Some 10 years after he flew to Hong Kong to meet Edward Snowden with Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, The Guardian’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Ewen MacAskill, talks to Computer Weekly about the Snowden files.
MacAskill was speaking after Computer Weekly revealed the first new facts to emerge from the Snowden files since the archive first made headlines in 2013.
The three new revelations have surfaced for the first time only thanks to a highly technical publication: a doctoral thesis authored by US investigative journalist and postdoctoral researcher Jacob Appelbaum, as part of his degree in applied cryptography from the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands.
Their publication by Computer Weekly has revived the debate as to why the entire Snowden archive has never been published, considering that even after a decade the three revelations remain indisputably in the public interest, and it is reasonable to assume there are many others like them.
MacAskill, who shared the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service with Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras for their journalistic work on the Snowden files, retired from The Guardian in 2018. He told Computer Weekly that:
- As far as he knows, a copy of the documents is still locked in the New York Times office. Although the files are in the New York Times office, The Guardian retains responsibility for them.
- As to why the New York Times has not published them in a decade, MacAskill maintains “this is a complicated issue”. “There is, at the very least, a case to be made for keeping them for future generations of historians,” he said.
- Why was only 1% of the Snowden archive published by the journalists who had full access to it? Ewen MacAskill replied: “The main reason for only a small percentage – though, given the mass of documents, 1% is still a lot – was diminishing interest.”
The Snowden archive allows exposing and documenting the rise of the mass-surveillance state, a serious threat to democracy. Have the journalists and media with access to the full archive done everything they can to expose this threat? That is the crux of the matter, because even in a democracy bad people can be elected who could use such unprecedented Orwellian control to crush any opposition. Legendary Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg said: “As Snowden has put it, we’re a ‘turnkey tyranny’: in other words, turn a switch, and we could be a total police state.”
Mass surveillance and loss of privacy
MacAskill tells Computer Weekly: “That is what we did. With hindsight, we could have done some things better. But those stories reverberated around the world and still do today. Snowden wanted to alert the world to the scale of mass surveillance and loss of privacy, and he succeeded in that. He believes that those living in democracies have a right to know.
“Although the NSA and GCHQ have since developed better tools and surveillance is more intrusive than ever, Snowden has increased public awareness of the threat posed by loss of privacy,” he said. “Much of the public may be apathetic, but at least they know.”
MacAskill said he only worked on a small selection of documents from the archive, when he met the former CIA whistleblower in Hong Kong. There, Snowden gave him a memory stick with tens of thousands of documents from the National Security Agency (NSA) and its British partner, GCHQ, which formed the basis of the subsequent reporting by The Guardian. The Guardian shared the documents with The New York Times and ProPublica, and were to work alongside journalists from those organisations.
The Guardian’s journalist did not recall seeing the three revelations published by Computer Weekly, summarised below:
- The NSA listed Cavium, an American semiconductor company marketing Central Processing Units (CPUs) – the main processor in a computer which runs the operating system and applications – as a successful example of a “SIGINT-enabled” CPU supplier. Cavium, now owned by Marvell, said it does not implement back doors for any government.
- The NSA compromised lawful Russian interception infrastructure, SORM. The NSA archive contains slides showing two Russian officers wearing jackets with a slogan written in Cyrillic: “You talk, we listen.” The NSA and/or GCHQ has also compromised key lawful interception systems.
- Among example targets of its mass-surveillance programme, PRISM, the NSA listed the Tibetan government in exile.
“Given the sheer volume of documents, it is possible I and reporters from The Guardian, The New York Times and ProPublica missed them or were more interested in other documents. Or it could be that the documents you refer to are in the main archive, which, as far as I know, only Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald had access to.”
He said he worked on “only a small selection of documents from the archive while in Hong Kong, though these contained the stories that were to have the most impact, such as the mass collection of US phone records and the revelations of the PRISM programme”.
Why was only 1% of the documents published, in the end? “The documents are not like the WikiLeaks ones from the US state department, which were written by diplomats and, for the most part, easily understandable,” said Ewen MacAskill.
“The Snowden files are largely technical, with lots of codewords and jargon that is hard to decipher. There are pages and pages of that which the public would not be interested in. There are also documents that relate to operational matters. Snowden said from the start he wanted us to report on issues related to mass surveillance, not operational matters. So we stuck to that.”
Snowden did not want documents published en masse
The Guardian’s Pulitzer Prize winner said the main reason why only a small percentage was published was due to diminishing interest. “The Guardian published lots of stories from the Snowden files for months and months after Hong Kong,” he said. “But it reached a point where each story attracted smaller and smaller readerships, as interest dwindled.
“The feeling at The Guardian – and, I assume, at The New York Times and ProPublica – was they had reported on the biggest stories in the documents and there was diminishing interest in publishing more.
“The feeling, too, at The Guardian was that by continuing to report on stories that attracted less interest, we were in danger of undermining the impact of the initial ones. The Intercept, which had access to more documents than us, continued publishing for a while after us.”
The three unpublished revelations revealed by Computer Weekly, thanks to Jacob Appelbaum’s doctoral thesis, confirm it is reasonable to assume the archive still contains important information in the public interest. According to Appelbaum: “Even if the privacy-violating intercepts are excluded from publication, there is an entire parallel history in that archive.”
We asked McAskill why The New York Times hasn’t published them in a decade. “This is a complicated issue,” he said. “Although the files are in the New York Times office, The Guardian retains responsibility for them. Should more journalists be given access to the Snowden documents? In that case, who should decide which journalists get to see them? Should the whole lot just be published for everyone to see? Snowden did not want the documents to be published en masse.
“The bottom line is that Snowden is facing charges under the Espionage Act. If he was ever to return to the US and face trial, the documents could be used against him. All journalists have a duty to protect source material. How best to do that? How long would The New York Times be willing to store them? Where else could they be stored? Should the documents be destroyed?”
MacAskill acknowledges that “there is, at the very least, a case to be made for keeping them for future generations of historians”.
“Is there a university that would be prepared to take them?” he suggested. “But that would be expensive, and could they ensure they would be secure?”
MacAskill left the staff of The Guardian in 2018. “I don’t know what discussions, if any, have taken place between The Guardian and The New York Times since then,” he said.