just the existence of the threat but it's probability.

I think it's critical that we do the same with the threat of terrorism, even after the events of this week, if you are a Canadian citizen you have a greater chance of dying by slipping in the bathtub and hitting your head on the cement or by getting struck by lightening than you dying in a terrorist attack.

The second point that I think is really worth realizing is that there is no such thing as absolute security. We can observe fatal car accidents and when we do, we don't immediately rush and say we need new laws to decrease the speed limit or other changes. We accept the fact that if we're going to have society in which we drive vehicles and get the benefits of that, that fatalities are inevitable. Terrorist attacks are the attacks like we saw this week in Canada are inevitable in a free society and the fact that they happen is not evidence at all that we need any changes in government policy, let alone greater powers.

And then the third issue I think is really important to think about is if you're a society that uses violence regularly and consistently in multiple parts of the world, it isn't justifiable, but it is almost inevitable that at some point the people who are being targeted with that violence and those who identity with them, for whatever reasons, at least a small number of them, will bring violence back to your country and I think it is important to think about causes for these kinds of attacks rather than just reacting with anger or desire for vengeance.

How do you think politicians can address the issues that are raised by these sorts of acts in order to respond to fears that people genuinely have? 

Well, in Canada there was no sense of restraint whatsoever about labelling what these attacks were or even attributing causations of them prior to knowing almost anything about the perpetrators. I think it was in a matter of hours after the car attack in Quebec that the Prime Minister engineered a ritual on Parliament for him to be asked about that attack and he instantly injected the word terrorism into the discourse.

I think terrorism was instantly used to describe the shootings in Ottawa as well because the reality is at this point terrorism has no meaning of any kind, there is no consistent or objective meaning to it other than violence used by Muslims against the West and so this happens all the time in the US, if there is some school shooting or some disgruntled employee shoots up the workplace, the media will ask "we don't know yet if this is terrorism", by which they mean that we don't know if the person doing the violence is Muslim and when they find out it's not a Muslim they say this turns out not to be terrorism, they say if it is a Muslim, turns out that it probably is a terrorist attack. This word has been bastardized and distorted beyond any kind of meaning; it's impoverished of any meaning. So yeah, of course it would be better to wait and not speculate about motives but that is how this works. The word terrorism gets applied instantly to these actions so I think it's important to engage that discussion.

I do think that it is also worth having a conversation, which I haven't seen in Canada at all, about what the causes of these kinds of attacks are even if these specific attacks might have multiple causes and whether there are things we can change about our own behaviour that might make these attacks less probable.

Whether that means stopping bombing countries half way around the world for 13 years as the West has been doing, or overthrowing democratically elected leaders and propping up hideous and evil despots and tyrants in those countries, or blindly and steadfastly supporting Israel as it engages in aggression against it's neighbours. 

There are all kinds of things that we in the West do that inflame the sentiments that give rise to this kind of violence aimed at us and we spend almost no time thinking about what we can do to change our own behaviour to make these attacks less likely.

I think it would be rational for us to spend more time thinking about that.

In your book, No Place to Hide, you share some of the deeply troubling ways that journalism is failing to live up to it's role as a fourth estate. And in an interview early this week, you note how The Globe and Mail and the CBC have been stonewalling you, and in particular have withheld information about a CSEC spying program that you shared with them. Specifically, you noted that there, "a significant surveillance program by CSEC that has not yet been disclosed and that must be exposed for public debate in Canada." When do you expect that we can learn about this? 

Soon - the article that was published - you know what I think I need to say about that is that there were a couple of individuals in each of these institutions, one at The Globe and Mail who is no longer is there, and another at the CBC who, although is still is there is no longer assigned to this story, who for different reasons were reluctant to do reporting.

In one case at The Globe and Mail it was because he was a top editor who was bullied and scared by government warning that they shouldn't publish it. In the case of the CBC reporter it was because, he revealed, ideologically he agrees with surveillance and therefore doesn't want reporting done about it. But most of the editors and journalists with whom we worked with at both institutions are actually quite good and so our work with each of them continues and that includes the story that you asked me about.

I can't give you a timeframe on it because when I do it puts unfair pressure on the journalists with whom I'm working. We need to make sure that these stories are reported correctly and responsibly and so they will be published as soon as they are ready to be.

Are there plans to release any more information about Canada from the Snowden files that relate to Canadian corporations?

I don't want to preview the reporting before it's ready for the same dynamic as I just noted. I've learned my lesson many times about that, which is if you say yes there are documents that we intend to disclose on that topic people then start rightfully and understandably demanding to know where they are. So all that I can say is that my commitment when I got the file, my commitment today is that we're going to make sure that every single story that's in the public interest that ought to be reported gets reported.

At a recent meeting with US independent media, Snowden - by video -emphasised how important it is for journalists to secure their computers and set up secure means for communication with potential sources. Your experiences has shows how complicated it can be to do that for a lay person and how difficult it could be to be motivated to set up such systems. What is your advice to independent journalists? 

I think the lesson of the last year and a half is that at this point if you are a journalist who wants to do any kind of sensitive journalism or work with any kind of sources at all you have the responsibility to protect the identity and welfare of those sources which means in turn you have the duty to encrypt your communications and to otherwise protect source material using the most advanced means of communication security.

It is true that it needs to be simplified and Snowden gave an interview, I think about six months ago, where he said it's the obligation of the tech and hacker communities to develop user friendly encryption tools so that they pass, what he called, the Glen Greenwald test, meaning basically that any idiot can use them.

I think that is happening, I think that encryption programs are starting to become much more readily available, and much more simpler to use. Until that happens, I think that it is just as an ethical duty of every journalist, and not just journalists but any one who relies on confidentiality like lawyers or doctors or human rights workers to use the tools that are available to protect the confidentiality that you're bound to protect.

Related, rabble.ca is an online media widely read by activists. Many people still have a very lax idea about the need for protection for their own communications. How important to do you think it is for activists to use encryption software like PGP or TechSecure and what systems do you recommend?

You can't have meaningful dissent without privacy and the goal of the NSA and its Five Eyes partners, which include CSEC here in Canada, is captured in the motto of their own documents which is, "collect it all". They latterly want to turn the internet into a system of limitless and indiscriminate surveillance. Which is another way of saying, they want to eliminate privacy in the digital age and if you think about what that means if you are an activist or you are a dissident, it essentially makes it impossible to organize because again true dissent, like working with sensitive journalist, requires that you are able to speak, to decide, and to act without the state learning what it is you're doing.

In the Arab Spring, the number one objective of the tyrants that were fighting for survival was to dramatically increase their surveillance capabilities over the internet to prevent the internet from being a means of organizing and activism. So everything I just said about the obligation of journalists to protect the security of their communication applies at least as much to activists, although the activists really have that duty to themselves but also to their colleagues and comrades with whom they're working.

What kind of parallels would you see in terms of western countries where they are dealing with shock as in the current events, and in those countries during the Arab Spring as they were dealing with shocks as well.

I think that the goal of the western democracies and why they embrace mass surveillance are exactly identical to the goals of the tyrants of the Arab Spring for why they did. Which is when you have a system of mass surveillance, when you can know everything the population is doing it becomes impossible for them to engage in any kind of serious challenge to prevailing authority in power.

The dictators of the Arab region are petrified of a repeat of the instability that drove the Arab spring just like western governments are petrified over the social unrest springing from the severe economic equality, like the riots we saw in London or Madrid or the Occupy movement throughout the west and surveillance is the tool they are using for exactly identical reasons.  

This interview was produced by Kim Elliott, and transcribed by Miriam Katawazi. 

Photo: rabble.ca



We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.